plot twists: 1997 and Lu Hsiu-yi

Taiwanese elections always seem to have a plot twist.  Something dramatic happens in the last few days, the outcome is perhaps a bit unexpected, and the event enters Taiwan election lore.  This year, Chen Shui-bian’s temporary release from prison might be that plot twist, though it is perhaps still a bit early in the campaign.  Of course, the granddaddy of them all is the assassination attempt on the eve of the 2004 presidential election, but not all plot twists are controversial.  Today I want to think back to the 1997 Taipei County executive election and Lu Hsiu-yi 盧修一.

The DPP had won Taipei County in 1989 by a razor-thin 4000 votes (out of 1.25 million), as You Ching 尤清 defeated the KMT’s (and NTU political scientist) Li Hsi-kun 李錫錕.  Li was a newcomer to electoral politics and never managed to convince all the local factions to get behind his candidacy.  Considering their natural majority and You’s lackluster performance, the KMT thought it would win the county back in 1993.  They nominated Sanchong Gang 三重幫 member Tsai Sheng-bang 蔡勝邦, but the KMT once again had trouble unifying its disparate supporters.  The other local factions certainly didn’t feel comfortable with Tsai, and You Ching based his campaign on running against money politics.  Of course, the most important factor in You’s easy victory was the New Party.  The New Party had just formed earlier that year, and the 1993 Taipei County race was their first big test.  They managed to win 16%, enough to set them on their way to bigger and better election results in 1994-6.  It was also easily sufficient to ensure You Ching a second term.

Until the election of the Taiwan Provincial Governor in 1994 and the president in 1996, the Taipei County executive was the most important elected position in Taiwan.  The Taipei City mayor became an elected position in 1994 as well, but even though Taipei City is richer and the capital, Taipei County has a larger population.  This was an important national position.  Anyone in that post had to be considered a potential presidential candidate.

You Ching could not run again in 1997, and Lu Hsiu-yi was the obvious DPP politician to succeed him.  Lu was a legal scholar, educated in France.  He had served several terms in the legislature and had usually finished first or second in the elections.  (The exact number of winners changed every election, but Taipei County seats were always in the double digits.  Placing first was a real accomplishment.)  In the legislature, Lu was a moderate and professional voice.  He served on the unglamorous Legal Affairs Committee doing yeoman’s work.  When fighting broke out on the floor, Lu was famous for practicing calligraphy rather than joining in.  In Taipei County, Lu led the New Tide faction, though it is perhaps more accurate to say he led his own faction.  His symbol was the White Egret 白鷺鷥, and his popularity was so deep that well over a decade after his death, politicians in Taipei County were using the White Egret symbol to appeal for votes.  All in all Lu was just about the ideal candidate for the DPP.  There was only one problem – Lu was dying.  He had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and it was obvious to most that Lu would not live long enough to serve out a full term as county executive, much less two terms.  Lu himself probably understood this, but he didn’t really accept it.  He insisted that he was aiming for the 1997 election even as his health deteriorated.

With Lu’s bad health, there was an opportunity for other DPP politicians.  Su Tseng-chang 蘇貞昌 acted aggressively to make sure that he would be the one to grasp that opportunity.  Su had been lost his re-election bid for Pingtung County executive in 1993.  In the latter stages of the campaign, the bright, new, and clean KMT candidate, Wu Tse-yuan 伍澤元, had accused him of corruption, and Su had narrowly lost.  After the election, the courts vindicated Su, and Wu was forced to publicly apologize.  By the end of his term, Wu would become embroiled in his own corruption scandals and would eventually end up in prison.  Su certainly could have stayed in Pingtung and sought vindication there.  However, he was too ambitious for that, and he didn’t want to block the next generation of DPP politicians in Pingtung.  (To be specific, the person he didn’t block was Su Chia-chuan 蘇嘉全, who is now running for vice-president.)  Instead, Su Tseng-chang decided to move up to Taipei County.

Su effectively announced his intentions by running in Taipei County for the legislature in 1995.  Even though he was running for the legislature, it was obvious from the beginning that he planned to take the county executive nomination from Lu.  During the 1995 campaign, there was no pretension of cooperation as the two jockeyed for supremacy.  Eventually Lu and Su finished second and fourth, respectively.  (Taipei County elected 17 seats that year.)  The dominant media narrative was that voters had decided to give one last victory to the ailing Lu.  Over the next year, Lu continued to insist that he was running in 1997, but eventually he had to concede that his ill health made this impossible and Su won the DPP nomination.

Su ran a fantastic and energetic campaign.  However, You Ching had not done a great job in his eight years (to put it politely), and the DPP – which had never had a reliable majority in Taipei County – was clearly fighting an uphill battle.  Fortunately for Su, there were five other candidates in the race.  The KMT nominated an outsider, Hsieh Shen-shan 謝深山.  Hsieh was a competent but drab politician.  He had been in the cabinet in charge of Labor Affairs, and he seemed like a colorless bureaucrat.  However, if there wasn’t much inspiring about Hsieh, there also wasn’t much to attack.  In a straight one on one fight against Su, Hsieh would have won easily.  The other four candidates ensured that this wouldn’t happen.  There were two New Party candidates and two local politicians.  (The most important of these was Lin Chih-chia 林志嘉, who was then an up and coming KMT legislator and is now one of the leaders of the TSU.)  By the end of the campaign, it was clear that the real race was between Hsieh and Su, and it was clear that it would be close.

There were, of course, lingering bad feelings between Su and Lu, and the media and the KMT did not hesitate to point these out and exaggerate them.  Lu did not make many appearances for Su during the campaign.  This may have been because Lu was extremely ill by then, but there was also suspicion that Lu wouldn’t be unhappy to see Su lose.  Many in the DPP were legitimately concerned that Lu’s most dedicated supporters would simply stay at home rather than see Su win.

On the last night of the campaign, Su held a huge rally, as is customary.  I was one of the 15,000 or so people in the crowd that night.  For most of the night, it was a normal, enthusiastic last-night rally.  Then Lu Hsiu-yi came up on the stage.  My Taiwanese isn’t great (or really even rudimentary), so I didn’t follow much of what Lu said but I don’t think the content was very important.  Lu’s presence was the message.  Here was Lu, clearly in the late stages of a fatal disease, selflessly asking voters to support Su, who had coldly and ruthlessly taken away the nomination that Lu had been working toward for over a decade.  Lu’s speech was short, and he ended it by kneeling down and begging people to support Su.  It was an electric moment.  All around me, people were stunned.  Some were crying.  There was a long silence as the confused people on the stage didn’t quite know how to handle the moment.  Finally, Chen Chu 陳菊, who was the emcee that night, took up the mike and began speaking.  I don’t know exactly what she said, but I do remember that by the end of her monologue, the crowd would have run through a wall of fire for Su in order to honor Lu’s gesture.  When I left that night, I knew that I had witnessed a moment that would have a prominent place in Taiwan’s electoral folklore.  That night, the cable TV channels played the incident over and over into the wee hours of the morning.

Su won the election by 2%, and many people attributed the victory to Lu Hsiu-yi’s generosity.  Su went on to win re-election in 2001, served as Premier in 2006-7, and nearly won the DPP’s presidential nomination twice.

Lu died less than a year later.

3 Responses to “plot twists: 1997 and Lu Hsiu-yi”

  1. hoopjunkie Says:

    Thanks for blogging about this historical event.

  2. Dan Stevenson (@danspot) Says:

    I’ve found some news photos of this event, but I’d really like to see a video. Do you know of anything out there?

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