2014 mayoral races overview, part 3

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.

4 Responses to “2014 mayoral races overview, part 3”

  1. Alex Says:

    What do you think of Eric Chu’s promise to serve out a four-year term if he wins? How much will this hurt his electoral chance if he chooses to run? Many are suggesting that VP Wu Den-yih made some deals to make Chu have the promise (conspiracy, conspiracy) though much seems speculation.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Remember when Ma Ying-jeou promised a hundred times that he would not run for Taipei mayor. Chu won’t have to chase the nomination too hard. He’s the only viable candidate; the nomination will come to him. He’ll sigh and apologize to the people of New Taipei City, and then everyone will forget about it. The more important questions are whether he will have time to set up his record in New Taipei well enough to run for president and whether he’ll have enough time to prepare himself (studying public policy, foreign relations, etc) for the task.

      • Pat Says:

        Chu is the only viable candidate, but Wu Dun-yi and Hau Longbin will probably put up quite a fight. This is their last real shot at the presidency, after all.

  2. R Says:

    Thanks for the update again!

    In Taoyuan, it feels to me that somehow 鄭文燦 is putting up a rather uninspiring campaign. With everything that have happened in Taoyuan I rly expected that he would put up more of a fight. I also rmb some DPP supporters were angry at his aggressiveness in pursuing a 中常委 position, in that he knocked off someone of influence from Taoyun that he rly shouldn’t alienate (someone in one of those farm/water position iirc?) Said supporters were also upset in that they believe this signals a lack of commitment to the mayoral electoin, since that by getting elected as mayor one would automatically become a 中常委 without the need of an election.

    & regarding New Taipei, do you think 羅致政 could have put up much more of a fight against Chu? I’m aware he was in the running for the nomination until he declared he will step away after the party refused his request to delay the primary. Personally I feel that he would have had more potential for growth, albeit defeat might still be certain. Do you have any insight into why 蘇貞昌 was so adamant to have Yu be nominated? From what I read, it’s because he originally wanted to secure Yu’s faction’s support for his chairmanship against Tsai & Luo is one of Tsai’s closest affiliate.

    It interesting to know that many DPP & more specifically Tsai supporters are upset at how the DPP have set up their municipal nominations lol, in particular Tsai supporters, as they felt that Su have done tremendously lousy job at the nomination & now Tsai might need to bear the negative consequence from such. I have to say I do feel that the DPP have not managed their nomination well in what should have been a rare opportunity for a DPP coup (e.g. Yunlin, Nantou, Chiayi City, & lack of candidate in Hualian & Hsinchu, splits in Chiayi City, Hsinchu City & not took up the chance for potential collaboration with Kang in Miaoli.)

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