On Sunday evening, I happened to drive past the Xizhi train station and noticed that there was a political rally going on. The rally officially opened the unified campaign office for the two DPP city council (Shen Fa-huei 沈發惠 and Chou Ya-ling 周雅玲) and mayoral (Yu Hsi-kun 游錫堃) candidates. It was a pretty small event, as these things go. I think there were about 750 people, and most of them were at least 50 years old. There were only three speeches (one by each of the three candidates) and a musical performance by Shih Wen-bin 施文彬. He was very good, but he pulled an old lady out of the audience to sing Jiang Hui’s 江惠 part in 傷心酒店 and she couldn’t keep time with the music at all. That was both comical and disappointing.
The city council race in Xizhi is pretty simple. There are five main candidates fighting for four seats. There are two KMT incumbents (Liao Cheng-liang 廖正良 and Pai Pei-ju 白佩茹), two DPP incumbents, and one independent (Huang Jui-chuan 黃瑞傳) who is really a third KMT candidate. We can ignore the sixth candidate, since she doesn’t appear to be a serious contender. The blue side has more votes, but they probably don’t have enough votes to win a third seat unless the DPP fails to ration votes equally. With five candidates and four seats, any candidate who can get 20.01% is unbeatable. Assuming the DPP can manage 40% and split its votes evenly, the KMT cannot take a third seat. So can the DPP pull that off? Four years ago, the two DPP candidates only combined for 28%, but that was a very different race. There were eight strong candidates (2 DPP, 4 KMT, 2 IND), all between 10,000 and 20,000 votes. Moreover, each of the small townships, Jinshan and Wanli, had a local candidate who soaked up all of the local votes in those areas. This year all five major candidates are from Xizhi. It’s probably better to look at the presidential election to get an idea of how this year’s race will unfold. Tsai Ing-wen won 40.9% in the district, Ma Ying-jeou won 56.3%, and Soong took 2.8%. You might argue that Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT are unpopular this year, so the DPP’s vote share should go up a bit. On the other hand, you might argue that with Eric Chu on the ballot, the voters will be more likely to be voting for a blue politician at the top of the ticket this year than in 2012. I’m going to assume that this is still basically somewhere around a 60-40% blue-green district. In the past, a 60-40 national district did not translate into a 60-40 split in local elections, since the DPP has almost always done worse in local elections. However, with two strong DPP incumbents, this district might not follow that old pattern. There should be enough votes for the DPP. The best evidence that they see things as I do is that they are running a joint campaign. You only do that when there are enough votes to go around. Their most difficult task is not in winning enough votes, but in splitting them evenly. Fortunately for the DPP, the KMT has this same challenge. In fact, with three candidates, the KMT has a much harder task. It is much harder to even out the votes among three than two. Moreover, the KMT might not be able use its party apparatus to do this since Huang is not officially a KMT nominee. By denying the third candidate a party nomination, the two incumbents made themselves clear favorites to win re-election. There is an outside chance that Huang will be stronger than expected and push aside one of the incumbents, but, if that happens, it will probably be one of the KMT incumbents. Look for a continued two-two KMT/DPP split, probably with all four incumbents winning another term.
There were some common themes in all three speeches. Chou, Shen, and Yu all talked about food safety first. Then they all attacked Eric Chu’s record in office, especially his failures to build the MRT lines he promised four years ago. Finally, they all praised Yu for his contributions to flood control in Xizhi during his tenure as premier. The last point is a more local issue. We should all care about flood control, but, let’s face it, voters in Banqiao simply won’t care as much as voters in Xizhi, which used to be regularly ravaged by floods. I suppose Yu probably has some similar point about his record as office that can be tailored to every locale. However, these sorts of messages are really a waste of time. We all know that Yu doesn’t have a chance in hell of winning this race, so it is rather pointless to try to build up his positive image. There is, however, one thing he could do that would be an enormous contribution to his party.
Yu should go negative. I don’t mean he should politely express doubts about Eric Chu’s record in office. I mean he should start screaming about how Chu is the worst person ever to hold executive office in as sensationalist and unreasonable terms as possible. He should go full out thermonuclear negative.
Chu is currently cruising pleasantly to re-election. Most people think he has done a reasonably good job in office, and he’d like that image to remain untarnished. Right now, with most of the media attention on Taipei City and the rest on Taichung City, no one is paying attention to the New Taipei race. Chu’s ideal outcome would be for him to win a comfortable victory in a short and quiet campaign. Right now he is the KMT’s only viable presidential candidate for 2016, and every day that this doesn’t change is a good day for him. Conversely, every day that Chu isn’t challenged is a missed opportunity for the DPP. A natural assumption is that they aren’t vigorously attacking him because there is nothing to attack.
What the DPP needs to do is start sowing the seeds for the 2016 campaign by planting seeds of doubt about whether Chu actually has performed so well in office. They have a potent issue in MRT construction. Chu promised several lines would be under construction by now, and he hasn’t delivered. A couple of weeks ago, Chu made a huge mistake by breaking ground on the Xizhi Line. The problem is the central government is not on board yet, and the funding has not yet been allocated. By breaking ground (so that he can take credit for doing something), Chu has basically drawn attention to the fact that the project isn’t ready to start yet. Politicians always want to do something, but sometimes it is better to do nothing and let everyone’s attention focus elsewhere. (For example, Jason Hu probably would have been better off cancelling the whole MRT project in Taichung; his BRT system simply tells Taichung voters that they can’t have nice things like people in Taipei and Kaohsiung. And then he has to remind them of it again and again, because he can’t back away from the BRT system now. He has to pretend brazenly that it is awesome and he is proud of it.) Eric Chu might realize that starting construction was a mistake, but the deed is done and he can’t back away. The DPP should club him over the head again and again. The goal is not necessarily to convince voters that he is definitely corrupt or inept, but simply to plant the idea in voters’ heads that he isn’t as wonderful as the blue media (and sometimes the green media) has made him out to be.
What I heard in Sunday’s rally was a pathetic attempt to do this. If the media isn’t paying attention, simply talking about something to an audience of your most loyal supporters is just about worthless. You need to grab the media’s attention to get this idea out into the mainstream. The media loves drama, so create drama. Do something unreasonable and sensational enough to make the cameras pay attention, and then start attacking the record, not in measured and reasonable language, but in terms that would make most talk show guests blush. Channel your inner Chiu Yi 邱義.
This would probably create a backlash against Yu Hsi-kun and make him extremely unpopular. Voters often hate the person doing the negative campaign as much as they hate the target of the attacks (see: Lien, Sean). However, Yu is not going to win this race, and his political career is just about over. He would not be throwing away a bright future, and he would be rendering a great service to his party. Softening up Chu now will make it a lot easier to land effective punches in 2016.
There are a couple of flaws in my argument, of course. On the one hand, I doubt Yu agrees with my evaluation of his career prospects. On the other, it’s really hard to get the media’s attention, and Yu is not a charismatic guy. He might not be capable of implementing the thermonuclear strategy. On the third hand, the other green camp mayoral candidates don’t want this sort of polarized partisan environment this year. The candidates in Taipei, Taichung, Keelung, and Changhua all want to reach across the aisle to light blue voters, so they want to keep things calmer. Still, I think the DPP would be better off overall if Yu’s campaign got really nasty.