Recall of Chen Po-wei (Taichung 2)

October 24, 2021

Chen Po-wei 陳柏惟 (Taiwan Statebuilding Party, TSP) was recalled from his seat in Taichung 2nd district yesterday. I haven’t paid a lot of attention to each cut and thrust of this recall, so I can’t comment a lot on the strategic decisions of the pro- and anti-recall efforts. However, I will say that this incident has neatly displayed many of the flaws in the recall law. I have argued that the current recall law invites big parties to bully small parties, makes it easier to recall someone than to elect them in the first place, and encourages losers to continually try to overturn election results, even without a major change in public opinion. Check, check, and check. The fact that Chen will lose his seat is a clear indication that the electoral law must be reformed to make recalls much more difficult.

The recall law currently requires that the yes side exceed 25% of eligible voters and that yes notes must outnumber no votes. Taichung 2 has 294,976 eligible voters, so the yes side needed at least 73,744 votes.

  Valid %Eligible %
Yes (recall)77,89951.526.4
No (don’t recall)73,43348.524.9

It was a very close result by both standards. The yes side beat the no side by fewer than 5,000 votes, and they only exceeded the 25% threshold by 1.4%.

This is not much different from the results of the general election. In January 2020, Chen won a very close race against KMT incumbent Yan Kuan-heng. Yen played a leading role in this recall election, and he is expected to try to regain his seat in the coming by-election. I don’t think it is much of a stretch at all to suggest this recall was an attempt to overturn the 2020 election result.

  Valid %Win
Yen (KMT)107,76648.9 
Chen (TSP)112,83951.1*

I believe that recalls should be reserved for extraordinary cases in which an incumbent clearly loses large amounts of previous support. Going from 51-49% to 48-51% doesn’t strike me as a massive shift in public opinion. This is more like the kind of shift that you get several times a month on one direction or the other depending on the headlines of the day. Relitigating elections every time there is a 3% shift is a recipe for chaos.

It isn’t obvious why this is a stronger indication of a public mandate than the previous result. Why should 77,899 votes be more powerful than the 112,839 votes that were cast to elect Chen? This may have been more of a mobilization victory than a change in public opinion. Yen may simply have mobilized 73.3% of his previous support, while Chen could only mobilize 65.1% of his. It wouldn’t be surprising if Yen had (as pretty much everyone believes) a significant advantage in grassroots organization that allowed him to mobilize more of his supporters at any odd time in the middle of the election cycle. However, let’s keep in mind that over a fourth of the people who voted against Chen the first time neglected to vote against him this time. We certainly don’t have any reason to believe that many people who voted for Chen in 2020 changed their minds and voted against him this time.

I know that some will object that Chen and his supporters should have mobilized more to defend his seat. However, I believe that the burden of proof should be on the side trying to overturn the previous result, not on the incumbent. At any rate, Chen demonstrated that he maintains most of his previous support. The recall side did not demonstrate any massive change in public opinion.

A successful recall should provide a clear repudiation of a previous electoral result. This recall failed to do that. It was much easier to defeat Chen Po-wei in a recall than in the general election. That is an institutional failure.

KMT caucus brawls because … why?

October 4, 2021

On Friday, the KMT plunged the Legislative Yuan into chaos. Premier Su was scheduled to give his semiannual report to the legislature on the government’s performance and future agenda. However, the KMT occupied the benches where the government ministers are supposed to sit, overturned the podium that Su was supposed to speak at, ripped out a few microphones, and banged their fists on the desks. The DPP chose not to resist this action, and the presiding officer called a recess. No business was conducted on Friday.

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy over the past few years researching parliamentary brawls, and I’m scratching my head at the KMT’s actions. They don’t make much sense to me. Six years into life in the opposition, the KMT still hasn’t figured out how to be an effective opposition party.

In partisan parliamentary brawls, the first rule for the opposition party is that you must have a clear story to explain yourself to the public. Almost all partisan brawls are initiated by an opposition that wants to resist something the majority wants to do. The opposition should want the story to be about the government’s unacceptable plans, not the violence itself. The government always tries to paint the opposition as violent, anti-democratic, and unreasonable. They are, in fact, taking a violent action in violation of the normal, legal procedures. The opposition’s challenge is to persuade the public that the issue was so compelling that they needed to bring it to everyone’s attention in the most dramatic way possible, they needed to stop it at all costs, that the planned agenda was even more undemocratic than the violation of the legislative rules, or something similar. The brawling makes people look, but the opposition party needs them to quickly shift their focus from the physical confrontation to the controversial issue.

So what was the issue in Friday’s brawl? Well, that’s the problem. The KMT isn’t really putting out a coherent story. They are complaining about lots of things, and those things don’t really fit together.

I think the KMT wants us to believe that they are angry about failures in the quarantine policy that allowed Covid to sneak into the country in April. Great! That’s a governance failure. This is exactly the time for the legislature to exercise government oversight. What the KMT should do is get the premier’s speech over as soon as possible (and no one ever pays much attention to these speeches), and then spend the next week or two in intense interpellation sessions. Ask pointed questions showing exactly how the policy was flawed from the beginning, implementation was lousy, or both. The news will eat up these confrontational interactions between attacking legislators and government ministers making feeble excuses. The KMT will demonstrate that the DPP is terrible at governance, and it would be much better. Interpellation is a great weapon for the opposition!

What the KMT probably shouldn’t do is waste all the legislative time to ensure that there is no time left for interpellation. But that’s what they are doing. They have already wasted three legislative days (ie: a week and a half) without Su giving his speech. What always happens in these cases is that, since the legislature has to move on to other items (such as the national budget), they change from oral interpellations to written interpellations. Written documents in bureaucratic language are boring. I have never seen a media story on something from a written interpellation. If there was a governance failure, this is the best way to make sure people sleep through it.

Instead of ruthlessly dissecting the governance failure for all to see, the KMT has simply assumed that everyone agrees there was obviously a massive governance failure so there is no need to present the evidence. In fact, the government has been pushing back against this narrative, providing arguments that the outbreak was not necessarily a result of the 3+11 quarantine policy for airline workers. Something clearly went wrong, but it’s not clear exactly what that was or even whether it was a governance failure. The KMT doesn’t seem interested in these details, though. The government can continue to present its side unchallenged.

The KMT has insisted that Su should apologize before giving his report. In fact, Su already apologized to the nation back in June, but I guess the KMT wants an apology to the legislature. This seems like something they could repeatedly demand from him in interpellation while they point out his failures. It’s a shame there is no interpellation on the schedule right now.

I’m writing this as if been the clear KMT message all along has been the failure of the quarantine policy. It hasn’t. If you look at the protest signs they were holding up on the floor, you see a lot about procedural justice and nothing about quarantines or the virus. Wait, this is really about procedural justice?? What?? How??

立法院會1日預定對行政院長蘇貞昌施政報告繼續質詢,但國民黨立委一早占領議場官員席,院會開始後不久推倒官員備詢台,並舉牌表示「抗議中」,使議事持續空轉;民進黨立委則舉看板呼籲「國家需要理性監督」、「報告備詢正面對決」。中央社記者施宗暉攝 110年10月1日

Procedural justice is a theme in a lot of parliamentary brawls. Typically, the government wants to do something, and the minority employs its full bag of procedural dilatory tools to grind things to a halt. They make long speeches, introduce loads of time-wasting amendments, introduce lots of other bills that have to be dealt with first, refuse to confirm the previous day’s minutes, and so on. Majorities often deal with this intransigence by changing the rules. For example, instead of voting on each item individually, they allow a single package vote; they rule amendments out of order; they change the agenda order to move their bill to the front of the line; they allow voice votes instead of time-consuming roll call votes; and on and on. When the rules allow the minority to stall, the majority can always just change the rules. Of course, the minority always screams about this, complaining that democratic legitimacy demands that agenda items go through established procedures and be placed under intense scrutiny. And sometimes, they are so furious with the majorities’ behavior that they launch a brawl. As with most arguments, there is some truth to this idea that the rules must be respected, but it is not an inviolable democratic principle. Minorities have rights, but so do majorities. Legally, the overriding principle is usually that legislative bodies have jurisdiction over their internal workings, so any decision that is supported by a majority is considered legitimate. Public opinion, however, is not always persuaded by this argument. In the public arena, arguments about procedural justice are essentially accusations that the other side is breaking the rules and isn’t playing fair. Winning this sort of public argument can have significant political consequences. (See: Sunflower Movement).

OK. So why is the KMT complaining about procedural justice in this particular case? Uh, no one seems to be explaining that part. As far as I can tell, they are just screaming “procedural justice” without anything further. It’s not as if the DPP changed the rules to ram through a controversial bill. The controversy at hand is that Premier Su is scheduled to give a report, and the KMT is trying to block it. The KMT is the party violating the normal procedures, not the DPP. The KMT has effectively stopped the session from happening, so the DPP hasn’t even had an opportunity to change the rules. Eventually, they will change the rules to expediate or skip this speech and change to written interpellations. (These are steps that KMT majorities pioneered decades ago.) However, you can’t scream that the government is avoiding its constitutional mandate to face interpellation when you were the one preventing them from doing that. “They didn’t follow the procedures because we blocked them from following the procedures. This is procedural injustice!” This just doesn’t make sense.

If you really want to get down into the weeds, there are two things the KMT might be complaining about. First, they introduced several hundred bills that the DPP refused to consider before Su’s report. There were apparently not serious bills – about a fourth were demands that Su or cabinet ministers should publicly apologize. Good luck making that the centerpiece of your public argument. Second, on Tuesday (when there were also some scuffles and the KMT also blocked Su from delivering his report) the KMT accused the DPP of abusing its power to open the front door ten seconds too late. At 7:00am, the KMT was massed in front of the front door, ready to rush in and occupy the podium. According to the KMT, the staff opened the back door promptly on time, allowing DPP members there to get in first. The staff explained that they had tried to open both doors at the same time, but the front door swings outward and it was blocked by the KMT legislators crowded against it. Ok, let me stop here. When you make an accusation of abuse of power, you probably want to talk about some massive corruption scandal, extending executive power into the judiciary, police harassment, or something like that. Opening a door ten seconds too slow is hardly an egregious abuse of power. Moreover, think about what they were saying. In normal times, the doors open, members slowly walk in, sit down, and then nothing happens for an hour because official business doesn’t start for another hour. Ten seconds is irrelevant. The KMT is saying, “We were planning to break the rules by disrupting the normal proceedings, and you made it slightly more inconvenient for us to break the rules. Abuse of power!! Procedural injustice!!”

The KMT had some other themes. One sign said, “No truth, no interpellation” 沒有真相沒有質詢。 Someone needs to explain to them that interpellation is the institutional mechanism by which minorities can force the government to divulge the truth. Other signs said things like “the Legislative Yuan has become the Legislative Bureau” 立法院便立法局 (ie: a government rubber stamp) and a legislator complained to a reporter that “democracy is dead.” The KMT banged on desks, repeating President Tsai’s statement that when the government doesn’t listen to the people, people have the right to bang on desks. In case you think I’m paying too much attention to the signs the KMT caucus was holding him, let me assure you that I read through several media reports and watched several TV news clips looking for a coherent and consistent argument. I made a special point of looking for United Daily News stories to see if a friendlier source would let them present their case. I didn’t see a coherent KMT argument. A procedural justice here, a slow door here, a democracy is dead here, a desk banging there. There was shockingly little about the 3+11, and they often seemed to forget even that they wanted Su to apologize.

It seems to me the most honest sign was the one that simply said “We are protesting” 抗議中 They don’t seem to know exactly what they are angry about, and it doesn’t really matter to them. They know they are mad at the government; they think you should also be mad at the government; and they don’t think they need to explain why. It feels like they didn’t even bother to print any new signs for this event. They just picked up a few signs left over from previous demonstrations and reused them without questioning whether they were appropriate this time.

Another telling sign was the one saying, “opposed to unconstitutional acts and chaos” 反對違憲亂紀. Leaving aside the problem that there is no constitutional question involved in this case, the mention of chaos is notable. Remember, the KMT caucus had just overturned a podium, ripped out microphones, and utterly disrupted the normal workings of the legislature. Yet, they are claiming to be against chaos?? In fact, “chaos” is a common term in current KMT discourse. They are constantly talking about the need to stop chaos and restore order 撥亂反正。This is not really about “chaos,” at least as most people understand the term. As a smart guy sympathetic to the KMT explained to me, they want to go back to the good old days. Chaos means now; order means then. I suspect the halcyon days of order in their minds are the CCK era. Back then, they were respected and government was run by reasonable people. It was more democratic too, since the KMT always won elections, had an unassailable grip on power, and could use state coercion to silence any rabble who caused trouble. Ah, the good old days! It all sounds a bit like Trumpian nostalgia for the good old days of the 1950s, when Blacks knew their place, there weren’t many Browns, it was ok to knock your wife around, no one was gay, everyone was Christian, and you could smoke anywhere. MAGA!

The problem for the KMT is that this muddled message of vague fury doesn’t have a very large audience in today’s Taiwan. Most people don’t want to see a general rebellion inside the legislature. That is almost always the case, but it is especially true right now when the government has reasonably good approval ratings and faces some very specific upcoming governing challenges, such as vaccination policy, economic stimulus, and Chinese military incursions. Now is the time for competent governance, not general revolution. The KMT failed to focus on a single, easy to understand, easily defensible theme for their brawl. Instead, what most people will remember from this episode is the violence itself. The KMT is telling people that it is a violent, unreasonable, kneejerk opposition party. There is a market for that, but it isn’t a large market. Even within the blue camp, there are going to be a lot of people who aren’t happy with legislative violence, especially if they don’t know why it is happening. That’s why the biggest beneficiary of the KMT’s action last week is probably going to be the TPP. The TPP and NPP used the episode to complain that they wanted to responsibly and rationally perform legislative oversight of the executive branch, as is their constitutional duty. Unfortunately, the KMT’s antics had stripped them of this right. The TPP’s electoral market increasingly overlaps with the KMT’s, so blue camp voters disgusted with the chaos in the legislature might be tempted to drift over to the TPP. To put it more bluntly, the KMT essentially screamed that any wavering supporters interested in “rational politics” should go try the TPP. Ko Wen-je should send the KMT caucus a thank-you note.

The KMT’s behavior last week was self-indulgent, undisciplined, flailing, and self-defeating. A smart party carefully chooses its battles. This was a stupid choice, and they fought it badly.

Change under Chu? Never mind.

September 27, 2021

You know all that stuff I wrote in the previous post about how Chu might shift directions? Chu didn’t wait even 24 hours before squashing that thought. In basically his first act as the new chair, Chu sent a fawning, groveling letter to Xi Jinping. I’m going to steal Yang Kuang-shun’s excellent translation (thanks):

No photo description available.

“In the past three decades, the cross-Strait relations made very positive progress in exchanges and cooperation at all levels through the relentless works and promotion of our parties. In recent years, however, the DPP administration has changed the status quo across the Strait by adopting ‘de-China’ and ‘anti-China’ policies. It creates tough situation across the Strait and extreme sense of insecurity among the people across the Strait”

“People across the Strait are Chinese people. On the basis of ‘1992 Consensus’ and ‘Opposing Taiwan independence,’ we hope from now on that our parties can pursue consensus and respect differences, promote mutual trust and integration, enhance exchanges and cooperation, so that the peaceful development of the cross-Strait relations can move forward. This is beneficial to the people across the Strait and the promotion of the peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

He starts by blaming the DPP. That is, he is seeking to ally with the CCP (a party dedicated to destroying the ROC) against the DPP. He then bases this relationship on the 92C and Opposing Taiwan independence. Note that he doesn’t bother to state the “each side with its own interpretation part”. What ever happened to this strident insistence that he was passionately against any “red unification”?

Chu basically announced that there will be no change in the KMT position. This is still Ma Ying-jeou’s party. He is not interested in actually placing the ROC first or moving toward the middle of the Taiwan electorate. More bluntly, he isn’t interested in winning national elections. All that stuff from the last two weeks? Let’s just pretend that never happened. He didn’t really mean it. He just had to say some stuff to win an election.

Chu wins. Now what?

September 26, 2021

Eric Chu was elected KMT party chair yesterday.

Eric Chu朱立倫8516445.78
Chang Ya-chung張亞中6063232.59
Johnny Chiang江啟臣3509018.87
Cho Po-yuan卓伯源51332.76
Eligible voters: 370711, turnout: 50.71%

On the one hand, this was utterly predictable. From the moment Chu announced his candidacy, he was the strong favorite to win. A month ago, 45% would have seemed about right to me.

On the other hand, this campaign when dramatically off script in the last ten days. Up until that point, this was an utterly ordinary race. The candidates all professed admiration for traditional KMT positions and complained that Tsai and the DPP were doing a terrible job. The biggest point of contention was about whether it was ok that Chu had not renounced a run for president in 2024. Yawn. And then lots of dubious “polls” appeared, showing that Chang was running a very close second or maybe was leading. And then Chu started attacking Chang as a “red unificationist,” something that I never expected to see.

This turned the race into a clear choice between Chu and Chang. Chu was the defender of the ROC, and Chang stood for political talks toward a peaceful arrangement with the PRC. To put it more bluntly, while Chang didn’t like the red unification label, he never tried to distance himself from red unification policies.

One way to look at this election is that we now have a pretty good estimate of how much of the KMT is serious about unification. One-third of party members heard Chu – a cautious stalwart party leader, not some radical Taiwan independence pundit – tell them that Chang’s pursuit of political arrangements with the PRC was a threat to the continued existence of the ROC, and they basically said, “Yeah, I’m ok with that. I’m for that guy.” Since Chang is something of a blank slate – he’s never run in a general election or held a political office – his support is untainted by his record. What I mean by that is that party members may have loved Hung Hsiu-chu in 2017, but she had just run a disastrous presidential race. (Chang’s 60,632 votes is better than the 53,063 Hung Hsiu-chu got in the 2017 race, especially considering there were 85,000 more votes cast in 2017.) If there had been an election in early 2019, Han Kuo-yu would have swept in partly because of his pro-China stance but partly because he seemed like he could win support from average voters. We don’t have that kind of history with Chang, so no one can say for sure what kind of public appeal he would have. One-third is a sizeable minority. In a previous post, I wondered if a victorious Chu might try to marginalize or even purge Chang. If Chang represents one-third of the party, that seems unlikely. One-third is just too large to ignore, much less actively marginalize. From another point of view, though, one-third is not close to a majority, much less a consensus. Chu’s defense of the ROC and vocal rejection of unification on the PRC’s terms is firmly in the mainstream of the KMT.

Enough about Chang. Let’s talk about Chu. This may turn out to be a transformative moment in Chu’s career. For a decade, we have known Chu as a congenial, cautious, reasonable, capable, somewhat bland, never strident, consensus-seeking fellow. He is the guy solidly in the center of the KMT who everyone in the party can agree on. He might not be their first choice, but he is at least their second choice. From a policy standpoint, it’s the same thing. He doesn’t take positions that make other KMT members nervous. He is for the ROC, the 1992 Consensus, prosperity, new MRT lines, clean air, baseball, moon cakes, and mangoes. He thinks Tsai and the DPP are doing a terrible job in office, but even when he is attacking them, it doesn’t seem as venomous as other people’s attacks. Or at least that’s how I understood him two weeks ago.

His broadside attacks on Chang were completely out of character. He laid out his guiding principle as maintaining the ROC. If you attack the ROC, you are his enemy. This includes both Taiwan independence advocates and red unificationists. He attacked someone inside the KMT as not merely misguided but as an outright enemy. By extension, he was also declaring all of Chang’s supporters – KMT party members! – in favor of aggressively pursuing unification as his enemies. He equated red unification with Taiwan independence, suggesting they are both similarly repugnant to him. This is not the Eric Chu I thought I knew.

Changing the starting point from “One China, each side with its own interpretation” to “unconditionally maintain the ROC” could have monumental implications for Chu and the KMT. If taken to its logical conclusions, I think it could be a platform powerful enough to restore the KMT to electoral viability. However, I’m not convinced Chu is prepared to follow through, since what I have in mind would require significant revisions to KMT discourse.

To illustrate this, consider the repeated incursions of PRC fighter jets into ROC airspace. The current KMT response is that this is all a result of the DPP’s rejection of the 92C and the loss of trust between the two sides. Implicitly, they seem to believe that since there is One China, military threats are inevitable and reasonable if one side seems to deny that it is part of that One China. A KMT dedicated to maintaining the ROC might react differently. First, condemn the PRC’s military actions. They have no right to violate the ROC’s airspace. When civilized people disagree, they use civilized methods to express their unhappiness and seek resolutions. Military threats are unacceptable and inexcusable. Second, vocally and publicly support the ROC military. (Not the retired veterans; I mean the active duty forces.) Take photos with fighter pilots, and support weapons purchases. The ROC military has a sacred duty to protect the ROC, and the KMT should support that mission enthusiastically and unconditionally. Don’t hesitate to single out the PRC as the primary threat to the ROC. The KMT traditionally likes to complain about the Japanese and the Senkakus, but this is not an existential threat to the ROC. If the primary goal is to maintain the ROC, you must face the fact that the PLA is the only military power seeking to destroy to ROC. Third, after posing for photo-ops with DPP politicians and ROC military to clearly present a united front demonstrating the determination of all sides to maintain the security and sovereignty of the ROC – only after that – then proceed to partisan attacks on the DPP. “PLA incursions are absolutely wrong and unjustified, but DPP policies aren’t wise or helpful.” ROC first means national security comes before partisan politics.

I hope that example illustrates how hard this would be for the KMT and why I don’t think it is particularly likely. However, I do think that a KMT refounded on protecting the ROC could win an election. It would lose active support from businesses who want government support in China, and it would probably some votes from pro-unification voters. However, this party would be much better equipped to compete for the median voter, who identifies primarily as Taiwanese. If the DPP had a corruption scandal or some other massive failure of governance, this KMT could be one that people would feel comfortable voting for as an alternative. You wouldn’t need to worry about this KMT undermining Taiwan’s sovereignty or security.

This election may turn out to be the healthiest thing that has happened to the KMT in years. It originally seemed that they were sluggishly drifting along on the same path that had already led them to two dismal defeats. They seemed resigned to insisting that Ma’s path and the 92C were the right way to win in 2024. Suddenly, new alternatives may have opened up. The virulent clash between Chu and Chang forced the two to stand up for different visions of the future, and Chu’s vision is surprisingly viable. Now all Chu has to do is make that vision a reality.

It isn’t clear that he really wants to go down this path. The old Chu and the old KMT could re-emerge. But if he does, it won’t be easy. Chu won a clear victory, but 45% doesn’t automatically confer a mandate. He will have to glue together the 67% who didn’t vote for Chang and make them the foundation of his agenda. It will take tremendous political skill to articulate this vision in a way that both KMT members and average voters can identify with. This is essentially the same program that Chiang proposed last year, and last year it was an utter failure. It can be attacked as a return to the Lee Teng-hui era, and that is a damning accusation within the current KMT. Chu will have to package it as stemming from the genius of Chiang Ching-kuo and thread the needle of persuading the electorate that his is moving away from 92C orthodoxy while not inciting a rebellion from Ma and other defenders of the 92C. Nothing I have seen from Chu in the past decade leads me to expect that he is a brilliant politician capable of this. Then again, nothing led me to expect the previous two weeks either.

Johnny Chiang’s failure

September 25, 2021

Today, Johnny Chiang 江啟臣 lost his bid for re-election as KMT party chair. That understates things. He didn’t just lose, he lost badly, finishing a distant third. By the end, he was almost an afterthought. A mere 18 months ago, he was the KMT’s new hope – a bright, articulate, handsome, politician unscarred by the two consecutive landslide election defeats. He seemed like the person who might be able to lead the KMT out of the wilderness. What happened?

The simplest answer is that Chiang was never actually a KMT heavyweight and never actually ran the party. He was a three-term legislator from out in the sticks, not a mayor or a longtime party insider. The party was happy to present him as its public face in the aftermath of another devastating loss, but the actual heavyweights were biding their time to take back control of the party when things improved. So now they are reclaiming power.

That is also what people thought would happen in the DPP when Tsai Ing-wen became party chair after the landslide defeat in 2008. However, Tsai proved to be a pretty good leader, and the erstwhile party heavyweights were never able to push her aside and retake control. Why couldn’t Chiang follow this script?

The real reason Chiang’s re-election failed so miserably is that he failed the leadership test. The KMT had lost two consecutive national elections, and both times they lost badly. Chiang’s challenge was to honestly assess the reasons for those painful defeats, propose a new path forward, and then drive the party forward on that path. This is extremely difficult. No one likes looking in the mirror and admitting that their ideas – things they passionately believe in – aren’t going to work. The reason the KMT lost was glaringly obvious to outsiders: its stance on China drove too many voters away. However, the KMT has two decades of energy, hopes, wealth, and political careers invested in Chinese identity, integration into the Chinese economy, and the claim that any military or security threats from the PRC are entirely a result of things the DPP does. It is very difficult for the KMT to conclude that its China policy is the root cause of its problems.

Chiang started his tenure well. He put together some committees to propose ways to reform the KMT, and on June 19, 2020 they recommended four pillars to guide the KMT’s cross-straits policy. (1) insisting on the sovereignty of the ROC; (2) safeguarding freedom, democracy and human rights; (3) prioritizing Taiwan’s security; and (4) creating win-win situations and shared prosperity. These are not far from current KMT discourse, but there are slight differences in emphasis. For example, this does not start with One China, inevitable unification, or even an obligation to interact with China. I can imagine how a reformer could start from these principles to significantly change concrete KMT behavior and rebuild enough trust with Taiwan’s electorate to make winning a majority possible.

Ma Ying-jeou wasn’t happy with these proposals. They did not mention the 1992 Consensus, and there was talk that Chiang wanted to turn the 92C into a historical relic. Ma correctly saw this as a direct repudiation of his legacy. It doesn’t matter that Chiang was the official party chair; the KMT still follows Ma.

It took Chiang three days to surrender. On June 22, Chiang met with Ma and assured him that the 92C would not be abandoned. When the Central Committee met in September to pass Chiang’s reform package, the four clauses on cross-straits looked quite a bit different. (1) Use the 92C, which is based in the ROC constitution, to continue cross-straits interactions. (2) Resolutely oppose Taiwan independence and One Country, Two Systems. The mainland should renounce military action against Taiwan. (3) Simultaneously promote cross-strait ties and US-Taiwan relations. (4) Draft rules governing cross-straits interactions for party officials. In a nutshell, the KMT decided that there would be no change from Ma’s vision.

And that was effectively the end of Chiang’s leadership. What we learned last summer was that Chiang might have a vision for how the KMT could move into the future, but he didn’t have the political resources or skills necessary to sell that vision to the rest of the party. Anyway, he might not have believed very strongly in the vision in the first place. He surrendered very quickly, and he has obediently stuck to the 92C orthodoxy ever since. During the party chair election, you would never know that just a year ago he had doubts about the 92C. As with so many KMT politicians – especially native Taiwanese from local factions – over the past few decades, once the adults in Taipei told him to get back in line, he meekly got back in line. Maybe the next generation of KMT politicians will finally outgrow the party’s authoritarian-era political culture.

I guess now Chiang can go back to being a simple legislator from Taichung and maybe even plot a run for mayor in 2026.  Or maybe not. It’s possible that his time as party chair will damage his career in local politics.

Chiang’s legislative district is not blue at all. Tsai won his district 56.0-39.4%. That same day, Chiang won his race 59.0-38.9%. Chiang ran nearly 20% ahead of Han; this was the best performance for any KMT candidate in the entire country. Chiang is only in the legislature because he convinced large numbers of voters who prefer Tsai and the DPP to vote for him in the legislative race. That is, they voted for him in spite of his KMT label; he must have been “a different kind” of KMT candidate. However, he has spent the last two years cloaking himself firmly in the standard KMT colors. He ran this campaign insisting that he represented normal KMT values.

If I were a local DPP politician, I’d be salivating at the chance to run against Chiang in 2024. The lines of attack are obvious and easy. “We thought he was different but he isn’t; he’s just like Ma Ying-jeou and the other KMT politicians.” “He’s been busy playing national politics instead of trying to do things for you and me here in Taichung.” “He hasn’t tried to cooperate with other people from different parties to do things for us; he has been more interested in stirring up partisan divisions than working for compromise.” “Even the KMT doesn’t respect him – look at how they used him and then tossed him aside; this isn’t a guy who can get things done.” And on and on.

I’m not saying that Chiang will definitely lose in 2024. However, I think his unsuccessful foray into national politics has made things a lot more difficult for him.

Chu goes ballistic

September 21, 2021

Ten days before the Sept. 25 KMT party chair election, everything seemed to be going rather predictably. They weren’t fighting each other very hard over substantive matters, the party had reaffirmed the primacy of the 1992 Consensus as the party’s core idea, and Eric Chu seemed to be cruising to a fairly comfortable victory. Ho hum. Well, I clearly misread something, because that isn’t what happened.

A bitter battle over how to deal with China has broken out. To be more precise, Eric Chu 朱立倫 decided to launch a blistering assault on Chang Ya-chung 張亞中 as a “red unificationist” 紅統. Let’s recap Chu’s attacks. On Sept 17, Chu went on an internet show and called Chang a red unification scholar 紅統學者, saying that if Chang were elected party chair, the KMT would change from blue to red. When asked if the KMT would split if Chang were elected, Chu answered that he hoped not but believed it would, adding that the TPP would be the biggest beneficiary and the DPP would set off celebratory fireworks. On Sept 18, CiTV hosted a debate among the four candidates, and Chu deepened his attack. When Chang complained that Chu was unfairly labeling him 扣帽子 as an extreme unificationist, Chu replied that the label wasn’t unfair and wasn’t from him – Chang had engaged in all sorts of unification activities, everyone knew he was a prominent scholar supporting unification, and, in the past, he had been proud to call himself that. Chu then pointed out that Chang had supported “one China, same interpretation” 一中同表, and he had also called for faster unification. Then on Sept 19 at a candidate forum in central Taiwan, Chu let forth another salvo. This time, Chu said that his own loyalty was to the ROC, and he considered anyone attacking the ROC as an enemy, whether it was Taiwan independence activists or extreme unificationists. Chang had gone to China and had issued a proposal in which he titled the ROC as “Taipei, China.” Even more damning, Chang had argued that the quickest and most effective way to unification was by using One Country, Two Systems.

Chang’s response to these attacks has been fairly simple. First, Chang has complained that party comrades should not try to label each other. Second, he has denied that he is extreme. He hasn’t actually denied any of Chu’s substantive charges; he has simply denied that those make him extreme. (Is seeking a peaceful relationship extreme?) Third, he has elaborated on what he wants to do. Here, I think he might be playing into Chu’s hands, because some of his plans are a bit extreme. For example, he talked about his plans to visit China and come to an agreement on how to move cross-straits relations forward. His plans might be too aggressive for the mainstream of the KMT. (In the first debate, he admonished KMT voters not to worry too much about public opinion since Sun Yat-sen would never have started his revolution if he had worried about public opinion. Chang isn’t overly worried about whether the general electorate supports him; he seems to assume that they eventually will come around or maybe he just doesn’t care.)  It is worth taking a bit of time to explore Chang’s remarks on the 92 Consensus.

In the CiTV debate, Chang talked about the 92C at length, saying that Chu doesn’t understand it at all. Chang explained that there was consensus on two things and no consensus on a third item. Both sides agreed that (1) there is One China and that (2) they would seek unification. However, there was no consensus over the meaning of One China. Taipei said that each side had its own interpretation – we will call it the ROC and you will call it the PRC. However, Beijing never accepted this. The two sides would discuss the meaning of One China in the future, and in the meantime they could talk about practical matters. The 92C was not and could not be the basis for a meaningful peace; it was merely a temporary truce. Real peace will require political negotiations, and he is willing to engage in those talks.

This is a very different interpretation of the 92C than Ma Ying-jeou has been selling. In Ma’s discourse, the 92C has always been One China, each side with its own interpretation. Sure, the PRC never acknowledged the ROC – their interpretation is that China means the PRC. However, the two sides have a tacit understanding that they agree to disagree, and both sides think that this is an acceptable ambiguity upon which they can build a meaningful and mutually beneficial relationship. In the debates, several KMT party chair candidates have argued that the 92C is still appropriate, and the public has been led astray by underhanded DPP attacks painting the 92C as equivalent to One China or One China, Two Systems. But here, Chang Ya-chung is arguing exactly that. The 92C has never been a consensus on anything more than One China and pursuit of unification. It has never meant that the PRC tacitly accepts the existence of the ROC. In Chang’s discourse, the 92C only brought about a temporary truce, but the two sides have remained fundamentally at conflict – even during the Ma era. If you want to build harmony across the straits, the 92C is inadequate.

What is going on here? Why did Chu choose to start this war? The obvious answer is that Chu got scared that he might lose. There have been several internet polls showing Chang doing very well. I have assumed that these easily manipulable polls were manipulated. Most internet polls are entirely self-selected. If you want to vote, you can. Heck, you can vote multiple times if you like. An internet army can easily make a weak candidate look strong. Let’s not forget that Chang is almost certainly the PRC’s favorite candidate, and the PRC just happens to have an internet army at its disposal. I don’t know if that’s what happened, but it wouldn’t surprise me. At any rate, the UDN online poll had nearly half a million votes, and I can’t imagine that many individual netizens were motivated to express their opinions on a random, meaningless internet poll hidden deep inside the UDN website. I had mostly dismissed these polls, but it’s possible that they either reflected Chang’s popularity or helped to create it. The first challenge in a race like this is to be taken seriously. Cho Bo-yuan 卓伯源, for example, has never been taken seriously, and he will end up as a footnote. If he actually had people who wanted to support him, they have almost all decided to vote for someone else rather than waste a vote on Cho. Perhaps the online polls made people think that Chang was in the race and that voting for him wouldn’t be throwing their vote away. It is also possible that Chang is getting more support simply because he is perceived as being in the race. Chu is a well-known commodity, and he doesn’t have a strong record of winning. Chang is something new, and he speaks confidently, forcefully, and unapologetically. Maybe if you are a KMT supporter tired of losing, it isn’t a bad idea to try out the new, energetic guy.

Was Chu actually in danger of losing? We really don’t know. The internet polls are probably garbage. A recent poll done by Apollo (艾普羅) suggests that maybe it wasn’t all that close. (Apollo is affiliated with the Want Want group, but its polls have a fairly good track record. I’m assuming this is reasonably accurate data.) This was a landline poll conducted Sept 14-16 (or before Chu launched his attacks). In the overall population, Chu was at 39.3%, Chang 10.7%, Chiang 10.3%, and Cho 4.0%. Since this is the KMT party chair race, it doesn’t really matter what DPP supporters think. If we just look at blue camp supporters, the race is Chu 45.9%, Chang 18.3%, Chiang 14.1%, and Cho 4.2%. Chu is ahead, and by a wide margin. Again, only KMT party members have a vote, and that is a much smaller group than blue camp sympathizers in the general electorate. The Huang Fu-hsing military veterans, for example, have more influence in the party vote than in opinion polls. However, it would surprise me if the polls are completely off. I don’t generally assume that KMT party members are completely unlike KMT party supporters when it comes to the future of the KMT. On the other hand, let’s assume that Chu might have a way to read the state of the race. Chu talks to a lot of people, and he probably has his own internal polls. He almost certainly has better information on the state of the race than I do. So maybe he got a clear message that Chang was close, and he sensed a really danger that he might lose.

His attacks on Chang have probably worked. They may have depressed Chang’s support by convincing some voters that Chang is more radical than they originally thought. However, the larger effect of Chu’s attacks seems to have been to marginalize Chiang 江啟臣. A few months ago, this was supposed to be a contest between Chu and Chiang. However, now Chu has made it into a contest between Chang and himself. In this two-way race, Chiang’s supporters seem to be strategically flocking to Chu. They may prefer Chiang, but they definitely don’t want Chang. Almost all of the party figures who have announced endorsements in the past week or two are for Chu: Taitung magistrate Rao Ching-ling 饒慶鈴, Hualien magistrate Hsu Chen-wei 徐榛蔚, Lienchiang magistrate Liu Tseng-ying 劉增應, Nantou magistrate Lin Ming-chen 林明溱, Yunlin magistrate Chang Li-shan 張麗善, Hsinchu legislator Lin Wei-chou林為洲, and Taipei legislator Lin Yi-hua 林奕華.

Another reason to think that this is all a result of Chu being shocked into action is that it is completely out of character for Chu. Chu has always been a consensus-oriented politician. He has always tried to be the person that everyone in the KMT can agree on. He has never been the type of person to intentionally pick fights or make enemies. And Chu must know that his attacks will have lasting costs. When he is elected chair, he will have a lot of angry party members to deal with. They might never trust him or give him the benefit of the doubt again. Moreover, Chu has now legitimized DPP attacks that the KMT is a red party. In the next election when DPP talking heads say that the KMT has powerful forces who want to unify Taiwan with China by acquiescing to One Country, Two Systems, they will be able to point to Chu. Hey, this isn’t us making wild accusations – the KMT party chair said all those things. This is a heavy price to pay, and Chu must have been terrified to make the choice to pay it.

Fear of losing is the obvious answer, and it is probably the right answer. However, I can think of another plausible reason Chu chose this path. It’s probably not right, but let me lay out the scenario.

In this scenario, Chu was on the path to a comfortable victory, and he knew it. Chu had seen polls like the Apollo poll, and he was confident of winning by a significant margin. However, Chu saw Chang getting significant amounts of support, and he decided to act preemptively to cut out this cancer before it got out of hand. Chang represents a grave danger to Chu’s KMT. Since the CCK era, the KMT has been a party that talks about China and unification, but it doesn’t really mean any of it and isn’t interested in taking any concrete actions. One China and unification are just decorations on the house; that give the KMT its historical legitimacy, but they haven’t really motivated the party in day-to-day decisions. The party is happy to talk about the ten golden years or the three principles of the people, and it is happy to go to China and make business deals that enrich everyone. However, they are aware, even if they won’t admit it out loud, that unification would mean the end of the ROC, and they don’t want that to happen. Chang is among the few in the party who have confronted that problem and (seem to) have decided that China is more important than the ROC. Hung Hsiu-chu is another. When she was running for president in 2016, old KMT veterans were shocked to hear her refuse to talk about the ROC since that would mean two Chinas. Chang and Hung are not unconditionally blue; they are willing to be red if their loyalty to One China demands it. Chu’s insistence that he is “true blue” 正藍 and that the KMT must not become “little red” 小紅 is not mere rhetoric. He is fighting for the survival of the ROC. The danger is not that Chang might win this election, since (in this scenario) Chu was confident of victory. The danger is that Chang might lose honorably, getting a lot of votes, a lot of respect, and set himself up as the frontrunner in the next contest. In other words, Chang might follow the Han model. Chu doesn’t want to merely defeat Chang; he wants to discredit Chang. The point of calling Chang red is to paint him as outside KMT values. Chang’s aggressive steps toward unification are not steps that the KMT cannot tolerate if it ever wants to win another election. They are also not steps that the KMT rank and file – even the old military veterans devoted to the ROC – are willing to countenance. Chu is exposing the true essence of Chang in the hopes that all those party voters might say, “I love China, but that is too much.” The acid test of whether this is the correct interpretation of Chu’s actions will come after Chu wins. If Chu is really serious about confirming the KMT as a blue party and dispelling any suspicions that it is really red, he will marginalize Chang and then purge him from the KMT.

If this scenario is correct – again, I doubt it is – it could have a tremendous impact on the future of the KMT and on Taiwanese politics. Chu’s KMT could be very different from Ma’s. If preservation of the ROC, rather than the 92C or eventual unification or integration with China’s economy, becomes the lode star of the KMT, I can start to imagine how it can rebuild itself as a viable political party capable of winning elections.

Ma wins KMT party chair debate

September 6, 2021

I watched the KMT party chair debate this weekend, and I have a few reactions. This is going to be a sloppy post. I’m not going to be very careful about who said what because they all sounded pretty similar. No one said anything that someone else vehemently disagreed with.

There were four people on the stage, and conventional wisdom is that this is a race between Eric Chu and Johnny Chiang, with Chu probably leading. There was a clear winner in this debate, and it wasn’t any of them. The undisputed winner was Ma Ying-jeou. A year ago, Chiang was trying to move the KMT away from the 92 Consensus. Ma utterly squashed that move. From the debate, you would never know that anyone had even questioned the brilliance and absolute perfection of the 92C. Someone else will be elected party chair, but Ma still runs this party.

None of them were really serious about power. The first thing Chiang said was that he was not going to run for president in 2024. Great. You want to be the party leader, but you don’t want to seek the most powerful position? One of the legacies of the authoritarian state is that politicians, especially in the KMT, have to act like they are embarrassed by power. In a democratic regime, power is good. A politician tells people, “Our society has problems, and I have a vision about how to make things better. Empower me, and we will make society better for all of us.” No one in this debate presented a vision, and no one was unashamedly asking for power to make changes. They all seemed to think they were interviewing for a middle-management position. Their job wasn’t to lead the party, it was merely to run the machinery that would select the real party leader (who might eventually wrestle with Ma).

Why does this matter? The 92C drives almost everything the KMT stands for, and it is increasingly divorced from reality. They assume that if only Taiwan goes back to saying the magic words, China will revert to the Hu Jintao era and play nicely. The KMT can go back to telling the voters that the magic words don’t really mean anything and telling the CPP that the magic words are very meaningful, and both sides will just forget the past decade and buy into it. Never mind that the PRC stopped pretending to respect the 92C several years ago and now insists that the 92C is exactly their version of One China. Please also ignore that China is now a much less attractive place to ordinary Taiwanese. It isn’t growing as fast, Xi Jinping runs an intrusive regime, everyone is aware of what has happened in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and China regularly threatens Taiwan with fighter jets. There are still Taiwanese who want interactions with China, but not as many as a decade ago. For an opposition party, that is the most important thing. The 92C is now an electoral disaster. The KMT can still win 35-40% with the 92C, but that isn’t anywhere near a majority. No mind. The KMT is going to approach all questions dealing with China with exactly the same ideas it developed back when Jiang Zemin was handing over power to Xi Jinping.

This isn’t the only area where the KMT party chair candidates had nothing constructive to say. One of the questions was about how to attract more youth support, since the KMT is currently extremely unpopular among everyone under 40. Several of them talked about returning to the spirit of Sun Yat-sen. After all, most of his followers were young. Yeah, the way to attract young Taiwanese worried about contemporary Taiwanese society is to go back more than a century and think about how Han nationalists in southern China put together a secret society to organize violent insurrections to overthrow the geriatric Qing dynasty. Great!! Anyway, what exactly is the spirit of SYS that many of them spoke so emotionally about needing to revive? If we follow the SYS spirit, how exactly do we distribute vaccines, generate electricity, or manage water resources? As far as I can tell, this SYS spirit that they all regard with such reverance just means “good.” “Do it gooder.” Well, that’s going to win the youth back. Their other great idea was patronage. A couple talked about reserving positions in the party for young people. Hey, that worked back when they were young! Back then, the authoritarian KMT party-state coopted young talent by giving them nice jobs. While I think that lots of young voters would be happy to get good-paying jobs, I don’t think they are clamoring for a return of the (corrupt) patronage machine (and the KMT doesn’t have that many jobs to offer these days). They want ideas about how to solve the problems facing contemporary society, not bribes for a select few or platitudes about an irrelevant statue. There was one other thing that Chu mentioned briefly: we can’t be afraid to talk to them in the ways that they understand. Let me translate: “We should use SnapTube and InstaLine. That’s what the kids want. Packaging!”

By the way, what went wrong in the last two elections? Why is the KMT now in opposition? The people on stage offered up the usual excuses. The DPP unfairly slandered them by painting them red, and the KMT messed up its nomination process. What could they do about this? They all thought that the chair’s most important job was to set up a better nomination process. In fact, the 2016 nomination process was a debacle, and there were some problems in 2020. However, in 2020 the KMT ended up with the candidate overwhelmingly preferred by party members, and he unified almost all of the opposition to the DPP around him. The KMT lost the election by 18%. Nomination isn’t their biggest problem.

My main takeaway from this debate is that the contemporary KMT is not serious about returning to power. Returning to power requires taking a hard look at what went wrong and making painful adjustments. No one on the stage was offering either. They were pandering to the desires of the deep blue party rank-and-file party members. But let’s not place all the blame on Chu and Chiang. They were doing what was necessary to win this party election (even if it will be a disaster in a general election). It’s the rank-and-file who ultimately are responsible. They have collectively decided that they would rather lose more elections and stay in the opposition than back away even a bit from Ma, the 92C, and their attachments to China.

Ma won this debate, and he will win the party chair election. Who is the loser? Again, I don’t think it was necessarily anyone on the stage. Things are lining up for Hou You-yi to be the KMT presidential candidate in 2024, so I think he was the biggest loser. If he runs, the KMT will not be an asset. He will have to drag the party and its unpopular positions through the campaign. Rather than lightening that load, the KMT seems to be intent on adding as much weight as possible.

Covid and KMT electoral strategy

September 4, 2021

In my last post, I hinted that the recent polls had suggested some interesting things about how the 2024 presidential race might unfold. I was thinking about what the polls said about the support of the various prominent contenders. However, since writing that, I have been obsessed with the idea that there was a much more important lesson. Perhaps these recent polls show that one of the KMT’s basic assumptions about how they can win a presidential election is flawed.

The contemporary KMT was rebuilt by Lien Chan, Su Chi, Ma Ying-jeou, and a few others after the 2000 presidential elections. After they purged Lee Teng-hui, they went back to their Chinese nationalist roots and reimagined the KMT as a party that could constructively engage with the PRC. The 92 Consensus was the linchpin of this new party, combining their nationalist urges with an economic strategy that was potent enough to win a majority of voters. That strategy ceased to be electorally effective in 2014, and the PRC ceased pretending to respect it a year later. Nowadays, the 92 Consensus is a heavy weight around the KMT’s collective necks while the KMT is struggling not to drown. Nonetheless, they are determined not to cast it aside. When interim party chair Johnny Chiang proposed altering or putting it in a museum (as the DPP did with its independence plank in 1999), the party decisively rejected his proposals. Chiang may sit in the party chair, but Ma demonstrated that the party still follows him. Ma made it crystal clear that he was not about to allow the party to move away from the 92 Consensus. Or perhaps that gives too much credit to Ma. Perhaps the party collectively demonstrated that its rank and file are still committed to the 92 Consensus. Either way, the KMT remains centered on an idea that is ballot box poison. (Back in the 1990s, the KMT frequently gleefully pointed out that Taiwan independence was ballot box poison for the DPP. Since the DPP was unwilling to distance itself from independence, it was unelectable. Ironically, the KMT finds itself in a mirror image of that same conundrum.)

Opposition parties often find themselves in unpopular positions, and it is hard to change. After all, they believe deeply in these positions. In USA in the 1930s and 1940s, Republicans were dead-set against the New Deal, and they lost landslide after landslide for two decades. In the UK in the 1980s, faced with the popular Thatcher government, the Labour Party decided to double down on traditional policies. Its 1983 platform was dubbed “the longest suicide note in history.” They did they same thing a few years ago by turning to hard leftist Jeremy Corbyn, and the result was another electoral disaster. Parties can change. Republicans nominated Eisenhower in 1952 who pointedly promised not to touch social security. In the 1990s, leftist parties in the USA, UK, and Germany all nominated centrists promising a third way. These produced victories, but the true believers were not all that happy with being in power since they couldn’t do all the things they really wanted to do. Sometimes, parties don’t have to make these sorts of painful changes. Sometimes society shifts in their direction. In the 1980s Republicans and Tories won with hard right leaders who did not have to make painful concessions. The DPP won the 2016 elections with only minor changes from the platforms they had been presenting since 2000. But most parties are not so fortunate. Returning to power usually requires some adjustment.

There are no indications that Taiwan society is becoming more open to Chinese nationalism and engagement with China (on the PRC’s terms). If the KMT is unwilling to move away from the 92 Consensus, how does it think it is going to ever win back power?

The only clear strategy I can see is that the KMT is depending on DPP failures. The KMT doesn’t seem interested in making any positive appeals that will persuade a majority to vote FOR them. They do not seem to have any fantastic ideas saying, “On the issues you care most passionately about, we are going to do A and B, so you should vote for us.” Rather their real argument seems to be mostly negative. “Things aren’t going well, and it’s the DPP’s fault. Throw them out! Vote against them (and we’re the only viable party to replace them).”

2018 was a perfect demonstration of how this strategy was supposed to work. The KMT did not abandon the 92 Consensus; it just avoided talking much about it. Instead, it told voters how unhappy they were with air quality, economic grown, the gays, Taipei City, President Tsai, Premier’s Lin and Lai, electricity blackouts, and generally everything else. As we all remember, this worked pretty well.

They were unable to repeat their success in 2020, but never mind that. From the KMT’s point of view, there were lots of extenuating circumstances. Han made mistakes, the DPP used lots of dirty tricks, and, above all, Hong Kong happened. Han didn’t win, but 2020 didn’t prove to KMT loyalists that their party platform was fatally flawed. (Note: I don’t buy any of these “excuses.” I think it showed exactly that.)

This is where we come to the last four months. If the KMT’s fundamental strategy is to argue that the DPP is doing a lousy job, May and June should have been a golden opportunity. KMT figures were screaming loudly every day about this massive failure of governance, and the media mostly played along. If there was ever an opportunity to persuade the general public that the current government was incompetent, this was it.

As I wrote last time, we did see a small dip in President Tsai’s approval ratings and DPP party ID. However, with such a salient crisis, I thought it was a relatively small dip. More strikingly though, we did not see any shift toward the KMT. In fact, the KMT lost popularity.

This is not how their plan was supposed to go. I’m not criticizing them for failing to get to 51%. It’s really hard to get that many people to support you, and the last 5% is the hardest. But they couldn’t even get the first 5%. Going from 17% to 22% should have been the easy part. Instead, they went from 17% to 13%. This is a failure of proof of concept.

The KMT’s assumption is that if the DPP is unpopular, voters will inevitably turn to the KMT. If it didn’t work this time, what will it take? The failure suggests an uncomfortable possibility. The KMT might be becoming so toxic with so many voters that people dissatisfied the DPP might not know where to turn. The KMT might be losing its status as the easy default option for voters who want to vote for “anyone else.”

That should terrify them, but it won’t. It’s much easier to bury your head in the sand, refuse to make any painful changes, and hope that things will get better. Such is life in Ma Ying-jeou’s KMT.

The Covid outbreak and public opinion

August 31, 2021

It looks to me like this outbreak of Covid in Taiwan is almost finished, so we now have a full cycle of events under our belt. First, there was the news of the outbreak, then we watched in horror as cases spiked and the government scrambled to figure out how to react, then the cases started to fall, and now we are back to having almost no domestic transmissions. So how did all of this affect public opinion?

Let’s do a quick recap of the virus outbreak. I’m going to use several charts from the Our World in Data website run by Oxford which uses data collected by Johns Hopkins.

Up through April, the well-established narrative was that Taiwan had almost miraculously managed to stay Covid free while the rest of the world struggled with the virus. Of course, it wasn’t a miracle. It was a combination of circumstances, luck, public enthusiasm for masks, and, most of all, good public policy. Put simply, Taiwan’s performance was the best in the world. That all exploded in early May. We didn’t know it at the time, but Mother’s Day was probably a disaster. There was already enough virus floating around, and families – young and old – got together in big groups. During the second half of May, case numbers skyrocketed. Every day the news seemed to be worse, and we all watched, shellshocked. The same government that had seemed so confidently in control for over a year suddenly looked like it was no longer on top of things. For a year, lockdowns, shopping restrictions, and remote school and work were things they had to do in the rest of the world. Suddenly, the pandemic had come to Taiwan. We didn’t have a hard lockdown, but people were strongly encouraged not to go out and to work remotely if possible. Schools went virtual for the last two months of the school year. Restaurants were not allowed to have indoor dining. We had blackouts because suddenly people were running their home air conditioners during the hot summer days. And all at once, the entire population seemed to realize that almost no one had been vaccinated. It hadn’t seemed urgent in April, but by late May everyone wanted to get vaccinated NOW.

The chart shows that cases peaked right around June 1 and fell sharply all throughout June. Let’s just say that no one thought things were all rosy in June. Maybe things weren’t getting worse every day, but we were still solidly in the middle of the pandemic. By early July, the curve shows that Taiwan was under 100 cases a day, and it was roughly 20 cases a day in the second half of July. We finally started moving from a Level 3 emergency to a Level 2 emergency in late July, which I think is when most people started to feel that we were going to be ok. August has solidified that feeling. Hospitals are relaxing a bit and are more crowded. Restaurants are cautiously resuming indoor dining. Schools are started the new year with in-class instruction. There are still cases, but most days in August domestic transmissions were only in the single digits. In fact, there are more cases arriving at the airport (and identified during quarantine) than there are domestic transmissions. Things are still not exactly normal. Masks are ubiquitous. Baseball games are not crowded. People are hesitant to eat out or congregate. But it is much more normal now than it was two months ago. There is still a person at the door of most supermarkets making sure you register, but they are a lot more relaxed now.

The other thing that has changed is the rest of the world. In May and June, most of the world was feeling good. Cases had spiked in the winter but had fallen tremendously during the spring, so lots of countries were going “back to normal” right as Taiwan was entering the pandemic. Now, it is almost exactly the opposite. The delta variant has caused spikes around the world, and suddenly Taiwan is once again one of the safest places to be.

If you look at the standout performers, back in June Taiwan was much worse than New Zealand, Australia, or Singapore. You could often hear blue pundits screaming that Taiwan’s government was terrible and needed to be more like Singapore’s. At the end of August, it doesn’t look like that any longer. Those countries – even New Zealand – are all dealing with outbreaks, while Taiwan seems to have things under control. The TV pundits aren’t screaming that we need to follow the Singapore model these days.

If you look at our regional neighbors, Taiwan looks even better. South Korea and Vietnam were better than Taiwan back in May and June, and Japan was pretty close. South Korea has edged upward, while the other countries have gotten much worse. When you look at the data using this scale, Taiwan’s peak doesn’t even look very bad.

Of course, the country that Taiwanese most often use as a reference point is the USA, so let’s look at it and a few other rich democracies. The USA and UK are currently in the midst of terrible outbreaks. Germany and Canada would fit comfortably on the previous chart with Japan, but for the USA and UK we need to make the Y-axis three times higher. On this chart, you can barely even see Taiwan’s “surge.” It is true that all these countries have been, at one time or another, in the ballpark of Taiwan’s peak. However, right now they are all much, much worse.

Let’s be honest about how much this means. Even in relatively outward-looking Taiwan, most people judge the government by how things are going here, not by how things are going in other places. Still, it does seep into how people talk about local politics. Back in June, a friend asked me if I was going to go to the USA to get a Pfizer vaccine shot. In her mind, the USA was safe, and everyone was getting the good vaccines. She was flabbergasted when I responded that cases were twice as high in the USA as in Taiwan and that Taiwan would soon be more vaccinated than the USA. People here still routinely overestimate how well the USA is responding to the pandemic, but it isn’t a constant talking point as much right now. All in all, we are not back to the time when people proudly talked about how Taiwan was doing better than everyone else, and the rest of the world should learn from Taiwan. However, we are also not hearing that things here are a total disaster, and we should try to be more like other countries.

What has this meant for public opinion? I think it is safe to say that the pandemic has been far and away the biggest news story over the past four months. If there are changes in public opinion, it is fair to assume that they are driven by the pandemic.

I did not write about public opinion back in May and June for a couple of reasons. First, I was busy with other stuff. Second, I wasn’t sure about the polling. You don’t need to know about my personal life, but let me comment briefly on polling.

Good polls in Taiwan are still done by telephone. In many places, such as the UK and USA, internet polling is nearly as good or perhaps even better than telephone polling. This is both because their internet polls are better than Taiwan’s, and, more importantly, because their telephone polls are much, much worse. In the USA, if you call 100 numbers, you will successfully interview fewer than five people – maybe fewer than one. In Taiwan, we can usually complete over 20 interviews from those 100 calls. You can get a representative sample in Taiwan; it’s a struggle in the USA.

How do you complete 1000 interviews in two or three evenings? Taiwanese pollsters do not allow their interviewer to work from home. You have one big room with about 50 computers hooked up to phones. The random number is automatically put into the system, and the survey software is all right there. Having everything all in one place also aids quality control. You can listen in on interviews to make interviewers are asking questions correctly, and you can step in immediately if there are any problems. This all works well; it is a reliable and well-tested system.

In the age of Covid, there are problems. Putting 50 interviewers and 10 staff in a room is efficient but not particularly safe. You can spread people out, but that means only using one half or one third of your available lines. Instead of finishing in two or three days, a survey might take a week or ten days. Also, interviewers aren’t eager to show up for work. This is not a highly paid job, and it is usually paid by the hour. If it seems unsafe, it might be best to just opt out for a few weeks or months. And the official Covid regulations seemed to prohibit putting large numbers of people in a single room. At the Election Study Center, we simply stopped doing telephone polls in May and June.

The private pollsters, however, did not stop, and I wondered how they managed to produce their polls. As far as I have been able to understand, they simply did not observe the government guidelines as strictly as we did. As a public institution, we had to follow the rules very carefully. (Also, if the entire university had to close down because of a case involving an ESC interviewer, there would have been hell to pay.) Private pollsters had a bit more leeway. Apparently the restrictions on public gatherings had a loophole (something to the effect of “…unless it would cause significant financial damage”), and they just decided to go ahead until a government agency told them to stop.

There is also a question about the respondents. In the USA, many people suspect that the presidential polls were skewed by the lockdowns. People who stayed home were more likely Democrats, so there were too many Democrats answering the phones. We don’t know if anything like that happened here.

Anyway, back in May and June when the first post-pandemic polls came out, I was skeptical enough about their quality that I didn’t want to pay too much attention to them. Looking back at them now with a bit more knowledge of how they were produced and with a bit more data to compare them to, I guess I think they are … fine. They’ll do. There don’t seem to be any glaring red flags. There probably aren’t any pollsters who think these are the best polls they’ve ever produced, but they are probably good enough to give a general impression of what happened over the summer.

My favorite public polls are from Tai Li-an produces a monthly poll in which he asks the same questions every time, giving us a very nice time series and plenty of context.

I think everyone expects to see the pandemic causing a substantial drop in popularity for the government in May and a rebound in August. The main question is how much?

The best place to start is with President Tsai’s job satisfaction. During the first half of 2020, she had sky-high satisfaction ratings – in the high 60s. She had just won re-election, and Taiwan’s ability to keep the virus out won plaudits from all sides. This could not last, and it didn’t. In the second half of 2020, normal politics reemerged. Instead of talking about the pandemic all day every day, the focus turned to more mundane issues such as American pork imports, Chinese military threats, air quality, the train crash, water supply, and so on. As regular partisan attitudes pushed out the extraordinary pandemic response attitudes, Tsai’s approval ratings slipped a bit. From late 2020 into spring 2021, she was generally somewhere in the high 50s. This was still high, but no longer stratospheric. In March, she was at 59.3%, and in May she was at 56.0%. So let’s think of high 50s – maybe 57-58% – as the pre-pandemic baseline. May, June, and July are clearly different. For those three months, she as just below 50%, ranging from 47.6% to 49.6%. That’s about a 10% drop. To look at it another way, before the pandemic her approval ratings were about 20% above water. After it, approval and disapproval were roughly even.

I was surprised by the 10% drop. I expected it to be bigger. I had assumed that her previous high approval ratings were based heavily on the successful pandemic response, so this would take a heavy toll. 10% is not small, but after what the public seemed to think was a major governance failure, I expected more. I seemed surprising to me that, in the midst of this crisis, just as many people were satisfied with her performance as were dissatisfied. I can think of a few reasons I was wrong. First, it could be that people responded to the crisis by rallying behind the current government. We have seen this happen in several countries over the past two years. Second, another possibility is that people did not see the outbreak as quite as much of a governing failure as the media led us to believe. Third, perhaps people were impressed by the government’s crisis response. Fourth, it might be that Tsai’s satisfaction ratings were not as dependent on pandemic response as I had thought. At any rate, Tsai’s popularity took a noticeable hit, but it was not a catastrophic blow. Presidents around the world can and have governed effectively with net negative satisfaction ratings. A net zero rating is politically quite tenable.

However, Tsai does not have to navigate around her net zero satisfaction rating. In August, Tsai’s popularity has recovered most of those losses. It is now 55.0%, which is only a bit lower than her pre-outbreak numbers. Her dissatisfaction is a bit higher than it was in the spring, so instead of being almost 20% above water, she is only 12% above water. Still, this is a clear rebound from three months of relatively bad results.

We can see the same pattern in feelings toward the DPP. For most of the past year, good feelings toward the DPP have outweighed bad feelings. However, the was not the case in May, June, and July, when more people expressed negative feelings toward the DPP. In August, the DPP recovered most, though not all, of those losses.

Well, we’ve seen a pretty clear pattern. May, June, and July were terrible for the DPP, and then it recovered. Since there are two big parties, we’ll see the exact opposite for the KMT, right? No!! The outbreak hurt the DPP, but it did not help the KMT.

Looking at feelings toward the KMT, in the several months before the outbreak, about 34% expressed positive feelings toward the KMT. This fell to the high 20s in June and July. The KMT was LESS popular during the outbreak. It’s almost as if the public didn’t appreciate their willingness to jump on any opportunity to score cheap political points.

You can see the KMT’s failure to capitalize on this opportunity in the party ID figures. We see support for the DPP taking the expected dip in May, June, and July. But during those months, the KMT’s support was also going down. When you aggregate all the parties into their respective camps, you can see that the blue camp had generally been doing better in late 2020 and early 2021 than in early 2020. That is, when Tsai’s satisfaction fell as regular politics reemerged, the KMT also regained some of its support. That is the normal pattern of things. However, that didn’t happen during this outbreak. Even in August when the blue camp’s overall support recovered a bit, it wasn’t the KMT that was benefitting. Rather, there was a big increase in “other blue.” If I understand the answer categories correctly, this is not a reference to a specific blue camp party such as the New Party or the MKT. Rather, respondents are given the option of saying simply that they support the blue camp without specifically choosing a blue camp party. To put it another way, these respondents haven’t fundamentally changed sides, but they also aren’t crazy about the KMT these days. They are looking for alternatives.

One of those alternatives might be the TPP. Before the outbreak, the TPP was at 4-5%. After the outbreak, it has been around 7%. Most people think of the TPP as a not-green, not-blue party, but it might be shifting more and more into the blue orbit. Mayor Ko enjoys much more popularity with blue voters than with green voters these days (though he is still strongest among neutral voters). (The my-formosa polls have interesting data on the presidential contenders, but that is a rabbit hole for another time.)

There is a cottage industry of pundits who are constantly proclaiming that the dominant trend in party ID is dealignment. That is, what we really see are voters not identifying with any party. These people are wrong. In this data series, the percentage of unaligned voters is usually around 35%, though this there are fluctuations up and down. The only trends away from this tend to be fairly fleeting. So June and July were a bit higher, but August is back to normal. If you look at longer trends, it is the same. In the ESC’s chart of the last 30 years, independents have been at about 40% since before Chen Shui-bian was president. Yes, the numbers in 2018 and 2019 were a bit higher, but that turned out to be ephemeral. Dealignment is not the story today, and it hasn’t been the story in the past. It wasn’t even the story in the early 1990s when over half of respondents declined to express preference for a party. Martial law was still a recent experience, and people were simply hesitant to tell a stranger they supported the opposition. These are not the droids you’re looking for. (Yes, I know those were, in fact, the droids they were looking for. But really, this isn’t the big trend in Taiwanese politics.) This is still a system with strong, meaningful parties.

The last thing I’ll show you is on economic confidence. Respondents are asked whether they have generally positive or negative views on the overall domestic economy. In the August survey, 33.9% had positive views but 64.3% had negative views. As you might expect, opinions had gotten quite a bit more negative in May, June, and July, and August was a bit of a rebound. But from an absolute point of view, isn’t 30% net negative a pretty bad result? Doesn’t this show that Taiwanese think the current economic strategy isn’t working?

That’s one interpretation, but I think it might be wrong. Taiwanese are generally pretty skeptical about the economy. Enough people can remember (or have heard of) the booming 1980s and 1990s that everything seems lousy in comparison. They are also constantly reminded that the PRC is growing at fantastic rates, and Taiwan’s economy doesn’t measure up. So the default answer for this question is going to be negative. Things have to be noticeably good to change that.

In the latest report, Tai Li-an helpfully included a chart of responses this question going back to 2006 (using his old data from Global Views and TISR surveys). During that entire timespan, positive views never reached 30% before the last six months of Tsai’s first term. Even in the headiest days of Ma’s push to pass ECFA and tap into the Chinese market (“Will 85°C be the next Starbucks?!?”), positive views only got up to about 25%. For most of the time, positive views were only around 10%. In that perspective, the current 33% in the aftermath of a Covid outbreak looks outstanding.

And this, as much as anything else, might explain why the outbreak has had such a mild effect on public opinion. Things seem to be going fairly well. Maybe it’s best not to overreact.

Book review: Taiwan’s Green Parties

August 23, 2021

My friend Dafydd Fell’s new book, Taiwan’s Green Parties: Alternative Politics in Taiwan, has been staring at me for several months. I was finally able to read it this week, and it was quite informative and stimulating. I consider myself to be quite knowledgeable on Taiwan electoral politics, but I learned A LOT about this little corner of the political spectrum. Dafydd spent about eight years working on this book, and during that time he interviewed nearly everyone in or around the Green Party Taiwan (GPT). When he tells us about the internal conflicts or soap operas, he isn’t drawing on secondhand information gleaned from actors who gave political spin to reporters. He is getting it straight from the actors themselves, usually a few months after the events in which they have had time to distance themselves from the day-to-day events. The result is as much of an insider account as you will ever find in an academic book. This is fantastic research, and if you are interested in Taiwan’s electoral politics, the Green Party Taiwan, movement parties, or what life is like inside a fringe party, you need to read this book.

 Most of the book is centered around explaining the GPT’s electoral ups and downs from its founding in 1996 to the 2020 elections. A number of factors are considered, but two are identified as the most important. On the one hand, the GPT has had to find space in a political system dominated by two mainstream parties, and it hasn’t always been easy to find such space. For each election, Dafydd starts with a discussion of the party system. How has the party system (including events that shape the party system) changed since the last electoral cycle, and how did that present or restrict opportunities for the GPT? On the other hand, given the concrete space that the GPT faces in each election, how did it go about trying to take advantage those opportunities? The GPT has agency, and it has made many consequential decisions over the years. After giving the broad overview of each election, we look at individual campaigns. The GPT hasn’t nominated all that many candidates over the years, so Dafydd is able to look at a lot of obscure campaigns in quite a lot of detail. This includes not only campaigns for the national legislature, but also many campaigns for city and county council.

Now, I’ve done more work on city and county council elections that most political scientists, but even I found a lot of these campaigns to be obscure. One example that was compelling to me personally was the case of Chang Ming-li 張明麗, who in 2014 ran for the Keelung City Council, District 6. It was a four-seat district, and her 1048 votes placed her 10th out of 12 candidates. It wasn’t that close; the last winner got two and a half times as many votes as she did. The reason I know anything at all about her is that I live in this district. I have only a very vague memory of her. As with all candidates, the first question is whether to take them seriously. I think I looked at one of her leaflets and dismissed her as a certain loser. Dafydd devotes an entire page to her, concluding that she realized too late that she needed to go out and campaign and that she was actually quite good at it. If only she had started earlier! It was such a pity that she didn’t try again in 2018! Um, that might be a slightly optimistic interpretation of the result… Regardless, I rejoice in academic work that digs down into the weeds to find things that others might have neglected, and this book is a celebration of weed-digging. From all this minutia, we emerge with a rich picture of what GPT campaigns look like on the ground. And since they don’t look like KMT or DPP campaigns, this is a fresh perspective on Taiwanese politics.

The GPT’s electoral record is unimpressive. Dafydd identifies different eras as being more or less successful. So 1996-8 was better, 1999-2005 was dormant, the party re-emerged from 2006-2010, and it was close but never quite made an electoral breakthrough in 2012-2020. I think this is quite a generous reading of history. From my perspective, there is clear failure, dismal failure, and utter failure. I don’t think the GPT has ever been politically relevant in any meaningful sense. There’s a reason that pollsters almost never include the GPT as one of the options when they ask about party ID.

The book is full of stories like Chang’s, in which a candidate didn’t come particularly close to winning. In most cases, the GPT figures explain these results in terms of candidate quality. We didn’t nominate early enough, they didn’t get out of the office and go talk to voters, they didn’t work hard enough, we didn’t have enough money. One of the oldest tropes in politics is that when my side loses, it’s because we had a lousy candidate. When my side wins, it’s because we had better ideas. The GPT uses this trope quite liberally.

Another reason for the GPT’s lousy electoral record is incessant infighting. Fringe parties are notorious for internal squabbles and inability to cooperate (The Judean People’s Front!). The GPT seems to have been constantly bickering. Whenever anyone tried to do something that might win more votes, other people in the party complained that they were sellouts. There were many instances of a new leadership trying to marginalize former leaders. And proposed coalitions with other parties … well I’ll get to that in a minute. For now, let’s just say that the GPT placed far more importance on maintaining their “purity” than on winning elections.

There are numerous occasions in this book in which someone says something extremely revealing. Perhaps the most shocking instance involves Wang Hau-yu. Wang became the party leader from 2017 until he not only resigned that position but withdrew from the Green Party altogether in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Wang was unique among GPT politicians for his ability to regularly get media attention. One way he did this in the 2020 campaign was by releasing survey data on the state of the race. He claimed to have commissioned 25 separate surveys, and each time he was able to add his own spin to the resulting media reports. If nothing else, his continual presence in the media reminded potential voters of the GPT’s existence. At the time, I wondered how he was funding all these surveys. 25 surveys add up to a pretty penny for a cash-strapped organization like the GPT. One of the informants hints at an answer. According to an anonymous party insider, Wang had a secret arrangement with the DPP in which the DPP provided him with survey data. In return, Wang would attack the KMT, NPP, and TPP (p 264). In short, Wang got exposure and chances to argue against GPT rivals, while the DPP was able to outsource negative campaigning and avoid any blame. This doesn’t sound terrible for the GPT, but there’s more. In the last days of the campaign the DPP (predictably) issued a plea with sympathetic voters to vote for the DPP on the party list. One might have expected Wang – the GPT party leader – to make a counterargument that it was the GPT that desperately needed the votes. A few days after the election (in which the DPP won a comfortable majority while the GPT was completely shut out of the legislature), Wang explained why he did not do this on his Facebook page, “of course I knew that at this time the best method would be to tell everyone that the DPP was not in danger. But I did not, I could not do that. I could not put the GPT’s interests first if that meant there was the slightest possibility of there not being a [DPP] parliamentary majority and Han Kuo-yu winning the presidency” (pp 264-5). This is a stunning betrayal! If Wang thought it was most important for the DPP to get votes, he had no business at all representing the GPT! It appears that Wang was simply a DPP agent using the GPT to do the DPP’s dirty work. If this is correct, he had no business leading the GPT, and the only surprising part of his departure from the party immediately after the election is that it wasn’t more acrimonious.

Movement parties often find elections difficult. One reason for this is that social movements and electoral politics demand different priorities. For example, a labor movement might push workers to strike in order to obtain higher salaries or better working conditions, even though strikes are usually very unpopular among the general public. Movements have to be more radical; elections demand currying favor with mainstream voters. There is an inherent contradiction. However, this hasn’t been the GPT’s problem. They have been a lousy electoral party, but they’ve also been pretty lousy at movement politics. The GPT hasn’t offended mainstream voters because it was staging sit-ins on construction sites, leading marches against Formosa Plastics, protesting nuclear power plants, or engaging in any kind of civil disobedience for … anything. The GPT simply hasn’t been a radical force. When GPT members talk about their record, they point to the fact that some of their longtime positions – against nuclear power, for marriage equality – how now been accepted as mainstream. See, they’re winning! The only problem is that the GPT hasn’t had much to do with that process. In any neutral account of the anti-nuclear movement, for example, the GPT is merely going to be a peripheral actor. The other thing the GPT repeatedly stresses is their international character. They are part of the Global Green Movement! When they talk about what they do between elections, time after time they talk about attending the Global Green convention. Hooray. Forgive me for suggesting that taking a week to go on a trip to London, New Zealand, or Tokyo isn’t exactly my idea of a political movement. They are proud that they persuaded the Global Greens to pass a resolution recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty. Ok, but when the German Foreign Minister was from the German Green Party, did he care at all about that resolution? The GPT has a party platform, but they don’t seem to do any of the hard work necessary – electoral or movement – to turn those ideals into concrete public policy. In fact, in discussing the aftermath of the 2020 election, the GPT talks about needing to rebuild its ties to social movements since they have let those wither over the past decade.

While this book is an exhaustive look at GPT leaders and candidates and their roles in elections, there is one largely overlooked actor: the voters. Does the GPT have a stable block of supporters? The GPT estimated that between 2016 and 2020, it lost about 1 million voters and gained about the same number (pp 269-71), which suggests that the GPT’s core support base is smaller than they might hope. Who is the GPT tying to appeal to? Some people suggest they should concentrate on Taipei City, while others argue they will have more success in rural areas and small cities. Are they targeting affluent people or working-class voters? Do they expect more support among young or old voters? More important than any demographic categories, how do voters think about the GPT’s issue appeals? Throughout this book, we find GPT politicians rejecting the notion that they are a single-issue party. In their minds, they are promoting a whole range of progressive positions, such as labor rights, housing justice, social inequality, good government reforms, trade policies, and national sovereignty. However, I suspect that most ordinary voters do not share such a broad image of the GPT. In a telling quote, GPT activist Robin Winkler recalls early discussions of cooperation with the SDP before 2016, “my first question [to SDP representatives] was ‘why don’t you just join us?’ They said that you’re just about the environment. I said, ‘have you read our charter?’” (p 211). If these politically sophisticated and sympathetic people – activists who were considering cooperation – thought that they GPT was merely a single-issue party, it seems very likely that most ordinary voters probably would as well. (Winkler’s reaction, that they needed to educate themselves, is also revealing. Successful parties don’t reflexively assign homework to the people they are trying to attract.) Even if most voters don’t know what the GPT stands for, are many voters open to those positions? Do the different arguments conflict with each other, attracting some voters but repelling others?

It is hard to do research on fringe parties since our standard survey data isn’t very useful for parties that have less than 3% support. Dafydd devotes five pages (103-108) to this topic, but the lack of good data means that he is only able to come up with some speculative suggestions. The only data we see about issues comes from a 2016 internet survey of 116 GPT/SDP supporters, which is very small and probably has a skewed sample (60% were students). We find that LGBT rights, environmental protection, labor right, and land justice were the top four issues for these supporters. Unfortunately, we don’t know if labor rights supporters, for example, were expressing support for the GPT, the SDP, or both. All in all, we simply don’t learn much about the GPT’s support base beyond the stories that they tell themselves. And given that we have learned that they aren’t exactly a group of professional politicians deeply embedded in their constituencies, I don’t have a lot of faith that they actually know who votes for them and why.

It is finally time to talk about the beast looming over everything related to Taiwanese politics including the GPT: national identity. National identity is impossible to ignore. China forces this issue on Taiwan, and it permeates all sorts of seemingly unrelated questions. Baseball, airline names, vaccine purchases, a trip to Bolivia, hotel development on Taiwan’s east coast, pineapple farming, national health care costs, my quest for Taiwanese citizenship: China twists them all. There simply aren’t any issues on which Taiwanese voters don’t have to think about the relationship between Taiwan and China. Decisions about how to respond to all these different questions are usually grounded in national identity. People who feel a bit Chinese tend to opt for different policies than people who don’t feel at all Chinese. National identity will continue to dominate Taiwanese politics until Taiwan’s sovereignty is settled. It is inescapable.

From one perspective, the GPT has taken a quite clear stance on Taiwan identity. Kao Cheng-yen sailed out into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 to “catch” the missiles China was firing. The TGP got the Global Greens to pass resolutions on Taiwan sovereignty. The GPT issued statements in favor of Hong Kong protesters. Isn’t all that pretty clear? Well, no. While there are undoubtedly many GPT figures with a strong stance on Taiwan identity and almost none screaming about how they are Chinese, there are hints of ambiguity. A GPT executive committee member suggested the GPT’s task was, “the GPT needs to convince the public that the GPT wants to transcend the issue of unification or independence, either way Taiwan needs to survive and have a good environment” (p 140). This person wants to play both sides; she is not interested in a clear position. An even more striking statement comes from a GPT supporter, “young people in Taiwan today, they have a good life. Young people today don’t say, ‘I want to be independent.’ They don’t think about that as much as before. We have a good life now. … If you keep shouting about independence, unification all days, people will feel annoyed. We are a country now, why do you need to keep repeating those things? (p107). I have spent quite a bit of time over the past year looking at Han Kuo-yu’s rhetoric, and he repeatedly said almost exactly the same thing (except he would have insisted that life in Taiwan is currently lousy). In the current environment, when someone insists identity is not important, it often means they simply don’t want to talk about their opinion because they know it is unpopular.

The GPT seems to know they have an ambiguous stance. GPT activists blamed their poor showings in 2016 and 2020 on a popular desire for a clearer stance on China questions after the Chou Tzu-yu incident and the Hong Kong protests. Either they don’t believe their own autopsy, or they are willingly paying a price for this ambiguous stance.

It isn’t just a question for voters. National identity is probably behind the GPT’s problems in forming electorally advantageous coalitions. In 2012 and 2016, the DPP yielded a legislative district to a GPT (or GPT allied) candidate. This should have been a golden opportunity. The GPT’s candidate was guaranteed media coverage, and the DPP was basically inviting it to make a sales pitch to its tens of thousands of local supporters. This was also an opportunity for the GPT to make contact with organizational networks and potential financial backers. However, the GPT was not able to take advantage of these opportunities. In both cases, when Tsai Ing-wen campaigned with the GPT candidate (national attention!! this is your chance!!), GPT party activists publicly revolted against any suggestion that they were endorsing her presidential campaign. In a contest between the KMT and DPP presidential candidates, they did not want to take a side (even though the DPP presidential candidate was endorsing their legislative candidate). They might have argued that their neutrality had nothing to do with national identity, but presidential elections are essentially referendums on exactly that question. The GPT might write something about sovereignty in its party charter, but very few people read party charters. These incidents got national press coverage, making it clear for all to see that the GPT was internally divided on Taiwan identity. Moreover, because of this internal division, they weren’t able to commit to an electorally advantageous alliance. They wanted to tell people to ignore identity and focus on the environment, but they were unable to take their own advice. Identity is inescapable.