Archive for October, 2014

New Taipei 10 and Yu Hsi-kun’s campaign strategy

October 28, 2014

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.


Honest Graft

October 25, 2014

I had lunch today at a shop selling 魯肉飯. (Note to non-Taiwanese readers: This is a bowl of rice with braised bits of fatty pork sprinkled on top. It’s a very traditional and humble Taiwanese dish.) There was a sign in the restaurant saying not to worry about the oil because the shop rendered all of its oil themselves from lard. I asked the boss if they had just put that sign up recently in the wake of the latest adulterated cooking oil scandal, and my question set off a diatribe of venom and disgust. At one point in the conversation, I threw out a general anti-corporate statement, saying something to the effect of, all big corporations will be corrupt if they have the chance. At that point, the boss said something that fascinated me. She half-rejected my statement. “We can live with modest amounts of corporate and government collusion” (我們還可以忍受一班官商勾結), “but they are poisoning us and destroying our business,” she exclaimed.

Well, of course I immediately thought of 19th century New York City, Tammany Hall machine politics, and George Washington Plunkitt. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, most American cities were run by political machines. Taiwanese might think of these as cousins of local factions. To simplify, machine politics worked something like this. A group of politicians won control of the city government, and systematically used the resources of city hall to feed their machine. Every contract was handed out to an ally, and every city job was given to a supporter. If you got a contract or a job, you had to donate a certain percentage of the profits or your salary back to the machine. Some of this money was used for welfare services, such as taking care of families who houses had burned down, whose breadwinner had been injured, or otherwise needed assistance. Some was used to mobilize votes on election day (when all the contractors and city employees were expected to mobilize their own social networks to get to the polls and vote for the machine candidates). The rest went into the boss’s pockets. Most of the machines were built on immigrant voters, especially the Irish, and they were usually part of the Democratic Party. As you might expect, the respectable middle class Protestant voters had nothing but disdain for machine politics. However, the machines had numbers, and they usually won.

New York had one of the most famous machines, named after its headquarters, Tammany Hall. Tammany Hall dominated New York politics for about a century. One of the more famous bosses was a garrulous gentleman named George Washington Plunkitt. Plunkitt did future political scientists the favor of expounding at length on his theory of government to a newspaper reporter who wrote it all down in a marvelous little book. For a rip-roaring read, I highly recommend Plunkitt of Tammany Hall.

At one point Plunkitt explains his concept of “honest graft.” Sure, he handed out contracts to his political allies. Sure, they made quite a bit of money on city contracts. Sure, the machine got kickbacks. But this was all honest graft. What was dishonest graft? Well, to see dishonest graft, you only had to look at what that horrible Republican machine in Philadelphia was doing. Why, those unscrupulous rascals would sell the roof off an orphanage to make money on the scrap materials! The Republican machine in Philadelphia simply had no sense of right and wrong. They didn’t understand that there were certain types of corruption that were acceptable and certain things that were beyond the pale.

Back in Taiwan in 2014, I think this is the line that the Wei brothers and their Ting-Hsin Corporation have crossed. When they leveraged their political connections to buy pricy real estate with unsecured loans and made huge profits, the public mostly just yawned. (There are also indirect kickbacks, as the Wei brothers are heavy KMT supporters. They also give a lot to Buddhist organizations.) Yes, that was disgusting, but they weren’t directly injuring anyone. That was closer to honest graft. Intentionally cutting costs by using industrial waste oil in their food oil products was different. That directly threatened normal people’s health and welfare. And since they supplied many other businesses, they have damaged Taiwan’s international reputation (Who wants to buy Taiwanese food products now?), caused serious financial pain for lots of small restaurants, and forced many bosses to reject one of the fundamental premises of modern economies – comparative advantage and division of labor – and go to the trouble of rendering their own oils from lard. This is not honest graft.

Let me make clear: I am not defending the idea of honest graft. I personally think that almost all so-called honest graft is actually fundamentally dishonest and corrosive to democratic societies. However, I think that many Taiwanese instinctively do make this distinction between honest and dishonest graft, though they may not necessarily think of it in those terms. To many people, some types of corruption are more acceptable than others. Today, I was surprised to find myself staring at the line dividing the two.

Bending the rules a bit more

October 24, 2014

In the previous post, I pointed out “public service” flag (and definitely not a campaign flag) in New Taipei City. Today I saw another one in Taipei City:


This one is even more blatant. There is a musical concert for charity sponsored by KMT city council member Chueh Mei-sha’s 闕枚莎 support organization. This justifies the left banner which screams out, “Mei-sha has love.” They’re even offering a bribe to attendees: 500 free reusable tote bags. This clearly is a public service flag and has nothing to do with the election coming up in a couple of weeks.

But wait, there’s more. What if you are not a member of the mayor’s party? Can you still use this ruse? Not a chance. When DPP candidate Luo Wen-chung 羅文崇 from Yonghe District in New Taipei City tried to advertise his charity 3-on-3 basketball tournament, his application was summarily denied to prevent any electioneering. Take a look at his flag and see if you think it is any more blatant that Chueh Mei-sha’s or Liao Cheng-liang’s 廖正良.


Edit: To be fair, the article says that all four incumbent city council members in Yonghe have these public service announcement flags scattered around the city. Three incumbents are KMT members, but the fourth is a DPP member. So it might be that incumbents, not ruling party members, get special favors. That’s not much of an improvement.

Bending the Rules?

October 22, 2014

Today in Xizhi District, New Taipei City, I came upon workers putting up flags. Here is one of them:


Isn’t this interesting? I thought that campaign flags were supposed to be prohibited in New Taipei City right now. No other candidates have put any up, so why is this candidate daring to break the rules?

It looks to me like he is trying to pretend that these are not campaign flags. Instead, he is trying to pass these off as public service announcements. The banner on the right says, “Happy Birthday ROC.” Of course, if the point were to celebrate the Double Ten holiday, maybe they should have gone up two weeks ago. On the left side at the top, you have a picture of an MRT train and the slogan (roughly translated), “MRT, Just Do It.” I’m not sure what public service this is supposed to be or what it has to do with Double Ten day. At the bottom left, we are advised that free legal advice is available at the address listed. In the middle left, there is a big picture of incumbent mayor Eric Chu 朱立倫 with incumbent city council member Liao Cheng-liang 廖正良, both of whom are up for re-election in a few weeks. I think it might be important that Liao’s name is not printed anywhere they way it would be in a normal campaign flag. The only reason we know it is Liao is that his name is written on his shirt. See, no campaigning here!

This is a blatant flaunting of the rules. Perhaps Liao thinks he can get away with it because the city environmental department won’t take down banners with Chu’s face on them. This clearly puts Chu in the position of violating the rules for his own benefit or punishing his own ally. However, if those banners stay up and no one else is allowed to plant flags, this constitutes a clear abuse of power and an unfair advantage for Chu, Liao, and the KMT.

What’s in a flag?

October 19, 2014

Last week in Pingtung, my friends took pictures of scenery, art, and people. I took picture after picture of campaign flags and billboards. Finally, with a touch of bewilderment and skepticism, one of them asked, what can you see from that?

It’s a good question. One of the oldest tropes about advertising is that half of all advertising is completely wasted. The only problem is that no one knows which half is useless. There is a strong suspicion that campaign flags and billboards are simply wasted spending. They usually don’t say anything profound or memorable, and they all blend together. If there are any uses, they seem to be limited.

Traditionally, flags might be said to have some of the following uses. One, they build name recognition. Planting thousands of flags with your name tells people that there is a candidate with your name running. This is not exciting and there are other ways to build name recognition, but you can’t win an election, especially one in a multi-seat district, if you are anonymous. Second, it shows that you have resources to throw at the campaign. One of the first battles for any candidate is to demonstrate credibility. No one wants to vote for a sure loser. Candidates with the money to plant thousands of flags show that they have the money to plant thousands of flags. Having money does not always make one credible, but it is one indicator that you are running a serious campaign and have hopes to win. Third, you might be able to give some simple message about yourself and what you stand for. Of course, most political rhetoric is cheap talk. Everyone wants a better tomorrow. Everyone has love in their hearts. Everyone sincerely asks for and thanks you for your support. But sometimes there is an actual message in those slogans. Fourth, flags can signal your partisan affiliation. The party label might be the most important factor for voters in Taiwan, and it is becoming important even in grassroots elections.

These might not seem like much, but political communication is difficult if you don’t get regular coverage in the print or electronic media. Sean Lien 連勝文 and Ko Wen-je 柯文哲 don’t need to put up billboards. They get plenty of free advertising. A candidate for the second district of the Hengchun Town 恆春鎮 Council will have to wait a long time for the TV cameras to show up at his doorstep. If that guy wants to get a message out, he has to advertise. Leaflets, newspaper inserts, and campaign literature can contain more detailed information, but many people just throw them away. Word of mouth is very effective if you already have an effective person-to-person network to mobilize. For everyone else, flags and billboards might be the best they can do. At least with flags and billboards, a voter might absorb the one simple message involuntarily before glancing at the next object in their line of sight.

Let’s look at a few flags and banners and see what we might learn.


This is a flag for Yeh Ming-shun 葉明順, and it looks about as worthless as any flag you might see. It doesn’t have any slogans or any party labels. It just has a name. Yet I think this might fit Yeh’s needs pretty well. Yeh is an established local politician. He’s served in grassroots offices for about two decades, most recently in two terms as Hengchun Township mayor. Yeh is simply reminding voters who already know and like him that he is running again this year, though this time for the county assembly. They don’t need to look any further because they already have a good choice. The purple and yellow color scheme also sends a message. Yeh certainly isn’t a DPP candidate, and he probably isn’t a KMT candidate. At least if he is a party representative, he is going out of his way to downplay that message. In fact, Yeh is an independent.


Here’s a flag with a similar message. Chou Tian-lun 周典倫 has served many terms in the county assembly, and in 2009 he represented the KMT in a losing campaign for county magistrate. He is reminding his large group of supporters that he is running again this year. His color scheme makes clear at a glance that he is a KMT member and proud of that affiliation.


This one communicates a simple message. You may not know me, but you know me. I’m Lin Ching-tu’s 林清都wife. Of course, everyone knows incumbent county assembly member Lin Ching-tu. If you support him, you should support me.


Here’s another common theme. You like county magistrate candidate Pan Meng-an 潘孟安, and you like the DPP, so you’ll like me. Pan Meng-an’s picture was everywhere in Pingtung. He was by far the most common second person in the picture. Tsai Ing-wen 蔡英文 showed up in a few pictures, and I think I saw one picture of a KMT candidate with KMT county magistrate candidate Chien Tai-lang 簡太郎. Interestingly, I did not see any of Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九 or Su Tseng-chang 蘇貞昌.


Incumbent Lu Tong-hsieh 盧同協 does the same thing, but he doesn’t bother with pictures.


This one combines the previous two themes. On the one hand, she stresses that she is a DPP candidate and associates herself with the popular Pan Meng-an. On the other hand, her husband Liu Hsin-hu 劉新乎 also sends his regards. The party appeal might be more useful since Liu Hsin-hu lost the race five years ago. Also, he ran as a TSU candidate, not a DPP candidate. It’s probably not a coincidence that they decided to put Pan Meng-an’s picture on the flag and not her husband’s.


Kuo Tsai-tian 郭再添 wants to stress that he is not green and not blue. Or maybe he wants you to know that he can work with both sides. Either way, by putting both blue and green on the flag, he is letting you know that he is not a party hack.


Unfortunately, Kuo’s message of not taking sides is undermined by his ally. Hsiao Po-ren 蕭博仁 is trying to win town council votes by associating himself with the popular Kuo and also urging voters to vote for the DPP town mayoral candidate. So much for neutrality.


He Hui-neng 何輝能 lost four years ago, and he’s trying to make sure that doesn’t happen again. He is selling himself as a true-green DPP member. This is one of the most traditional-looking DPP flags I have seen in the past few years. He also has one other important message: he is the only DPP candidate from Donggang Township 東港鎮. All of the others are from somewhere else. It doesn’t hurt his strategy that Donggang has more voters than any other township in the district.


The message in this flag is quite clear: “There is no truth at all to the rumors that I am an organized crime godfather.” (Note: Joke)


This one has a policy-oriented message: I will not allow any extension of the third nuclear power plant’s license. He also shows off his education credentials to give some credibility to his implied claim that he understands nuclear power and public policy. He is positioning himself as the serious DPP candidate.


Back in Taipei, here’s another policy ad. Remember Sean Lien’s proposal to move the first funeral parlor out of downtown and over to the outskirts of Nangang? This ad is located across the street from Academia Sinica on the road to the proposed site, and Lee Chien-chang 李建昌 promises to resolutely oppose the scheme. I think that might be a popular stance in that neighborhood.


This is the banner that prompted my friend to ask what I could see in the ads. This is also the local Aboriginal county assembly candidate from Tsaopu Village who appeared in the previous post. The main thing she wants us to know about her seems to be that she is a devout Christian. In the Paiwan electorate, that’s not a bad selling point.


I’m definitely voting for this candidate. His name is Politics Pan! 潘政治


Politics Pan is a Paiwan from Taiwu Township. This is his opponent, who I am rooting against. In the bottom right corner, he has a play on his name which is almost The Great Wall of China.


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Here are a couple of Rukai candidates in Wutai Township 霧台鄉. This is in Haocha Village 好茶村, which was completely wiped out by a landslide a few years ago. The entire village had to find a new site on the border of Machia 瑪家鄉, Sandimen 三地門鄉, and Neipu Townships 內埔鄉 and rebuild. However, they got to keep their Wutai household registrations, so they still legally live and vote in Wutai. The tragedy seems to have steeled the community’s resolve to survive and protect their culture. I came away very impressed that this was not a dying society but instead a vibrant and lively one. Politically, this village is a bit of an outlier. Pingtung Aborigines are overwhelmingly Paiwan and vote 90% or more for the KMT. The Haocha Rukai village has been through a generation of politicization, first with a campaign against the Machia Reservoir and now with the struggle to preserve their village. This experience has led many of them, especially the younger ones (who are now entering middle age) to look outside the KMT. In 2012, Haocha gave 32% of its votes to Tsai Ing-wen; in 2009, 57% voted for the DPP county magistrate candidate.

As for the campaign ads, I admit I don’t really see anything unique or important in them. Maybe I just don’t know the special significance of the key terms, or maybe these are just aimed at name recognition. There did seem to be an awful lot of yellow in this village.


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Here are the two Pingtung County magistrate candidates dressed in Paiwan garb. The message they hope to convey is that, even though I am not one of you, I understand, respect, and am at ease with your culture. Of course, every Han candidate dresses in Aboriginal garb trying to convey this message. It is a lot more effective if the person actually has a long track record of positive interaction with the group. Otherwise, it is (and is usually recognized as) mere cheap talk. In this case, I wonder how well the message came across. These banners are hanging in a Rukai village, but they are the same ones that the candidates put in the Paiwan villages so presumably they are wearing Paiwan, not Rukai dress.


Here’s an ad of Pan Meng-an posing with Huang Chao-chan 黃昭展, who is running for legislator. Wait, there is no legislative election this year!?! This is something I’ve never seen before. Pan is an incumbent legislator. If he wins the county magistrate election he will vacate his legislative seat, and a by-election will be held to fill it. Pan is such an overwhelming favorite to win that Huang is simply assuming there will be a by-election. That might just be bravado. What’s stunning is that Pan is going along with it. Candidates are almost always wary of looking overconfident; they usually want to cry that they need every last voter to turn out. It’s not even that Pan desperately wants Huang to replace him. Here is another ad of Pan posing with another contender, Chuang Jui-hsiung 莊瑞雄. (I saw another of Pan posing with a third possible candidate, but I couldn’t get a picture in our moving car.)



Just to further confuse me, we ran across this billboard of KMT party list legislator Su Ching-chuan 蘇清泉, who isn’t running for anything.


Going back to local elections, here’s a sound truck for a Hengchun Township mayoral candidate passing by the old city wall. Hold on, Hengchun had a city wall? (Warning: digression coming.) First, how did that happen? Hengchun couldn’t have ever been that large of a town, and you had to have permission from the central Qing authorities to build a city wall. For all of you who don’t know where Hengchun is, yes you do. Hengchun is the township that contains Kenting 墾丁, on the southern tip of the island. Of course, there was no beach resort during Qing times. So how did Hengchun geta city wall? Second, how the hell did I not know that Hengchun had a city wall? I need to get out more. Going back to the first question, as Mrs. Garlic and I strolled along the top of the wall, she pointed out that, from the defensive posture, it must have been built to defend against Aboriginal attacks. That seemed reasonable to me. A plaque informed us that it was built in 1875. I don’t know if this is what happened, but I’d like to think it happened something like so. In 1874, Japan sent an expedition to Taiwan and scared the hell out of the Qing court. Local Hengchun leaders, sensing an opportunity, petitioned the court for permission to build a wall to protect against, ahem, Japanese incursions. Much like Washington DC funded all kinds of projects after 9/11 in the name of homeland security, the Qing court hastily approved the petition, and Hengchun built its wall against the Aborigines. Hey, it’s a plausible story.


Let’s look at one last flag. This candidate is running for Hengchun town council, and his flag tells us that … Ok, I have to admit, I can’t glean any useful information from this flag. It’s pretty though.



No flags for you

October 19, 2014

One of the reasons that the Frozen Garlic blog was silent so late into the election season this year is that it simply didn’t feel like there was an election in the Taipei area. I kept waiting for the flags to go up to signal the beginning of the election season, but there are still no flags in Taipei. There are no flags in New Taipei either. In my neighborhood, which is technically in Keelung City, only one candidate has put up flags. No flags, no election feeling for me. Last weekend I took a trip to Pingtung, and as soon as we got off the freeway we were engulfed in campaign flags. Aaahh, democracy! I felt so happy and warm. We drove back and stopped by Taichung, and, again, there were no campaign flags. What is going on?

It seems there is a concerted push against planting flags this year. One campaign office told me that the six direct municipalities have put together a no-flag policy. We got a leaflet in Keelung from a DPP candidate saying that she promised not to put up any flags this year and implying that this was part of a wider campaign. I haven’t been outside of the Taipei area much this election season, so I can’t say what things look like on the east coast, Changhua, Hsinchu, Chiayi, or most other areas. But as you can probably tell, I’m not happy about this development.

The “good people” in society have been complaining about campaign flags for years. Flags are supposed to be chaotic, dirty, and visual pollution. To this I reply, have you looked at a Taiwan streetscape recently? Between the cacophony of colorful business signs, the flags advertising mango ice cream at family mart, the epilepsy-inducing flashing LED lights at every betelnut stand, the huge neon (nowadays LED) billboard ads for TECO air conditioners, and the ubiquitous real estate ads plastered on every inch of bare concrete walls, Taiwan is hardly lacking in visual stimulation. I’m supposed to believe that those things are all part of the natural environment, but campaign flags are horrible visual pollution??

I suspect the campaign against campaign flags is rooted in distaste for democracy. I feel warm and fuzzy inside when I see the island festooned in its campaign clothes because I love election season. It reminds me that the country is exercising its fundamental right of self-governance by giving power to the people. Other people, I suspect, have quite different gut feelings about the election holiday season. There are many people who gravitate toward the idea that bureaucrats should run the show. Bureaucrats love to talk about unity and harmony; elections are the very essence of division and conflict. This sort of feeling is common not only in the mainlander elites but also in the Taiwanese elites who think that everything is better in Japan. (One of the things usually admired about Japan is how the colonial bureaucrats set up all the good infrastructure and systems that Taiwanese enjoy today.) Both groups often see politicians, especially local politicians, as corrupt, narrow-minded, and uncultured. Yet elections are precisely the time when these rough barbarians threaten the power of the wise, educated, selfless bureaucratic elite. I think this causes gut-level fear and disgust with democratic processes, which are by nature disorderly, emotional, unstructured, and aimed at communicating with the unwashed masses rather than commanding them from above. One reaction to an instinctive distaste for the messiness of the democratic process is to criticize it as ugly and excessive. A “good society” would not see so much chaos, sniff the media and government elites. Why not try to regulate it out of sight?

Wait, maybe the bureaucrats are really sincere. Maybe they really just don’t like flags on streets. That argument might hold water except for one thing. The government plants lots of flags on Taiwan city streets. Most major streets in Taipei (and other major cities) have flags up almost year round. They typically advertise some government-sponsored event. No, let me rephrase that. They typically advertise some event held in a government-owned venue. Thus we see flags for the Taipei book fair, a violin performance, a furniture exhibition, or a pop concert. How are these justifiable? The city government puts them up as a public service to educate the public about some upcoming public event. After all, if the people aren’t informed about a public event, how can they participate as a civic community in public life? It is important for the health of the collective community, after all, that they be able to attend public events and experience a sense of collective solidarity by doing things together. You know, like go to Lady Gaga concerts. (Yes, the Taipei city government put up flags all over the city advertising Lady Gaga. Obviously, those were public service announcements, not visual pollution. Fortunately, the Lady Gaga concert was well-attended, so Taiwan now enjoys a much stronger civic culture.) Campaign flags, on the other hand, are pure visual pollution. They are clearly not serving any important purpose such as informing the general public of an upcoming public event in which widespread public participation would make society stronger or create bonds of solidarity by sharing the experience of performing some public duty. Nope, just visual pollution.

(One other example. Last weekend the government put up a different set of flags in many locales all over the island. They were red, with some blue and a white star in the upper left corner. Those rows and rows of flags were serving the public interest and were definitely not visual pollution.)

I realize I’m going to lose this fight. I also understand it isn’t the end of the world. Democracy will manage to survive, and most people will still turn out to vote and figure out who to vote for. Still, I can’t help but feel that Taiwan is losing a bit of its unique flair and that democracy is a bit less festive without the cacophony of colors lining the streets in election season. Sigh.

a wedding story

October 17, 2014

One thing that (successful) Taiwanese politicians do it is attend every wedding and funeral they can. The usual understanding is that weddings help win a few votes, but funerals are much more powerful.
This past weekend I went to Pingtung for a friend’s wedding. Perhaps it should be no surprise that lots of candidates showed up at a wedding seven weeks before a local election. What made this one more interesting than usual was that our friend is a Paiwan Aborigine, so this wedding was a bit different.
We were in Tsaopu 草埔 Village, which you might have driven through without paying much attention. Tsaopu is the last village in Pingtung on the main highway from Pingtung to Taitung across the southern tip of the island.
My group was seated at a table in the back of the community activity center. (Note: Unlike most Han weddings, which are at fancy and soulless hotels or wedding banquet centers these days, they chose to go the old-fashioned way and set up tables outdoors but inside their community. And this was very much a community affair.) As we sat down, another late-arriving guest was seated at our table. She turned out to be the incumbent county assembly member, and she was there running for re-election. I had lots of questions to ask her, but the noise was so loud that I had to wait for a lull in the program. About an hour in, I realized there was never going to be a lull in the program. (Afterward, I said something about this to one of our party, an Amis Aborigine. She laughed at my ignorance and said that Aborignal wedding banquets are always nonstop noise, adding “You should hear one of our weddings.”)
Anyway, about halfway through the banquet, they started handing the microphone over to the politicians. The incumbent county assembly member was first. She gave a talk that I wouldn’t classify as feminist. She praised the bride as being the most valuable girl the village had produced and congratulated the groom on being smart enough to snap her up. This was to be a recurring theme. Our friend was an outstanding student and the first graduate of NTU Law School from the village (and maybe from the township). Apparently in their eyes, that made her a valuable export. After talking for about five minutes, the candidate did something I haven’t seen before. She sang a song. Welcome to Paiwan Kala OK! In fact, every politician who got on stage sang at least one song after his or her speech. I wonder which one was more important for winning votes.
After a couple other people, legislator Chien Tung-ming 簡東明 showed up. Chien is from Tsaopu Village, so everyone there knows him personally. His speech was, how shall we say, not charismatic, progressive, or entertaining. At least he remembered to praise our friend for being such a valuable bride. His song was pretty good too. He got 80% of the votes in Tsaopu last time, and he probably will next time too.
The last speaker was the challenger for the county assembly seat. The incumbent was from a village on the coast, and she had already left the event. The challenger was from Tsaopu. I can’t say that the audience responded more enthusiastically to the local candidate, since everyone mostly ignored the people on the stage. However, this candidate did work the audience much harder than the other candidates. She was the only one who went around and toasted each table. (Some people who weren’t paying attention thought she was from the bride’s family.)
I’m not sure how much any of this campaigning helped anyone. They were merely reinforcing long-standing social bonds. Still, it’s interesting for those of us who live in atomized urban environments to see actual communities celebrating as a community once in a while. We city-dwellers don’t have those kinds of ties. When it comes time to vote, urban people have a much simpler choice. All we can judge candidates on are their ideas, party label, policy proposals, and so on. Rural people in real communities have to consider an additional factor. They also have to ask what their social obligations are, and what the penalties for violating those social obligations will be. We tend to think that rural politicians are more corrupt because they often build clientelist networks and win votes on non-policy appeals, such as personal ties or vote-buying. It is helpful to remember that those sorts of non-policy appeals are usually built on the foundation of a thriving, tight-knit community.

2014 mayoral races overview, part 5

October 9, 2014

Finally we arrive at the Taipei mayoral race. This has been the most dismal high profile race I have ever seen in Taiwan. It isn’t the dirtiest or nastiest; there have been lots of races with accusations of corruption, marital infidelity, organized crime ties, and outright intimidation. However, those mudbaths are generally local wars, fueled by personal animosities accumulated over many years. They are also usually played out on a small scale, far away from the bright lights of the national media. This is also not the first time we have seen negative campaigning in a high profile race. James Soong 宋楚瑜 was blasted for months with the Chung-Hsing Bills Finance scandal 興票案 in 2000, Frank Hsieh’s 謝長廷 humanity was questioned in 1998 (by actress Bai Bing-bing 白冰冰 after he dared defend her daughter’s killer in court), and lots of elections have seen accusations that one candidate would sell out or destroy the country. The difference is that there has always been a positive message to go along with the negativity. This year’s Taipei mayoral election is unique in its combination of unrelenting negativity and intense media coverage.

As usual, let’s start by reviewing the partisan landscape. Here are a few numbers to keep in mind: 43.7, 45.9, 43.5, and 43.8%. Those are the best results the DPP has ever put up in Taipei. They are, in order, the 1994 mayoral, 1998 mayoral, 2004 presidential, and 2010 mayoral elections. Historically, when the DPP has had a very strong candidate in a favorable year, they have maxed out at around 43%. In 1998 with an extremely charismatic incumbent who had just compiled an astounding record of accomplishments, they were able to push this up to almost 46%. Even in the best of times, the DPP has never been close to winning a majority in Taipei. Moreover, Taipei is more partisan than the rest of Taiwan. By this, I mean that Taipei historically sees smaller partisan swings than other places. Candidates seem to matter less, and voters stick with their parties both in good times and bad. From a partisan perspective, any candidate supported by a unified blue camp should never lose a race in Taipei.

So far, the race hasn’t played out as the previous paragraph would lead one to expect. Ko Wen-je 柯文哲 has led in just about every poll, usually by double digits. Given that Ko hasn’t turned out to be anyone’s idea of a dream candidate, the KMT must have nominated a historically lousy candidate to have squandered its overwhelming advantage in Taipei. Readers of this blog will know that I haven’t been impressed with Sean Lien 連勝文 in the past, and my evaluation of him has only changed for the worse in the past few months. Perhaps the most important reason the Lien campaign relied so heavily on mudslinging is that they don’t seem to have anything positive to sell.

Recall the Lien campaign’s first ad. A lot of young people on the street were asked what they would do if they or their father were rich. They answered this fantasy question with fantasy answers: travel the world, eat in Michelin-starred restaurants, buy designer clothes, live the playboy lifestyle, laze at home all day, buy a fast car, and definitely not work hard like Sean Lien. The thing is, that was not a fantasy question for the young Sean Lien. His father actually was rich, and he actually did most of those things. Twenty years ago, Sean Lien was a superficial bumbling playboy chasing TV starlets and living the high life. In fact, given his penchant for expensive wine, luxury housing, and fast cars, it seems he still hasn’t left all that completely in his past. Why is he reminding us of all this?

The ad also made me think of Mitt Romney and his 47% moment. In the 2012 US presidential campaign, Romney was filmed at a private event telling potential donors that 47% of Americans no longer wanted to work hard but instead wanted to simply live off the public welfare system. It was a telling moment. On the one hand, it is ridiculous on its face. Does anyone well-grounded in actual American society really believe that 47% of Americans are moochers, and, more importantly, they WANT to be moochers? On the other hand, it was stupid campaign strategy. Candidates generally tell the electorate that the people are dedicated, hard-working, and loyal. If people can’t get ahead, it is because the system is flawed, and the candidate promises to fix those flaws. Romney was instead saying that the people were the problem. They had become flawed to the point that they weren’t really even “real” Americans anymore; they had become the mooching class. Romney was repeating a theme that had been trumpeted loudly in the right-wing media. One basic question was whether he had lost touch with reality and begun to believe the spin. Alternately, maybe so many hardcore rightists had lost touch with reality and begun to believe the propaganda that Romney had to repeat it to remain credible with them. Either way, the propaganda had replaced reality as the Romney campaign’s working assumption about how the world worked.

Lien’s campaign ad was similarly based on internalized propaganda. In the past few years and especially at the height of the Sunflower movement, KMT officials have begun arguing that Taiwan’s youth are fundamentally lazy. They aren’t willing to work hard like previous generations, and they expect high paying jobs to fall into their laps. Instead of taking honest (ie: low-paying and menial) factory jobs or going to China to find a career, they are going on the streets to demand that the government simply give them a good life. Just as Romney’s 47% are barely still “real” Americans, the KMT’s youth of Taiwan are barely still “real” Taiwanese. Thus, it was quite natural for Lien’s ad to portray youth as frivolous. Of course they merely wanted to wear designer clothes, they are spoiled! Juxtaposed with their decadence, Sean Lien’s willingness to sacrifice his own comfort in order to serve the public would have to impress the general public! How inspirational!

Of course, it isn’t hard to see the flaws here. For one, back in the real world, lazy and decadent may not be the best way to characterize Taiwan’s youth. The Sunflower movement showed many of them to be highly idealistic, willing to sacrifice their own personal comfort and risk personal punishments in pursuit of a distant goal that might not directly benefit them personally, and capable of fantastic organization, research, strategy, and public relations. For another, isn’t Lien falling exactly into the pattern the discourse derides? He had a cushy youth, and now he expects to start his political career near the very top of the political ladder without bothering to put in dues as a city councilor or legislator first. Apparently, those positions are beneath him.

The ad isn’t the only indication that the Lien campaign has lost touch with reality. At a KMT party event, his father proudly proclaimed that Sean Lien had never used Lien family assets, a remark that reveals a stunning degree of shamelessness and/or cluelessness.

There was one small period in the campaign where Lien tried to shift the focus to public policy. The first funeral parlor should be moved to the outskirts of Nangang, and Minquan E. Rd. could thus be developed into Taipei’s Broadway, giving it a signature international street. This policy proposal immediately ran into a series of obstacles, many from within the KMT. People might not want to live on the site of a former funeral parlor. The area in Nankang was unsuitable, and people in Nangang don’t want a funeral parlor. This was not a very successful campaign plank. Where did this idea come from? Almost word for word, the proposal was lifted from Alex Tsai’s 蔡正元 campaign materials. Tsai had a clear vision for Taipei: he would turn it into a giant real estate development project, making lots of money for developers and commercial interests. Not surprisingly, Tsai’s venal vision never caught on with the Taipei electorate, so he dropped out of the race and endorsed Lien. Apparently, he also transplanted his development ideas into the Lien platform. Now, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to adopt policy proposals from various sources. However, the funeral parlor was the first and most prominent proposal the Lien campaign has offered. Shouldn’t the centerpiece have been an idea that Lien has been thinking about for several years rather than something he picked up off the shelf at the Tsai campaign clearance sale? To me, the lesson of this story is that Lien hasn’t done the careful preparation needed to become an effective mayor. If he knew the ins and outs of city government, he would have seen something that needed to be done. If he doesn’t have a policy agenda of his own, why does he want to be mayor? And if he only wants to defend the KMT’s political interests, will he, as mayor, simply hand off the actual governing to someone like Tsai? If so, expect four years of plundering.

With no positive policy agenda to push and vague promises of hope eliciting mostly jeers, the Lien campaign has gone all in on negativity. So far we have learned that Ko Wen-je wasn’t a very good doctor, supervised a bank account that may or may not have been a slush fund, and may be guilty of sloppy accounting on his tax returns. The first one seems implausible. The second two seem trumped up. But for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that all of the ethical attacks are true. Ko knowingly supervised an illegal account, solicited donations from corporations with which there was a conflict of interest, diverted some of the money into his own pockets, and didn’t pay taxes on some of his speaking fees. I believe some of those are mere insinuations; for example, I don’t think anyone has explicitly accused him of putting money into his pocket. However, let’s suppose Ko has done everything. Does that make him more corrupt than the Lien family? Somehow the Lien family has transformed their political power into a tremendous fortune. (Maybe I’m a bit cynical about this, but then I’m the type of person who doesn’t even believe in Santa Claus.) So Ko didn’t report income on some speaking fees. Lien Chan didn’t pay any inheritance tax. Which one is worse? Ko cynically misrepresented a bank account as something it was not. Sean Lien reported – blatantly raising a middle finger to the transparency laws – that he owns no car, no house, and no stocks. Which one is worse? Polls seem to show that the Lien smear campaign is not working. This might be because the charges against Ko seem flimsy and contrived. It also might be because they also don’t seem that serious when compared to the skeletons hiding in the Lien family closet.


As an aside, the Lien campaign seems to be following the script from the 2012 Ma campaign with the Yuchang Biologics scandal. They dig up something vaguely plausible and complicated enough for people to get lost in fuzzy details and then scream about how it is the worst ethical scandal in history. The state machinery is enlisted to give the scandal an air of believability, and the opponent’s reputation is effectively blackened. A few months after the election, the whole case is quietly dropped. King Pu-tsong 金溥聰 isn’t running Lien’s campaign, but I’ll bet a lot of the same people were heavily involved in both campaigns. If I were a DPP supporter, I would be thrilled with the KMT strategy. On the one hand, polls indicate that it isn’t working very well this year. More importantly for the DPP, this is an immunization shot for 2016. The more often the KMT uses the smear strategy, the less effective it becomes. The Ko campaign has diffused much of the attack simply by reminding the electorate of the Yuchang case. In 2016, the DPP candidate will be able to point to Yuchang and MG149 and claim that any attacks are simply the same thing all over again.


By the way, you might notice that I’m not very interested in Ko Wen-je. Just for the record, I’m quite unimpressed with him too. Regardless of who is elected, Taipei is almost certain to experience four years of bumbling government, probably with a substantial dose of scandal mixed in. However, Ko is a one-and-done candidate. He doesn’t seem destined to have any lasting impact on the political scene. Even if he wins, I can’t imagine we will still be talking about him in 2019 other than to express relief that he is gone. I am very interested by Sean Lien. As I have said many times, the Taipei mayor is on the short list for the presidency. With his family background and ties in China, we all have to pay close attention to the possibility that Sean Lien could be a presidential contender. However, being elected mayor is only the first step. You also have to perform reasonably well in office. I have seen no indications that Lien has this sort of capability. I haven’t seen sufficient strategic vision, attention to detail, hard work, grasp of broad social trends, willingness to sacrifice other personal interests for his political career, intelligence, political instincts, or personal charisma. At this point, even if he wins, I don’t see Sean Lien as a potential future president.


Believe it or not, I still think Sean Lien will win this election. I know the polls all show him trailing by large margins. I don’t think the polls are all biased or lying. I just don’t trust the people of Taipei to tell us today what they will do seven weeks from now. Remember all those numbers about the partisan structure of the electorate? I think they will eventually come back into play. The Michigan model of voting suggests that voters make their decisions based on party, issues, and candidates. Issues haven’t played much role at all in this campaign, so we are left with party and candidate factors. So far, the candidate frame has dominated. Many light blue voters, disgusted with Lien, have refused to express support for him. That’s fine for now, but they don’t actually have to decide their behavior just yet. As we get closer to election day, they will have to confront the contradiction between their negative candidate evaluations of Lien and their sympathies for the KMT. I expect a lot of people will eventually be able to rationalize a vote for Lien. Four years ago, Hau Lung-pin 郝龍斌 took a pedestrian record and poor public image into his re-election campaign. A TVBS poll in early October showed Su and Hau nearly tied, as had several previous polls. However, public opinion began to shift in mid-October, and by the end of the campaign Hau usually had a 6-10% lead. Hau eventually won 56-44%. I think we will see the same process this year. Lien is starting from way behind, so the challenge is more daunting this time. If Lien still trails by double digits a week before the election, he will probably lose. However, I suspect that we will start to see a shift toward Lien in the near future, and he will eventually eke out a narrow victory.

For this to happen, Lien will have to change the choice from a candidate-frame to a party-frame. Lien has to start reminding voters that he is blue and Ko is green. It might be too crude to simply proclaim that the campaign is a battle to preserve the ROC. However, he can talk about the race being a precursor to the 2016 election and try to start a public argument with Tsai Ing-wen, use the upcoming holidays to ostentatiously cloak himself in the national colors and symbols, talk about the importance of respecting Sun Yat-sen as the father of the country in the high school textbooks, propose increasing the number of hours junior high students spend on Chinese 國文, or something like that. These sorts of strategies would be political suicide in Kaohsiung and probably wouldn’t work in Taichung, but they could work in Taipei. Strangely, the Lien campaign seems fixated on the character question. The only way that Lien can lose this election is if voters go to the polls asking themselves whether Lien or Ko is has better character. Incredibly, that seems to be exactly the way the Lien team wants to pose the question. Eventually the Lien campaign will accidentally stumble away from that question (won’t they???), and the race will begin to turn.

My guess (and let me emphasize that this is just a guess): Lien 52, Ko 48.

2014 mayoral races overview, part 4

October 8, 2014

This year’s second most interesting race is in Taichung City. As the biggest city in central Taiwan, Taichung is usually seen as the battleground between the blue north and the green south. At the same time, Taichung has historically been solid KMT. The KMT has won the all the mayor/magistrate elections except for a blip in 1997, when the DPP took both positions. (The DPP only won 38% in Taichung County, but the KMT votes were split. In Taichung City, one of the KMT’s local factions covertly supported the DPP candidate and the extra 10% or so they delivered brought the DPP right to the edge of an outright majority.) This year, however, the polls all say a major shift is underway. The DPP candidate, Lin Chia-lung 林佳龍, has consistently had a double digit lead over the KMT incumbent, Jason Hu 胡志強. It certainly looks like the DPP will wrest control of Taichung away from the KMT this year.

There is a narrative that we have heard again and again about Lin Chia-lung. It is the story of a young arrogant pup who is beaten down but struggles to overcome his challenges and ultimately emerges triumphant. You know, like the Lion King. Here’s the dramatized version of the myth:

Act One: Once upon a time, Lin Chia-lung was a golden child. He was handsome and smart and good things seemed to happen to him. He married into a wealthy family, got a PhD in political science from Yale (studying under Juan Linz, one of the giants of comparative politics), came back to Taiwan, and got a good job at National Chungcheng University in Chiayi. However, Lin’s heart was really in politics, not academics, and he quickly transitioned from a scholar into a practicioner. He jumped into DPP politics, and he was quickly identified as a rising star. He rose through several positions in the executive branch in important areas such as national security and serving as government spokesman. Act Two: Lin decided to take the next step in his political career and plunge into electoral politics. He decided that he would heroically recover Taichung City from the KMT’s Jason Hu for the DPP. He parachuted into Taichung City, but suddenly things started going badly. Taichung voters did not warm to this arrogant outsider, and Hu crushed him on election day, 58-39%. Lin was devastated. In the FTV drama version, picture him arguing with his family and closest advisors and then running out into the rainstorm and screaming into the wind. In the KTV video version of the story, this is where he sits despondently at the bar staring into his half empty whiskey glass. Act three: Lin looks deep into his heart and realizes that things don’t always just come to him. He has to work for them. Instead of taking the easy road and going back to Taipei or academia, he decides to stay in Taichung, listen to grassroots voters, and slowly build up support. Over the next few years, he makes little headway. People seem surprised he is still there, but otherwise don’t pay much attention. However, he slowly starts to earn their respect, and they gradually begin to see him, not as an elite who parachuted in from Taipei, but as a member of their local community. All his hard work pays off in 2012 when he defeats a longtime KMT incumbent. Suddenly the media pays attention and realizes that Lin, through his hard work and sincere efforts, has not only won a great personal victory but has also flipped his district from leaning blue to leaning green. 2012 is only the beginning. Now that Lin understands the way to the peoples’ hearts, he runs for mayor and repeats the process on a bigger scale. The movie ends with Lin’s election triumph and personal redemption. The music plays, the curtain falls, and we wonder when the sequel will come out (The Lin Chia-lung Story: The Presidential Years).

Lin obviously loves this story, and he frequently repeats some (admittedly less dramatic) version of it. The media loves it because it is a good story and an easy to understand narrative. Even the blue camp uses it. They ask, why can’t we have candidates like that who go to the DPP strongholds, work hard, and win them for the KMT? This allows them to rationalize DPP victories and KMT losses as the result of more dedicated DPP candidates, not lousy KMT ideas or policies.

As you might have figured out by now, I’m not quite buying this narrative. For one thing, Lin is hardly unique in going to a place and trying to build a career there. In the DPP, Lee Chin-yung 李進勇 went to Keelung; You Ying-lung 游盈隆 worked Hualien for years; Su Tseng-chang 蘇貞昌 moved to Taipei County; Chuang Jui-hsiung 莊瑞雄 has just abandoned Taipei City to go back to Pingtung; and so on. In the KMT, the best example is Jason Hu, who abandoned his own high-flying career in the central government in favor of local politics in Taichung. Some of these moves were successful, others were not. However, I don’t think that any of them failed due to lack of effort. What made Lin’s move successful was getting the timing exactly right. Taichung has been trending toward the green camp for several years, and it is now right at the tipping point. Lin’s personal efforts certainly helped his 2012 campaign, but it also helped that the partisan balance of the whole district moved in his direction. Perhaps most importantly, after 13 years in office, the public may finally be fed up with Jason Hu. Do I think that Lin Chia-lung is a strong candidate who is winning a few extra votes? Absolutely. Do I think that his victory in 2012 and his expected victory this year are mostly the result of personal determination and grit? Nope. Larger partisan trends are much more important. After that, voter fatigue with two lackluster incumbents has helped. And third, Lin is a good candidate who is smart enough to ride favorable partisan tides, exploit weak opponents, and bask in a friendly media narrative.

Now that I’ve gotten that rant out of the way, let’s get back to the real story. The DPP is threatening to win Taichung!?! Those of you with longer memories might understand how unfathomable this seems to me. Taichung County used to be known as a democratic desert. This was a place where KMT factions divided up all the votes among themselves and snickered at the pitiful DPP candidates groveling for a few leftovers. If there were eight seats in a district, the KMT would win six, faction members dressed as independents would win two, and the three DPP candidates would come in 11th, 15th, and 18th, with barely enough votes between them to scare the 9th place loser. The DPP was a bit healthier in Taichung City, but it never seriously threatened KMT hegemony there either. I used to have discussions with friends trying to figure out why the DPP had a market in the south and in Taipei but could never seem to connect with voters in central Taiwan. This feels like a seismic shift. If this is a robust trend and the DPP really does win majorities in Taichung for the next decade, it will have a profound impact on Taiwanese politics. On election day, media coverage will almost certainly be dominated by the miserable race in Taipei, but the result in Taichung will have much more significance for Taiwan in the long run.

My guess: Lin 53, Hu 47.

2014 mayoral races overview, part 3

October 7, 2014

If you are following this blog, you probably already know the general outlines of the mayoral races for the six direct municipalities. These are big prizes, and they get quite a bit of media coverage. The six cities are also big enough that campaigning basically has to be done through the media and advertising. Retail politics simply aren’t feasible at this level. Even when a candidate goes through a traditional market shaking lots of hands (such as Tsai Ing-wen 蔡英文 did in 2010) or pretends to work at various blue collar jobs (such as Sean Lien 連勝文 is doing now), the goal is more to change the candidate’s public image through media coverage than to directly affect votes. You simply can’t shake half a million hands. The effect of local party or campaign organizations is also limited. The old ground game, with lots of local vote brokers going around and recommending a candidate (ie: buying votes), is fairly useless. The average voter knows the candidate (through years of media coverage) just about as well as the average vote broker. Moreover, vote buying probably doesn’t work as well for high level offices. When I was living in Nantou years ago, numerous people told me of how they sold their county assembly vote. They knew that candidates who buy votes are generally more corrupt, but they didn’t think that a little more corruption in the county council would matter. However, they did not extend that idea to the presidency, where the election results really mattered. The president was supposed to be above petty bribery. Granted, vote buying for Nantou County magistrate was common, but I’m guessing that Taichung City mayor is a little closer to the presidency on the continuum. At any rate, the population of Taichung or Tainan is so large than massive vote buying becomes prohibitively expensive and the risk of getting caught is unacceptably high. When personal connections and ground organizations matter far less, you are left with having to campaign on public policies, candidate image, and party label. I keep saying that people elected to one of these positions are on the short list for the presidency. One reason is that a mayoral campaign is the closest thing to a presidential campaign. The major difference is that mayoral candidates generally do not talk about China and cross-strait relations. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that China doesn’t matter just because the candidates aren’t talking about it. Parties matter, and partisan sympathies are shaped by attitudes toward China more than anything else. It’s not a coincidence that most Taiwanese nationalists just happen to think that William Lai’s 賴清德 position on garbage collection is fantastic and most Chinese nationalists approve of Eric Chu’s 朱立倫 plan to build an elementary school over here and not over there. With the exception of some grassroots level offices (township councils, neighborhood heads), every election in Taiwan is ultimately about China, at least to some extent.

Looking at previous electoral history, the KMT should easily win two races (Taipei, Taoyuan), the DPP should easily win two (Kaohsiung, Tainan), and two (Taichung, New Taipei) should be highly competitive, though perhaps with a slight blue tilt. Given the unpopularity of the Ma government, I expect the DPP to do better than normal this year. If the partisan structure of each race defines 80-90% of the election result, the individual candidates can affect the remaining 10-20%.

Kaohsiung and Tainan should be easy DPP victories, and all indications are that they are heading that way. The DPP has two very strong incumbents running for re-election. Chen Chu 陳菊 and William Lai 賴清德 are always rated among the top five (usually top three) local executives. The polls say that both have enormous leads, though the races both look so one-sided that there haven’t been all that many polls published. What’s the point of doing a new poll to learn whether the gap between the DPP and KMT candidates is 50 points or only 40?

With the outcomes a foregone conclusion, I think the more interesting way to think about these two races is as a pseudo-primary for the DPP’s 2016 vice-presidential nomination. Tsai Ing-wen is the prohibitive favorite to get the presidential nomination, and these two will be the strongest candidates for the number two position on the ticket. One of the factors in Tsai’s disappointing 45.6% in 2012 was that she didn’t rack up overwhelming majorities in the south. She only won 57.7% in Tainan and 53.4% in Kaohsiung. If she is to increase by 5% nationally in 2016, she will probably have to increase the Tainan and Kaohsiung numbers by 7-8%. So if either Lai or Chen puts up a spectacular result this year, he or she will be highly attractive as a running mate.

At first glance, this competition seems to favor Lai. To begin with, Tainan is greener than Kaohsiung, so he should win by a larger margin. Moreover, Lai is running against a nobody. Huang Hsiu-shuang 黃秀霜 is a university president with no electoral experience. She is simply a generic name on the ballot for people who want to support the candidate above the KMT logo. By contrast, Chen has a real opponent in Yang Chiu-hsing 楊秋興. Yang has won numerous elections, including two as Kaohsiung County magistrate. Further, his performance in office was quite good. However, he won all those elections while he was in the DPP. When he lost the 2012 primary to Chen Chu, he quit the party and eventually changed sides. As a KMT politician, most of his former voters will no longer support him. Still, he has years of experience and vast local connections to draw on. No one thinks he is an amateur.

While this seems to work in Lai’s favor, I think Chen might actually come out stronger. Expectations for Lai are higher, and they might be too high for him to meet. Anonymous candidates tend to be either completely incompetent or surprisingly energetic. If Lai rolls up a huge victory, some will dismiss it as the result of Huang’s incompetence. If Huang turns out to much stronger than expected, people might see this as a sign of Lai’s electoral fragility. It might be a no-win situation for him. In Kaohsiung, Yang Chiu-hsing is a known and respected candidate. However, there is almost certainly a ceiling on his support. He is a known quantity and won’t be surprising anyone. His former voters feel betrayed by him, and his new party probably doesn’t fully trust him. He wasn’t close to winning last time, and, even though he gets a one-on-one shot at Chen Chu this time (instead of having to share the blue camp votes with Huang Chao-shun), the second time around is rarely better for such candidates. My guesses: Lai wins 66-34% in Tainan; Chen wins 61-39% in Kaohsiung.

Of course, even if Tsai does pick either Chen or Lai as her running mate, this year’s election will only be one factor. Two other important factors are China and gender. The two are seen as having somewhat different stances toward China. Chen has an image of being more pragmatic. As mayor, she has welcomed Chinese tourists and has traveled to China without ruffling many feathers. When Lai went to China, he directly brought up Taiwan independence. This has caused some to see him more as a hardline Taiwan nationalist. My guess is that these supposed differences are more about perception than reality. Chen’s pragmatism is rooted in her efforts to promote Kaoshiung’s economy. Tainan doesn’t get as much mainland tourism as Kaohsiung, and it doesn’t have as much heavy industry or as much shipping traffic. Still, Tsai’s choice might be influenced by the need to placate the USA, China, or other countries, and this would favor Chen. Gender considerations probably favor Lai. Many people think that an all-female ticket would be too much for Taiwanese voters. Personally, I think that more people would celebrate this as proof of Taiwan’s progressivism than would boycott the ticket due to lingering male chauvinism. Supposedly there are a lot of voters who are open-minded enough to vote for a female presidential candidate but not an all-female ticket?? Since when do vice-presidential candidates matter that much?

Moving up north, the race in Taoyuan looks to clearly favor the KMT. The national KMT may be less popular with President Ma’s dismal performance in office, but the KMT has such a large lead in Taoyuan that it probably doesn’t matter. In 2012, the DPP was held under 40% in Taoyuan.

Technically, there are no incumbents in this race since Taoyuan is newly raised to direct municipality status. In reality, this is a rematch of the 2009 county magistrate election. In that election, John Wu 吳志揚 was widely expected to crush his opponent, Cheng Wen-tsan 鄭文燦. Wu had the advantages of deep blue territory, deep pockets, and deep family roots. Both his father and his grandfather had previously served as county magistrate, and his father is considered by some as the leading Hakka politician in Taiwan. Cheng was a county assembly member. This was a mismatch. On election night, things didn’t quite go that way. Wu eventually won 52-46%, but it was much more nerve-wracking than anyone expected. Even though the DPP only took one seat away from the KMT (Yilan), the narrative was that the DPP had done shockingly well. Tsai Ing-wen was transformed from a temporary seat-warmer into a charismatic and effective party chair. The Taoyuan race was perhaps the biggest factor in building this narrative. In retrospect, it was a fantastic performance for the DPP. It was probably also a case of overconfidence from the Wu campaign.

In 2014, after five years of popular protests surrounding the airport expansion, a major corruption scandal involving the deputy county magistrate, and fairly lousy public evaluations of his performance in office, I doubt the Wu team is overconfident. Cheng had a great result in 2009, and he will be hard-pressed to match that, much less surpass it. The polls show that Wu has a clear lead. I expect he’ll win comfortably, but with nothing like the huge margins Chen and Lai will rack up in the south. My guess, Wu 55, Cheng 45%.

New Taipei City is supposed to be a battleground. This year, it is not. Incumbent Eric Chu 朱立倫 is expected to easily win a second term. He is the most popular politician in the KMT, and he is widely expected to use this victory as a stepping stone to the 2016 presidential nomination.

Former Premier Yu Hsi-kun 游錫堃would have been a formidable opponent in 1997, but today he seems to be yesterday’s man. Yu was brilliant in office as Yilan County magistrate, but the premiership may have been a bit too much for him. Perhaps he simply didn’t have the economic or security backgrounds needed for that office. He has been trying to get back to local politics for the past few years. He sought the DPP nomination for New Taipei City in 2010, but he didn’t excite anyone. In 2014, he still didn’t excite anyone, but this time there was no national star to swoop in. Party chair Su Tseng-chang ensured that Yu would win the nomination by holding the primary in November 2013, a full year before the election. There was no reason that the contest needed to be settled so early. In fact, this probably hurt Yu. With his continuing weakness and so much time until the election, there was noise in the DPP about replacing him with a more attractive candidate. Facing a strong incumbent, there weren’t any good options for the DPP. Chair Su simply made the worst of a bad situation.

After two terms as Taoyuan County magistrate, a stint as Vice Premier, a term as New Taipei mayor, and several years as the KMT heir apparent, we still know shockingly little about who Eric Chu is. He has said almost nothing about China. There are many people in the green camp who are convinced that he will be the second coming of Lee Teng-hui. His mother is from a prominent DPP family in Taoyuan, and he supposedly has a strong Taiwanese consciousness from her. Or maybe it comes from his father-in-law, Kao Yu-jen 高育仁. Kao was a longtime KMT stalwart from Tainan (legislator, county magistrate, speaker of the provincial assembly, KMT central standing committee) who was also a key ally of President Lee. In these speculations of Chu as LTH 2.0, one never hears about his father’s influence. His father was a minor Taoyuan politician (county assembly, national assembly) and a mainlander. China aside, Chu has also managed to play both sides on questions of protecting the wealthy and helping promote economic or social justice. When he makes a public statement (which is not often), he seems to say something slightly more favorable to helping the less powerful. His actions, however, seem (to me) to say that he is just as dedicated as, say, John Wu to the construction-development state model of politics and is quite happy to work in the interests of developers and construction companies. I admire his discipline. By not talking too much, he has managed to let everyone project their hopes and dreams on him. I suspect that he is not LTH 2.0 or a social reformer. I suspect he is quite comfortable in Ma Ying-jeou’s KMT. However, I have to admit that we simply don’t know who he is. We won’t find out this year.

My guess: Chu 58, Yu 42.