The Hualian campaign and predictions

On the eve of the legislative yuan by-election, I thought I’d update the races and make some highly dubious predictions.

Three of the races are shaping up mostly as I discussed in my previous posts.  Chiayi County 2 is going to be a landslide DPP win.  Stunningly, the KMT seems to have publicly given up on the race in Hsinchu County.  KMT spokesmen are  publicly only hoping to protect two seats, and they always mean Taoyuan 3 and Hualian.

In Taoyuan, the race has degenerated into an ugly series of accusations that the other side is cheating, corrupt, an outsider, and so on.  The KMT has largely ignored the two independent candidates and focused its attacks on the DPP candidate, Huang Renzhu 黃仁杼.  Huang seemed like a much stronger candidate at the beginning of the campaign, but I think the KMT’s efforts to portray him as a small-minded, local, visionless, grassroots figure are taking some effect.

Something very interesting, however, is happening in Hualian.  The campaign has turned into a full-blown issue-oriented, not personality-oriented, campaign.  One issue is dominating discussion: transportation.  To understand this, we’re going to need some background.

Here’s a map of Hualian County from Wikipedia.  Hualian is in red.

Taiwan ROC political division map Hualien County.svg

At the end of 2009, 4.5% of the total population lived in the three counties along the east coast.  2.0% lived in Ilan County, just north of Hualian County; 1.0% lived in Taidong County, just south of Hualian County; and the other 1.5% lived in Hualian County.[1] Why do so few people live on the east coast?  A quick glance at a topographical map answers this question.

As you can see, it’s very hard to get from the Taipei area to Ilan County.  It’s even harder to get from Ilan County to Hualian County.  It’s not hard at all to get from Hualian to Taidong, since the East Coast Rift Valley is about 30km wide and runs from Hualian City at the northern mouth of the valley, to Taidong City, at the southern mouth.

Currently, there are three ways to get from Taipei to Hualian.  You can fly, take the train, or drive.  Driving is a real drag.  Ten years ago, there were two provincial highways going from Taipei to Ilan.  One was a winding mountain road; the other was a winding coastal road.  Both roads are heavily traveled two lane highways and are quite slow and dangerous.  The coastal route, which most heavy trucks used, had the added disadvantage of going to Jilong City, not directly to Taipei City.  Getting to Ilan is the easy part.  There is one road going from Ilan to Hualian.  This road is one of the most breathtaking roads in the world.  The mountains rise straight out of the ocean over 1000 feet high in many places.  (This is also true below the waves; the ocean floor is over 1000 feet below sea level.  From mountain peak to ocean floor is probably less than 100 feet horizontally in many places.)  For long stretches at a time, the road is carved out of the rock halfway up the side of the mountain.  Since you follow the shape of the mountainside, the road can be very twisty and prone to collapse.  In several sections, they have opted to build a short tunnel, but you can still see the old road going around the outside of the mountain.  Over the past three decades, the road has gotten progressively safer but less beautiful as they have built more and more of these bypass tunnels.  However, there is still plenty of scenic road left.  On a sunny summer day, the ocean waters are a deep blue and the mountains are dark brown, except where covered with lush green vegetation.  I’ve taken several memorable trips on this road, and it makes me happy every time.  Well, unless it’s not a sunny summer day.  When it is dark, when it rains, or both, this road is downright terrifying.  Even when it’s bright and sunny, this road is very slow.

About 5 years ago, it became much easier to get to Ilan from Taipei.  The government built a beautiful new four-lane divided freeway.  It cost a lot of money because it has several long tunnels deep underneath the surface.  The longest tunnel is over 12km long.  It also cuts the time to get to Ilan by more than half (unless, as is frequently the case on holidays, it has a traffic jam), and is far safer than either of the old roads.  As you might guess, weekend tourism in Ilan is booming.  It’s still very hard to get to Hualian or Taidong, however.

Let’s return to the campaign.  The DPP has never done very well in Hualian, and it didn’t have a local candidate willing to take up the fight.  They nominated Bi-khim Hsiao 蕭美琴, who has likely spent more time in Ohio[2] than in Hualian.  I think a lot of what has happened is probably due to a short-term horizon.  Hsiao had to have figured that her political career in Hualian would last all of two months, after which she would return to Taipei.  She took the nomination as a service to her party, and determined to fight (and lose) the good fight.  Since she had no reasonable chance of winning and wanted to bolster, not sully, her national image, she had no reason to descend into ugly mudslinging.  Rather, she constructed a policy-oriented campaign centered around economic development and transportation.  She is calling for several things, most notably for the government to subsidize half the price of bus and train tickets to Hualian and for Hualian businesses to be exempt from the operating tax.  The latter is inspired by her shock and disbelief[3] upon coming to Hualian and finding that Hualian’s level of development is roughly the same as Penghu’s.[4] Penghu businesses have a special exemption from the operating tax, and Hsiao insists that the residents “behind the mountains” should get the same treatment.  All of this would be just more cheap talk, but the DPP has introduced an “East Coast Development Act” in the legislature and pushed it through to the second reading.  The DPP bill budgets NT50 billion (USD 1.6 billion) for east coast development.  The KMT has reacted with its own version of the bill, but it provides for far less funding.  I wonder how Hsiao ever managed to get the DPP to accept responsibility for her campaign promises.  It must have been part of her conditions for accepting the nomination in the first place.  “If I go, I’ll have to run on transportation issues, so you’ll have to support my bill in the legislature.”  Of course, since neither she nor the DPP expected her to win, they probably did not expect to really have to pass or take responsibility for the financial consequences of these promises.

One thing that Hsiao noticeably has not endorsed is the freeway plan.  There is a plan to extend the Taipei-Ilan freeway all the way down the east coast.  Public opinion in Hualian (and presumably Taidong) is solidly in favor of the freeway.  There are two major reasons that it hasn’t been built: cost and environmental impact.  I can’t judge the environmental issues, except to say that people around the rest of the island seem to be more worried about environmental impact than people in Hualian.  Financially, this is a classic case of concentrated benefits and diffused costs.  People in Hualian would benefit disproportionally from the road while paying only a small fraction of the costs.  One estimate for the cost of the section between Ilan and Hualian was NT 89 billion (USD 2.8 billion).  About 70% of that was earmarked for one especially long tunnel.[5]

The candidate stumping hard for the highway is independent Shi Shenglang 施勝郎. In fact, the KMT has accused Shi of only having one idea.  Perhaps, but it seems to be a potent one.  The Shi campaign is practically daring the KMT to match its appeal.  County executive Fu Kunqi 傅崑萁 has publicly said that he will switch his support to the KMT candidate as soon as President Ma signs a statement that he will start building the freeway this term.

The KMT has responded by attacking Shi almost as much or perhaps even more than Hsiao.  I think this is a big mistake.  In Taoyuan, the KMT has ignored the two minor candidates, and they seem to be fading into the background.  In Hualian, the KMT has ensured that people think of this race as having three distinct choices.  It is entirely possible that the KMT argument that a vote for Shi is really a vote for Hsiao may backfire by reminding voters that Shi is in the race.  The KMT would have been better off by focusing on Hsiao and turning this into a choice between KMT and DPP.

OK, how about some predictions?  First, a disclaimer.  I don’t have much confidence in my predictions.  Each election is an incredibly complex phenomenon that we only see a very small slice of.  This is true for people working 24 hours a day on the campaigns, and it is much more true for people like me who see the election from afar and in scattered little bits.  Moreover, I rely heavily on past events to predict future events.  One reason that the social sciences are much more difficult than the natural sciences is that people, unlike molecules, learn, adjust their behavior, and even strategically.  My “predictions” are really just glorified guesses, and I expect them to be wrong quite often.

Here are my best guesses:

Chiayi County 2: Chen Mingwen 陳明文 (DPP) 69; Lin Derui 林德瑞 (KMT) 31.

Hsinchu County: Peng Shaojin 彭紹瑾 (DPP) 54; Zheng Yongtang 鄭永堂 (KMT) 46.

Taoyuan County Third District: Chen Xuesheng 陳學聖 (KMT) 49; Huang Renzhu 黃仁杼 (DPP) 40; Wu Yudong 吳餘棟 (IND) 7, Lin Xiangmei 林香美 (IND) 4.

Hualian County:  Bi-khim Hsiao 蕭美琴 (DPP) 44; Wang Tingsheng 王廷生 (KMT) 42; Shi Shenglang 施勝郎 (IND) 14.

I’m stunned by my own predictions.  That would be DPP 3, KMT 1.  According to the political map, the KMT should win the latter three seats handily.  I can’t believe that I think the DPP will be close in all of them, much less win in two of them.  I must be off my rocker.

[1] For reference, 29.7% of the total population lived in Greater Taipei (Taipei City, Taipei County, and Jilong City on the northern tip of the island.

[2] Hsiao has a BA from Oberlin and an MA from Columbia.

[3] Somehow she has turned being an outsider into an advantage.  She could naively and innocently be shocked by conditions in Hualian, leading to (convenient) moral outrage at the state of affairs.  In other words, her appeal is “I had no idea it was this bad!  We have to do something about this!”

[4] Penghu is the chain of islands to the west of central Taiwan.

[5] The central government is investigating an alternate plan to upgrade the existing provincial highway by putting in a few tunnels in the most treacherous sections.  This plan would cost about half as much as building a new freeway.  It would also still leave east coast residents with a two-lane, unlimited access highway with large stretches of winding road.

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