By-elections in Taichung

After nearly a year in hibernation, Frozen Garlic has awoken!  Apparently, an election has broken out!

At the end of November, the Taiwan court system finally rendered a verdict in one of the myriad corruption cases.  Most of these cases seem to disappear into the file cabinets, but in this one, the court found legislator Yen Ching-piao 顏清標 and Taichung City Council Speaker Chang Ching-tang 張清堂 guilty of corruption.  Both have been stripped of their seats.

(By the way, the corruption in question involved spending public funds to visit KTVs and other places where singing may not have been the main entertainment attraction.  Supposedly, they spent several million NT.  In the grand scheme of things, this is probably one of the more innocuous incidents of corruption they have been involved in.  It isn’t very much money, and their defense, which I do not doubt, is that everyone got reimbursed for these sorts of “public expenses.”  Both are deeply embedded in the systemic corruption of local factions and have almost certainly been involved in far grander abuses of the public purse.  Moreover, A-piao is no run-of-the-mill faction politician — he came to prominence as one of the top organized crime leaders in central Taiwan.  So I find it slightly amusing that these guys have seen their political careers end for a fairly trivial offense.)

There are two interesting stories.  Most of the attention will be on the contest to fill the empty Taichung 2 seat, so let’s start with that one.  The Taichung 2 district boundaries were drawn specifically for Yen Ching-piao.  His best town, Shalu, was put into Taichung 2 with the rest of his base instead of Taichung 1.  This created a bit of a population imbalance as well as a political imbalance, since the blue camp is quite a bit stronger in Taichung 2 than Taichung 1 and Shalu, where the KMT is particularly strong, exacerbates the difference.[1]  In fact, Taichung 2 is easily the blue camp’s strongest district in the old Taichung County.

Back in 2006 or so when Yen was settling into the new district, the alternative for the KMT was to put another incumbent Black faction legislator, Chi Kuo-tung 紀國棟, into the district.  Eventually, the KMT resolved the roadblock by putting Chi on the party list.  Now that Yen is out, the KMT would prefer for Chi to take the seat.  This would free up a spot on the party list for someone else, keep the seat for the KMT and the Black faction, and put a less controversial person into the seat.  However, that is not going to happen.  The KMT learned (or should have learned) a lesson a couple of years ago when it ran a list legislator for in a by-election in Tainan City.  The DPP candidate had an easy argument.  “If you vote for her, she will still be in the legislature and the empty seat will effectively be filled by some other KMT party list person who doesn’t represent you.  If you elect me, this district will have two local legislators.”  Chi might want to take over the seat in 2016, but he probably doesn’t want to run an expensive and risky campaign right now, especially if he has to tell people that a vote for him is equivalent to a vote for an outsider.

Anyway, someone else wants the seat.  Yen Ching-piao’s son, Yen Kuan-hen 顏寬恒, is planning to run.  I don’t know much about the younger Yen except that he had considered running for Shalu Township mayor in the past, and he looks a lot like his father.  The father was not a formal member of the KMT.  Probably both sides found it convenient to maintain the fiction that Yen was an independent, given his controversial background.  The younger Yen is a KMT member, and he is the only person to register for the KMT’s nomination.  So he’ll probably be the KMT candidate.  Running a family member to appeal directly to the voters for justice for a disgraced or convicted politician is a time-honored tradition in Taiwanese politics.  It makes a lot of sense when you can claim some sort of unfair suppression.  Former President Chen’s son has run twice in the last three years making precisely this sort of appeal.  I’ve never understood why it should work in cases like Yen’s, when he can’t really claim innocence or political persecution.  However, it often seems to be effective, so it might work for Yen as well.

The DPP has drafted a city council member, Chen Shih-kai 陳世凱.  I don’t know a lot about Chen except that he is more of an image politician than a grassroots-type politician.  He is in his first term in the city council, and he isn’t very closely associated with any particular locale the way that Yen is based in Shalu.

How will this unfold?  The KMT hopes to ride Yen Ching-piao’s extensive local organization and connections to victory.  The DPP wants to turn this into a referendum on President Ma.  As I said before, this is a strong KMT district, so it might be strange that the KMT wants to talk about local things and the DPP wants to talk about party politics.  However, both parties are right.  President Ma’s satisfaction ratings are dismal right now, and voters might be eager to send the KMT a message.  Moreover, if the by-elections from 3-4 years ago are any indication, the DPP is quite capable of winning this sort of race.  Turnout is typically around 40% in by-elections, and it might be that without a high-profile mayoral or presidential candidate, KMT supporters just don’t turn out.  The DPP won several by-elections 3-4 years ago in territory even more hostile than Taichung 2, and Ma’s satisfaction ratings are even worse now than they were then.  If Chen turns out to be a competent candidate, he has a good chance of winning this seat for the DPP.

The second, less obvious, story is the more interesting one to me.  This story is about the KMT’s local factions and their fight to adapt to the new Taichung City.  Unlike the first story which will be resolved by the end of January (and probably rendered irrelevant when Chi Kuo-tung takes the seat from the winner in 2016), the story of factional evolution will be unfolding over the next few years.

Before the merger of Taichung City and Taichung County, the two had completely separated local political environments.  City politicians didn’t have much to do with county politics or vice versa.  In Taichung County, KMT politics were dominated by the Red faction and the Black faction.  Taichung County has the most institutionalized factions of any city or county in the country.  The Red and Black factions fought out every electoral contest, from legislator to town council, in the county.  In a way, this made Taichung County much easier to understand since you could just ask who was Red and who was Black.  The factions can trace their roots all the way back to the first county executive election in the early 1950s, when Lin He-nian 林鶴年 handed out red name cards and Chen Shui-tan 陳水潭 handed out black cards.  Those two dominated local politics in the 1950s and then passed their support down to the next generation.  Indeed, the two factions are still sometimes called the Lin and Chen factions.  Over the past half-century, the Red faction has been the more successful of the two, producing a speaker of the Provincial Assembly in the 1970s and a speaker of the legislature in the 1990s.  As in most counties, the KMT tried to ensure that neither faction became too powerful by balancing them against one another.  This meant that when one faction controlled the county executive, the other controlled the county assembly.  Prior to the merger in 2010, the Black faction held the executive, while the speaker, Chang Ching-tang, was from the Red faction.

KMT factions in Taichung City were less stable.  Traditionally, people would talk of the Chang and Lai factions.  However, the Lai faction hadn’t really been powerful since the 1980s.  The Chang faction was named for Chang Chi-chung 張啟仲, who was mayor in the 1970s, and was sustained by his protégé, longtime legislator Hung Chao-nan 洪昭男.  However, Hung retired a few elections ago.  The current leader of the Chang faction is Chang Hung-nien 張宏年, who was speaker of the Taichung City Council before the merger.  Chang Hung-nien’s Chang faction still retains the Chang faction name, but it is not really the same thing as Chang Chi-chung’s Chang faction.  In fact, in today’s Taichung City, you are as likely to hear people talk of the Hu-Lu faction (named for mayor Jason Hu 胡志強 and legislator Lu Hsiu-yen 盧秀燕) as of the Chang or Lai factions.  The Hu-Lu faction, however, is more of a coalition of two people than a full-fledged faction.

So the merger of Taichung City and County in 2010 brought about a merger of these two very different factional systems.  It didn’t go well for any of the factions.  In Taichung County, the two factions lost most of their institutional power.  They had alternated control of the county executive and dominated most lower-level elections.  The Black faction’s power base was arguably in the 21 township mayors, but both had faction members scattered throughout the township councils as well.  With the merger, these offices were abolished.  The Red faction may have survived the merger in better shape, since its power base was in the Farmers Associations, which continued to exist, but both lost a lot of institutional power.  Moreover, the two factions did poorly in the one arena left to them, the new city assembly.  With too many incumbents running for a limited number or seats, the 2010 election was particularly bloody for the two county factions.

The city factions did not lose as much institutional power in the merger, since there were no townships in the city.  However, since the smaller city merged with the more populous county, the city factions found themselves at a numerical disadvantage.  In the end, the county factions struck a deal, and the Red and Black factions took the speaker and vice-speaker seats, leaving the city factions in the cold.

Now, two years later, Red faction speaker Chang Ching-tang has been stripped of his seat, and this might give us some insight on how the various local factions are reorganizing in the new Taichung City.  One might expect the losers of the last elections to try to form a new coalition.  The most obvious loser was former city council speaker, Chang Hung-nien, who wanted to remain speaker (or at least vice-speaker) but was completely shut out.  The lesson of the last election should have been that, as long as the battle was county vs city, he could never win.  I would expect that he has spent the past two years trying to build ties with county politicians to construct a new faction that crossed the old administrative district borders.

In fact, events unfolded without much hubbub (which is quite interesting to me).  As might be expected, the KMT tabbed (Black faction member) vice-speaker Lin Shih-chang 林士昌 to take over as speaker.  However, instead of nominating a Red faction member for vice-speaker, the KMT chose Chang Hung-nien.  Lin and Chang won the election with minimal fanfare.

Now, I don’t know whether Chang has tried to merge his faction with the Red faction or whether the old factional systems have completely collapsed and are undergoing a fundamental reorganization or whether this is an isolated case and nothing significant has happened.  I haven’t seen much in the media about factional politics.  However, something has to be happening.  The merger upset the basic environment, and the various factions have to be doing something to adapt to their new challenges.  We will have a much clearer idea of what is happening after the 2014 elections, but I think we are starting to see the first clues that the old systems are evolving.

Whether they are able to survive could be critical for Taiwan’s future.  Taichung is the tipping point between the green south and the blue north, and the KMT has managed to hold it on the blue side thus far.  If the local factions disintegrate or one of them defects to the DPP (as happened in Chiayi), the national balance of power could swing to the DPP.  We’ll all pay more attention to the upcoming legislative by-election, but the evolution of the KMT’s local factions will eventually be far more consequential.


[1] The DPP won Taichung 1 in 2012.  Maybe they should thank Yen for insisting that Shalu be in Taichung 2.

2 Responses to “By-elections in Taichung”

  1. Mike Says:

    I remember your earlier post about the slow shifting partisan balance of the former county of Taichung; but was also wondering what actually happened to the other counties in central Taiwan, where the DPP has experienced a collapse in their support base? Would it be arguable that the former county of Taichung is the “black sheep”?

    The Greens seemed to experience a collapse in support in the former city of Taichung since 2001. If I remember correctly, the Greens were split in both the 1997 and 2001 mayoral elections, but managed to maintain a slim majority in both, albiet losing power in the 2001 mayoral, because of the split, but has since never recovered in Taichung City. I think a similar situation happened in Nantou County in 1997, 2001, 2005 (Greens were split in all three, but maintained majority, and then eventually lost power, followed by a complete collapse in support in elections thereafter). Why have they failed to recover when they seem to be more “united” in the elections following?

    Similarly in Changhua County, where there used to a considerable “Tangwai” tradition, what happened in 2005 that resulted in the similar collapse in the Green support base?

  2. frozengarlic Says:

    Mike, from one point of view, you are correct. The DPP did govern all of those places and has since lost control of them. However, I don’t think that winning the county or city government really reflected a fundamental shift toward the DPP in Taichung City or Changhua. In both those cases, it was more a case of a single strong DPP candidate winning an election rather than a shift in the balance between the two parties that we could see again and again over different types of elections. Nantou may have been more of what you are thinking. It did look for a few years like the DPP was turning into a majority party, since they did well in county executive, legislative, and presidential elections. I’m not sure what happened there. It may be as simple as a generation of talented DPP politicians passed from the scene and was not replaced by a similarly appealing next generation. At any rate, while Taichung County is turning green rather fast, Changhua somewhat slower, and Taichung City very slowly, Nantou seems to be trending blue over the past decade.

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