Feb 27 by-elections

Ok, what about the four seats up for election next week.  Well, there aren’t any of our bellwether districts among the four.  Chiayi County 2 is a very strong DPP district, while the other three are heavily blue.

Chiayi 2 is hardly worth talking about, since the DPP candidate is going to crush his opponent.  Chen Mingwen 陳明文 just finished two terms as county executive and is highly popular in a district that favors the DPP.  The KMT has a political novice plucked out of a university who is so anonymous that the party chair can’t even remember his name, which, for the record, is Lin Derui 林德瑞.  (At a recent rally, President Ma called him Lin Dexun.  Twice.)

The other three races are on decidedly pro-KMT turf.  In the table above, Taoyuan 3 is 64-32, Hsinchu County is 70-23, and Hualian is 73-23.   Even if KMT popularity has slipped significantly, these should still be safe KMT seats.  Only if you think that the Taidong County by-election was an indicator of a new island-wide political reality rather than a freak local occurrence should you think that the DPP might be expected to win any of these seats in a straight fight.  However, that seems to be exactly the line that most of Taiwan’s media has swallowed.  Again and again, I read or see someone point to the “Taidong Experience” as a reason that the KMT will win Hualian.  More people seem to expect the DPP to sweep all four seats than expect the KMT to win two of them.  Personally, I think the KMT has done a masterful job of lowering expectations so that if they win two or three of the seats, they’ll be able to claim they have been re-energized (under Secretary General King Pu-tsung 金溥聰) and things are now different.

Taoyuan 3 is entirely in Zhongli City 中壢市, and it covers about 90% of the city.   Unfortunately for the KMT candidate in this race, the best 10% is not in this district.  This district is 64-32 blue; the 20,000 or so votes in Taoyuan 6 went blue by a whopping 77-19.  Zhongli is traditionally part of the Hakka heartland, but the ever-expanding Greater Taipei region has sent more and more non-Hakkas into this area looking for cheaper housing.  There is also a heavy military and mainlander presence in Zhongli, though a large number of them are in the other legislative district.  The TVBS surveys indicate that this district is currently about 45% Hakka, 40% Minnan, and 12% Mainlander.

The DPP candidate is Huang Renzhu 黃仁杼.  I can’t tell you much about Huang other than that he was a member of the county assembly for several terms.  He ran for Zhongli mayor last December and lost a three-way race by only 1,000 votes, a very good showing for a DPP candidate in this very blue city.  But let’s not make too much of it, it was, after all, a three-way race and Huang only got 37%.  Huang seems to be a classic grassroots candidate.  He isn’t making much of a splash in the media, and he just seems to be a solid, though limited, candidate.

The blue side is much more fun.  The KMT made a hash of their nominations.  This was one of King Putsung’s 金溥聰 first big decisions when he took over the KMT party machinery.  King decided that he wanted to match the DPP by nominating either an image or grassroots candidate according to their choice.  He had two grassroots possibilities, the mayor and deputy mayor of Zhongli City, and one image candidate, Chen Xuesheng 陳學聖.  King ran some polls and found Chen in third place.  However, he found he couldn’t nominate one of the grassroots candidates without provoking a backlash from the other, and in the meantime, the DPP had nominated a grassroots candidate.  So he nominated Chen, the image candidate.  This prompted the mayor to announce his enthusiastic support for Chen and the deputy mayor, Lin Xiangmei林香美, to announce her candidacy.  So basically, King didn’t achieve any of his goals.  He didn’t match the DPP candidate, and he didn’t avoid a party split.  In fact, he legitimized the split by publicly admitting that Lin had more support than Chen.

Chen Xuesheng is an interesting character.  He started out as a member of the Taipei City council in the 1990s, but he was bright, ambitious, and by all accounts performed well in office.  He moved up to the legislature in 1998, and he was convinced that he would take over as Taipei City mayor in 2006 after Ma’s two terms.  However, he lost his LY re-election bid in 2004.  Oops.  (Why did he lose?  I published an article on strategic voting and strong candidates in SNTV elections.)  With his ambitions in Taipei in tatters (and Hau Longbin steamrolling to the nomination), Chen announced that he was moving to Kaohsiung City, where he would run for mayor.  Well, that didn’t work out so well.  A couple of years ago, he landed in Taoyuan in the county government under Zhu Lilun 朱立倫  (who was then Taoyuan County Executive, is now Vice-Premier, and is rumored to be the KMT’s favored candidate in Taipei County later this year).  I’m guessing that Zhu had something to do with this nomination.  Chen is not a great fit for this district, since he isn’t local and he isn’t Hakka.  However, he does have a track record as an effective, idealistic, and honest legislator.  He needs a district, and Zhongli is blue enough that his partisanship alone should be enough.

The media seems ready to hand this district to Huang and the DPP, but then the national media can’t seem to imagine that the DPP could lose any race right now.  The polls say that Chen has a small lead, but polls must be interpreted, not simply read.  You have to account for voters who don’t live in the district but will return home to vote, low turnout, strategic voting, poll-fatigue among respondents, and a few other things.  The polls also say that Lin Xiangmei and Wu Yudong 吳餘東 (who I don’t know anything about other than that he served a couple of terms in the county assembly) are drawing significant support.  Support for third candidates that seems solid in surveys often dries up in the voting booth, so we’ll see.  Presumably, these two are taking more votes away from Chen than from Huang, so if their support vanishes, Chen should be the beneficiary.  In short, the best reason to believe that Huang will win is turnout.  Turnout should be low, and the prevailing assumption is that energized DPP supporters will vote and demoralized KMT supporters will not.  That seems like a fairly risky assumption to me.  If I had to bet, I’d bet with, not against, the partisan structure of the district and throw my money on Chen.

Hsinchu County is, on paper, even bluer than Taoyuan 3.  In 2008, the party list vote was 70-23.  However, partisan attachments are not as solid here as in most of Taiwan.  During the 1990s, the DPP had a string of successes and held the county government for 12 years.  There are two KMT heavyweights who have dominated local politics for the past decade, and this current by-election is still largely about them.  Zheng Yongjin 鄭永金 started out as speaker of the county assembly, moved up to legislator, and just finished two terms as county executive.  Qiu Jingchun 邱鏡淳 was a member of the provincial assembly, then a legislator, and was just elected county executive in December.  In the 2005 county executive race, Qiu wanted to challenge Zheng, but was persuaded to step aside and wait his turn.  In 2009, Zheng did not return the favor by supporting Qiu.  Instead he put forward his own candidate, and Qiu had to fight a bitter campaign.  The antipathy runs deep between these two.  The KMT would have certainly preferred to let these wounds heal a bit before launching into another campaign, but they have to fill Qiu’s vacated seat in the legislature.

The KMT surprised many people by nominating Zheng Yongjin’s younger brother Zheng Yongtang 鄭永堂 for the empty seat.  Perhaps King Pu-tsung thought giving each heavyweight a piece of the pie would keep them both in his camp for the 2012 election.  However, the immediate result will probably be an election debacle.  Publicly, the Qiu faction elites are saying the polite things about Zheng Yongtang, but I don’t think they’re working for him.  They’re probably working against him to the extent they can keep their actions hidden.  Or it might be that the voters, not the leaders, are the ones who can’t bring themselves to cooperate with Zheng.

The DPP candidate, by the way, is Peng Shaojin 彭紹瑾, though he might as well be a toaster since this election is all about the KMT.  Peng is a former prosecutor who made his name in the judicial reform movement.  He served a couple of terms in the legislature, winning his seat in Taoyuan County.  In 2008, Taoyuan didn’t have enough spots for all the DPP politicians, so he moved south to his original home in Hsinchu County.  He hasn’t exactly lit the district on fire in his past campaigns.

The polls[1] show Peng with a healthy lead, and I think he will probably end up winning.  If he does, let’s not get carried away and start claiming that the DPP is now the dominant party in Hsinchu.

Hualian is probably the hardest race to understand.  This is usually the case.  Years ago, a friend from Hualian tried to explain to me why I couldn’t understand what was going on there by saying that voters in Hualian never vote for anyone, they only vote against.  Ok, I’m still confused.

Demographically, Hualian is the most diverse county in Taiwan.  The common saying is that each of the four major groups (Minnan, Hakka, mainlander, aborigine) has a quarter of the population.  This is not quite accurate, though no group has a majority.  Minnan voters are roughly 40% of the population, and Hakka and Mainlanders are considerably less than 25%.  Since this is a legislative election and the aborigines have their own constituency, that 24.3% of the electorate doesn’t vote in this race.  TVBS breaks the district down as roughly 60% Minnan, 25% Hakka, and 10-15% Mainlander.

Hualian is also a very blue county.  In fact, according to my favorite table (see previous post – if only I knew how to create links…), Hualian is the blue camp’s best district in Taiwan at 73-23, losing only to Jinmen and Matsu, the two islands off the China coast.  Unlike Hsinchu County, this partisanship seems fairly solid.[2] The best the DPP has ever done in Hualian is 43% in the 1997 county executive election.  That was, of course, the year everything went right for the DPP.  Other than that year, the green camp’s best showing was 34% in the 1998 legislative election.  Unfortunately, the 34% was split between two candidates, and both lost.  Normally, the DPP has been between 20% and 30%.  This year, the DPP doesn’t even have a local candidate.  They had to parachute in someone from Taipei (more on her later).  So how could the KMT possibly lose this race?

Sometimes I think this race is all about Fu Kunqi 傅崑萁, who vacated this seat when he won the county exective race in December.  Other times, I think that’s ridiculous.  Let me explain.  Fu was a three-term PFP legislator who wanted to move up to the county executive position.  Unfortunately, he has been convicted in a financial speculation case and is currently appealing the sentence.  The KMT did not wish to be tainted with this scandal and disqualified him from the nomination contest.  Instead, President Ma handpicked one of his closest allies, Department of Health Minister Ye Jinchuan 葉金川, to run in the race.  With Fu disqualified, the KMT thought it would just run a normal primary and Ye would win easily.  However, Fu decided that he was going to run, and he wanted to face a weak opponent.  So in the primary, he mobilized his supporters on behalf of Du Lihua 杜麗華, a candidate without much real support of her own.  Du won, Ye withdrew, and the KMT got stuck with a lousy candidate.  In the general election, Fu rolled up a huge victory.  In the by-election, Fu is supporting his own candidate, Shi Shenglang 施勝郎.  What is Fu’s game?  One school of thought is that he is playing a game of chicken with the KMT.  The KMT’s ultimate goal is the 2012 election, and Fu is demonstrating just how much popular support he has and how dangerous it would be to alienate them.  What he wants in return for being a good soldier is, of course, for his conviction to conveniently go away.  (This is, it should be reiterated, all speculation.  It is not clear that the judiciary is not sufficiently independent that it cannot repulse any efforts to meddle.  It is also not clear that I am incapable of refraining from not using any more negatives.)

On the other hand, there are actual candidates in this race, and maybe we should think about them.  The KMT has nominated Wang Tingsheng 王廷升.  Wang is a professor at a local university, and, more importantly, his father Wang Qingfeng 王慶豐 was county executive in the 1990s.  Wang thus has his own network of supporters (and probably a set of people who oppose him) deeply embedded into the political fabric.  Much of the national media coverage has been focused on the DPP candidate Bi-khim Hsiao 蕭美琴.  Hsiao is a figure with a national profile, having served in several highly visible party and government positions during the Chen administration.  She has no connection with Hualian, but agreed to attempt what she called this “mission impossible.”  She has run an aggressive campaign, talking a lot about economic development on the east coast, but it’s hard to tell just how much effect her publicity has actually had.

The polls show this to be a very close race, which is, in and of itself, a major victory for the DPP.  Many of the same questions that I raised in the section on the Taoyuan 3 election also apply here.  Will Shi Shenglang’s support disappear in the actual voting?  How low will turnout be, and will this favor one party or another?

As in Taoyuan, I tend to think that the underlying blue advantage is just too overwhelming for the DPP to win this seat.  Strange things happen from time to time, but it’s probably not wise to expect them to happen.

In thinking about these races, I have written a lot about local and particular factors.  Maybe it is a good idea to end by coming back to the national factors, which clearly matter quite a lot.  The KMT’s popularity has slipped significantly since 2008, so that what was a 73-23 district in Hualian is probably now a much smaller KMT advantage.  We don’t know how much things have changed, but we’re pretty sure that they have.  No matter who wins the seats, the DPP will almost certainly do very well.  Just remember that three of the four seats are being fought on decidedly pro-KMT turf.  If even these districts have close contests, the KMT is in real trouble nationally.


[1] Here’s an example of how you have to be careful with polls.  The sample in most recent TVBS poll is 61% Hakka, 28% Minnan, and 7% mainlander.  I’m pretty sure the actual percentage of Hakkas in Hsinchu County is closer to 80%.  Why would the survey be so far off?  One possibility, and this is just speculation, is that TVBS doesn’t have enough interviewers who are fluent in Hakka.  I don’t have any idea how undersampling Hakka voters might affect the horse race.

[2] A couple of people have tried to remind me that the DPP won a legislative seat here way back in 1992 by parachuting in former DPP chair Huang Hsinchieh 黃信介.  This, they claim, is a precedent and proves the DPP could win this election.  Pshaw!  That was a two seat district.  The first KMT candidate got nearly twice as many votes as he needed and the second got just fewer than Huang (after they subtracted the extra ones he stuffed in the ballot boxes).  There was also a third KMT candidate who came very close to winning.  Huang got a little less than 22% of the total votes.  In other words, this was roughly a 73-23 district back then, too.

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