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.