The lesson of the Taipei mayoral race

As election day nears, it looks like the KMT will do miserably in Taipei City. Even if Sean Lien 連勝文 somehow manages, against all polls and all expert prognostications, to win, nearly everyone expects him to do worse than any previous KMT candidate in Taipei who has had the blue side of the political spectrum all to himself. Once the results are in, the next question to ask is, what does it mean?

The ways that people are encouraging us to understand this election and its implications seem to depend primarily on whether they think this election is mostly about Ko 柯文哲 and his campaign or mostly about Lien and his campaign.

On one side, there are people who focus on the Ko camp. The things that they tend to look at are the inclusive nature of his appeals and Ko’s incorporation of the Sunflower student movement’s ideals and energy. In this discourse, Ko’s campaign is creating something new in Taiwanese politics by transcending the old blue and green cleavage lines and building a genuine bottom-up approach to solving political problems. Ko is also explicitly rejecting politics for the privileged few, especially the business elites who deal with China. This new force has the potential to transform the current party system and radically reshape all Taiwanese politics. I think these two articles are good statements of the vision of this first discourse.

On the other side, there are people who think that the Taipei race is almost entirely about the failings of the Lien campaign. I am firmly in this camp. If you buy this argument, the implications of the current election are far less reaching. The primary lesson is that the KMT can’t afford to nominate terrible candidates, even in its strongest districts. This bodes well for Eric Chu 朱立倫, who is widely seen as the KMT’s most appealing choice in 2016.


Why do I think this election is mostly about Lien? If a voter who has always voted for a particular party suddenly changes her behavior, there are two common stories. First, something fundamental could have caused the voter to reassess her values or the implications of those values and led her to conclude that she should change sides. If large numbers of voters all do this at the same time and in the same direction, the party system can be fundamentally revamped in a “critical election.” However, critical elections are rare. The American scholars who developed the idea thought that the USA had had critical elections in 1868, 1896, and 1932, following the US Civil War, the Panic of 1893 (and associated economic dislocations all over rural America), and the Great Depression. In other words, it takes a cataclysmic, once-in-a-generation event to produce a critical election. The Sunflower protests undoubtedly shook Taiwan, but did they rock it to its very core? The second possibility is less demanding. In a “deviating election,” voters don’t fundamentally change their underlying values or preferences, but they vote against their normal pattern based (usually) on the characteristics of the specific candidates on the ballot. I think this is what we are seeing. Many voters who have always voted blue are looking at Sean Lien and finding him personally inadequate as a potential mayor.

We are starting to see a number of stories about just how terrible Lien has been. The best one I have seen is from Julian Kuo 郭正亮, who is one of the most perceptive minds in the DPP. In this article, Kuo paints Lien as unprepared to be mayor. Lien has complained that Ko and the media won’t focus on his policy proposals, but Kuo points out several specific examples of how Lien’s policy proposals were poorly thought out and hastily discarded once the inevitable objections were raised. The media hasn’t taken Lien’s policies seriously because they were not serious proposals. Similarly, Lien hasn’t been sufficiently prepared for basic campaign events, and so he has talked to people using liquid gas in tanks about problems associated with piped natural gas and made basic gaffes such as not knowing the number of neighborhoods 里in Taipei City.

One of the things that many commentators miss is how hard you have to prepare to run for office. You can’t just drop in, look pretty, and expect to win an election, as this idiotic column suggests “princess” Chen Yi-chen 陳以真 is doing in Chiayi City. You have to have thought about what you want to do, studied the concrete problems facing the electorate, listened to different experts explain why different proposals will or will not work, considered how different constituencies will react to each proposal, and so on. In other words, you need a year or two of intensive preparation in order to run for office. We tend to overlook this because all the serious candidates do their homework. If they don’t, it filters out into the electorate. Media treats them with less respect, party workers privately express disgust to people they know, the opposition camp gleefully repeats stories of the candidate’s ineptitude, and voters learn, often indirectly, that the candidate is simply not ready to hold office.

(In USA politics, Bob Kerrey is a great example. Everyone expected Bob Kerrey to win the Democratic nomination in 1992. He was a charismatic war hero and seemed to be head and shoulders above the rest of the field. However, the media and voters in Iowa and New Hampshire soon realized that he was a one-trick pony. His answer to every question was “national health care.” How do we fix the economy? National health care. Should we lower taxes? National health care will resolve that problem. Should we dismantle our arsenal of nuclear weapons now that the Cold War is over? With national health care, we won’t have to worry about nuclear weapons. It didn’t take long for the media to stop taking Bob Kerrey seriously, and his campaign limped out of New Hampshire fatally wounded. The nomination and presidency eventually went to someone who was always thoroughly prepared to chat in depth on any policy proposal, Bill Clinton. In case you are wondering about George W. Bush, he is not a counter-example. One of the critical steps in his path to the presidency was an audience with former Secretary of State George Schultz and several other serious Republican policy elders in early 1999. Bush impressed them enough for them to spread the word out through various channels that Bush was viable and Republicans could wholeheartedly support him. This private vetting and unofficial endorsement by the party elders effectively turned Bush into the frontrunner for the party’s nomination.)

If Sean Lien had been adequately prepared for this race, I suspect that Taipei would have turned out much like the current Taoyuan race. In Taoyuan, another district with a predominance of voters who generally vote blue, John Wu 吳志揚 faces many of the same complaints about inheriting his status as Lien. However, after stints in the legislature and a term as county chief, Wu can convincingly talk about the details of governing Taoyuan. For most blue voters, Wu is sufficiently competent and they can therefore vote for him. To be sure, national-level factors such as President Ma’s unpopularity will eat away at the normal KMT margin of victory. However, the blue coalition is not imploding in Taoyuan the way it is in Taipei. Faced with a more prepared Lien, Ko’s camp might have made the same inclusive and bottom-up appeals, but I doubt they would have had much effect.

In short, this election may be a lot less meaningful than many people believe. If Wu loses in Taoyuan, I might start to buy into the ideas that Taiwanese voters want a wholesale rejection of the comprador class or that significant slices of the electorate were transformed by the Sunflower movement. In the meantime, the least demanding explanation is simply that Sean Lien is going to lose because he was too lazy to spend a year or two intensively preparing for the election.

9 Responses to “The lesson of the Taipei mayoral race”

  1. Echo Says:

    Lien is indeed under prepared, but all the tricks from the KMT remain more or less the same as usual. Focusing solely on Lien’s under-preparation as the main cause of this election looses sight on how well Ko prepares and fights his campaign. He’s done much better job than most of the green candidates in the past.

    My take is that if Lien is the sole cause of the loss of blue supporters, then most deep blues will simply keep silent or express their unwillingness to cast votes. But many and too many deep blue supporters come out openly to express their support of Ko. They did much more than simply dislike Lien.

    You mention, “If Wu loses in Taoyuan, I might start to buy into the ideas that Taiwanese voters want a wholesale rejection of the comprador class or that significant slices of the electorate were transformed by the Sunflower movement.”

    I think that’s not a fair standard for comparision. Wu is not only a seasoned politician but also campaigning for the 2nd term.

    • ジェームス (@jmstwn) Says:

      I’m looking forward to comparing youth turnout and support for Ko to that of other candidates.

      • frozengarlic Says:

        Exactly how do you plan to do that? Taiwan doesn’t allow exit polls, which are the usual way to track that. In the USA, the voter rolls are made public, including whether a particular voter actually showed up to vote or not. In Taiwan, the rolls are kept strictly secret. The only thing we can rely on is post-election telephone and face-to-face interviews. The problem is that respondents are notoriously bad at reporting their voting behavior. Reported turnout is always much higher than actual turnout, and the reported gap between the winner and loser is always much higher than the actual gap. It would be wonderful to know if young people turn out in droves for Ko, but I’m not sure how what kind of data will be able to convince us of this.

    • Echo Taiwan Says:

      “If Wu loses in Taoyuan, I might start to buy into the ideas that Taiwanese voters want a wholesale rejection of the comprador class or that significant slices of the electorate were transformed by the Sunflower movement.”

      Looks like Wu is losing, which is a surprise to most people.

  2. Andrew C. Says:

    I convinced by the theory that Ko run a very different election and successfully made many youth voters believe “this is the different one”, but as Mr. Garlic said, that change isn’t fundamental.

    Ideologies that Sunflower movement brings, such as participatory democracy, has quiet limited impact to people >30 years old to my observation. The first thing came into their mind is “Lien is really really bad, how can I convince myself he would be an OK mayor?”, and then will they start to think “Ko runs a quite nontraditional campaign, and he is a doctor (a trustable occupation), a trick pick but viable since he isn’t that green and seems like many public figure I admire support him”. The thought process is not really changed. I heard many of those people speaking like those above in the cafeteria, so my take is more like Mr. Garlic that, if Ko wins, the deciding factor would be Lien’s awkward campaign. There are only 14.7% electorates are between 20 to 30 years old; therefore, only if Ko wins with a very big margin (though I don’t know how much) would I think the voting behavior is truly shifting.

  3. TaiwanLawBlog Says:

    Is there a specific provision banning exit polling? I don’t see it in the Civil Servants Election And Recall Act.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      It is covered under the clause that prohibits polls in the last few days before the election. There were actually two exit polls conducted, one in the 1998 Taipei mayoral election and one in the 2000 presidential election. After the latter, the Central Election Commission announced that it was interpreting the already existing ban on pre-election polls to cover exit polls as well. One might argue that this is stretching the law past what is actually written. I think the CEC may have been concerned that the survey workers stationed outside various polling stations were interfering with smooth election operations or were intimidating or harassing voters in some way. Another problem is that in 2000, some of the preliminary results started to leak out around noon, long before the polls were closed. Some may have worried that if results become widely known before the polls closed, some people who hadn’t voted yet wouldn’t bother to turn out. The info didn’t spread too widely in 2000, but the CEC may have decided not to let that potential problem develop into a bigger problem in future elections. A final factor, one that I have never heard mentioned in the Taiwanese context, is that exit polls can be used to challenge the legitimacy of official election results. In the 1986 Philippines presidential election in which Marcos officially beat Aquino, there was an exit poll that showed Aquino clearly ahead. This led directly to Aquino’s refusal to accept the results, the People Power movement, and eventually the new democratic regime. Can you imagine what the 2004 election in Taiwan would have been like if the exit polls had showed Lien winning by 2% (which is still well within the margin of error for the actual election results)? Anyway, I wouldn’t expect to see any exit polls in the near or medium-term future.

      • Greg Says:

        Anyway, I wouldn’t expect to see any exit polls in the near or medium-term future.

        Do you think this, along with the ban on pre-election polls, is a good thing?

  4. clnc Says:

    If in 1995, you told me that in 2013 we have an African American president, with a middle name Hussein, who’s just reelected to his second term in a sluggish economy, I would say,

    “Oh, he must run against Mitt Romney!”

    –Conan O’Brien at the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner

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