why is Xu Tiancai stalling?

A few weeks ago, it was widely expected that Xu Tiancai 許添財 would follow Yang Qiuxing’s 楊秋興 lead and launch an independent bid for Tainan Mayor.  He has instead postponed making an announcement again and again, to the point that it is starting to look doubtful that he actually will run.  So while I don’t know what Xu will eventually decide, I’d like to address the reasons that this is not an easy decision for him.  Why is Tainan different from Kaohsiung?  Why not run?

Let’s start with the parallels.  In both Tainan and Kaohsiung, the DPP is expected to easily win a two-way race.  Both are in the south, both have been governed by the DPP for over a decade, and both featured divisive primaries in which a two-term incumbent executive lost.  From the Taipei-centric vantage point that most observers share, they are almost identical.

Of course, they are actually quite different.  Kaohsiung is much more urbanized and industrial.  Tainan is much more rural.  The urban areas are less urbanized and make up a smaller percentage of the total population than the corresponding urban areas in Kaohsiung.  In contrast, the “rural”[i] towns in Tainan are smaller, more rural, more farming, have lower education levels, and have less population mobility.  Tainan is much more homogenously Min-nan.  Kaohsiung, by contrast, has significant populations of mainlanders (including many affiliated with the military), Hakkas, and aborigines.  Politically, the current Tainan County is overwhelmingly pro-DPP, Tainan City and Kaohsiung County are moderately pro-DPP, and Kaohsiung City is about even.  As such, the new Tainan City is much more solidly pro-DPP than the new Kaohsiung City.

The races, as revealed in the polls, are shaping up differently, too.  In Kaohsiung, the KMT candidate is stunningly weak.  The KMT should be able to muster a decent showing there; I’d say that any respectable KMT candidate should be able to defend 40% of the vote.  Huang Zhaoshun’s黃昭順 polls (below 15%) suggest that she is far, far below that number.  In Tainan, the KMT candidate is doing much better.  Guo Tiancai 郭添財got 19% in a recent poll.  Since the KMT base is smaller, with a minimally acceptable target being perhaps 35%, Guo is much closer to respectable among the KMT electorate.  From Hsu Tiancai’s point of view, this difference is critical.  Yang’s strategy in Kaohsiung is to raid the KMT’s pot of votes; the KMT pot in Tainan is (a) much smaller and (b) less vulnerable.  Moreover, while Yang is clearly in second place in Kaohsiung, the polls in Tianan show Xu to only be tied with Guo for second place.  In other words, while Yang can tell KMT voters that he is the only viable option to defeat the DPP, Xu can’t quite make that argument.  In fact, he has to worry about that argument being used against him.

Organizationally, Xu is not in as good of shape as Yang.  Xu has wavered for so long about whether he will run that potential allies have already drifted over to the DPP candidate.  Of course, his inner circle is still there, but the next layer of the campaign team might have to be rebuilt significantly.  With only three months to go, that is a daunting task.  Financially, Yang is probably also in better shape.  A recent magazine cover featured Yang’s five most important backers.  Two were very rich.  One was Terry Gou, the richest person in Taiwan.  (Increased reliance on this connection might also have something to do with Yang’s recent epiphany about the benefits of closer economic relations with China.)  Xu Tiancai probably doesn’t have these kinds of financial resources to draw on.  Tainan, after all, isn’t quite the economic powerhouse that Kaohsiung is.

We also have to think about the former president.  Xu has been very close to Chen Shuibian since the early 1990s, when Xu was one of the core members of Chen’s Justice faction within the DPP.  Chen sent out very strong and clear signals during the primary that Xu was his preferred candidate.  While that wasn’t enough to win the primary, Chen is still a major pillar of support for Xu.  This is another reason that Yang’s strategy of raiding KMT votes won’t work for Xu.  There is far too much animosity among KMT supporters toward Chen to ever think of building a coalition encompassing both.  Xu would have to run on the other side of the DPP, positioning himself as the candidate most wary of China (or as the candidate who “loves Taiwan” the most).  There might be enough voters in that part of the spectrum in Tainan for a viable campaign, but it’s not obvious that these voters, presumably the most anti-KMT crowd, would be willing to inflict such a blow on the DPP.   At any rate, Xu is looking at a very different type of campaign than Yang.

On the other hand, running this sort of campaign wouldn’t necessarily imply political suicide for him the way it does for Yang.  Xu would still be on the same side of the political cleavage.  While Yang is burning all his bridges to his former DPP supporters, Xu would still look to them like someone who is still “right” on the big issues, if somewhat misguided in how to get there.

If Xu did run, Yang’s presence might work against both of them.  Xu would be trying to label the DPP as wishy-washy moderates, while Yang would be trying to paint them as extreme ideologues.  They might both fail.

In sum, Xu might still decide to run, but his calculus is very different from Yang’s and there are very good reasons for his caution.


[i] Personally, I think it’s crazy to consider any township with a population density less than 1000 people/kmt2 or a population of less than 50,000 people to be “rural.” To me, there is very little in Taiwan that is actually rural, but that’s obviously subjective.

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3 Responses to “why is Xu Tiancai stalling?”

  1. Michael Turton Says:

    Haha on the rural. I remember when we moved to Taliao in K-town and everyone said “it’s a rural area”. Got down there and the population density was like Hong Kong. Basically, anything not in a city is “rural”.

    Excellent analysis. Xu’s the second one and can view the results of Yang’s defection. Yang’s suicide must be a daunting, salutary lesson!

  2. M Says:

    Xu also left the party and ran as an independent before, and failed.

    Tucheng was also once described as “countryside” to me, even though it has an MRT system and lots of tall buildings. Countryside is a state of mind in Chinese culture (often with negative connotations). Anywhere relatively peripheral is “countryside”.

  3. frozengarlic Says:

    I wouldn’t say he failed entirely. Xu came back to Taiwan from a career in the American financial industry (I think) to run in the 1992 elections at the behest of several DPP leaders. In 1992 Tainan City was kind of “empty,” and the DPP was in need of good candidates. Xu ran and won, and he got fairly good reviews on his performance during his first term in the legislature. However, in 1995, Tainan City was one of the most hotly contested districts for DPP nominations. Longtime overseas independence activist George Chang (張燦鍙, Zhang Canhong) came back and decided to run for the legislature in Tainan City. Zhang was sort of a Godfather of the independence movement and was seen, at the time, perhaps as a potential presidential candidate. In addition, Shih Ming-teh decided that, as DPP chair, he had an obligation to win a district seat rather than simply taking up a spot on the party list. (I never quite understood that logic.) He chose Tainan City as well. The DPP only nominated two people, and Chang and Shih won the nominations. Xu, with much less in the way of organization, was left out. However, he left the party and ran as a member of the New Nation Alliance 新國家連線, which wasn’t quite a political party. Xu and Shi ended up winning while Chang barely lost. In 1997, the DPP nominated Chang to run for mayor, and Xu decided to run against him. Chang won easily while Xu finished in a three-way tie for second with the two KMT candidates. However, Xu manage to retain his seat in the legislature in 1998 (still with the quickly fading New Nation Alliance), and when Chang was beset by all kinds of, ahem, problems during his term, the DPP nominated Xu as mayor in 2001. To me, that’s not failure. In fact, Xu is one of the few politicians to have left the DPP over a nomination fight and still have a long future career within the Green camp.

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