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Tue, Nov 27, 2001 - Page 3 News List

Dec. 1 elections: The brawn behind local factions' influence 1

Though the jury is still out on how large a role local factions will play in Saturday's elections, analysts and insiders agree that while the influence of factions is waning, they still hold significant sway, especially outside of major cities. Built on connections based on lineage, marriage and geographic proximity, they often have ties to the mafia. One observer called their presence in politics `a great irony to the nation's democratic progress'


The leader of central Taiwan's most powerful local faction and former chairman of the renowned Chenlan Temple, Yen Ching-piao, above center, stands ready to cast traditional Chinese divination blocks. Yen, who is in detention on corruption charges, climbed from gangster to Taichung County council speaker and is just one of the nation's many gangster-turned-politicians.


In 1995 when the then- Department of Health director-general Chang Po-ya (張博雅) appeared at a campaign rally for KMT legislative nominee Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) in Chiayi City, thousands of supporters cheered his presence. The warm welcome Chang received made the appearance of then-premier Lien Chan (連戰) rather irrelevant. Where did Chang's support come from? Local factions.

Local factions refer to a web of interpersonal networks that function in the local arena. Studies show there are over 100 local factions in Taiwan, primarily built around geographic connections, lineage and marriage. They seek collectively to pursue political and economic resources through elections and, once elected, to distribute those resources among the members of their networks.

"Politics is about who gives what to whom," said Liao Da-chi (廖達琪), a political scientist at National Sun Yat-Sen University. "Where there is politics, factions will be formed to maximize their interests."

The privileges which the factions so earnestly seek include monopolistic bus routes, easy loans from government-owned banks, public procurement contracts, favorable zoning laws, contracts for public construction projects and tacit permission to run underground facilities such as brothels and gambling parlors.

Chang, daughter of late Chiayi mayor Hsu Shih-hsien (許世賢), is a leader of the politically independent Hsu clan, holds tremendous sway over local politics in Chiayi.

Chang's lending of her prestige to Siew illustrated how ties between political parties and local factions have evolved from their patron-client nature between 1950 to 1990 to a relationship of shared partnership in the last decade.

"With the lifting of a ban on political parties in the late 1980s, the era when the former ruling KMT could order local factions around ended," said former justice minister Liao Cheng-hao (廖正豪). "They can now, as quite a few do, ally with other parties in the pursuit of political and economic privileges."

It is this very evolution, however, along with increasing urbanization and a better-educated electorate, that has eroded their influence.

Early emergence

In 1949, the KMT lost the Chinese civil war and took refuge in Taiwan. In addition to planning its return to China, the KMT faced the more urgent task of governing the island. Partly to achieve this aim, the KMT launched a program to co-opt the local elite and their factions into the party in the hope of lending legitimacy to its rule.

Local factions first emerged after the redrawing of electoral districts in the early 1950s and have since exploited elections to augment their clout. The KMT, while encouraging their existence, prevented their expansion by restricting them from moving beyond local borders to the national stage.

Elections require a campaign vehicle. Familiar with an area's residents, local factions have proven adept at mobilizing voters and have restrained one another's control over local affairs.

Because the KMT nomination virtually guaranteed success, local leaders were encouraged to join the party to win elected office and receive the spoils and patronage that accompanied it.

Lee Chien-hsin (李建興), the late coal baron, and several members of his clan served as town chiefs, Taipei County councilors, provincial assemblymen and legislators between 1950 and 1989.

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