by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Taipei City Government
VOTED IN during nine-in-one elections in 2014, Taipei mayor Ko Wen-Je came to the mayorship with a surge of popularity. Running as an independent candidate, with the support of many young people, including post-Sunflower Movement civil society activists, Ko’s successful run would have implications for Taiwanese politics writ large. The entrance of “Third Force” parties largely took place after nine-in-one elections, after Ko had demonstrated that it was possible for independent, non-DPP and non-KMT candidates with no previous political experience to take political office in Taiwan. Subsequently, many would speak of the “Ko model” for running for political office.
Ko was highly popular after his election, with a 70% approval rating. Ko was seen as an atypical politician, not only because Ko was not an establishment politician, but also because of his reputation for earnestness. Ko was highly prone to gaffes, for example, but it was taken as sign of political honesty, in the way that he was not seen as a polished, slick, and superficial politician skilled at manipulating public opinion. Ko was also photographed taking the subway to work, for example, rather than a city-provided vehicle, which was see as demonstrating his political honesty and lack of pretentiousness. And Ko’s pro-Taiwan viewpoints were seen as befitting of the post-Sunflower political environment. Some even suggested at that point in time that Ko could be a future president of Taiwan.
Why, then, has Ko’s popularity suffered decline? In recent weeks, Ko’s popularity has dropped to 30% and out of Taiwan’s mayors, he is ranked last in popularity. It would be that at a certain point, the Ko honeymoon came to an end.
Put Into Power by Civil Society Activists
IT IS OF course, true that the Taiwanese public can be quite mercurial in turning on politicians who may have been popular just a little while earlier. But it would appear that Ko’s decline in popularity was a product of the same factors which made Ko an unorthodox politician. It was that Ko first lost the popularity of the youth activists which put him into power before the public at large turned on him. In part, this was a matter of failing to fulfill campaign promises. As it is a matter of course for Taiwanese activists to campaign for the preservation of historical sites in the rapidly changing urban fabric of Taiwan’s cities, Ko went back on campaign promises to work for the preservation of historical sites such as the Nangang Bottle Cap Factory.
But Ko also came to be seen as somewhat authoritarian in nature, for example, in calling for limited press zones to be set up for journalists covering protests. This would, of course, limit the ability of journalists to freely move about protests in order to cover events, such as police brutality.
To be sure, Ko stood on the side of civil society in regards to events such as the Ministry of Education occupation. The limited actions of Taipei police against student occupiers was in part because of Ko’s holding them back, although it was out of Ko’s ability to prevent police actions in all cases. Ko has also generally opposed KMT policies aimed at selling Taiwan out to China, sometimes taking foreign policy in his own hands in, for example, visiting Japan and suggesting the formation of an informal alliance or publicly criticizing the 1992 Consensus, although Ko has also controversially made comments claiming China and Taiwan to be one family during a trip to China.
Yet Ko has as of late expressed frustration with “irrational” protesters who opposed his policies and threatened to have them arrested, before later having to walk back his comments. The latest controversy has been Ko declaring that Taiwanese society has “too much freedom,” this occurring during an event to commemorate the 28th anniversary of the death Cheng Nan-Jung, seen as a martyr for freedom of speech during the martial law period. This has only added to the perception of an authoritarian slant on the part of Ko, or even crypto-authoritarian tendencies. Ko has also praised the government of former dictator Chiang Ching-Kuo in the past, for example.
Declining Popularity Not Just From Activists, But From The Public At Large
KO LOSING favor with the Taiwanese public at large and not just activists would be as a result of actions which are perceived as arbitrary in nature and failing to maintain stability for the city of Taipei. In part, Ko has been unable to resolve issues such as Taipei’s traffic congestion, as he pledged to do.
However, it also is that Ko has waffled numerous times on development projects such as the Taipei Dome, the Taipei Twin Towers, Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, the Syntrend Digital Park, and MeHas City, the so-called “Five Scandals” where Ko Wen-Je is concerned.
Failing to resolve longstanding issues regarding these projects or, particularly in the case of the Taipei Dome project, engaging in continual back and forth with the building developers, Ko’s actions are perceived as unseemly. Proposing to settle the Taipei Dome issue through online voting rather than taking charge for it himself seemed like an attempt to avoid responsibility, for instance, rather than an innovative measure.
Photo credit: China Times
Namely, although Ko came to power with the image of being a pragmatist who could cut through longstanding corruption and get things done and an innovator, Ko has not been able to keep up many of his campaign promises. However, another significant factor in blowback against Ko is that Ko airs many of his frustrations in a highly public manner, which leads to a negative image for Ko as a politician who is unable to maintain stability for his city government.
In some cases, Ko’s highly aggressive pursuance of certain issues has been beneficial in, for example, in forcing city hall documents regarding the Taipei Dome and MeHAS City projects claimed to be destroyed to materialize. But that the targets of Ko’s ire seem unending and his lack of political finesse does not sit well with the public. It seems unlikely anyone would tout Ko as a future president for Taiwan now, for example, given that Ko might trigger an international incident through unguarded words or something of that sort.
We will see going forward as to Ko’s political future. Certainly, Ko’s term as mayor of Taipei will last until 2018 and it remains to be seen if Ko will run for another term.