Kyodo News Report


European-American vies for Taiwan parliamentary seat

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009
By Max Hirsch

Taipei, TAIWAN -- An American-born lawyer who gave up his U.S. passport and gained Taiwanese citizenship has become what he said is the first white to run for the island's parliament, vying for a seat that until last month belonged to a KMT-member who resigned over allegations she holds U.S. citizenship.

Robin Winkler's candidacy, announced this week, for the legislative seat of a key district in capital Taipei is the latest ironic twist to the island's rough-and-tumble politics.

But Winkler's bid to represent Da-an District, where residents lean toward conservative Chinese values, also highlights Taiwan's shifting identity politics in the era of globalization, as a flood of immigrants and an ethnic divide figure prominently in the island's political narrative.

And in many ways, Winkler, 54, is the opposite of the ex-lawmaker he seeks to replace: Diane Lee, formerly of the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT). Lee, 50, last month quit her seat amid a storm of controversy over whether she holds U.S. citizenship and thus broke a law prohibiting dual citizenship for lawmakers and government officials.

That debate stemmed from the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) accusations President Ma Ying-jeou still holds a U.S. green card from his stint at Harvard University. Questions of allegiance spread to Taiwan-born Lee, whose resignation triggered a rare by-election, scheduled for March 28th 2009.

The U.S. State Department said in December that Lee "has previously been documented as a U.S. citizen with a U.S. passport subsequent loss of U.S. citizenship has been documented." Lee claims her U.S. citizenship was automatically annulled when she took an oath of office. Still, she resigned Jan. 8, as DPP lawmakers publicized what they said were Lee's recent U.S. tax and social security payment records, indicating current U.S. citizenship.

By contrast, Winkler, to all appearances, is a foreigner. In 2003, however, he renounced his U.S. citizenship and became a naturalized Taiwanese, partly to avoid deportation for his legal practice and environmental activism, he said. Fluent in Mandarin, he runs Winkler Partners, a Taipei-based law firm he founded in 1993, and the Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the environment.

"We're going to run a very international campaign," Winkler told Kyodo News by phone Wednesday, referring to his bid to become the island's first naturalized citizen to hold a parliamentary seat. "Ours will be a platform of global values."

Winkler seeks the nomination of the Green Party, a global political party advocating environmental conservation and non-violence. The party's Taiwan chapter, he said, will likely choose its nominee this week, with that candidate running against candidates from the KMT and DPP. Winkler said he would focus on environmental issues and social justice in his campaign.

And the stakes are high, with only 113 legislative seats at the national level representing this island of 23 million. Lawmakers are typically influential politicians, with nearly unchecked power over budgets and ambitions for higher offices.

Winkler's bid comes amid a small but growing shift in demographics, as the island transitions to what its National Immigration Agency calls an ''immigrant country.''

Since the 1990s, nearly 400,000 foreign spouses from China and Southeast Asia have immigrated to Taiwan, with "cross-border" families now accounting for more than 10 percent of all births, according to the island's Government Information Office.

As the island struggles to come to terms with the wave of immigrants, it also faces a sometimes bitter ethnic divide between minority Chinese "mainlanders," and the majority native Taiwanese.

"Mainlanders" refer to the Chinese, or their descendants, who came to Taiwan in the 1940s, as the KMT occupied the island and eventually retreated to it after losing a bloody Chinese civil war in 1949 with the communists. "Native Taiwanese" refer to the Hoklo- or Hakka-speaking inhabitants -- as well as the aborigines -- who trace their lineage to the earlier inhabitants of Taiwan and identify with indigenous cultures over that of China.