Reforming the Recall Law

February 6, 2021

The recall vote against Kaohsiung city councilor Huang Chieh failed miserably today. Under the current law, there are two ways a recall can fail. This one failed both ways. At least 25% of the eligible voters must vote for the recall, and only 19.0% actually did so. Moreover, 10,000 more people voted against the recall than voted for it. This was a decisive repudiation of the recall, and one might wonder why it even got this far. However, perhaps the real takeaway is that the current recall law is so permissive that even someone as popular as Huang Chieh is vulnerable.

This marks the fourth major recall vote since the new law was passed in November 2016. (There have also been many recalls for grassroots offices.) Two have passed, and two have failed. This new law has proven to be a disaster, and it should be modified to make recalls much more difficult.

 25% thresholdyesnoPass?
Huang Kuo-chang638884869321748no
Han Kuo-yu57499693909025051yes
Wang Hao-yu81940845827128yes
Huang Chieh728925526165391no

Let’s think about the rationale for fixed terms in political offices. On the one hand, you want politicians to be responsive to public opinion, so holding regularly schedules elections is a good idea. On the other hand, you don’t want a constant election. You have a contest, there is a winner, and the matter is settled for a period of time. We can all return to normal life. A recall is an emergency mechanism to be used in extreme circumstances when the elected official has violated public trust in some dramatic way such that there is overwhelming opposition to that person staying in office – including among large numbers of people who supported them in the first place. It isn’t a mechanism to overturn an electoral result you don’t like the first time someone loses a small sliver of their support.

What would be an appropriate time to recall someone? Remember former legislator Lin Yi-shih, who was guilty of sensational corruption? They fished garbage bags of cash out of the fish pond in front of his home in front of cameras from all the TV news stations. “014” (which sounds like his name) became nationally recognized shorthand for corruption. Lin was already out of office by that point, but imagine he had still been in office and prosecutors said that it would take several years to go through all the legal hurdles to remove him from office. Lin’s actions were a major breach of trust with his voters, since almost none of them voted for him with the expectation that he would engage in bribery or embezzlement. It certainly wasn’t one of the things he said he would do in his campaign slogans. Voters would certainly have been justified in recalling him. Alternatively, imagine a DPP legislator elected in a deep green district in Tainan who announced a month after taking office that she had decided to quit the DPP and join the KMT. This would mean opposing almost everything the voters had supported and supporting almost everything they had opposed. Again, this breach of trust would justify a recall.

What have the four recall targets done to violate trust with their voters? Have they fundamentally betrayed the ideals they presented to their voters in their original campaigns? The campaign against Huang Kuo-chang was fueled by people opposed to gay marriage. Huang had always supported this, so his actions inside the legislature should not have surprised anyone. The reasons given for recalling Wang Hao-yu and Huang Chieh are similarly lousy. They have acted in ways entirely consistent with how they presented themselves during their campaigns. Their recalls are fueled almost entirely by revenge for Han Kuo-yu’s recall. Han is the only one for whom there is even a plausible case. During the 2018 campaign, Han promised to put politics aside and concentrate 100% on economics. I don’t recall if he explicitly promised not to run for president before the election, but he certainly did make that promise repeatedly in the six months before he changed his mind and decided to run. Because he was running for president, he also was effectively an absentee mayor after promising to work hard to solve problems. On the other hand, being so nationally popular that your party demands you run for president is not generally seen as a breach of trust with the people who elected you. Han retained quite a lot of support in Kaohsiung. He got 611,000 votes in Kaohsiung in the presidential election, which is to say that about two out of every three people who supported him in 2018 still supported him in 2020 (for a higher office). In a telephone poll conducted just after he was recalled, 37% expressed satisfaction with his performance as mayor against 49% who were dissatisfied. That’s not great, but it’s also not a disaster. Did he deserve to be recalled? In my mind, probably not. At best, it’s a borderline case.

The current law makes it very easy to recall officeholders. This law has some roots in the Sunflower movement. After that upheaval, activists tried to recall several KMT legislators, including Lin Hung-chih, Wu Yu-sheng, Chang Ching-chung, and Tsai Cheng-yuan. Under the old law, the signature requirements for recalls were much more difficult, and Tsai Cheng-yuan was the only one who they actually managed to put on the ballot. However, the threshold for successfully recalling someone was also much higher – turnout had to be at least 50% of eligible voters. Tsai ignored the recall, and they fell far short of the required threshold. We should note that all of the recall targets lost their seats in the 2016 election. However, there is no evidence that any of them were overwhelmingly unpopular among the people who originally elected them. Still, the activists were convinced that their recalls SHOULD have succeeded, so the logical conclusion was that the threshold was too high. Many of those activists would end up in the New Power Party, which strongly supported the 2016 revision.

The other major force supporting the new law was the Taiwan independence wing of the DPP. They had never been interested in recalls, but they have always been interested in referendums. Prior to the revision, referendums failed for the same reason that recalls did. Turnout had to be 50%, and the side against the referendum simply wouldn’t vote. That meant that the side supporting the measure had to supply all 50%, and this had always been an insurmountable barrier. Ok, but what do recalls have to do with referendums? ROC political theory puts them in the same basket. In his Three Principles of the People, Sun Yat-sen said that people have the right to “election, recall, initiative, and referendum” 選舉罷免創制複決 and this phrase is the title of Chapter 12 of the ROC constitution. For most of ROC history, these “sacred” rights were ignored or grossly violated, but people (ironically, including people who would vomit at the idea that they were following ROC ideology) have internalized the idea that they are somehow related. It wasn’t much of a stretch to adopt the same thresholds for referendum and recall. The 2016 reform was based on the idea that the problem was that the people against the proposal were killing it by “unfairly” not turning out to vote, so they simply cut the threshold in half. Now, all proponents have to do is produce more “yes” votes than “no” votes and supply “yes” votes equal to 25% of the eligible voters.

This new law has fundamentally changed the strategy of recalls. In the past, officeholders could generally just ignore recalls. With the lower threshold, every recall has to be taken seriously. It is now much easier to recall someone than to elect someone.

Turnout in Taiwanese elections is usually 60-75%. In a single-seat race, if the winner gets a majority, that usually comes to 35-45% of eligible voters. Critically, the loser might also get 25-35% of eligible voters. That is, the losing side might not have enough support to win a general election, but they might have enough support to recall the winner from office.

Of course, it is difficult to turn out all your potential supporters. Mobilization is hard. Campaigns are enormously complex and expensive, and they take lots of time and energy. This is especially true in a recall campaign when the entire society hasn’t been building toward the excitement of a national election for several months. Just because the opposition theoretically has enough potential support to successfully recall the winner doesn’t mean they can actually produce it.

Politicians facing a recall have two choices: ignore it or fight it. If you ignore the recall, you are betting that the other side can’t mobilize 25% of eligible voters against you. You also are declining to divert precious resources – time, energy, manpower, money – away from your normal political priorities toward this unwanted political fight. However, since the other side usually has a pool of at least 25%, so you have to be confident that they are not competent enough to mobilize those votes.

Fighting – trying to mobilize your own supporters so that “no” votes outnumber “yes” votes – is also an unattractive option. As noted, mobilization is expensive. You’d almost certainly rather spend your time and money pursuing the normal duties of your office. Moreover, it’s nearly impossible to mobilize your side without also helping to mobilize the other side. When you put up ads or hold marches, you might excite your own supporters to go out to vote. However, you are also reminding people from the other side that there is an upcoming recall vote. The more you mobilize, the more you help them get to that 25% threshold. This means that you really have to think you can defeat the recall the other way, by getting more “no” votes. This is usually also problematic. Most recall targets are at least a little unpopular – that’s usually why they were targeted in the first place. Even if they have a partisan advantage in their district, their party supporters might not enthusiastic about turning out. Everyone is busy and has other things to do. If the opposition is enthused (as oppositions usually are) and voters are ambivalent about the incumbent (as they often are), it is entirely plausible that a recall could succeed. It’s also entirely plausible that the incumbent would win the seat again in a hypothetical general election held the next day.

Wang Hao-yu and Han Kuo-yu both chose to ignore the recall. Their choice was easy since both of them faced districts in which the other party had a clear partisan advantage. There was simply no way they were going to mobilize enough “no” votes to defeat the recall. Their only hope was that the “yes” side wouldn’t be able to get to 25%. They both lost this bet. Huang Chieh chose to fight. Her district has a clear green majority, so she could expect that there were enough potential “no” votes to defeat the recall if she was able to effectively mobilize. (The recall campaign also made it clear that she is generally well liked in her district.) Huang Kuo-chang came from a tossup district. He didn’t really make a clear choice. He said he was fighting and tried to mobilize “no” votes. However, he didn’t really have much mobilization capacity, and his turnout was pathetic. Fortunately for him, the other side wasn’t much better. There were far more “yes” votes than “no” votes, but they fell far short of the 25% threshold so the recall failed.

What we see is that strategies are largely determined by the nature of the district. You would hope that recalls would cross party lines since everyone could agree that the lousy politician had fundamentally betrayed the public trust, but that isn’t what has happened so far. The permissive rules encourage partisan recalls against politicians who don’t really deserve this political harassment.

Han Kuo-yu’s case illustrates another problem with the current law. When an incumbent chooses to ignore the recall, there is no constructive role for his supporters. They might think the recall is disgusting, but they are discouraged from mobilizing “no” votes. After all, their best bet is low turnout. Instead, they will be tempted to try to depress turnout. In a normal election, campaigns encourage everyone to vote. They can’t be sure everyone hearing their message will actually vote for their preferred candidate – the ballot is secret – but they can assume that most people listening to them will vote the “right” way. This produces a virtuous circle in which everyone encourages voting and works to ensure that all of their supporters can vote. Recalls are different. If only one side is mobilizing, opponents can assume that everyone voting is on the other side. They have a strong incentive to set up as many barriers, formal or informal, to voting as possible. In Han’s recall, the city government tried to limit the number of polling places to discourage voting. Han’s side certainly wouldn’t have minded if a shortage of poll workers caused long lines. The Central Election Commission eventually stepped in to ensure that there would be an adequate number of adequately staffed polling places, but the incentives against good election administration are embedded in the recall law. There were also persistent rumors that Han supporters – even organized crime gangs – would monitor who voted and enforce various types of punishments. Nothing eventually came of these rumors, but a healthy democracy should not want to encourage this sort of thing. The mere idea of voter intimidation erodes trust in the system. It would be far better to give opponents a constructive role.

The current law is bad enough for single-seat districts, but it is indefensible in multi-seat districts such as the ones city councilors are elected in. The basic premise of this electoral system is that voters vote FOR someone, not AGAINST someone. If a district has ten seats, each voter gets one vote and the ten candidates with the most votes win seats. If 7% of voters love the Bewildered Alpaca Party and vote to elect a Bewildered Alpaca candidate, it doesn’t matter how the other 93% feel about her. They can vote to elect their own damn candidates. The system is designed to empower relatively small slices of the electorate. Both Wang Hao-yu (Green Party) and Huang Chieh (New Power Party) were elected as small party candidates. (They have both since left those parties, but their party switching did not seem to motivate the recalls against them.)

However, while the election law is semi-proportional, the recall law is majoritarian. To pass a recall, you need 25% of the eligible voters. To defeat a recall, you need more “no” votes than the other side can muster. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter much that the Bewildered Alpaca Party has 7% support. What matters is the other 93%. There is basically no way the Bewildered Alpaca Party can defeat this recall. This law is designed to crush small parties.

The current recall law should not be used in multi-seat districts.

A Proposal

The recall law should be modified to make recalls much, much more difficult. The goal should be that recalls will only succeed in extreme cases. Most recalls should fail.

I propose that recall targets should be able to defeat the recall by any one of three ways:

  1. If the number of “yes” votes is less than 35% of eligible voters, the recall fails.
  2. If the number of “no” votes is greater than the number of votes the first loser got won in the general election, the recall vote fails.
  3. If the number of “yes” vote is not greater than the number of “no” votes times one plus the number of seats in the district [“no” * (m+1)], the recall fails.

Why 35%? Since most general elections have a turnout somewhere around 70%, half of 70% (ie: a majority of normal turnout) seems like a reasonable threshold. It will be difficult, but not impossible, to reach this threshold in a recall. Alternatively, this threshold could be set at half the turnout in the district in the previous general election. However, this would produce a different threshold in every district and every election. 35% is arbitrary, but it is consistent and easy to understand.

In Han Kuo-yu’s recall, there was a possibility that Han could be recalled by as few as 574,996 votes. Recall that 892,545 people voted for Han in 2018. His side complained that 574,996 people shouldn’t be able to overrule 892,545 people, and they had a good point. Perhaps the recall threshold should have been 892,546. However, there are two problems with this argument. First, Han didn’t need that many votes to win the 2018 election. He beat his main opponent by roughly 150,000 votes. Why should he be penalized for winning by so much? A more reasonable threshold would be 742,240, one more than Chen Chi-mai won. Second, the premise of a recall is that the incumbent doesn’t still have the same support as they enjoyed in the general election. If they can still demonstrate they do, in fact, have that much support, they should not be recalled. Instead of looking at the “yes” votes, we should look at the “no” votes. If Han could have turned out 742,240 “no” votes, it shouldn’t matter how many people voted “yes.”

Rule #3 is more complicated. Another basic idea is that the “yes” side has the burden of demonstrating an “overwhelming” level of support for the recall, but the meaning of “overwhelming” has different meanings in different contexts. Another basic idea is that opponents of the recall should be given a way to constructively oppose the recall within the system. Their votes should be crucial.

In normal elections, winning by one vote is sufficient. Recalls are extraordinary. Winning by one vote should not be sufficient. In a single-seat district (m=1), the recall would require at least twice as many “yes” votes as “no” votes. Most incumbents could easily manage to defend their seat under this rule. You would have to be extremely unpopular to fail to mobilize enough “no” votes to make it impossible to for other side to get twice as many “yes” votes. Of course, that’s the goal. Only extremely unpopular incumbents need worry.

This rule also makes recall possible in multi-seat districts. Theoretically, if you can get 1/(m+1) percent of the valid votes in your district, you are guaranteed to win a seat in this electoral system. Recall the Bewildered Alpaca Party. Their 7% isn’t theoretically large enough to guarantee victory in a general election, but in practice it will almost always be enough. In their ten-seat district, the other side needs to produce eleven times as many “no” votes as “yes” votes to recall their incumbent. Suddenly, the 7% of the electorate who are Bewildered Alpaca supporters can hope to defend their seat. The other 93% might really dislike them, but as long as the BAP can mobilize they have a reasonable shot at setting the threshold high enough to stay in office. This also puts the onus on the pro-recall side to produce a strong turnout to show that the incumbent really is horribly unpopular.

Let’s look at Wang Hao-yu’s recall. 84,582 voted to recall him, just a hair over the 81,940 threshold. Only 7,128 people showed up to vote “no,” but of course there wasn’t really any incentive for opponents to turn out. I think the 84,582 “yes” votes are pretty unconvincing in and of itself, especially considering how blue Chungli is. More importantly, it’s pretty unlikely that more than a handful of those 84,582 people voted for Wang in the general election. Why should their dislike of him matter now? There are eleven seats in this district, so my rule would require “yes” to twelve times as large as “no.” Even with the anemic turnout, Wang’s “no” vote is sufficient to (barely) defeat the recall. That is, he would have been able to defeat this frivolous recall while barely lifting a finger.

Wait, there’s more. Imagine that the “yes” side had produced a more impressive result. After all, Wang was elected from a tiny party; it isn’t implausible that most voters actively dislike him. In the general election, about 170,000 people voted for candidates other than Wang. What if 170,000 people had voted to recall him? By Rule #3, he could defeat that by getting 14,200 “no” votes. He got over 16,000 votes in the general election, but getting 14,000 votes in a recall is probably a lot harder than getting 16,000 votes in a recall. Rule #2 gives him another way to defeat the recall. The first loser in his district, the one who came in 12th, got 9508 votes. As long as Wang could mobilize 9509 “no” votes, he could defeat the recall and keep his seat. I’m confident he could have managed that. In other words, Wang was probably popular enough that his seat should have been impregnable.

One more case. Let’s think about former president Chen Shui-bian. Chen was elected president in 2000 in a three-way race. The KMT was unable to coordinate its support on a single person, so Chen won with only 39% of the vote. Under the current rules,* that election wouldn’t have settled anything. We’d have had a recall effort start the day after the election, the KMT would have overturned the election, there would have been a by-election, there would have been no guarantee of a different outcome, but there would have been very bitter feelings all around. It would have been a disaster for democracy. You just shouldn’t get a do-over. You get one chance to settle on a candidate, and you have to live with the results of that decision. We don’t want to live in a world of perpetual campaigns.

[*OK, technically not. There is a separate law for presidential elections, and they did not change the recall provisions for that one. This is an illustration.]

My proposed rules would help deal with this problem. Rule #3 says that a recall would have to produce twice as many “yes” votes as “no” votes. If Chen could maintain his 39% support, he would be able to defeat a recall. That is, even in a three-way race, a recall wouldn’t be inevitable. What if it had been a four-way or five-way race and Chen had won with only 31%? Rule #2 says that as long as the incumbent can mobilize as many “no” votes as the top loser got, the recall is defeated. This might require the incumbent to get some support from one of the smaller parties, but it would be doable. That is, there would be a path for the incumbent to defeat the recall as long as they weren’t horribly unpopular.

We want elections to resolve political conflicts, at least temporarily. We don’t want to live in a world of perpetual campaigns. The current recall law should be significant modified to make recalls much more difficult.

A lecture on populism

January 15, 2021

This is the most important story in Taiwan electoral politics in recent years. It’s too bad it took me so long to realize what was going on.

The 2020 surge in youth turnout

January 1, 2021

It isn’t often that I am floored by a single chart, but a few months ago I saw a chart that made me question a lot of things I thought I understood about Taiwanese politics. It turns out that youth turnout was sky-high in the 2020 election. I know some people will say, “Well, of course it was. I could have told you that.” Let me caution you. It wasn’t obvious at all. I don’t care about your personal anecdotes. I heard them all in 2016, and youth turnout wasn’t sky-high then. 2020 was qualitatively different from 2016, and it isn’t obvious why.

Here is the chart that shocked me. In 2016 and 2018, turnout for people in their 20s was somewhere around 55-60%. As the age of voters increased so did turnout, peaking at over 70% among voters in their late 60s. There was a huge gap in turnout among young and old voters. 2020 doesn’t look like that at all. More than 70% of young voters turned out. Turnout increased with age, but not nearly as much as in the past. There is an enormous gap between the lines for young voters in 2016 and 2020, and only a small one among older voters.

Before I discuss these numbers in more depth, let me tell you where they come from. This is NOT an ordinary random sample public opinion survey. This is a study by my friend Chuang Wen-jong 莊文忠 and our intellectual godfather Hung Yung-tai 洪永泰 commissioned by the Central Election Commission, which has a legal mandate to investigate any potential gender disparities. It is normally strictly forbidden to look at actual voting records due to Taiwan’s strict privacy laws. However, for this special purpose, the CEC allowed them to look at some voter rolls. They took a sample of precincts, and then they took a sample of voters from each of those selected precincts. For each voter, they collected age, sex, and whether the voter had showed up to vote. (They did not record how each voter voted. That is not recorded on the voter rolls or anywhere else.) They eventually recorded data for over 137,000 eligible voters, and this should be a pretty darn good representative sample. It is reasonable to have doubts about telephone surveys. Some people don’t have telephones, some won’t answer unfamiliar numbers, some will hang up when they realize it is a survey, and some won’t give you honest or accurate responses. None of those are problems here; you will rarely find higher quality data than this. The full report was published on the CEC website. The CEC commissioned similar studies after the 2016 and 2018 elections. I really wish we could go back in time and see data from 2012, which (I think) was a fairly “normal” election, and 2014, immediately after the Sunflower movement. However, voter rolls are destroyed within a few months after each election, so that is impossible.

Since the official purpose of the report is to study gender differences, we should first look at the differences between men and women. Young women have somewhat higher turnout – roughly 5% higher – than young men. The gender gap shrinks with age, until turnout is roughly the same for voters in their late 60s. Among the very old, men vote at higher rates than women. Overall, turnout in the 2020 presidential election was 76.7% for women and 73.2% for men. We saw similar trends in 2016 and 2018.

I don’t have much to say about gender right now. Eventually I’m going to try to figure out if young women vote differently than older women. Newcomers to Taiwanese politics are always shocked that women are about 5% more pro-KMT than men since the much-publicized gender gap in the United States favors the more progressive party. My suspicion is that older women are much more conservative than younger women (ie: the age difference for voting behavior is much larger for women than men), but I don’t have any hard evidence of that right now. This topic will have to wait for another time.

On to youth turnout. Wen-jong has thoughtfully given us a chart comparing each 5-year cohort’s turnout rate in 2016 and 2020. There’s a big gap for voters under 35.

This chart forces me to rethink some basic assumptions about how Taiwanese politics works. For about a decade, lots of people (usually those who sympathize with smaller parties) have enthusiastically been talking about mobilizing young voters. I have generally dismissed such ideas. I have always assumed that trying to mobilize young voters is a fool’s errand. You can dump a lot of resources into these efforts and it will look productive because the politically motivated youth are highly visible. However, overall youth turnout was pretty miserable, so I’ve always thought that expending too much effort on youth votes was a was of resources. Besides, due to declining birth rates, there aren’t actually all that many youth votes to be gained. Much better to focus your energy on the more numerous older voters who might actually show up and vote.

However, it turns out that you CAN mobilize young voters. In fact, maybe I’ve gotten it backwards. Maybe the way to think about it is that older voters will reliably show up in all sorts of elections, whereas younger voters might vote or they might stay home. If that’s the case, the rational thing to do might be to focus a disproportional amount of energy on the youth vote where you might be able to produce a significant difference.

We know that there are more voters in the older age groups, so how much difference does this surge in youth turnout make? As a careful scholar with a narrow mandate, Wen-jong has wisely declined to tackle this topic. I’m a lot more irresponsible, especially here on my blog, so let’s give it a whirl.

The government publishes population data for every month. The number of citizens over 20 is not exactly the same as the number of eligible voters, but it’s close enough. So we have a pretty good estimate for the number of voters in each five-year age group in January 2020. Multiplying these numbers by Wen-jong’s turnout estimates, we can get an estimate of actual votes for each age group in 2016 and 2020. (Since this is a quick and dirty exercise, I didn’t bother to get 2016 estimates for eligible voters even though everyone was four years younger then. It shouldn’t change things too much.)

agepop2016 votes2020 votesgap
80歲 & up82270249608951501118922

According to this, there were about 1.6 million extra votes in 2020 because of higher turnout. These were highly concentrated among the younger voters. In 2016, people 39 and under only made up 29.9% of the electorate, but this group accounted for 56.6% (about 912,000) of the “extra” turnout. As a result, the share of the under 39 group increased to 32.8% of the electorate in 2020. Nearly a million extra young votes seems like a lot.

But let’s go further. We know from quite a bit of survey evidence that young people were much more likely to vote for President Tsai. Let’s try to estimate how all those extra youth votes affected the final election tallies.

I’m going to use some numbers from the Taiwan Election and Democratization post-election survey. Surveys always ask respondents who they voted for, and post-election surveys always find inflated numbers for winners. (This is true every year, regardless of the winner’s party.) This year was no different. In the actual election, Tsai beat Han 57.7% to 38.6%. In the survey data, Tsai’s victory was an enormous 67.2% to 27.9%. To account for this, I inflated Han’s support by a factor of 1.38, Tsai’s by 0.86, and Soong’s by 0.88. This yields estimates for each of the age groups as follows:

Age groupSoong%Han%Tsai%

Remember, these are fairly dirty estimates suitable only for blogging purposes. A serious methodologist writing a serious academic paper would massage them in several different ways, and they’d certainly all be different (but maybe not by all that much).

What does this imply about the final vote totals? If you take the 2020 votes and the “extra” votes from the previous table and multiply them by the vote shares in this table, you get the following:

Age groupAll votes TsaiAll votes HanAll votes gap“Extra” Tsai“Extra” Han“Extra” gap

Tsai won every age group, but she didn’t win older voters by very much. In this estimate, Tsai beat Han by 2.7m votes. More than three-fourths of this margin (2.1m) came from voters under 40. If we look at the “extra” votes, the gap is even more stunning. Compared to what would have happened if people had voted at 2016 levels, Tsai’s margin of victory was 464,000 larger. Of this margin, 88% (408,000) came from “extra” voters under 40.

If turnout had been the same in 2020 as it was in 2016, Tsai would still have won. All that extra youth turnout didn’t ultimately affect the outcome. However, the narrative might have been a bit different. Tsai got 56.1% in 2016 and surpassed that with 57.1% in 2020. Without that extra 400,000 votes from high youth turnout, some of the news coverage would have noted that her vote share had slipped a bit. “Tsai wins, but is less popular!” Han might have cracked the psychologically important 40% threshold. It wouldn’t have made THAT much of a difference, though. After all, it was a landslide either way.

However, there have been elections in which an extra 400,000 votes would have been crucial. Chen Shui-bian won the 2000 election by just over 300,000 votes and the 2004 election by under 30,000. Ma Ying-jeou won the 2012 election by a fairly comfortable 800,000 votes, though one can imagine the narrative would have been significantly different if that margin had been cut in half.

The extra youth turnout didn’t end up making that much of a difference in the presidential election, but what about the legislative election? I know there will be some readers who want to count all those extra 400,000 votes as mobilization triumphs for the New Power Party, Taiwan People’s Party, or some other small party. Let me remind you that there were plenty of small parties around in 2016. My guess is that a disproportionate number of these newly mobilized youth votes supported small parties, but it was probably less than half of the total. I suppose I could use the TEDS party vote estimates the same way I used the presidential estimates, but I’m not that brave. I can swallow a 3% error for an estimate of 55%; it’s a lot harder to feel good about a 3% error for an estimate of 6%.

Anyway, the election outcome wasn’t decided by the party list seats. Legislative outcomes turn on the 73 single seat districts. In this election, the DPP-led coalition won a legislative majority by winning 50 of the 73 SSDs. So how many of those did the green side win because of higher youth turnout?

It’s hard to tell, but let’s do some really shaky calculations. Dividing the “extra” gap by 73, higher turnout produced an advantage of just under 6000 votes for each legislative district. However, that is for the presidential election. It is reasonable to think that a fairly high number of young voters cast their legislative district vote for a small party rather than for one of the two main candidates. I’m going to assume that any green candidate in a normal sized district (ie: not tiny Penghu) who won by less than 4000 votes owes their seat to the surge in youth turnout. Here’s the list:

Lai Pin-yu (New Taipei 12, won by 2780 votes)

I was surprised to find that there weren’t more tight races; I had assumed there would be three or four of these districts. The blue side won a couple of tight races, but the green side didn’t have many squeakers this time. There were a few other districts in which the race might have been close enough if ALL the extra youth votes went to the green candidate.

Huang Hsiu-fang (Changhua 2, won by 4836 votes)

Chuang Ching-cheng (Taichung 5, won by 5272 votes)

Freddy Lim (Taipei 5, won by 5416 votes)

Chiang Yung-chang (New Taipei 8, won by 5597 votes)

Kao Chia-yu (Taipei 4, won by 6706 votes)

Of these, Chuang Ching-cheng and Kao Chia-yu might have been the most vulnerable. Both of them ran in very large districts, with almost 100,000 more valid votes than some of the smaller districts (such as Huang Hsiu-fang’s, Lai Pin-yu’s and Freddy Lim’s districts). There were presumably a higher number of “extra” youth votes in Chuang and Kao’s districts, and I think it is plausible that the surge in youth turnout changed the outcome in these two districts.

In the end, the surge in youth turnout probably didn’t fundamentally alter the election outcome. It was, after all, a landslide. However, in a different year with a much closer election, it absolutely could have been decisive. I will never again dismiss efforts to increase youth turnout.

(Caveat: The number of young voters is about to dramatically decrease. There were 1.51m people in the 20-24 age cohort. There were 1.25m in the 15-19 age cohort and 1.01m in the 10-14 age cohort.)

Kaohsiung mayoral by-election

August 15, 2020

Kaohsiung City held its by-election today, and the DPP won a smashing victory. Chen Chi-mai got 70.0% of the valid votes, leaving the KMT’s Jane Lee and TPP’s Wu Yi-cheng far behind, with 25.1% and 4.1%, respectively. Chen’s 70.0% was the highest vote share the DPP has ever gotten in Kaohsiung, beating the 68.1% Chen Chu got in her re-election campaign in 2014. Contrary to what the talking head on my TV kept saying tonight, Lee’s 25.1% was not quite the worst result the KMT has ever seen in Kaohsiung. For that, we must go back to 2000 and the juggernaut that was the Lien Chan presidential campaign. Lien got 24.0% in the old Kaohsiung City and 24.0% the old Kaohsiung County (I’ll let you do the math to figure out his overall vote share). But if this election wasn’t technically the KMT’s worst ever performance, it was substantively (since there was no James Soong taking most of the KMT vote).

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that Chen did so well. If we start with the January presidential results as our baseline, the DPP won Kaohsiung 62.2% to 34.6%. That election took place in the before times, back when almost no one (outside the presidential office) had an inkling of the coming pandemic. During the first half of this year, all the polling numbers for President Tsai and the DPP have improved, while all the polling numbers for the KMT have been miserable. In retrospect, the recall election at the beginning of June was just about the apex of DPP fortunes. The turnout to recall Han Kuo-yu was spectacular, but it was probably the worst possible time (from his perspective) to hold that vote. If it had been a few weeks or months earlier or later the recall would probably have passed but not with quite such a spectacular number. At any rate, the last two months in Taiwanese politics have been something of a reversion to normality. Rather than talking about the pandemic every day, we have been talking about normal political issues such as judicial reform, nominations to the Control Yuan, and ho to deal with China.

Some of the polling numbers have regressed toward the mean. Looking at the monthly My-Formosa polls, satisfaction with President Tsai’s performance was around 70% in the March, April, and May polls, but it fell to around 63% in the June and July polls. However, the numbers for party ID haven’t rebounded quite as much. The blue camp is still mired in the high teens, while the green camp is holding steady in the low 40s. Overall, there is good reason to believe that the DPP is more popular now and the KMT is less popular now than in January.

When looking at the candidates, we also shouldn’t be surprised that Chen did so well. Chen is clearly qualified, and he spent the first half of the year at the center of the DPP’s pandemic response team. Moreover, given all that has happened in the last 21 months, there is probably a feeling in the electorate that they made the wrong choice in 2018. It’s not unrealistic to expect him to get a sympathy vote to make up for that wrong. Meanwhile, the KMT’s candidate had a terrible campaign, continually reinforcing the notion that she was not terribly qualified for this job.

Nonetheless, I did not expect Chen to get 70% of the vote. It is very hard to add votes, and even harder when you are starting from a high baseline. I thought that there would be a number of voters who wanted to vote against whoever was in power, and, since Chen was almost sure to win, they would feel free to vote for someone else. In my head, I was picturing something like a 65-25-10 result (with the TPP candidate soaking up a lot of protest votes). 70% is impressive, any way you cut it.

Quick note about the TPP. This was a terrible result for them. This election was almost a best-case scenario for the TPP. The KMT candidate was clearly incompetent, which might have encouraged anti-DPP voters to look for another option. In addition, there has been a corruption scandal in recent weeks, featuring DPP legislators, KMT legislators, and the NPP party chair. The TPP was the only party not tarnished, which plays right into their main discourse that the other parties are all corrupt. I thought they might get double digits with an outside chance that they might get nearly as many votes as the KMT. Instead, they got a meager 4.1%. We don’t know who unhappy and disgruntled voters turned to, but, given the results, it seems most likely that they supported Chen. They certainly didn’t support the TPP. The fact that the TPP did so badly is just about the only good news of the night for the KMT.


As to what this all means, I have two big questions in my head. First, how will the KMT react to this result? 26% is not good. Remember, Han got nearly 35% in January, and that was considered a humiliating result. If 35% in Kaohsiung is not sustainable for the KMT, 26% is a disaster. For the KMT to feel good tonight, they really needed to get back to that 35% mark. With that, they could have told themselves that they weren’t losing ground even after this miserable year. To feel great, they needed 40%. 26% should tell them that Han’s result wasn’t necessarily the low-water mark. It can get worse.

The immediate question for the KMT concerns the party chair. I don’t think Johnny Chiang will resign, but he seems like a lame duck to me. During his tenure, the KMT has lost the recall (badly), lost the by-election (badly), been rolled in the legislature several times, lost ground in the polls, and Chiang seems utterly unable to persuade the KMT to adopt any of his reforms. Most pointedly, the party seems completely uninterested in revising its stance toward China. Barring more big changes, it seems nearly inevitable to me that Eric Chu will return as party chair. It also seems highly unlikely that he will push for any meaningful reforms, and so the best-case scenario for his leadership is for the KMT to peak somewhere around 45% of the national vote. If the KMT decides that the lesson of this election is to double down with ideologues and put Han in charge of the party, they could be looking at falling to the low 30s. At some point, one might expect the KMT to decide it is tired of losing and think about revising some of its cherished positions. However, Johnny Chiang is the person best positioned to lead that charge, and he is now crippled. The only other hope is for Hou You-yi to decide he wants to dip his toe into national politics.

My other question concerns Chen Chi-mai. Chen now holds one of the springboard positions to the presidency. There aren’t many such positions (vice president, premier, six municipal mayors, two party chairs, and perhaps one or two billionaires). Chen has the intellectual capacity to move up. I’ve interviewed him, and I was quite impressed with his grasp of both policy details and the bigger picture. Of the next generation, he is perhaps closest to the Tsai Ing-wen model. He isn’t dynamic or charismatic, but he oozes competence. However, 2018 might be a millstone that is difficult to escape from. What we learned in 2018 is that he is not charismatic enough to turn around a disadvantageous environment. He should have won that election, but he could not figure out how to force the election back to regular partisan ruts. Until he shows that was an aberration, I’m not sure DPP loyalists will trust him with a presidential nomination. One of the things that stood out to me in this campaign was that when he was attacked, he hit back. He seemed to have decided that the 2018 campaign should be positive, so he never went all-out negative against Han. That’s great if you’re winning, but not so smart if you are losing. In this campaign, he was far enough ahead that he could have stayed positive. Instead, when the other candidates brought up his father’s corruption history, he hit back by talking about Lee’s plagiarism. To me, that decision shows a growing understanding of what it takes to play at the highest level of electoral campaigns.

To be sure, Chen isn’t a legitimate contestant for the 2024 presidential nomination. He needs to have a successful tenure as mayor before he tries to move up. This must include a decisive re-election victory in 2022; another underwhelming result would be devastating to his career. Realistically, he might the cabinet (perhaps as premier) in 2027 and then try to obtain the VP nomination in 2028. Or, if the DPP loses the 2024 election, he might be a viable contender for the 2028 presidential nomination. With his performance as vice-premier and now this impressive electoral victory, I think Chen has mostly put his career back on track. However, there are still some lingering doubts in the back of my head.

Brawling and Chen Chu’s confirmation to the Control Yuan

July 22, 2020

We’ve seen several physical clashes in the legislature over the past couple weeks concerning Chen Chu’s nomination as president of the Control Yuan. As someone who has spent a lot of time over the past five years studying brawling in the Legislative Yuan, I have a few thoughts about how this episode played out.

The first thing that we need to understand is that, after over thirty years of brawling in the legislature, physical clashes are now understood by all actors as a “normal” part of the legislative process. There are informal rules governing what is allowed and what is not. The simple fact that there was pushing and shoving has long since ceased to be shocking, and it certainly does not demonstrate that democracy is dead or even highly flawed. The opposition is certainly allowed to claim majority bullying and violence and procedural flaws (hint: it always does), but this does not generally count as evidence that the result was illegitimate. In the end, if a majority of legislators are willing to stand up and support the result, that is what matters.

Brawls are not a contest of violence. They are fundamentally grounded in party politics and public opinion. The majority party wants to do something that the minority opposes. Rather than simply make a bunch of speeches that society might ignore, the minority dramatically opposes the majority by physically obstructing proceedings. Of course, if the minority physically obstructs proceedings, the majority has the option of responding by physically clearing away the disruption. After all, if they actually do have a majority of members who want to do something, the majority should eventually win out.

There are some clear, if informal rules, that govern brawls. The first is that brawls are not about violence. They are about political communication. A certain amount of violence is necessary to produce and/or overcome a procedural disruption, but the violence is not the point. The message is the point. You might need to physically disrupt normal proceedings to make that point, but you want everyone’s attention on the substantive point, not on the violence. If you escalate the violence too much, the public will focus on the violence and forget about the message. This is why excessive punching, biting, hair-pulling, kicking, and so on always backfires. The other side can simply ignore your point and call you a brutish thug. If you watch a podium occupation, what you see is a lot of pushing and jostling. You do not see anything potentially lethal or even anything that could seriously injure anyone. That is going too far, and it damages your political message. Rule 1A is that you definitely do not want any hint of inappropriate sexual contact. The opposition party puts its female legislators at the middle of the scrum, daring the majority party to touch them. The majority party generally assigns the task of removing them to its own female members. A second rule is that only legislators are allowed to participate in the brawl. No professional staff are allowed to participate in any way, and legislative aides aren’t even allowed in the chamber. Legally, the speaker has the power to call security into the chamber, but no speaker has done this since democratization. The legislators, who have special constitutional protections and each of who has some sort of democratic mandate, are the only people allowed to participate in legislative struggles. They have to figure things out on their own. A third rule is that, even in the midst of all this chaos, you have to go through all the normal procedures to pass an item. In the case of a normal law, you have to go through line by line review, voting on the name and content of each clause. This entails opening discussion on each item, allowing some discussion if the opposition wants to talk, taking a vote to close off discussion, then voting on the individual clause. If the bill has 78 clauses, you have to go through this 78 times. It’s exhausting, but by doing this the majority demonstrates it has the necessary support for each item (again and again) and legitimates the decision even in the face of vehement, physical dissent. Shortcuts have occurred in the past, in which a majority used a package vote or used other special procedures to reduce the time it would take to pass the item. However, these usually caused a bigger headache than they were worth, as the opposition could credibly scream that the majority was not respecting the established procedures and (less credibly) trampling on the rule of law. Fourth, you don’t have to actually cast your own vote. As long as you are physically in the chamber, you are allowed to have someone vote for you. When the parties are struggling the podium, it’s hardly reasonable to expect someone to give up their hard-won position to go back to their desk and vote. At any rate, there are always legislators who don’t want to get involved in the tussle. The can still contribute to their party’s effort by taking care of the voting while other people do the fighting.



One way I like to think of brawls is that they change the legislative process from one of simply numbers (ie: how many people are willing to raise their hand to vote yes) to one of both numbers and intensity (ie: how many people are willing to actively and openly struggle for the proposal and they also vote yes). This is a somewhat different threshold, since often legislators want to hide from their unpopular votes. Brawling makes is obvious to everyone which side they are on.


The fight in 2012 over the question of opening Taiwan up to American beef imports is a vivid illustration of how brawling works. At the time, the balance of the legislature was about the exact opposite of today, with the KMT enjoying a 64-40 advantage. The Ma government wanted to open up the market in order to negotiate a wider trade agreement. However, the move was generally unpopular with the public, who feared that ractopamine-laced American beef was not safe. A TVBS poll showed the public was against opening the market by a 59-31% margin. The bill was scheduled to be passed in the last week of the session, but the DPP stormed the chamber on Sunday and declared it would occupy the podium the entire week until the clock ran out.  They maintained an around the clock vigil, with most members in the chamber at any time and the others on immediate call. This was not an easy vigil. There were heavy rainstorms in the south, and many DPP members desperately wanted to go back to their districts to oversee (and claim credit for) flood relief efforts. However, they stayed in the chamber. Meanwhile, the KMT plotted its counter-attack to clear the DPP off the podium. They planned a 3:00am raid, but they never launched it. For one thing, the DPP caucus never wavered in its resolve. More importantly, a fair number of KMT legislators signaled that they did not want to participate in the fight for such an unpopular bill. We don’t know if they would have been willing to quietly and discreetly vote yes, but we do know that they did not want to go in front of TV cameras and actively struggle for a bill that the public did not like. Speaker Wang informed the KMT caucus that if they stormed the podium at 3:00am, they would have to be prepared to hold it for up to nine hours. They could not do any business until the professional staff showed up, they had to process several scheduled discussion items before the beef bill, and then they had to go through the beef bill itself. The KMT leaders concluded that their caucus simply wasn’t up to this challenge. As a result, the KMT never attempted to clear the DPP’s physical obstruction, and the DPP succeeded in blocking the bill by running out the clock.

What is great about this story is the unexpected coda. A few weeks after the DPP’s great triumph, the outside world changed. A UN committee unexpectedly passed a measure establishing a safe standard for ractopamine. Almost immediately, public opinion in Taiwan changed because the Ma administration could frame the question in a new way. With no international standard, the DPP could claim that any level of ractopamine was scary and dangerous. With the new standard, the new question was whether Taiwan should allow imports that conformed to the international standard. Asked this way, a TVBS poll found a dramatic shift. Now the public supported opening the market by a 57-31% standard. When the legislature took up the bill again in a special session a few weeks later, the DPP didn’t even try to obstruct proceedings, and the suddenly unified KMT passed the bill without any problems.

This story clearly illustrates the importance of party cohesion to brawling, and it also illustrates just how closely party cohesion is related to public opinion. When both parties understood that the public supported the minority’s position, the minority was able to block the majority. When public opinion shifted, the minority was powerless to resist the majority.


Let’s return to current Taiwan. President Tsai decided to nominate her close political ally, Chen Chu as head of the Control Yuan. The Control Yuan is a strange beast. It is Sun Yat-sen’s “genius” brainchild, based on the anti-corruption imperial censorate. However, no one has ever figured out quite what the CY is supposed to do or how it is supposed to work in a democratic context. Political parties are at the core of democratic politics, but this is supposed (?) to be a non-partisan institution that can nonetheless address highly partisan questions of exactly where the grey lines defining corruption are. Impeaching an elected official is never a technical exercise, and the CY has never managed to exercise its power in an uncontroversial way. In fact, it has been a fairly toothless and useless institution. One of the undercurrents of this controversy is that the DPP has always wanted to abolish the CY and the KMT has recently begun suggesting that it might also support that move. Of course, the KMT’s position is perhaps not sincere, since KMT true-believers would be loathe to abolish Sun Yat-sen’s legacy. As a bargaining matter, the KMT wants the DPP to not nominate anyone (so that there is no DPP-led agency to investigate their abuses) and instead spend the next few years endlessly and fruitlessly discussing abolition. The DPP’s position is that the current constitution requires them to fill the positions, but they are very open to abolition. If the KMT wants to shorten Chen Chu’s term, it can do so at any time by agreeing to abolish the CY. To put it bluntly, the DPP holds all the cards here.

Chen Chu was always going to be a controversial nominee. She is not a shrinking violet, and she has never shied away from partisan fights. This doesn’t make her much different from previous nominees. Wang Chien-hsuan, for example, was a founder of the New Party and a bitter opponent of both the DPP and Lee Teng-hui. The pattern has always been that the party in power thinks that the nominee is fair and honest, while the opposition party thinks the nominee is a partisan hack who couldn’t possibly be neutral. Nonetheless, this is who President Tsai wanted, and if she is willing to accept any political costs that Chen’s nomination might convey, she absolutely has the right to nominate Chen.


When it comes to legislative brawls, I am always more interested in the opposition party’s calculations. After all, they are the ones who decide to create a conflict. What is interesting about this particular case is that the KMT has decided to fight this fight without a clear argument aimed at the general public. Their argument is entirely aimed at KMT die-hard party loyalists.

The KMT hasn’t bothered to make an argument that Chen Chu is unfit to serve as head of the CY. They have simply asserted that idea as a fact that they expect everyone to already believe. Their big slogan has been, “reject crony appointments.” Of course, you can label every appointment as having political implications. It isn’t obvious at all (to me, at least) what makes Chen Chu’s appointment so much more obviously nefarious than every other political appointment. In American politics, we often see a person appointed as ambassador after they have donated large sums of money to the president’s campaign. Or sometimes there is a more explicit trade-off, in which someone endorses the campaign and then gets a plum cabinet position. These are perhaps a bit undesirable, but no one can quite draw the line of what is cronyism (or a spoils system). It seems obvious to the other party, until they return to power. The KMT has not bothered to explain what exactly is so cronyish about Chen Chu’s nomination. They simply keep repeating that it is an abomination, and assume that this is obvious and everyone will agree with them.

The KMT also has argued that Chen is corrupt, and this means that she is unfit to lead an anti-corruption agency. However, they have not bothered to make this case to the public. At most, they might mention the name of a specific accusation. However, I haven’t seen them go into any details of any specific case to show exactly how Chen is corrupt and how she lined her pockets or her supporter’s pockets with public money. In fact, Chen has a pretty simply response. Over the years, the KMT (and the KMT dominated Control Yuan) has repeatedly accused her of improper behavior, but they have never been able to show evidence of any improper action. All those accusations have resulted in zero impeachments, convictions, or punishments. Again, one might think that the KMT would use this nomination as an excuse to go through her record with a fine-tooth comb, presenting abuse after abuse to the general public. They haven’t done that. Instead, they have simply stated that she is unfit for this office, and they have not expected anyone to challenge this assertion.

Now, Chen Chu is not a widely reviled politician. I don’t have any recent data for her approval ratings, but I don’t generally get the sense that the general public despises her. Five years ago when she was still Kaohsiung mayor, she routinely had satisfaction ratings in the 70s. I don’t think she is still that popular, but I doubt she is as widely disliked as Han Kuo-yu, Ko Wen-je, Ker Chien-ming, Ma Ying-jeou, or Lin Chuan, just to name a few prominent but not very loved politicians. It is instructive to me that none of the blue media has put out a poll recently showing how the public feels about Chen Chu. I would expect that if the public really hated her, they would let us know.

The DPP certainly has shown any indication that they think Chen Chu’s nomination is unpopular. When the KMT broke into the chamber a couple weeks ago on Sunday evening, it announced its intention to stay there for three days. However, unlike the script in the beef brawl when the majority KMT could not clear out the disruption, this time the majority DPP reacted promptly and cleared the KMT off the podium the on Monday. The same scenario played out a few times this week, when the KMT occupied the podium, and the DPP promptly mobilized its members to push them off. DPP legislators proved themselves quite willing to stand up and physically struggle for their party’s position. The KMT caucus demonstrated a certain level of intensity of their preferences, but the DPP caucus clearly matched that level. With similar levels of intensity, the DPP’s numerical advantage easily proved decisive.


This is where this brawl is perhaps different from most other brawls of the past two decades. Since the DPP won the presidency in 2000, the two big parties have been fighting over the median voter. Brawls could usually be understood in terms of majority public opinion. The opposition party started fights when the majority party was doing something that most people didn’t like, and they drove home the message that the majority party was out of touch with mainstream values. I haven’t seen much evidence that the general public is upset with Chen Chu (or even cares very much about this nomination). The messaging certainly is not aimed at median voters. This time, the KMT seems to be obsessed with communicating with its die-hard loyalists.

The KMT has horrible polling numbers right now. KMT party ID has been bleeding since early 2019, and the past six months have been particularly awful. The KMT has been stuck in a terrible rut, watching the DPP government successfully navigate the Covid crisis. At first, the KMT tried to object to a few policies, such as how to distribute masks. However, they made a few clumsy mistakes and eventually decided it was better to shut up and not publicly oppose what was quickly becoming a tremendously popular government response. This was the right choice, but it condemned them to several months of silence, watching ineptly as government approval ratings soared. Meanwhile, the KMT’s own support kept falling, perhaps because it wasn’t providing any energetic opposition. The KMT’s numbers have gotten so bad that it has to take seriously the possibility that it could fall into third place behind Ko Wen-je’s TPP. They’re almost certainly going to get blown out in the Kaohsiung by-election, but they need to come in a clear second place. In short, the KMT desperately needed to do something, anything, to shore up its core support.

This is why the KMT’s message makes sense. The median voter might not instinctively agree that Chen Chu is unfit, horrible, corrupt, and putrid, but die-hard KMT loyalists probably do. Han Kuo-yu rose to prominence two years ago talking about how badly Kaohsiung had been governed and darkly hinting that the DPP, after twenty years in power, had piled up abuse after abuse. All those Han fans were fed a steady diet of anti-Chen rumors and innuendos, and after two years, they probably have no reason to question whether Chen is, in fact, unfit for the CY. The KMT didn’t need to put Chen on trial for this audience; they already assume she is guilty. What the KMT needed to do for this audience was simply to reassure it that they are really fighting the detested DPP government.

In a sense, this takes us back to the early 1990s. In the late 1980s, legislative brawls tended to center on big questions of democratization in which the brawlers were appealing to mainstream public opinion. However, by the early and mid-1990s, those big questions had mostly been resolved. In their place, we saw conflicts in which a 60% KMT was opposed by a 35% DPP. The presidency was not really at stake, since few people could conceive of the DPP actually winning, and the legislature had a somewhat proportional electoral system, so the DPP didn’t need to win the median voter in order to expand its power. As a result, the DPP was free to instigate a brawl if they thought they had 35-40% support. The current KMT has fallen so far that they might be in the same position. Of course, they’d love to have over 50% support in order to win power in today’s majoritarian system. However, they NEED to maintain 35% in order to maintain their position as the biggest opposition party. Their first priority is no longer to appeal to the median voter; instead, they must consolidate their base. We haven’t seen a party make this political calculation in over two decades.


Both sides made some mistakes in handling this brawl. The KMT made a big mistake by allowing some of its legislative staff to get involved in the pushing and shoving in the courtyard outside the legislature while trying to block Chen Chu from entering the chamber. Legislative aides are allowed to be in the courtyard, but they do not have any special status. The reaction was entirely predictable. Since legislative aides are not legitimate combatants, the majority mobilized security to take their information and deal with them. Also, since the KMT was unfairly using legislative aides, the DPP used police to form a human shield to escort Chen through the courtyard. The KMT screamed that the DPP was activating its police powers, a clear violation of normal practices established over the past thirty years. In fact, it was not. The speaker’s police powers (or what Americans refer to as using the Sergeant-At-Arms) refers to using security forces INSIDE the chamber. Again, access inside the chamber is strictly controlled, and security forces must be explicitly ordered by the speaker to enter and perform a specific task. Speaker Yu did not do this. Nevertheless, the sight of police escorting Chen through the courtyard to the building was not a good look for the DPP. They would have been better off mobilizing their legislators for this task.

The first time the KMT broke into the legislature and tried to barricade themselves inside, they arguably violated another unwritten rule. It is acceptable to enter and even break the glass door to do so. It is also acceptable to barricade the chamber doors with tables and chairs, and even to try to secure to barricades with ropes and chains. However, it was going to fair to put down strips with nail-like protrusions. The unwritten rules say that the majority has the right to try to retake the chamber by breaking through the barricades, and the nail-like objects could have seriously injured someone. You do not have the right to do anything potentially lethal or dangerous. They also jabbed at people trying to enter the chamber with metal poles, which was also probably an excessive level of violence. So the DPP had some legitimate complaints about excessive KMT force.

The KMT also argued that the DPP used excessive force, but their argument was a bit clumsy. The loudest voice came from Hong Meng-kai, a 37-year old male legislator. When one of the youngest, healthiest, fittest men in your caucus claims that the other side was treating him roughly, it comes off as pitiful whining. (What, were grandma and grandpa bullying you?? Poor thing.)

The KMT accused the DPP of two major procedural violations. First, they accused the DPP of faking a vote. Note, the vote in question was not for Chen Chu or any of the other nominees. It was on a procedural item the previous day. In that vote, DPP legislator Chen Ying was recorded as voting even though she was outside the chamber doing a TV interview at the time. Apparently, the DPP and/or the professional staff made a mistake and handed Chen Ying’s key card to the person in charge of voting by mistake. They were supposed to get Chang Hung-lu’s key card. As a result, Chen voted even though she was not there, while Chang was there but was not recorded as having voted. The KMT charged that this roll-call vote should be voided, and therefore the next day’s votes to approve the nominations should not have ever taken place. This was a sloppy performance by the DPP, but I don’t think it is sufficient to annul the procedural vote, much less the next day’s confirmation votes. The procedural vote passed by a healthy margin, and there is a clear story that this was a bumbling snafu rather than a nefarious attempt at vote fraud.

The KMT’s second procedural charge was that the DPP did not go through all the required steps. Specifically, nominees are usually required to come to the legislature and answer questions from any legislator before they are voted on. The KMT blocked Chen Chu from entering the legislative chamber (even after the police escorted her through the courtyard), so she never answered any questions. The DPP caucus did not forcibly open  a path for her into the chamber so that she (and the other nominees) could make a show of answering questions. I think this was both a violation of the unwritten rules and also a political misjudgment. The unwritten rules say the DPP needed to put her up on the stand to answer questions. If the KMT had disrupted those proceedings, they could have declared that no one else had any substantive questions to ask and ruled that the interpellation had concluded. Politically, I think the DPP should have dared the KMT to spell out its charges of corruption against Chen Chu, since (as far as I can tell) those charges are actually pretty flimsy. If the KMT didn’t want to make the charges, one of the DPP legislators could have asked her a softball question inviting her to refute the meager charges and confidently talk about her lifelong fight against corruption while declaring herself competent and capable. Instead, they voted to skip the interpellation session entirely and move directly to a vote. The KMT, the TPP, and the NPP have all questioned the legality of this move and vowed to challenge it in court. I’m not a constitutional scholar, so I don’t know what the court will think. However, as a legislative scholar, the most pertinent fact is that Chen Chu got 65 yes votes, easily more than the 57 she needed.  Still, the DPP should have taken a few more hours to struggle through this process. They chose a shortcut, and they deserve to be criticized for doing so.


Perhaps one reason that both sides performed their roles so badly is that they are all relative newbies. Speaker Wang had forty years experience in the legislature, and he could explain to everyone why they didn’t want to violate the informal rules. He’s gone now, and the KMT caucus is dominated by several newer faces. Some, like Lai Shih-pao, have been around for a years, but he is a much more ideologically extreme figure than previous elder statemen. He might not care so much for the established norms. Others, such as Hung Meng-kai or Chen Yi-hsin, are brand new and might not know what the informal rules are. There is more continuity on the DPP side, with the glaring exception of the speaker. Speaker Yu had never served in the legislature before 2020. His only experience in an assembly came in the Provincial Assembly from 1981 to 1989. That was a very different era with a very different chamber and very different party politics. His knowledge of the Legislative Yuan was basically zero, and you can see that lack of experience in his ham-fisted handling of this episode. Overall, neither side came out of this brawl very well.

Presidential campaign accounts

July 13, 2020

A few days ago, the Liberty Times published a story about the financial accounts for the Tsai and Han presidential campaigns. I rarely talk about the role of money in politics because we generally don’t have very good data to look at. This is real data, so maybe it’s worth a quick glance.

However, before I talk about the actual data, let’s quickly note that there are limits to these data. These data come from the Control Yuan, which collects data on political donations based on legal requirements established in various versions of the so-called “Sunshine Laws.” Unfortunately, there are lots of shady spots in the Sunshine Laws, so you can’t expect that these data are the full story. There is not really any penalty for misreporting. If someone shows evidence that a politician has misreported, the politician can simply file a new, accurate report within a certain period of time. Moreover, these reports only cover the accounts of the Tsai and Han campaigns, narrowly construed. They don’t cover all the spending of other organizations, such as the DPP and KMT, various legislative candidates who helped out, or outside supporting groups, such as the Friends of Tsai Ing-wen (小英之友). Finally and most importantly, it isn’t clear to me what the time period is. A quick glance at the Control Yuan website seems to indicate that most of these data start from Sept 1, 2019. Of course, by Sept 1, both campaigns had been in full swing for seven or eight months. So, these data are by no means the full story. Still, they are at least part of the story. And since I don’t think contemporary presidential campaigns are like, say, legislative campaigns from the early 1990s in which as much as 90% of the actual expenses were illegal (read: vote-buying) and off-the-books, these are probably not completely worthless data.


[A quick note on currency and numbers. Even after all these years, my brain still doesn’t process large numbers in NT dollars very well. This has something to do with the basic difference between English numbers, which are based on three zeroes (thousands, millions, billions, trillions) and Chinese numbers, which are based on four zeroes (ten thousands 萬, hundred millions 億, trillions 兆). I instinctively understand small numbers, since I live with those in my everyday life. After a brief experience house hunting in Taipei several years ago, numbers up to tens of millions 千萬 also make sense to me. But once you start to get in to the hundred millions 億 and above, my eyes glaze over and I need to start converting into US dollars for anything to make sense. So I’ll give you the data in both NTD and USD, but I’m going to discuss everything in terms of USD.]


So how much does it cost to run a presidential campaign? Tsai’s reported budget is roughly USD 20 million, while Han’s is roughly USD 15 million. As noted above, this doesn’t cover the entire campaign, but it probably covers most of the last four months, when the campaign expenses were probably at their highest. My very rough and uneducated guess is that the total cost for the entire campaign (starting at the beginning of 2019) was probably about three times these amounts. But I could be way off with that guess, so don’t quote me on it. That’s real money, but a hell of a lot less than American presidential candidates are burning though, even considering the difference in population size.


Liberty Times broke down both the revenues and expenses into several categories. Let’s look at donations first. In NTD, they are as follows:


Tsai Ing-wen (DPP) Revenues (NTD) Han Kuo-yu (KMT)
          338,148,598 Individuals           371,129,494
          160,569,287 For-profit businesses             45,263,389
                   14,500 Political parties               6,000,000
              6,442,000 NGOs               1,230,400
            59,565,732 Anonymous sources             32,676,370
                   21,512 Other                    11,170
          564,761,629 Total revenues           456,310,823


Divide the numbers by 30 to convert to USD, and you get the following:


Tsai Ing-wen (DPP) Revenues (USD) Han Kuo-yu (KMT)
        11,271,620 Individuals       12,370,983
          5,352,310 For-profit businesses          1,508,780
                     483 Political parties             200,000
             214,733 NGOs               41,013
          1,985,524 Anonymous sources          1,089,212
                     717 Other                     372
        18,825,388 Total revenues       15,210,361


The two candidates got roughly the same amount from individual donations, but Tsai got significantly more from private enterprises. This latter gap is both entirely predictable and simultaneously a bit surprising. On the one hand, businesses want to buy influence, so they always donate more heavily to candidates who look likely to win (and will be in position to make decisions). Since Tsai was clearly leading by September, it isn’t surprising that businesses bet on her. On the other hand, businesses have traditionally favored the KMT. This is especially true for all those businesses that have operations in China. They want traditionally want a government who will help them access the China market, and some of them have to openly support the One China candidate in order to satisfy pressures from within China. So it’s a little surprising to me that all those Taishang didn’t donate more than USD 1.5 million to the Han campaign, just a public relations ploy to their Chinese associates.

The fact that Han actually got a bit more than Tsai in individual donations is also striking, given that Han was trailing in the polls. We heard stories all year about the fervent Han fans, and this might be a reflection of that die-hard support.


What about the expenditures? Here are the data in NTD and USD. Note that I have translated 宣傳  as “messaging.” Sometimes this term gets translated as “propaganda,” which has always made it sound somewhat Soviet to me. Other possibilities, such as “advertising” or “communications” don’t quite seem to capture the broadness of this category.


Tsai Ing-wen (DPP) Expenditures (NTD) Han Kuo-yu (KMT)
          325,861,233 Messaging           381,286,374
          101,796,817 Events             23,511,551
            67,913,244 Personnel               6,388,387
              6,590,742 Transportation               3,401,994
            29,209,856 Rent and office                  932,371
            57,524,974 Other             10,655,529
          588,896,866 Total           426,176,206



Tsai Ing-wen (DPP) Expenditures (USD) Han Kuo-yu (KMT)
        10,862,041 Messaging       12,709,546
          3,393,227 Events             783,718
          2,263,775 Personnel             212,946
             219,691 Transportation             113,400
             973,662 Rent and office               31,079
          1,917,499 Other             355,184
        19,629,896 Total       14,205,874


Both campaigns spent more on messaging than any other category. However, while Tsai spent about half of her budget on messaging, Han reported spending nearly 90% of his money on this category.

The media stories were all about how the campaigns spent money to appear on new media. They had a field day breathlessly telling us that Han spent two and a half times as much as Tsai for his appearance on the Nite Nite Show. I guess I’m just not that interested by that little story. I’d like to know how much they spent on You Tube shows, Facebook, Line, traditional media, and so forth. But we don’t have that data here.

Han reports spending USD 1.5 million on everything else. This seems a bit unlikely to me. I will believe that he didn’t spend anything on renting out campaign offices, but only if you tell me that people donated space for little or no cost. Of course, that should be counted at market rates (for both donations and expenses), but this is one of those shady spots in the Sunshine Laws.

The gap in personnel costs is stunning. Tsai reports spending ten times as much as Han on staff! I would be willing to believe that Tsai ran a fully staffed and professional (read: expensive) campaign while Han had to make do with a relatively amateur operation, but this difference is astonishing. After all, the KMT has ample experience running real campaigns; they should have minimum standards for staffing.

The gap on events, where Tsai reported about four times more spending, seems more reasonable to me. We all remember Han’s big, spectacular events. However, as someone who spent the campaign looking for events to attend, it was my clear impression that the Tsai campaign put on a lot more events. A lot of them were smaller, but those all cost money. She was doing several events nearly every day, while he seemed to drop off the campaign trail for two or three days at a time. This also explains the gap in transportation expenses.


Several times over the past few years, I have thought about how the KMT and DPP seemed to have switched roles. These expenditure reports are another example. 25 years ago, the DPP would have been running the shoestring campaign with no professional staff, no fancy offices, and spending everything they could on their message. The KMT was the one with all those overhead costs. I don’t think the DPP has gotten to the old KMT levels of unproductive bureaucratic bloat, but these numbers suggest that they are now the ones running the big, slick, professional operation.

Recent changes in national identity

June 20, 2020

A month ago, I posted a story about public opinion in Taiwan as of May 2020. I looked at polling from MyFormosa, which publishes polls every month. The big takeaway was that – almost certainly because of its effective response to the Covid-19 pandemic – President Tsai, the central government, and (to a lesser extent) the DPP had all surged in popularity. Meanwhile, the KMT’s popularity had plummeted. I did not discuss the upcoming Kaohsiung recall vote in that post, but if you projected those results to Kaohsiung you should not have been surprised that the recall was successful in such a hostile partisan environment to the KMT. (Note: I was still surprised at just HOW successful the recall was.)

In that post, I issued one caveat. What I really wanted to know was whether opinions about national identity had changed, but unfortunately MyFormosa does not ask that question. I always tell people that attitudes toward national identity are the single most important indicator in Taiwan politics. If you can only know one thing, you should ask how many people think they are Chinese (to some extent) or how many people think they are only Taiwanese. Well, now I have some data on this.


Before I show you the results, let me explain why I care so much about this single indicator. In the 1940s and 1950s, American political scientists came to the understanding that voters don’t start each election with a clean slate. Instead, most people have a standing vote choice: all else equal they will usually vote for the same party they have voted for in previous elections. Different people theorized about this standing vote choice in different ways, but the field of voting behavior came to be dominated by the Michigan school, laid out in the 1960 classic The American Voter. The Michigan scholars’ theory was based in social psychology, and they pointed to what they labeled “party identification” as the single most important variable for understanding voting choices. They believed the simple question, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” could explain more than anything else.

Theoretically, they thought of party ID as a group identity. People think of themselves as belonging to groups, such as Catholics, union members, Red Sox fans, ethnic Italians, Texans, hunters, and so on. Some of these group identities are more fundamental to their sense of person than others. The Michigan scholars thought that party ID was one of the basic identities that most people have. I am a Democrat; people who think like I do and share my values are Democrats; this is who we are. In early works, they argued that you learned your party ID as a child on your parents’ knees and kept it until death. The only things that could change a party ID were personal or social cataclysmic events, such as getting married, converting to a different religion, the Civil War, or the Great Depression. Other than that, people tended to continue supporting the same party they had always supported. In fact, this stance tended to get stronger over time due to a mechanism called the perceptual screen. Partisans viewed the world through tinted glasses, and they could almost always interpret the news as evidence that their party and its values were correct and the other party and its lousy values were dead wrong.

In sum, they thought party ID was the most stable and basic political attitude that individuals held. Democrats might vote for Eisenhower because the respected his personal war record or Republicans might vote for Kennedy because they were Catholic, but those were short-term deviations. Party ID was stable, and most people most of the time would vote with their party.

It turned out that party ID was not quite as stable as those early scholars had believed. A famous panel survey in the early 1970s, in which the same respondents were interviewed three times at two-year intervals, showed that quite a few people changed their answers to the party ID question. The early 1970s were a turbulent time in American politics, but no one thought the USA was going through anything as cataclysmic as the Civil War. The theory had to be adjusted in face of the new evidence, and the 1970s and 1980s featured a lot of work about how people constantly update their party ID. Some even suggested that it wasn’t a group identity at all.

In the current era of highly polarized and even tribal American politics, the group identity theory of party ID looks better than it did in the 1970s. Even so, there are still a lot of Americans who don’t think much about politics and certainly don’t think that being a Democrat or a Republican is a core part of who they are.

With that background, let’s return to Taiwan. The two big parties have been building their support coalitions for decades, and the electoral returns show that they have fairly stable bases of support. There are surprises here and there, but it is certainly possible to think of these as short-term deviations from the normal patterns grounded in party ID.

However, as in the USA, there is ample evidence in Taiwan that party ID is not as stable or as fundamental to how people think about themselves as some might think. Of course, there are lots of people who always vote for the DPP and would sooner drink bleach than vote for the KMT. But there are also a lot of people who don’t have strong feelings about either one of the two big, established parties or any of the newer, smaller parties. If you look at polling data in party ID over the past three decades, there are lots of changes. Parties go up, and then they go down. Sometimes the surges and dives are quite sudden and dramatic. This isn’t to say that party ID is completely malleable and fluid; it is still one of the more stable attitudes in our surveys.

However, there is a better indicator. National identity fits that early conception of a group identity even better than party ID. Whether you see yourself as being at least somewhat Chinese or as only Taiwanese shapes much more of your everyday life than simply your political choices. This might affect which language you speak, how you practice your religion, what kinds of foods you eat, which school you choose, which person you fall in love with, how often you argue with your parents, and many other basic aspects of both political and non-political life.

Moreover, national identity is the foundation of the current political system. The Taiwan Voter (2017) argues that while the Michigan school identified the big three factors (party, candidate, issues, in declining importance), Taiwan has a fourth factor, national identity, that precedes and shapes those three factors.

Again, not everyone chooses to clearly define themselves as either somewhat Chinese or exclusively Taiwanese, but many do. The Election Study Center (ESC) asks the national identity question in every poll it conducts, and almost everyone can answer it. People understand this question, and they have an opinion about it. As a result, national identity tends to be the most stable attitude we measure. Of course, the lines go up and down a bit, but not nearly as much as for other variables.


The Taiwan Election and Democratization Study (TEDS) project does most of the political science survey projects in Taiwan these days. TEDS is governed by scholars from every major university and who individually hold every major political viewpoint. However, because we are scholars who care most of all about getting good data to answer our questions, there is less of an incentive to try to produce “good results” for one party or another. Moreover, since we intentionally do not release the data for three months, the media rarely reports any results. As such, this is the most reliable data that Taiwan produces. One of the projects that TEDS does are quarterly telephone surveys on satisfaction with government performance. These are conducted at the ESC, which I have been associated with for 25 years and where I currently hold a joint appointment. I can personally vouch for the integrity of these surveys. Everything we do is with the intention of getting the best possible data. We do not design questions, sampling protocols, or anything else with the intent of producing the “right outcome” for a particular political purpose.

The ESC has been asking the same question about national identity for three decades. “In our society, some people say that they are Taiwanese. There are also people who say that they are Chinese. There are also people who say that they are both. Do you consider yourself as Taiwanese, Chinese, or both?”  我們社會上,有人說自己是「臺灣人」,也有人說自己是「中國人」,也有人說都是。請問您認為自己是「臺灣人」、「中國人」,或者都是?

Every year, the ESC combines the results from every survey it has conducted over the previous year and puts out a chart showing the results of this question over time.

You can see that percentage of people calling themselves Taiwanese peaked in 2014 and then slowly drifted downward through most of Tsai’s first term. However, if you look at the longer trend and ignore the peaks and valleys, you can see that the green line has had a long and steady upward climb over the past quarter century. Research shows that generational replacement is the main driver of this long-term trend. As older people die, they are replaced in the population by younger people who are more likely to identify as only Taiwanese.

One thing that is noticeably missing in this chart are big peaks and valleys that seem to follow current political events. Can you see where the Red Shirt protests of the Chen presidency took place? Maybe, but only barely. Sure, there is a peak in Taiwanese identity in 2014 – the year of the Sunflower Movement – but it only goes from the mid-50s to just over 60, and then it drifts back down again to the mid-50s. 5% is important, but it isn’t an earthquake. Similarly, the line goes back up about 5% again in 2019, a year in which we heard constantly about events in Hong Kong. If you imagine a straight trend line drawn on top of the actual line, the actual line never gets more than 2-3% away from that straight trend line. This is about as stable as anything ever gets.


So now let me show you the most recent data from the quarterly TEDS telephone survey. Again, remember that this is from March so it is already three months old. Things might have changed by now (though there isn’t much reason to expect any major changes between May and June from the fairly stable results in the MyFormosa polls).

Since very few people say that they are only Chinese, I always combine the “Chinese” and “both” categories to get a category in which respondents consider themselves at least partially Chinese. This is the chart showing polls since Tsai’s inauguration in May 2016. Only the last data point comes after her re-election and might reflect the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

That last data point is a clear outlier. From 2016 to 2019, with the exception of the two late 2018 surveys as President Tsai’s nadir, the exclusive Taiwanese line is consistently between 55-60%. In December 2019 – right before President Tsai won re-election in a landslide – 60.9% of respondents identified as exclusively Taiwanese. Three months later in March 2020, that number skyrocketed to 70.3%. We have seen some large shifts before, but those were all changes within the historical range of outcomes. 70% is completely unprecedented. This is a big deal.

We don’t know if this number will stay so high, go even higher, or drift down to more familiar territory. If it does turn out to be a lasting change, it will affect Taiwan’s political environment in profound ways. We will have to wait to see about that. For now, just be aware that the recent changes in Taiwan’s public opinion are potentially much, much more significant than President Tsai’s fantastically high but probably ephemeral approval ratings.

Han is recalled

June 6, 2020

Citizens of Kaohsiung voted today to recall mayor Han Kuo-yu. Less than two years ago, Han was an afterthought in Taiwan’s politics, one of those “didn’t-he-used-to-be?” figures. Sure, he had managed to obtain the KMT’s Kaohsiung mayoral nomination, but that was because the KMT didn’t have anyone good to run in a city they hadn’t won in two decades. Suddenly in about August 2018, he rocketed from being cannon-fodder in the Kaohsiung mayoral election polls to the front-runner. It was unlikely, but it wasn’t a polling error. Somehow, this outsider who seemed thoroughly incompatible with Kaohsiung’s partisan preferences romped to victory, beating the competent but bland DPP candidate by 9%. Almost immediately, KMT supporters started pushing Han to run for president. After all, he had just won an unwinnable race and led a national KMT sweep; he had the magic touch! Even though he had barely taken office as mayor, he rode this wave of enthusiasm. In retrospect, however, when he told a rabid crowd, “I do” [agree to run for president], what Kaohsiung voters seemed to hear was that his wandering eye had already found a prettier girl. His engagement to the KMT marked the start of divorce proceedings with Kaohsiung. As we all know, the presidential race didn’t go well for Han. His early polling lead turned into a landslide defeat. A social group started organizing a recall effort in the fall, and they found plenty of support. Now, less than two years after he dramatically burst on the scene, Han is out. His English name is Daniel, but maybe he should change it to Icarus.


I have two big topics that I want to address. First, I want to talk about the recall. Second, I will speculate on Han’s future and what this says about populism in Taiwan.


I’m not a big fan of recalls. One of the great things about elections is that they produce a resolution. You argue for several months, and then the votes are counted and one side ends up with more power. Especially in local politics, where the stakes are lower, you can then set aside political conflicts for a period of time. Democracy doesn’t work well when the population is at peak mobilization all the time. You need some ebbs and flows. Recalls have the potential to interrupt this rhythm by creating perpetual politics. It gets worse if the threshold for success is too low. When recalls are easy, you are inviting losers to try to overturn the election result. Even if the threshold for passing the recall is high, if it is easy to get a recall on the ballot, that can also be problematic. Long-shot recalls are a form of political harassment, in which the officeholders have to spend time and energy defending their seat. If one side has much stronger organizational and financial resources, it is easy to imagine how recalls could be systematically abused. The current recall law, passed in 2017, makes recalls too easy.

Let me talk in more concrete terms. In 2014, the DPP unexpectedly won the mayorship in Taoyuan. Cheng Wen-tsan turned out to be a very popular mayor, but the KMT has always had enough organizational muscle to put together a petition drive. Under the current law, they could certainly have placed a recall on the ballot. Since Cheng is popular, the KMT might not have been able to mobilize 25% of the eligible voters to vote for the recall. However, since Taoyuan has long been considered blue territory and 29.5% of eligible voters actually voted for his opponent in the 2014 election, Cheng probably would not want to count on that. He would be forced to spend immense amounts of time, energy, and money to mobilize all his supporters again. Remember, the point of this example is that there was never any real reason to recall the popular Cheng. It would simply be political harassment that would sap his resources and take his focus away from actually running the city.

Now that one recall has succeeded, expect to see more. Nothing inspires copycats like success. A plethora of frivolous recalls will not improve Taiwan’s democratic structure.

I don’t think that recalls are all bad, but the current law is too lax. In general, it should be harder to recall someone than for them to be elected in the first place. Recalls should only have a hope of success if the incumbent has become much, much less popular while in office. If there hasn’t been a dramatic change in public opinion, we don’t need recalls. The current law requires 10% of the electorate to sign a petition for the recall to get on the ballot. Maybe that should be increased. To pass the recall, you need more yes votes than no votes, and at least 25% of the eligible voters must vote yes. This is the part that I feel most strongly should be changed. 25% is too low. Rather than one-fourth, I think a more suitable threshold should be one-third. This would be high enough to deter all but the most intense recall efforts.


All that aside, Han’s recall was not frivolous. This was the rare recall that was warranted. I said that it should be harder to recall someone than to elect them in the first place. This recall met that demand.

In the 2018 general election, Kaohsiung had the highest turnout in the country and Han won 892,545 votes. The threshold for the recall was roughly 575,000 yes votes, and Han would have had a legitimate gripe if the recall had barely passed. Why should (for example) 600,000 recall votes be worth more than 892,000 general election votes? Of course, there are arguments to be made. If Han still had 892,000 supporters, he could have mobilized them and beaten back a recall. Moreover, it is a lot harder to get people to come out to vote in an isolated recall vote than in a general election. In a general election, the whole society builds to a crescendo focused on election day, and politicians build careers by learning how to mobilize voters. In a recall, the national focus might be elsewhere, and you certainly don’t have the same level of national mobilization. Still, if 600,000 beat 892,000, Han would have had something to complain about.

As you likely know, the yes side did not merely squeeze past the 25% threshold. An astounding 40.8% of the electorate voted to recall Han. 939,090 voted yes, and 939,000 is clearly bigger than 892,000.

Even more astounding, there were lots of reasons to expect a lower turnout. For one, the world is in the midst of a pandemic. To the best of our knowledge, Covid-19 is not loose in Taiwan. Still, some people might be scared. For another, the city government has been actively trying to hamper election administration. They tried to limit the number of precincts, change voting locations, tore down pro-recall billboards, and accused the recall side of vote-buying and other irregularities. Han told his supporters not to vote, which effectively deprived voters of the secret ballot. Some people, such as civil servants or others who lived in rabidly blue neighborhoods might have worried about repercussions if people saw them voting, since nearly every voter voted yes. There were also rumors that thugs might engage in voter suppression, though I did not see any actual reports of this. The DPP did not really get involved in this recall. While they clearly sympathized and supported it, they mostly left the rallies and mobilization efforts to amateur social activists. President Tsai, Premier Su, Health Minister Chen and other prominent DPP figures pointedly did not go to Kaohsiung and hold a big pro-recall event. The media covered the recall, but it did not get anywhere near the attention that a general election campaign would generate. The island was not gripped with an election fever atmosphere. Finally, there was a massive cloudburst in the afternoon, and most people think that huge rainstorms depress turnout.

In spite of all that, turnout was 42.1%, which would be pretty high for a by-election and is simply mind-boggling considering that only one side participated. (97.4% of the valid votes were yes votes.) I guess we have to remember that we haven’t had many recalls, so we shouldn’t really have strong prior expectations about turnout. We know that 40% is pretty good for a legislative by-election, but we also know that higher offices tend to produce higher turnout. Mayor is Taiwan’s second-highest directly elected office, but we’ve never had a by-election for the mayor of a direct municipality. I think it’s safe to say that the importance of the office helped drive up the turnout in this recall vote.

[Aside: In spite of all those challenges, the recall seems to have been competently administered. A neutral and efficient bureaucracy is a wonderful thing! Let’s hope that the conventional wisdom becomes that Han’s efforts to impede turnout caused a backlash and deters future politicians from repeating this strategy.]


However, I think the most important factor was Han himself, and that brings us to the second big topic. Over the last two years, Han has created a lot of strong opinions about himself. People who like him absolutely adore him, but people who don’t like him tend to detest him. Unfortunately for Han, we have pretty good evidence that there are more people in the latter group than in the former. I think Han is such a polarizing person that people wanted to have their say about him. He has been keeping a low profile for the past few weeks hoping to convince people that his is actually a conscientious administrator, but I think this cake was baked months ago. You can’t change opinions that are etched in stone with just a few weeks of bland behavior. I don’t think a different mayor, even one who isn’t that popular (eg Taichung mayor Lu Hsiu-yen or Changhua magistrate Wang Hui-mei) would inspire this kind of turnout. Han did this to himself.


So what does this mean? There have been suggestions that Han’s next move will be to run for KMT party chair next spring. He might try, but I have doubts about his prospects.

This was a crushing and humiliating repudiation on the heels of a similar crushing and humiliating repudiation five months ago. Han’s path to the presidential nomination was due in large part to the fact that he was a winner. He had conjured up the unimaginable victory in Kaohsiung where everyone else had failed. Somehow, he had convinced a traditionally green constituency to vote for him even though he never deviated from traditional KMT ideas about China and Chineseness. Further, his Han wave had pulled several other KMT candidates to victory all over Taiwan. A year ago, KMT supporters still had good reason to believe in Han. He was a winner. Now he is a loser. Whatever magic used to be there is clearly gone. It worked one time, and it doesn’t work any longer. He can’t even make the argument that the presidential race was all about Hong Kong but his mojo will still work in local politics. If the KMT selects Han as its new chair a year from now, they will do so in spite of clear evidence that he is a ballot box disaster. While party members might like his message, they also want badly to win. I suspect he will find enthusiasm lacking.


After the votes were counted, Han spoke to the media. After thanking his supporters and his governing team, he transformed into the angry populist version of himself. He complained that the Tsai government hasn’t done anything for the people since getting re-elected and instead has focused all of its energy on slandering and recalling him. He also insisted that the media is all against him and sarcastically commended them for working so hard. This message was straight out of his presidential campaign, but it felt especially disconnected tonight. The rest of society seems to think that since the January election the Tsai government has spent most of its energy dealing with the pandemic, both in keeping the virus out of Taiwan and in responding to new economic, diplomatic, and security conditions caused by the pandemic. If polls are any indication, the population seems to think the Tsai government has done quite a bit for ordinary people over the past few months. However, that’s apparently not the mental world Han is living in right now.

The presidential campaign largely turned on national identity, as Taiwan’s elections almost always do. However, Tsai also had to deal with Han’s populist attacks that her government was only concerned about amassing power to enrich itself and not at all about ordinary people. Tsai rebutted Han’s populist rhetoric with two main points. The first was a negative attack: Han is not the person he says he is. While Han wanted voters to think he was just an ordinary person like them, the Tsai campaign pointed to his real estate and other financial dealings. Han was complaining about corrupt politicians, but he himself was just another corrupt politician. The second was a positive message. Han screamed that politicians should work to make ordinary people’s lives better; Tsai responded that she was the one who was actually doing that. She talked at length about raising wages, opening day care centers, strengthening long-term health care, keeping swine flu out of Taiwan, economic growth, and all kinds of other big and small policy successes. Han talked; she produced. As far as I can tell, Tsai’s rebuttal was effective. Han was reduced to his nationalist supporters. In 2018, there were a lot of angry voters who wanted a rotation of power so that the city might produce better policies for them who voted for Han. In 2020, that support disappeared. If you weren’t a traditional KMT voter, you didn’t vote for Han in 2020. The populist argument seemed to have flopped.

With Han’s second repudiation, does that mean populism is dead in Taiwan? I think it probably means that Han’s populism is dead. He is no longer a credible messenger, and the next populist will need a somewhat different message.

However, what about populism in general? The best antidote to populism is good governance, and right now Taiwan is producing outstanding governance. It will be hard to argue that the government hasn’t done anything for ordinary people for the next few years. Everyone will remember that Taiwan has met the challenge of Covid-19 better than any other country in the world. However, you cannot rest on past laurels very long in politics. People will eventually start asking, “what have you done for me lately?” If there is a corruption scandal, that moment will come even sooner. That may be the signal for the next aspiring populist to try out his or her message.

I’ve said before that populism is a more obvious message for the DPP than the KMT. Populism involves a claim to represent “the real people,” implying that not all citizens are members of the real people. Han’s version was essentially anti-elitist, but it isn’t especially potent to claim that elites are not ordinary. A Taiwan nationalist politician railing against “the hidden traitors in our society” might have a much more powerful message. I can even imagine this cropping up in the next presidential election. Tsai’s rhetoric about ROC Taiwan, which explicitly includes all 23 million citizens, is decidedly anti-populist. She will try to ensure that her successor follows that inclusive line. However, a challenger might decide that a more exclusionary message is the best option to wrest away the presidential nomination.

So no, I don’t think Han’s defeat means that Taiwan has decisively and forever killed populism. But populism is not particularly vibrant in contemporary Taiwan.

Public opinion in May 2020

May 28, 2020

I haven’t written much about the state of public opinion in Taiwan since the January election. It is hard to believe that only a year and a half ago, people were writing President Tsai Ing-wen off as a failed president. They weren’t just making things up; her polls were terrible and the DPP suffered a massive defeat in the November 2018 elections. However, over the course of 2019 she pulled off a stunning reversal of fortune. Last year in September, I wrote a post about six astonishing months. However, September 2019 was not her peak. The poll numbers for both her and her party actually got better in November and December, and she led her party to a decisive victory in January.

Let’s flash back to January 2012 for a moment. After four years of low polling numbers and weak – though hardly disastrous – midterm elections, Ma pulled everything back together and won another term. In retrospect, he had a fantastic campaign. His polling numbers peaked almost precisely in January 2012, when the KMT party ID briefly spiked up into the forties and his satisfaction briefly topped his dissatisfaction. However, almost immediately after election day, Ma’s numbers started plunging. I don’t have the exact figures at hand, but if I recall correctly, by his second inauguration in May his satisfaction ratings were already down in the twenties and they never got much higher for the rest of his presidency. It was certainly plausible that Tsai would have a similar experience. However, that is not how things have unfolded thus far.

The Covid-19 pandemic has dominated world news for the past four months, and Taiwan’s response has been far and away the best in the world. Of the wealthy countries that have the state capacity to document the extent of the virus, Taiwan has had the fewest cases. Only Taiwan and a few other countries have managed to avoid an economically devasting social lockdown. Of those, South Korea and Japan have had far more cases and deaths. Even New Zealand, which might have the second-best response in the world, has had to lock down for a while. People might argue that Taiwan has the advantage of being an island with only a few ports of entry. That certainly does make containment easier. However, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and a few other places (arguably Singapore) are also islands or effectively islands, and none of them have managed things quite as well as Taiwan. Taiwan’s economy has stayed open, the schools were only delayed for a couple weeks after the winter break, and life has continued more or less normally here. We all have TVs and can see that this is not how the rest of the world has experienced the pandemic. Taiwan has done better, and it should not be surprising that public evaluations of the DPP government are extremely positive. People like good governance.


I am going to look at a few polls from the MyFormosa website. As I have written before, these polls are supervised by Tai Li-an 戴立安, one of the most senior and well-respected public pollsters in the country. The MyFormosa polls historically tend to produce slightly better results for the DPP than some other polls, but it isn’t a very large partisan bias. More importantly, they publish a poll every month with the same questions and the same sampling and interviewing methodology so that we can track changes over time. They did not publish a poll at the end of January; I guess they were worn out from the election and needed a break. Conveniently, this gap helps us visually mark the pre-election and post-election periods.


Let’s start with evaluations of President Tsai. MyFormosa asks both whether respondents trust her and whether they are satisfied with her overall performance as president. For the moment, let’s focus on satisfaction. The story of most of Tsai’s first term was her dismal satisfaction ratings. In December 2018, she was nearly 50 points underwater. This led to the KMT election landslide, predictions of her political burial, and a primary challenge for the presidential nomination. However, November and December 2018 were the low point, and her numbers slowly improved. By November and December 2019, the last two polls before the presidential election, she was roughly 10 points above water. As dramatic as that reversal was, there was still more to come. In the last three months, her approval rating has been a nearly unfathomable 70%, 40-45 points higher than her dissatisfaction numbers. The Taiwanese population has historically been pretty stingy with approval ratings for presidents; I don’t think we have ever seen these sorts of numbers for this length of time. Of course, this can’t possibly be sustainable; her satisfaction ratings have to come down. Taiwan has highly developed partisan politics, and eventually those long-term ingrained political preferences will reassert themselves.

What about trust in Tsai? The responses to satisfaction and trust are very similar, and in the past I’ve just used one or the other. However, there is a little difference. Back when Tsai’s numbers were dismal, she always did a bit better in trust than satisfaction. For example in February 2019 she was 38 points underwater in satisfaction but only 28 points underwater in trust. That is, there was a group of people who weren’t satisfied with her performance but still trusted her to do the right thing. This was probably the easiest group of voters to win back during the 2019 campaign. At any rate, now that she is doing well, the gap between satisfaction and trust has almost disappeared. The people who aren’t on board now are really not on board. That last 25% is probably never going to express any sort of positive opinion toward her.

MyFormosa also asks about satisfaction for the premier, but it’s pretty much the same story so I won’t tell it again. Premier Su is pretty popular these days.

A more interesting question is how people feel about the economy. MyFormosa asks whether they have a positive or a negative evaluation toward the overall domestic economy. This month, 68.2% gave a negative evaluation and only 28.5% gave a positive evaluation. That sounds pretty pessimistic. However, you have to remember two things. One, the world economy is objectively terrible right now, and Taiwan is highly integrated into the world economy. Two, as I keep saying, the Taiwanese public is historically pretty stingy in giving out good evaluations. A look back at the previous year show that the current evaluation is the worst since about last August. Think about that. The United States is talking about the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression 90 years ago. In Taiwan, it’s not even the worst people have felt in the last calendar year. In fact, if you look at the February and March 2020 results, when the pandemic was still mostly confined to China, people here were relatively optimistic. Taiwan has been active in trying to find economic opportunities, such as filling orders that shuttered Chinese factories could not and encouraging the movement of supply chains out of China. The numbers got quite a bit more pessimistic in April, when the American and European economies came under attack. Still, because the economy is open, we get a fair share of good domestic economic news to go along with the horrible international economic news. In this global environment, I’d have to say that the public’s economic evaluations are actually quite sunny.


This is a blog about elections, so I ultimately care about how public opinion refracts back on politics. We are over two years from the next general election, so at this stage I care about the deeper, long-term orientations. What I really want to know right now is whether these four months have affected national identity. After all, Taiwan has spent much of the last few months insisting that it is not China while having the rest of the world clumsily step on that painful nerve. I would not be surprised if the percentage of people saying they are Taiwanese and NOT Chinese has risen. However, MyFormosa does not ask the Taiwanese/Chinese question, and I haven’t seen results on this anywhere else. I guess we’ll have to wait until late June for the March TEDS results or, better yet, until late September for the June survey. I always tell people that if you can only have one number about Taiwanese politics, you should ask for the percentage of people who self-identify as exclusively Taiwanese. Unfortunately, we just don’t have that number right now.

What the MyFormosa data can tell us something about is how the parties are doing in the period since the election. The short answer is that the DPP is doing a little better and the KMT is doing quite a bit worse.

Here is the chart for party ID. In the post-election period, the line for the DPP is up slightly from the pre-election period. (In my mind, I’m comparing the four post-election data points with the last four or five pre-election data points.) The line for “other green” is also slightly higher. [note: MyFormosa always includes categories called “other blue camp” and “other green camp.” I’m not quite sure how they ask this, but those two responses always get quite a few respondents.] The most dramatic difference, however, is for the opposition. The KMT line is markedly lower after the election. More surprisingly, the “other blue” category is also lower. One might have thought that dissatisfied KMT supporters would stay somewhere in the blue camp, but that isn’t what has happened.

I don’t have much to say about the three smaller parties. There doesn’t seem to be any clear change for them.

You can see the patterns for the big parties more clearly by just looking at the aggregation of party support into camps. When the green camp hit the low 40s just before the election, I thought that it had to be an anomaly. They’ve never had that kind of support, and, anyway, it couldn’t possibly last. Six months later, that number is still in the low 40s. Color me surprised. However, the bigger change is in the blue camp, which these data say is in an absolute crisis. Under Han Kuo-yu’s leadership, the KMT hemorrhaged support all through 2019. Who knew that it could get quite a bit worse? In the last poll before the election, the green camp lead over the blue camp was 17.4%. Tsai beat Han by 18.5% and the blue camp (Han plus Soong) by 14.3%. In the May poll, the green camp lead is 26.0%. How much would she win by today? How big would the DPP’s legislative majority be today?

MyFormosa groups respondents into nine categories depending on how they feel about the two big parties. There are three pro-DPP categories, three pro-KMT categories, and three neutral categories. You can see the same partisan trends here, with the green groups at the top dominating about the same proportion of the population since last November, and the three blue categories at the bottom compromising a pathetically small portion of the chart.

One of the interesting things about this table concerns two of the neutral categories. Group 4 includes respondents who like both parties, which Group 6 includes people who dislike both parties. A year ago, angry Group 6 was much larger than amiable Group 4. Now, they are about the same size. If you read my blog last year, you might remember that Ko Wen-je dominated Group 6. Han Kuo-yu did pretty well among Group 6 in the early 2019 polls, but they increasingly rejected him as the year went on. I suspect Group 6 is one of the primary engines fueling the 2018 populist wave, and I’m happy to see it shrinking a bit. I hope this is a result of witnessing good governance.


I saved what might be the scariest chart for the KMT until last. So far, the picture has been that people think the DPP government has done a good job, but that really hasn’t paid off in clearly higher partisan support. The DPP’s relative position has improved because the KMT has suffered a loss in support.

MyFormosa asks respondents how they feel about the two big parties, whether they have good feelings 好感 or bad feelings 反感 about them. Since the election, the KMT’s chart has gotten a bit worse. More respondents have bad feelings than good feelings, and the gap grew from about 30 points before the election to 38 points in March (though it has narrowed again in May).

The chart for the DPP is more dramatic. Before the election, good feelings toward the DPP outweighed bad feelings by about 6 points. In February, that gap exploded to 29 points. Even after narrowing in May, it is still 22 points. The good feelings have increased, but the bad feelings have decreased by even more. In other words, four months of good governance seem to have taken some of the vitriol toward the DPP out of the system. Think about the people who don’t support the DPP and will probably never vote for it. Fewer and fewer of those people are expressing outright bad feelings about the party. The DPP’s support rate might not have noticeably increased over the past few months, but this sort of emotional shift – the lack of poison in people’s guts – could slowly yield dividends over the long term.



Han recall, four weeks out

May 12, 2020

A little less that four weeks before the Kaohsiung mayoral recall vote, it isn’t looking really great for Mayor Han.

Remember, two conditions are necessary for the recall to succeed. Yes votes must outnumber no votes, and yes votes must be at least 25% of the eligible voters. The overall turnout rate does not matter.

There is a moderate amount of polling from pollsters of varying quality. However, the results are startlingly consistent. The wonderful Wikipedia editors have collected five polls since the beginning of February.

pollster date turnout yes no Turnout + yes
Apple May 8 47.7 51.3 33.0 37.3
INA May 5 47.5 55.1 32.0 36.0
NPP Apr 20 43.7 52.1 35.2 33.2
TBT Mar 20 51.2 59.5 34.5 39.5
TVBS Feb 7 44 53 32 34.8

All of them show that around 45-50% of respondents say they will vote. By about a 5 to 3 margin, people saying they will vote yes outnumber people who say they will vote no. There are some undecided voters, but with such a large margin of yes over no, it seems pretty unlikely that Han can defeat the turnout by mobilizing all his supporters to vote no.

If the first condition is likely to be satisfied, that means that Han’s best chance is for the yes votes to fall below 25% of eligible voters. These polls all show votes for the recall in the mid to high 30s, well above that threshold.

Of course, survey respondents always tell pollsters that they will turn out to vote. If memory serves me correctly, in the recent presidential election, in most polls somewhere around 90% of respondents claimed that they planned to vote. In fact, turnout was just under 75%. However, I think that turnout near 50% is not an unreasonable expectation. Lots of by-elections for legislators or even township mayors get 40% turnout, so it doesn’t seem unlikely at all that you would get 50% turnout for such a high-profile recall as this. There two reasons for this. One is that higher offices produce higher turnout. Direct municipalities are springboards to the presidency. All things equal, we should expect more interest in this race than in a legislative or township mayor race. Moreover, Han is an extremely well-known politician who arouses strong feelings.

In other words, if nothing dramatic changes between now and June 6, I think it is pretty likely that the recall will succeed.


Han has thus far tried a few things to turn back the recall. First, he has tried mobilizing his own loyal supporters to come out and vote no. He has some very loyal and ardent fans, but the polls show little promise for this strategy. Second, he has tried positioning himself as a serious and conscientious mayor who is concerned with public health. I don’t think this is working either. Attitudes about Han were baked pretty solidly during the presidential election; I doubt he can reshape his image this quickly with this little media attention. Third, he has tried to suppress turnout through his control over the city government machinery. Lots of the usual polling places have tried to refuse to be available as a polling place this time, claiming that serving as a polling place would clash with their anti-Covid responsibilities. I don’t think this is going to work either. On the one hand, the Central Election Commission is working hard to ensure that there are enough polling places available. On the other hand, voters who think that a politician is trying to deprive them of their right to vote often turn out in even higher numbers. The wider KMT is not going to actively support vote suppression tactics either. Neither party has a tradition of vote suppression, and being tarred with that label could have devastating long-term consequences.


Han’s best hope is that the Covid-19 pandemic will scare large numbers of voters into thinking that it is too dangerous to turn out. That is, actively trying to suppress the vote might not work, but passively (or through underground murmurs) hoping that people are scared might work. What would really help Han is if there were a few cases of domestic transmission over the next few weeks to terrify voters. In a nutshell, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) is making Han’s recall more likely by successfully keeping Taiwan virus-free.

There is a high-stakes game going on with relaxing restrictions. Every time the government announces a relaxation – allowing more fans into baseball games, encouraging tourism, relaxing social distancing on public transportation – it sends a message to Kaohsiung voters that society is safe. The safer people feel, the more likely it is that they will come out to vote. However, relaxing restrictions simultaneously makes it more likely that any person who has the virus and is out in society will infect a higher number of people. News of such a disaster would almost certainly lower turnout and might push the number of yes votes below 25%. Of course, I don’t think the government’s primary consideration is the Kaohsiung recall, but the success or failure of that recall may nonetheless depend on the success or failure of their relaxation measures.


I love the irony of Han’s fate depending on governance. Han is a populist who claimed that the DPP government was hopelessly corrupt and therefore bad at governing. Now, his best (only?) chance of survival is if the DPP government, which has been so glaringly competent for the last year and a half, suddenly morphs into the incompetent regime of Han’s rhetoric. On the other hand, if it was an ungrounded attack all along, Han is probably doomed. President Tsai’s good governance crushed his populism in the presidential election, and now even better performance from her administration this year might be the death blow to his mayorship.