Yang’s decision

Yang Qiuxing 楊秋興formally announced that he will run for Kaohsiung mayor yesterday.  I’ve been meaning to write about his choices for a while, so this seems to be a good time to do it.

First, I think this is going to be a disaster for Yang.  I’ll get into the reasons that I don’t think he has much chance at all of winning later in this post, but let me just start off by stating that I think he is committing political suicide.  I wonder if he is suffering from lack of a competent consigliore.  Every politician needs a wise older person to tell him or her bad news.  Younger staffers often don’t have the experience to figure these things out, and they also don’t have the independent standing to deliver bad news.  If you are young and dependent on the politician for your own future, you have to hesitate to give too much bad news.  An older person who has already made their reputation doesn’t have to be worried so much about being kicked to the curb.  Given that all politicians overrate their chances to win (since most voters they meet in the market are either enthusiastic supporters or polite enough to fake support or at least keep quiet), they need someone who can throw cold water on them.  I’m wondering if Yang is lacking that person.  And let’s be clear: if Yang is, in fact, almost certain to lose this race, he is not doing anyone a favor by running.  He could serve his constituents and his own career far better by waiting for another opportunity which, given his record, almost certainly would be forthcoming.  By running, he makes himself persona-non-grata to the DPP and an untrustworthy political speculator to the KMT.  His career ends here.

If this is such a terrible mistake, why is Yang running?  I think there are two reasons.  First, he thinks he was unfairly treated during the primary.  Second, he thinks he might be able to win by co-opting KMT voters.

Yang has complained quite a bit about Chen Ju’s 陳菊behavior during the primary.  He thinks her campaign was playing dirty tricks by spying on and putting pressure on his supporters.  He has also made remarks since the end of the campaign about how she is allowing him no breathing space at all, which I interpret as an indication that he believes that she is still employing dirty tricks.

I also detect a sense that the voters owe him.  After all, his work as county executive has almost universally been praised.  Even the (KMT) central government gives him good marks for performance in office.  How could the voters turn him out after he has done so much for them?  It seems as if he can’t quite fathom or accept that he legitimately lost the primary.  They owe him; he deserves this.

To these, I would respond that (a) politics is a rough game, and (b) in a democracy, the voters never owe elected officials anything.  Hell, Churchill got voted out of office, and all he did was hold Britain together during the Bombing of London until the relief brigades arrived (and he had something to do with persuading the Americans to show up).  If voters are tired of Yang after nine years or they think they’ve found someone even better, that’s their prerogative.

In other words, that consigliore needs to tell Yang that life isn’t fair.  Too bad.

On the other hand, if he can win, then he should run.  Whether he is paranoid or has a sense of entitlement is irrelevant.  So why does he think he can win?

The polls say that he is in second place.  Two recent media polls show roughly the same picture.  A TVBS poll has the race at 43 (Chen, DPP), 26 (Yang), 16 (Huang 黃昭順, KMT), while a UDN poll has it at 44 (Chen), 23 (Yang), 13 (Huang).    This is a stunningly strong showing for Yang, since all the people who vote on the basis of political party are supporting one of the other two candidates.  The first battle that independents have to fight is to establish that they are viable candidates.  Yang has apparently accomplished that.  Moreover, since Yang is in second place by quite a comfortable margin over Huang, there is clearly potential for strategic voting that would benefit him.  Suppose that the polls on election eve still look basically the same.  Huang’s supporters will have to face the fact that her candidacy is hopeless, and they will have to ask themselves which of the two viable candidates they prefer.  Since Chen is the DPP candidate, most of them should prefer Yang.  If you add Huang’s supporters to Yang’s supporters, you get a very close race.  In other words, Yang has a clear shot at winning.

You can see that Yang is already starting to work at this strategy.  He has been suggesting (to KMT voters) that he is the only one who can beat Chen, he has been making overtures to the KMT, and he even endorsed ECFA the other day.

Well, that’s the optimistic scenario.  What’s wrong with it?  For one thing, unless the KMT central leadership openly announces that it is withdrawing support from Huang and endorsing Yang, there is a limit to how much of Huang’s support Yang can siphon away.  Some voters simply will not abandon the KMT’s official nominee to vote strategically, no matter how hopeless the race gets.  You also can’t assume that all Huang supporters prefer Yang over Chen.  Some will see no difference between the two, and there will also be some who prefer Chen.  So you can’t simply add the two numbers together to estimate how much Yang could get.

More importantly, Yang has to worry about keeping his current supporters.  Many of these supporters are DPP supporters, and for the next four months they will be hearing waves of DPP leaders (who we will assume they like, support, and trust) tell them how it is important for Taiwan’s overall future that they support Chen Ju and the DPP.  Almost certainly, the DPP will peel off some of Yang’s current support.  Indeed, there was a story in the news about some local people who claimed to have supported Yang in the past announcing that they will no longer do so.

This process will be intensified by Yang himself.  In order to cultivate KMT support, Yang is slowly repositioning himself toward the center of the political spectrum.  This might make him more palatable to KMT supporters, but it also might alienate his current supporters.  One has to wonder how his expression of support for ECFA went over with Kaohsiung farmers, a group that Yang considers his core constituency.  (I’m not suggesting that ECFA is bad for all farmers, but the strongest opposition to ECFA generally has come from farming interests.)  Many will also look at the new interests that Yang is bringing in and wonder if they belong in the same group with those people.

By election day, Yang will be a very different political figure than he is today.  He has to convince longtime supporters to stay with the new Yang while also convincing people who have spent most of the past two decades fighting him to join him.  This is an almost impossible tightwire act.

The KMT has a long history of members not winning the nomination but then running and winning as independents in the general election.  For whatever reason, this almost never happens in the DPP.  I can only think of a couple of DPP (or ex-DPP) politicians who have even tried this in an executive race (almost certainly many more considered trying and decided that it was hopeless), and only one who actually succeeded.  In 1997, Peng Baixian 彭百顯 won the Nantou County executive race as an independent.  Some other time, I will recount the details of that strange and fascinating story.  Here, let me just note that Peng won even more accolades as a legislator than Yang has won as Kaohsiung County executive.  More importantly, while Yang’s opponent is a highly respected executive in her own right, Peng was running against Lin Zongnan 林宗男, a locally-oriented politician who was surrounded by suggestions of financial improprieties.  Most of the national DPP figures thought that they had nominated the wrong person.  (The local party was dominated by people who hated Peng, though.)  Peng won in a squeaker.  That’s it, as far as I can remember.  No other DPP politician has managed this feat.  Given that Yang Qiuxing faces a formidable foe and is trailing in the polls by a hefty margin, I’d say the odds are against him becoming the second to pull it off.

What is the KMT’s strategy in all of this?  Several DPP politicians have accused the KMT of “selling hope” to Yang in order to get him into the race, and this seems a reasonable way of interpreting recent events.  However, there is a lot more to say.

For the KMT, the starting point has to be the stunning weakness of their own candidate, Huang Zhaoshun.  It has been evident for nearly a year that the KMT did not have a strong candidate to run in this race, but this is far worse that I would have anticipated.  After all, the KMT has a solid base of support to build on.  Even in a bad year, they should probably be able to hold 40% of the vote.  However, the polls say otherwise.  Huang is running a distant third.  If you only ask voters about Chen and Huang, Chen wins by 34% (TVBS) or 33% (UDN).  This is simply bleak.

There are three reasons that I see that the KMT might want Yang in the race.  First, they know Huang isn’t going to win, but they don’t want the DPP to do too well.  With Yang in the race, Chen is much less likely to run up a landslide.  In other words, the KMT might do terribly, but at least the DPP won’t have much to crow about either.

Second, there is a possibility that the KMT leadership is mulling over the option to dump Huang and openly support Yang.  I would be shocked if they did this since it would be a thumb in the eye of all their loyal party workers and volunteers.  And remember, for the national KMT, this race is already lost.  They are worried about preserving support for the 2012 presidential race.  They need that machine to be happy.  However, we should at least mention it as a possibility.

The third reason is the most interesting.  The KMT could see Yang as a vehicle to raise Huang’s support.  The logic goes something like this.  Chen is a very popular incumbent with very low negative ratings.  Challengers only beat incumbents when voters are persuaded that the incumbent has performed poorly, especially in a partisan context favorable to the incumbent.  Huang is not doing a very good job of convincing voters that Chen is lousy.  For whatever reason, her message is just not resonating.  If nothing dramatic happens in the race, there will be a landslide.  However, if Huang’s attacks are falling on deaf ears, Yang’s might carry more weight.  You can be sure that Yang will focus all of his vitriol on Chen.  Some of it might stick.  However, the KMT might be calculating, as I have, that Yang will have a hard time putting together a coalition that supports him.  (Remember, even if the attack sticks and voters find there is something they don’t like about Chen, that doesn’t mean that they will be disposed to support the attack dog.)  As the race progresses, you might have a pool of voters moving away from Chen.  The KMT’s ideal scenario is that these voters would gravitate to Huang, not Yang.  By the time election day rolls around, Huang would have overtaken Yang in the polls, and suddenly all the strategic voting flows in the other direction, towards Huang.  In other words, in this vision, we still end up with a two-horse race, but a third horse kicks up a lot of dirt in the leader’s eyes before fading in the stretch.

At the beginning of the general campaign, I’m guessing that Chen Ju will still win this race fairly easily.  That’s not too surprising.  What might be more surprising is that I think Huang will eventually overtake Yang for second place.    I’m guessing that this is slightly different from what Yang’s closest friends and advisors are telling him.

(Remember: I guarantee these predictions are right, or double your money back!)

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5 Responses to “Yang’s decision”

  1. Gerd Says:

    Thanks for your analysis.

  2. Okami Says:

    I like the part where you say they are on different ends of the political spectrum. I’d have to interpret that as meaning they only differ in their views on China.

    As far as consigliore, I’d entertain the idea that the long term effect is to remove a competent DPP administrator from the voting competition which is worth a lot more to the KMT, than a special municipality race, they lose no matter what, over the long term. Chu might run into very different problems that are beyond her expertise tarnishing the DPP idea that though they may differ little from China, then tend to make better administrators of public offices. I’d say an independent yet KMT aligned person was whispering in Yang’s ear and feeding his ego.

    The main strength going for the DPP is they can say that they offer a change from KMT administrator incompetence.

  3. Jed Says:

    I’ve always been adamant (and unsuccessful) in trying to find a true moderate in Taiwan politics. Might it be at all possible that Yang Chiu-Hsing is one?

  4. frozengarlic Says:

    Some day I’m going to write an entire post on what it means to be an extremist or a moderate in the context of Taiwan. But for now, I’m not sure I know exactly what those things mean. Your stance toward China matters the most, but it is not the only important thing.

  5. ジェームス (@jmstwn) Says:

    And then Yang became a Minister without Portfolio for Ma, and now he’s running on the KMT ticket. Didn’t know he had a DPP history!

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