The DPP primary for Kaohsiung City Mayor has turned nasty. Kaohsiung County executive Yang Qiuxing 楊秋興, who everyone thinks is trailing by a significant margin, has launched a barrage of attacks on Chen Ju 陳菊. The main thrust of these attacks is that Chen has been using her control of the Kaohsiung City government to keep tabs on Yang’s campaign and supporters and to subject his supporters to various sorts of pressure. For example, Yang accused Chen of sending a policeman to a year-end banquet held by one of his supporters and reporting who showed up, how long they stayed, and whether they spoke. In another case, Yang claimed that after he visited a temple and obtained their support, the Kaohsiung City government sent an inspector who found that the temple was in violation of various laws. These are precisely the kinds of tactics the KMT used to use against the opposition during the authoritarian era, so DPP supporters are quite sensitive to these charges.
Chen, of course, denies all these charges. She has answered them with a classic appeal to trust, “You know me, you know my history, and you know that I wouldn’t do those types of things.” Chen, of course, has a long history in the democracy movement dating to the 1970s, and she spent several years in prison for this. One would not expect to see her engaging in these types of dirty tricks. On the other hand, her campaign has also said that she is governing according to the law, which is exactly what she would say if the charges were true. (No one doubts that temples violate zoning laws and so forth. If city officials were to suddenly enforce all the laws on the books, they would have quite a bit of business. However, many laws are simply ignored. The charge is that Chen is selectively enforcing laws based on who supports Yang.)
I don’t know what is actually happening, and I am trying hard to resist my initial instincts to assume that Chen is innocent. After all, I have a professional obligation to consider the possibility that Yang might be telling the truth.
As I see it, there are three possibilities. First, Chen might be doing exactly all the nasty things that Yang is accusing her of. This seems unlikely. The only way it would make sense is if Chen’s campaign is far more paranoid than us outsiders realize. They would also have to have far different beliefs about how close this race is than everyone else, since everyone else thinks that Chen is winning comfortably and has no need to resort to dirty tricks. (Of course, having an easy race didn’t stop Richard Nixon.) I think this scenario is highly unlikely (but not impossible). Second, Yang could be deliberately making everything up. Yang is losing and needs to do something to dramatically change the race. Going negative might be his only chance. What would discredit Chen more in the eyes of DPP supporters than a story about how she uses secret police state tactics? Moreover, Yang has a clean and honest reputation, so coming from him, the message has some believability. My judgment: still unlikely, but a bit more possible than scenario one. Third, Chen is not callously engaging in dirty tricks and Yang is not telling bald-faced lies. In many hard-fought intra-party races, people who have been friends for years suddenly find themselves at each other’s throats. Remember, their careers are on the line, so it’s easy (especially when you are losing) to see injustice, cheating, and backstabbing in small things that you normally would just ignore. Both sides tend to overlook when they step a little over the line while the other side tends to exaggerate those infractions. My money is on this one.
I think the best way to judge which of these three possibilities is the correct one is to look at the DPP’s response. After all, the DPP central office should have very good information about what is going on among its members and supporters. This weekend, party chair Cai Yingwen 蔡英文 went to Kaohsiung, met with Chen and Yang, and basically told them to cool it. Secretary General Su Jiaquan 蘇嘉全 suggested that if the campaign looked like it might do serious damage to the party’s image, the party might simply hold the telephone surveys now instead of waiting until mid-May. Neither Cai nor Su publicly sided with either Chen or Yang, but the threat of moving the primary date is clearly aimed at Yang. Remember, Yang is losing right now and needs more time. In essence, Cai and Su told the two to start playing nicely or we’ll do something that is bad for Yang. They clearly do not have much sympathy for Yang’s claims of dirty tricks.
Yang is playing a dangerous game, and has probably already done considerable damage to his future prospects. He is largely considered to have done a good job in his two terms as county executive, and he would likely have found a place somewhere. If the DPP wins the presidency, he would have been on the short list for a cabinet post or some other plum job. Even if they don’t, the DPP will win some direct municipalities this year, and he might have been able to get a top post in one of those. Now, a president or mayor will have to think twice about appointing him. After all, he’s either very paranoid or an outright liar. Yang has put all his poker chips on winning this year, and it doesn’t look like a very good bet to me.
The most interesting thing about this case may have to do with national politics, not local Kaohsiung politics. I am fascinated by Cai Yingwen’s response. Under the guise of conciliation and negotiation, she went in and cracked some skulls. The ability to find compromises and build coalitions is the most important attribute a political leader can have, but sometimes it helps to be tough as well. I will be interested to see if the two candidates do actually back off, and, if they don’t, how Cai reacts. She has made a threat, but I’m not sure she has the guts and/or power to enforce it. I’m also not sure if it would be wise to break the rules of the game. If candidates learn that there are ways to force an earlier primary date, this could cause headaches down the road for the party chair. At any rate, this might be a crucial step in the evolution of Cai Yingwen as the DPP’s leader. Only two years ago, she was seen as a transitional figure with no real power of her own. Now I’m wondering if she is so powerful within the party that she can tell candidates (and powerful party leaders in their own rights) deep in a hotly contested campaign to back off. As of today, she seems pretty powerful and pretty tough.