party growth in city councils

The upper levels of Taiwan’s politics are dominated by political parties.  The lower levels?  Not so much.  The grassroots level elections, including elections for county assembly, township mayor, township council, and lizhang, the partisan results often don’t look too much like the higher level elections.  For example, here’s a quick comparison of the most recent legislative and county assembly elections in Tainan County:

  County assembly Legislature (list vote)
KMT 32.2 40.3
DPP 27.1 50.7
New   1.2
PFP 0.5  
TSU 0.4 3.7
others 39.8 4.1

There are a couple of things going on here.  First, the DPP rarely holds its voters in grassroots elections.  The simply haven’t developed enough politicians at the grassroots levels who can build the kinds of networks necessary to win these sorts of elections.  Moreover, since local politics rarely seem to interact with national politics, many voters don’t think it is important to vote your ideals in local elections.  Voters who reliably vote for the DPP in higher level elections vote for a lot of KMT and independent politicians in grassroots elections.  Second, the KMT hemorrhages votes to independents.  Independents are generally what we normally think of as organizational, clientelist, or factional politicians.  They know lots of people, do lots of favors, usually aren’t too worried about ethics, and aren’t averse to personal profit.  In the past, these politicians (and their votes) were usually affiliated with the KMT.  However, during the democratic era, many of them, for whatever reason, decided that it was more advantageous to be independents.  Perhaps this gave them all the access to money politics without the threat of party discipline.  Every now and then, both parties have to make a show of clean politics.  Another possibility is that they found that, because they didn’t have to be associated with either side of the unification – independence debate, they didn’t start out as unacceptable to half their potential market.  At any rate, independents have done well in county assembly elections.  In a few places, such as Tainan County, they have become the plurality “party,” winning more votes and seats than even the KMT.


I suspect that we will see a drastic drop in the number and vote share of independents in the five municipalities over the next two elections.  There are three reasons for this.  First, there is a long-term trend toward the deepening of party politics at the grassroots level.  This is most obvious in the slow, steady climb in the DPP’s vote and seat shares.  Even in the absence of other changes, I would expect to see the DPP increase its vote and seat share significantly this year, just as it has in the past few county assembly elections.  This process is most advanced in the urban areas where the gap between vote share in legislative elections and city council elections is already fairly small.  However, there is still a lot of room for DPP growth in the more rural areas, such as Tainan County where the DPP might only get half of its normal vote in grassroots elections.

I believe that there is a similar process occurring within the KMT, though it is far harder to observe.  I think people who vote for the KMT in grassroots elections are increasingly casting a vote for the party and less and less for an individual.  The campaigns certainly feel different now than they did a decade or two ago.  KMT candidates never used to emphasize their party label.  Many of the old factional politicians (and their votes) are now independents, but the people left in the party are more dedicated to the idea of a party.  I think we may have already seen the low point for the KMT, and it will start rebuilding its vote share in the same way the DPP has.  (Of course, I have no evidence for this.)

The second reason has to do with the changed nature of the challenge this year.  This year, incumbents in Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung will be facing a very different challenge than in previous years.  For example, last time in Kaohsiung County District 3 (Daliao, Linyuan), a candidate needed about 6000 votes to win.  This time, the number of valid votes should be about the same, but there will only be 4 seats instead of 7.  To win, a candidate might 11000 votes or more.  This is a real problem for independents.  From an evolutionary sense, we might think of the current system as advantaging people who can put together social networks just strong enough to command 6000 or 7000 votes.  However, if you have to rely on personal connections and social relationships to produce votes, it will be very hard for these people to ramp up their operations to produce 11000 votes.  Some of them will be able to do it, and some of them probably could have done it in the past but didn’t need to.  However, for a large percentage, 6000 votes was already their maximum effort.  They don’t have any more friends or favors to call in.  They might be in real trouble.  In other words, this election could be like climate change for them: they evolved for a cooler climate and might not be able to adapt fast enough to survive in a hotter climate.

This is where party politicians have an enormous advantage.  Their voters don’t always vote based on personal connections.  If they don’t have personal ties, they can still vote for a party nominee for abstract reasons.  This makes it much easier for party politicians to move from a 6000 vote threshold to an 11000 vote threshold.  The party simply nominates fewer candidates, and the voters shift from one candidate to another.  Party nominees are not entirely interchangeable, but this process works much more easily for parties than for independents.  In short, I expect to see a lot of independents killed off this year a lot of party politicians moving in to fill the vacuum.

The third factor has to do with the bleak future for local factions in the new direct municipalities.  This will affect Taichung County factions the most.  Local factions in Tainan County, Kaohsiung County, and Taipei County have already been under pressure for a generation or more and are already merely a shadow of their former selves.  Since the two Taichung County factions are still flourishing, they have the most to lose.

In the new direct municipalities, the offices that were the lifeblood of factions are disappearing.  There will be no local township mayors, not township councils, and the county executive will morph into a mayor responsible for a much larger territory.  In Taichung County, the new mayor will not be from one of the local factions.  He might build an expedient alliance with them, but he will not consider diverting the resources of the city government to benefit the faction to be his first priority.  Anything he gives them will be given begrudgingly.  There are other sources of finances, such as farmers associations and credit unions, but nothing can substitute for control over the budget of a town or county government.  For factions, this is a crisis.

Much of the impact of this blow will not be felt until the next election.  Right now, many Taichung County faction politicians still have access to resources that they can use to sustain their political coalitions.  Many should be able to win re-election this time.  However, next time, after four years deprived of their normal cash flows, they might not be as powerful.


So the long-term forces favor increasing partisanship at the grassroots level, especially in the direct municipalities.  However, these changes will not occur overnight.  I expect to see increases in the KMT and DPP’s vote and seat shares this year, perhaps even big increases.  However, I also expect that there will be quite a few independents who will manage to hang on this year.  I expect the city council results to look more like the legislative results, but I still expect them to look significantly different.


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