After a year and a half of treating the issue of air pollution as something that will be improved far off in the future, President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration has dramatically shifted course in the past three weeks.

The Cabinet rushed through a proposal on Dec. 14 to tackle the issue in the short term, and Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) Minister Lee Ying-yuan (李應元) has announced he will step down if there isn’t a reduction of 20 percent in the number of days marked “red” (unhealthy) on the air pollution scale compared to 2015 levels.

What suddenly lit a fire under the DPP administration? While here in Taichung we snickered that it was probably the recent wave of higher-than-normal air pollution in Taipei that reminded the bureaucrats in the Celestial Dragon Kingdom (天龍國, slang for aloof Taipei) of the issue, the reality is it’s the 2018 local elections – especially in Taiwan’s second-largest metropolis, Taichung.

Until a couple of weeks ago, the government had either ignored local government attempts to tackle the issue or flat out overruled them. In Taichung, a law passed under the administration of DPP Mayor Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) ordering the massive Taichung Power Plant to reduce pollution emissions by 10 percent annually was simply ignored by state-owned power company Taiwan Power Company (Taipower).



The Taichung Power Plant smolders as the political battle surroundings its emissions heats up.

In Changhua County, county commissioner Wei Ming-ku (魏明谷) was overruled when he ordered Formosa Chemical and Fibre, a subsidiary of the Formosa Plastics Group, to shut down their coal-fired generators located in the heart of Changhua City. They again overruled his attempt to impose stiff fines on the company for exceeding emissions targets on Nov. 24.

Then, on Nov. 29, Mayor Lin announced a deal with Taipower that he claimed would cut the amount of coal used at the Taichung Power Plant by 24 percent in exchange for renewing their licenses to operate and to cut the licensing periods from five years to two, significantly increasing the city’s leverage over the plant. Taipower agreed to the cuts – what changed?

The 2014 local elections saw a huge wave of support for the DPP, with their forces bursting out of their traditional southern Taiwan base and driving the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) out of many of their traditional bastions, including Central Taiwan. They seized Taichung (now Taiwan’s second-largest locality) and Changhua (the seventh-largest), and again in 2016 saw a surge in support across the region in national elections. The KMT was only able to hold one of the critically important “big six” municipalities (New Taipei), and winning Taichung was a big coup.

The DPP wants to permanently cripple the KMT, a party they’ve held animosity towards since the KMT-imposed martial law era. With two of the “big six” (Tainan and Kaohsiung) in safe territory, another in the hands of a popular incumbent (Taoyuan) and another looking likely to remain out of the KMT’s hands (Taipei) the party was likely hoping that Taichung would remain in safe hands so they could concentrate on removing the KMT from their final major bastion New Taipei, where they have a plausible chance at winning.

When the KMT announced their two primary candidates for Taichung mayor, in spite of being fairly well known, both candidates trailed the DPP incumbent by a huge margin. The candidates, however, latched onto an issue that has rankled people in the center and south of Taiwan for some time – pollution.

Mayor Lin’s lead plunged into the low single digits in back-to-back polls – a strikingly narrow margin for an incumbent a year out from an election, and with campaigning not even seriously underway on either side. Egged on by the press and the KMT, public anger on the issue swelled, and their target of their ire was Lin Chia-lung.

This left Lin helpless in the face of the onslaught of what had become “the” campaign issue. In spite of launching many new initiatives and doubling down on existing policies to reduce pollution, he was thwarted by his own party’s national government on tackling the biggest polluters. He was trapped and could only take small steps that produced marginal results in the eyes of the public. The KMT was making him bleed for it.

Belatedly, the DPP administration in Taipei (which has much cleaner air) appeared to realize they faced potential electoral disaster.

With the announcement that Taipower was going to accede to the mayor’s demands on cutting the amount of coal burned at the Taichung Power Plant by 24 percent, the battle was on and the mayor was finally able to fight back.

Immediately, things got contentious. KMT mayoral primary candidate legislator Johnny Chiang Chi-chen (江啟臣) pointed out that the claimed reduction of 24 percent, or from 21 million tons of coal to 16 million tons, was based on the permitted consumption maximum, not actual usage, which in the last three years has averaged slightly less than 18 million tons.

The mayor fired back, hitting the KMT on their own past policies by saying that “the perpetrators are now acting the victims, how ironic.” In spite of the numbers being somewhat misleading, even a 2 million ton reduction marks the first time ever than any serious attempt has been made to rein in Taipower at the Taichung Power Plant.

The Taichung KMT then decided to join an upcoming protest on Dec. 17, to be held at the Taichung City Council, the March Against Air Pollution in Taichung. Not to be outdone, the mayor claimed to be in support of the march’s demands, and called on the public to join the march – creating the curious situation of the two parties vying to be the most in support of protesting the government and a problem both parties contributed to creating.

The march’s demands include an immediate 20 percent reduction in the use of bituminous coal, an annual 10 percent reduction annually until becoming entirely coal-free by 2025. Marchers also want to move the Executive Yuan (the cabinet), EPA and Ministry of Economic Affairs south out of Taipei, presumably so they can live personally with the pollution mandated and approved by their departments.

A strong turnout will put heavy pressure on the Tsai administration to continue to ramp up their efforts and will keep the issue central to the campaign.

The march will be a key test of popular support. While the local Taichung press and politicians have talked of little else in the last month, the turnout will show how deeply the public is concerned about air pollution. A strong turnout will put heavy pressure on the Tsai administration to continue to ramp up their efforts and will keep the issue central to the campaign.

In the short term, Mayor Lin’s strong move against Taipower seems to have worked politically. The latest opinion poll shows him with a near 14 percent lead over his nearest KMT rival, a hefty 10 point bump.

The move is not without risk, however. Taipower claims the reduction in coal will mean a 10 percent reduction in the power supply to Taichung. The DPP, both locally and nationally, have been pushing for strong growth in industry in Taichung, with several massive (and often power hungry) projects coming from industrial giants like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. and Micron Technology. Taiwan’s power supply is already tight, with outages earlier this year and the government loath to break another promise not to turn back on several nuclear power generators. A serious power outage could lead to a public backlash, investments cancelled and job losses.

More likely, the government may be faced with power shortages next summer, and may have to make some tough choices. If this happens, they may need to break their promise on coal reduction or suffer a blackout, which would hurt electorally. Or, they could break the promise and lie. If caught out in the lie, that could be even more devastating politically.

Central Taiwan is considered a bellwether, traditionally leaning toward the KMT, but not as strongly as the north. Changhua County Commissioner Wei Ming-ku has considerable cover on the air pollution issue as he has attracted a staggering NT$2 trillion (US$66 billion) in offshore wind MOUs and has secured a deal for the nation’s largest solar plant. As things stand now, the Taichung race and the pollution issue are key things to watch ahead of the next election.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston