Taiwan military veterans angry over bonus cuts plan
Taiwanese president faces dilemma over whether to bow to public calls to slash payments or lose 'iron votes' of his staunchest supporters
A plan by Taiwan's cabinet to cut year-end bonuses for retired military personnel has backfired, as veterans - long-time staunch supporters of President Ma Ying-jeou and his Kuomintang (KMT) - have threatened to unseat Ma as party chairman.
They have also said they won't vote for KMT candidates in future elections unless the plan is scrapped.
The threats put Ma in a dilemma, as he must decide whether to slash the bonuses in line with calls from the general public amid the financial downturn, or stand to lose the "iron votes" of veterans and even some active servicemen.
His government has come under criticism from the public and opposition lawmakers for spending NT$20 billion (HK$5.29 billion) a year to fund year-end bonuses, which are equal to about six-weeks' pension, for 423,000 retired military personnel, civil servants and public schoolteachers.
The argument against the pensions focuses on the government's budget deficit, which officials say will increase from NT$209 billion this year to NT$214.4 billion next year. Many companies with lacklustre performances are denying year-end bonuses for staff, and many people believe it would be unfair to offer bonuses to the three groups.
Premier Sean Chen said last month that, under the plan, year-end bonuses would be given only to specific groups - retirees with a monthly pension of less than NT$20,000, those forced into retirement by job-related injuries, and dependants of those killed in the line of duty. Chen's proposal would reduce the number of bonus recipients to just 42,000 and cut the total annual cost to about NT$1 billion.
However, while most of the public considers the plan fair, military veterans have lashed out at the Ma administration.
During an annual meeting of the Central Military Academy's Main Alumni Committee in Taipei on Sunday, veterans, including some retired generals, said they were "highly disappointed" in Ma, and that they would join other veteran groups in taking to the street to protest against him.
"When we first chose to join the army, we never thought of making a fortune, and now when we are not needed, we are suddenly social pariahs because we have received those payments for years," Chia Fu, former vice-commander of the army, was quoted by the United Daily News in Taipei as saying.
Ma plans to run for re-election as KMT chairman in May. The island's Defence Ministry says there are at least 600,000 military veterans and their dependants - the so-called iron vote - who have been a crucial support group for the KMT in past elections.
But that could change, as three veteran groups based in Taoyuan county, south of Taipei, said they would stage a street protest against Ma in late December. And they have threatened to lead a recall effort to unseat six KMT legislators elected from Taoyuan.
Led by KMT legislator Sun Ta-chien, the legislators called on the government yesterday to review the planned bonus cut and reach a more reasonable solution.
Opposition legislators from the Democratic Progressive Party said they too would stage a mass protest against the Ma administration if it overturned its plan to cut the bonuses.