Friday, December 08, 2006

Mayoral elections and foamy snow

Sitting outside a Starbucks coffee shop in mid-afternoon downtown Taipei, with fake foamy snow falling from the clear blue skies and out-of-place Christmas music blaring from the exterior speakers, it was difficult to ignore that tomorrow, Dec. 9, Taiwanese will be hitting the polls to vote for new mayors for Taipei City and Kaohsiung, the second-biggest city to the south of the island.

Aside for the fact that all the talk around town and on TV and in the newspapers is about the elections, or that I received on my cell phone today alone no less than five text messages encouraging me to vote for one candidate or another (regardless of the fact that I cannot participate in said vote), what makes them difficult to ignore were the dozens of vehicles, from simple cars to 4x4 jeeps to modified trucks, roaming the city with placards, flags and people sitting atop and aback them waving to the otherwise indifferent passers-by — with shouts and music and drums to enhance the experience — all representing one candidate or another. Often, one procession will be contending with the next from different street corners, the DPP candidate’s representatives shouting it off with those from the KMT, flags afloat, painting whole streets in green or blue or red. Sometimes they both will be on the same street, resulting in a cacophony of slogans and drumming aggressing enough to start an onset of epilepsy in even the healthiest of onlookers.

As if this were not enough, whole buildings are plastered with placards and gigantic posters of candidates doing the thumbs up or smiling at the unseen masses (see picture). Footbridges are adorned with hundreds of flags, giving one the impression that he or she is walking along a kaleidoscopic tunnel with some sort of wild celebration at the end. The mobilization is unlike anything I have experienced before and makes me wonder what the presidential elections must look like.

Mixed with the elections are the many political scandals that have beset the nation in recent weeks — and mixed is the appropriate word, as every hint of the wrongful use of state affairs funds or discretionary budgets, by the First Family and the current Taipei mayor, as well as other scandals, from the bullet train linking Taipei to Kaohsiung to politicians using state houses longer than they should have — everything is tied in with the elections, to such an extent that when asked to describe what they would do if they were voted into office, most candidates come up short, having used all their energy accusing their opponents.

What compounds the brew of scandals and politics is the fact that more often than not the position of Taipei mayor is a stepping stone to the presidency of the country, and that, too, has seeped into the debate.

All that to say that the entire electoral campaign — which as a newspaper copy editor I have followed first-hand and ad nauseam — is at least as empty of substantive debate as any other campaign I have experienced in Canada. It has largely been a campaign of character assassination mixed with the exploitation of scandals (so much so that at one point a candidate has had to come before the media and prove, with receipts in hand, that he himself, and not the state, had paid his phone bills at 7-Eleven) blended with an all-too-clear positioning in preparation for the 2008 presidential elections. Judging from my experience so far, this will have the result that residents of Taipei and Kaohsiung will not necessarily be casting their vote for the candidate whom they believe will do the best job representing them at City Hall, for they have nothing pithy, no promises, no blueprint proposed by the candidates, to base their votes on.

As always, the elections will boil down to one’s political affiliation: the perpetual pan-green / pan-blue divide. As meaningful a mayoral election, then, than soapy snow falling from the clear blue skies of Taipei.

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