Taiwan opposition builds campaign with piggy banks

AP News
Posted: Nov 14, 2011 8:49 AM
Taiwan opposition builds campaign with piggy banks

It started early last month, when a Taiwanese boy handed his coin-filled piggy bank to the opposition candidate for president, only to have the government declare the donation illegal because minors are prohibited from involvement in political campaigns.

That gave rise to the Democratic Progressive Party's "Three Little Pigs" movement, which is now sweeping this island of 23 million people.

With a nod to the fairy tale, the DPP has been handing out hamster-sized, plastic piggy banks in shiny oranges and reds. The idea is that by banding together to make small donations, tens of thousands of economically challenged workers and farmers can overcome the big bad wolf of Taiwanese corporate power and defeat incumbent Ma Ying-jeou and his supposedly capitalist cronies in the Jan. 14 presidential poll.

The piggy campaign is a salient reminder that not all Taiwanese politics revolves around the island's complex relationship with China, from which it split amid civil war in 1949. While that issue tends to garner the most interest abroad, Taiwanese themselves are usually more concerned with bread-and-butter questions such as wages, inflation and jobs.

Taiwan's economy has fared relatively well in recent years, avoiding the slow growth syndrome that has afflicted most of the West. But complaints over rising income inequality have been mounting, fueled by a residential building boom that seems largely reserved for high-wage earners and a shift in the labor market that appears to punish relatively unskilled or undereducated workers.

That has provided a big political opening for Tsai Ing-wen, the 54-year-old DPP presidential candidate, and the star of the suddenly trendy piggy bank campaign.

Scion of a wealthy family, the soft-spoken Tsai has been transformed almost overnight from a wonkish intellectual whose privileged background allowed her to study abroad, into a Robin Hood-like heroine committed to lifting the poor from the hardships of life.

"She is so extraordinary," said 63-year-old welfare recipient Bei Ling, who lives with her husband in the Taipei working-class suburb of Banciao. "Whenever we see her on TV we are moved to tears."

Even Ma supporters _ and latest polls still give him a razor-thin lead over Tsai _ acknowledge that he can't compete with her in the garnering-love-from-the-masses department.

Since taking office 3 1/2 years ago, the 61-year-old Ma has won plaudits for helping Taiwan navigate through the global financial crisis, but has been widely criticized for his perceived inability to address the interests of blue-collar workers, farmers and others less well-off, and for his seeming lack of human empathy. Like Tsai, he comes from a well-connected family whose privileged status helped underwrite his foreign education.

Tsai has worked hard at exploiting Ma's supposed weaknesses.

Clad in simple clothes and sometimes wearing a farmer's traditional straw hat, she has visited countless rural villages and working-class districts, chatting with farmers and laborers in front of countless television cameras, to burnish her populist credentials.

Now, with the piggy campaign in full swing, she is inundated almost everywhere she goes with supporters presenting her with piggy banks stuffed with modest amounts of cash.

Tsai's cause is being helped by mounting public criticism of government waste, which resurfaced late last month following revelations that officials spent $7 million on a glitzy National Day production that was paid little attention.

Political commentator Hu Wen-hui of the pro-DPP Liberty Times newspaper wrote that with scandals like this, it's no surprise the race is extremely tight.

"Millions of piggies are showing their anger against the Ma government," Hu wrote. "They embody a demand for revolutionary change."

Premier Wu Den-yih, Ma's vice-presidential running mate, said the piggies' innocent image did not reflect the true face of the DPP and its well-born presidential candidate.

"You don't turn a remote person into an approachable one just by giving her a piggy," he said.

Former DPP lawmaker Lin Cho-shui disagreed, saying the success of the piggy campaign reflected mounting popular unease over income inequality and rising unemployment.

"With middle and worker-class livelihoods under threat," he said, "it has fed into a collective social anxiety."