Features | Politics | East Asia

Taiwan Activists Get Day in Sun

With its presidential race looking tight, Taiwan’s politicians are increasingly courting the island’s long-neglected activists.

By Cain Nunns for

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.      

“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.  

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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.”

In June, he oversaw the closure of about 70 percent of one of the world’s largest petrochemical plants, a sprawling Formosa Plastics Group complex in southern Taiwan. The Formosa plant has been a touchstone of controversy for environmentalists and residents since it opened.

A series of toxic fires followed protests by community activists, who were enraged after a report was made public that found cancer rates in the community to be five times higher than the national average.

Before that, he announced that another long-planned petrochemical plant, the $21 billion Kuokuang complex on Taiwan’s west coast, would be scuppered for good after environmentalists complained that it would destroy the habitat of the critically endangered pink dolphin.

Both candidates are also stumping for support from Taiwan’s long suffering aboriginal communities by promising new economic and land rights benefits. Animal protection proponents have been told that budgets and animal cruelty laws will be shored up. Women’s groups will see representation quotas raised in political arenas, and gay groups will see anti-discrimination laws strengthened.

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Even the country’s sex workers were given a boost, when a new bill was passed legalizing the establishment of red-light districts.

Still, Tsai, who credits former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former U.S. President Ronald Reagan as leaders she admires, is widely regarded as being the pick of the activists’ litter.

“The KMT is playing catch up. When they ruled for over 50 years they didn’t pay any attention to these groups until Ma saw how useful they can be come election time,” says DPP spokesman Lin Chun-hsien.“But I don’t know if he has much chance of rebuilding trust with them after all that has happened.”

This year’s election has been complicated by former KMT stalwart and one-time election spoiler James Soong throwing his hat into the ring. Soong, who leads the People First Party and split the KMT vote when he ran in 2000, is siphoning votes from Ma’s base and providing a tailwind for Tsai’s surging campaign.

Ironically, Soong, a former premier and champion of economic development above all else, is proving instrumental in winning concessions for activists just by being in the race and splitting the vote.

But while Taiwan’s activists are happy to take victories any way they can get them, some are still concerned that they are being used to build candidates’ activism credentials.

“Recently there has been an uptick in activity, but we have to remember that politicians have used distorted information on issues such as nuclear power generation to prop up their arguments in the past,” says Gloria Hsu, project coordinator of Taiwan Environment Protection. “While we are glad to hear both candidates say these things, who knows if they will keep their promises?”

Cain Nunns is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Guardian and Global Post, among other publications.