There is a lot going on with nominations for next year’s mayoral races, and only some of it has to do with the actual elections at hand. Today I’ll discuss the maneuverings for the New Taipei City race.
If we knew nothing about the candidates, New Taipei City would probably be considered a tossup. In the past, it has usually produced a small majority for the KMT, but the national unpopularity of the Ma administration would probably eliminate most or all of that edge. It might even flip the race and give the DPP an edge.
Of course, there are concrete candidates involved. Eric Chu 朱立倫 is the incumbent mayor, and the big question is whether he will run for re-election. Unlike the president, Mayor Chu has fairly good approval ratings, and polls show that he is far, far ahead of any potential challengers. Things can always change (remember Jason Hu’s 胡志強 unexpectedly hard re-election in 2010), but at this point it looks like Chu would cruise to an easy re-election if he were to run. In contrast, any other KMT nominee will face a much stiffer challenge. It might seem that the pressure on Chu to run would be overwhelming.
The problem, as we all know, is that Chu has to also think about the presidency. Depending on who you talk to, Chu is either the overwhelming favorite for the KMT’s 2016 presidential nomination or at least one of three credible candidates (along with VP Wu 吳敦義 and Taipei Mayor Hau 郝龍斌). Chu has to consider the presidency when he makes his decision of whether to run for re-election as mayor. This is a large constraint because the calendar is tighter than one might think.
The mayoral election is tentatively set for Dec 6, 2014. The presidential election will either be in early to mid January or late March 2016. (In 2012, the presidential election was in January, but prior to this last election, it was always in March. The KMT decided to move it to January to combine it with the legislative election because they thought that might work to their benefit. However, they might decide against repeating this since there are four long months between the election and the inauguration. They didn’t worry about this in 2012 since they expected Ma to win another term. However, we are guaranteed to get a new president in 2016 and the two big parties might agree that four months is too long. Ma might also not be thrilled about four months of everyone paying more attention to the president-elect than to the sitting president.) Whether the presidential election is in January or March does not fundamentally change Chu’s calculations. For simplicity, we’ll assume that it will be held in January 2016.
Suppose Chu runs for re-election. In the USA, governors and senators who want to run for president almost always run for re-election two years prior. There is plenty of time to win a new term and serve an appropriate amount of time in that new term before formally launching a presidential campaign. However, Chu will have 13 months, not 24 months, between elections. Taiwanese parties generally try to finalize nominations many months before the election. For example, the DPP and KMT have already finalized some uncontroversial mayoral nominations a full 12 months before next year’s election. The DPP has even started resolving some of the contested races. The KMT generally waits a little longer than the DPP to make its nominations, but they will almost certainly want to be finished by May (6 or 7 months before the election). People who want to win nominations for mayor have already publicly declared their candidacy or are at least maneuvering somewhat publicly. Since the presidency is so much more important than, say, the Taichung Mayor, the media will start focusing on that contest even earlier in the election cycle. In the last cycle, Su and Tsai had basically launched their all-out efforts for the DPP nomination by Chinese New Year 2011. Tsai formally announced her candidacy on March 11, and Su followed suit on March 22. In short, the presidential election will start in earnest very, very soon after the mayoral election. Almost the day after Chu celebrates winning re-election, he will be under intense pressure to announce his candidacy for president.
In 2011, both Su and Tsai were free to run for the presidency because they both lost their races. Likewise, in 1999 Chen Shui-bian was free to run for the presidency, having just lost the epic 1998 Taipei mayoral race to Ma Ying-jeou. For all three, questions about their intentions to run for the presidency were a major (unwelcome and uncomfortable) theme in the mayoral campaign. We will never know whether they would have honored their promises (some explicit, some implicit) to serve out their respective terms, though all three have at least hinted that they would not have run for president had they won. If Chu runs for re-election, he is likely to win. This would set up a decision unlike any that any previous presidential aspirant has faced. Would he dare to start seeking another job just two or three months into his new four year term? He certainly wouldn’t have had enough time to fulfill any campaign promises. After an entire mayoral campaign of people questioning his sincerity, he would face a new campaign in which opponents would constantly remind voters of his broken covenant with New Taipei City voters. If he knew he would run for president, they would ask, why had he run for mayor in the first place? Moreover, Chu’s opponents within the KMT could use his new term to trap him. If Chu sought and won the presidency, he would have to resign as mayor no later than May 20, 2016. Since that is less than halfway through the mayoral term, there would be a by-election. New Taipei City is a swing district, and there is no guarantee that the KMT would win. Wu, Hau, and any other KMT presidential aspirants might argue that there is no need to risk losing the very important New Taipei City government and that Chu could better serve the party by staying there and working to mobilize votes for the KMT.
If there are strong reasons for Chu not to run for re-election, there are also strong pressures in the other direction. President Ma is desperate for some good news right now, and he will be trying to put together the strongest field of candidates possible for 2014. Ma is far more interested in seeing a good election result next year than whether Chu, Wu, or Hau is the presidential candidate in 2016. Moreover, if Chu decides not to run, how will the KMT react? We’ve rarely seen a politician refuse to fight a political battle on behalf of his or her party. A couple of years ago when both Kao Su-po 高思博 and Wang Yu-ting 王昱婷 refused to represent the KMT in a difficult legislative race, the backlash from within the party was harsh. Would the backlash against Chu be similar? Would he be attacked as selfish, thinking only of his personal interest and not caring about the broader fortunes of the whole KMT? Would people say he was arrogant, assuming that he could simply jump in front of Wu and Hau to the front of the presidential line? In Taiwanese, and especially in KMT, political culture, it just isn’t considered correct to announce your naked ambition to the world. You are supposed to appear unwilling and only bow reluctantly to the demands of the people. We just don’t know how people would react if Chu ignored the normal conventions and went off the script.
The conventional path and the easy choice would be for Chu to bow to immediate party pressures and run for re-election. I think the more strategic and wiser choice would be for him to forgo re-election and instead announce that he will seek the presidency. I’ve always thought of Chu more as steady and conventional rather than bold and imaginative, so I’ll be a bit surprised and impressed if he has the guts to just go for it. Either way, this is probably the toughest and most important strategic choice of his political career (so far).