Man of the People: Taipei’s Quirky new Mayor

The Taipei Mayoral election in the couple of decades since Taiwan has enjoyed free and fair elections has usually been an intense contest between Taiwan’s two main political parties, the Chinese Nationalist KMT, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The Taipei Mayoralty is considered a stepping stone to the Presidency: Former Presidents Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian, and incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou, all served as Taipei Mayor before stepping up to the nation’s top post.

But last year the candidates of the two dominant parties were rejected by voters in favor of a somewhat eccentric independent candidate, Ko Wen-je (柯文哲). A DPP sympathizer, it was realized early in the campaign, that Ko was so popular among DPP supporters that the DPP decided not to run a candidate against him. The DPP instead put their support behind him to oust the KMT, rather than risk splitting the vote in favor of their mutual enemy.

Ko, injected his own somewhat quirky style into the campaign, at times creating some awkward moments. He is well known for putting his foot in his mouth. After DPP party stalwart Trong Chai died of stroke in January 2014, he criticized DPP candidate Gu Li-hsiung as being ‘too emotional’ in his facebook posts. Some remarks Ko made during the campaign were seen as sexist, and off color. He said that Chiayi’s KMT female candidate being young and pretty would be better suited to a front desk job, or perhaps Tourism Bureau spokeswoman, and said he chose a career in surgery over gynecology because he did not want to make a living between a woman’s legs.

In his book “The Power of White Color” he wrote that an increase in the female workforce is the sign of a declining industry, and he promoted the idea of polygamy to increase population growth.

Despite his various gaffs, however, Ko was able to win the hearts and minds of the people with his dedication to improving the environment and lifestyles of Taipei’s residents. His rejection of partisan politics, and determination to stamp out corruption and the waste of public money also gained wide appeal. He claimed that his run for mayor was to take back the post for the people.

“When I am mayor, everyone is the mayor,” he stated during his campaign.

By contrast, he portrayed his opposition counterpart, Sean Lien, as part of a ruling elite where the wealthy pass on power from one generation to the next.

After a radio interview, he was photographed by the press throwing his dog-eared, black bag into the basket of a more-than-10-year-old bicycle. Does he really ride that bicycle to work every day? In the photograph, the bicycle’s chain is obviously very rusty. It looks like one of the thousands of abandoned bicycles that pollute Taipei’s sidewalks, and he looks awkward posing on it.

Ke Wen-je poses on a bicycle
Ke Wen-je rides an old bicycle, as if he does this every day. He forgot to oil the chain

Since winning office, Ko has continued with the gaffes and controversial statements. On his first day in office, he criticized Xinyi Police Precinct Chief Lee Teh-wei on public television, prompting the police chief to apply for early retirement. On January 1, Foundation Day of the Republic of China, he fumbled a handshake with President Ma. Ke avoided meeting the eyes of the confident, smiling President, and failed to shift the small flag he was holding in his right hand, to his left.

Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou shake hands on January 1 2015
Taipei Mayor fumbles a handshake with President Ma Ying-jeou

Ko has also been outspoken about cross-strait relations and recently called for a new ‘2015 Consensus’ to replace the 1992 Consensus on which current cross-strait relations are managed. He seems to have a lack of awareness about boundaries, and how to avoid over-stepping them. As a citizen, he enjoyed the rights of free speech that everyone has. But he is not a mere citizen now, he is Mayor of Taipei.

Perhaps what has been widely reported as a ‘fumbled handshake’ was in fact a sign that a local Taiwanese guy has grabbed the ROC flag, and ain’t gonna give it back. Then again, looking at the picture, he may very well have been telling President Ma: ‘here’s your flag, take it back.

[update 2015/1/30] Interesting interview with Ko P in Foreign Policy Magazine

One thought on “Man of the People: Taipei’s Quirky new Mayor

  • December 28, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    As of 2017, almost 2018, Ko is cool. (T-shirt material there)


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