Incumbent Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and chief rivals Tsai Ying-wen and James Soong laid out parts of their energy policies during last weekend’s first presidential debate in Taipei.
All three trumpeted either substantial reductions or a gradual phase out of nuclear power on this small energy-hungry island off China’s southern coast. It’s a marked departure from past election cycles, when Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party was widely regarded as the country’s lone environmental flag bearer.
Analysts say that razor-thin polls for the upcoming January election, which depending on the source have either Ma or Tsai up by a few points, have prompted the two frontrunners to scramble for votes from the margins, and social activist groups in particular.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
“Media have done a great job in putting environment, human rights, nuclear energy and gay and gender rights out front, so the electorate is better informed than in past races,” says Yeh-lih Wang, chair of political science at National Taiwan University. “This [election] will go right down to the wire, and as Taiwan operates under a first past the post system, both parties are desperate to win the support of minority voting blocs.”
Taiwan is home to three aging reactors – with a fourth reactor, on the outskirts of Taipei,close to completion. Scientists, however, have warned that that if a Fukushima type incident were to occur, large swathes of the 320 kilometer-long island would need to be evacuated.
Ma is forwarding a plan to gradually decommission the older reactors, and only opening the fourth if tougher management and safety regulations are met, while the London School of Economics-educated Tsai is calling for a nuclear-free country by 2025.
For Hong Kong born Ma, who was Taiwan’s youngest cabinet minister, the decision to take environmental concerns more seriously has quieted some of the vocal opposition he faced from environmental groups during his two-term stint as mayor of Taipei.
It’s also a marked departure from much of the 50-year rule of his Kuomintang party, which had traditionally pursued an economic development at all costs approach to governing Taiwan’s export-heavy economy.
While those policies helped engineer one of the world’s great economic success stories, the environmental drawbacks were enormous, and many voters balked at the lax standards the island’s largest industrial polluters were permitted to operate under.
“Our context has changed. Taiwan is a maturing political landscape, and everybody is more concerned with these issues,” says Yin Wei, a KMT spokesman. “President Ma understands this, and the need to strike a balance between economic development and environmental conservation.”