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Taiwan opposition enlists help of piggy banks in presidential race

Associated Press - November 14, 2011

Annie Huang, Taipei It all started early last month, when a small Taiwanese boy handed over his coin-filled piggy bank to the opposition candidate for president, only to have the government declare the donation illegal because it violated a prohibition on minors' 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. 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 cronies in the Jan. 14 presidential poll.

The piggy campaign is a salient reminder that not all Taiwanese politics revolves around the issue of the island's complex relations 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 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 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 easing the hardships of the poor.

"She is so extraordinary," 63-year-old welfare recipient Bei Ling said. "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 he can't compete with her in garnering love from the masses.

Since taking office three and a half years ago, the 61-year-old Ma has won plaudits for helping Taiwan navigate the global financial crisis, but he has been widely criticized for his inability to address the interests of blue-collar workers, farmers and others among the 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 across the island, chatting with farmers and laborers in front of television cameras in an attempt to burnish her populist credentials.

Now, with the piggy campaign in full swing, she is inundated 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 last month following revelations that officials spent $7 million on a glitzy National Day production that few people paid much attention to.

Political commentator Hu Wen-hui of the Liberty Times newspaper wrote that it was no surprise Ma was locked in a tight race. "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's well-born presidential candidate. "You don't turn a remote person into an approachable one by giving her a piggy," he said.

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

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