Archive for February, 2015

Ma and KMT party image

February 26, 2015

For the last couple of years, a little thought has kept pushing its way into my head. “Hey, President Ma’s second term is looking more and more like President Chen’s disastrous second term.” I’ve rolled this thought around, but I’ve always ended up pushing it away. After all, Chen’s second term was an absolute catastrophe. The term had started out with massive street protests stemming from the 2004 election eve assassination attempt, which for many delegitimized Chen’s entire term. In the middle of the term, there were more massive street protests, as the Red Shirts called for Chen’s removal from office in the face of mounting corruption cases. Chen veered from the pragmatic toward the ideological extreme, desperately trying to hold onto the fundamentalist wing of the spectrum in order to block any impeachments. The DPP underwent intense political infighting, with the New Tide faction moving into outright opposition to Chen and others being labeled as the “Ten Bandits” (十大寇) for their supposed willingness to sell the country out to China. It was a shrill and exhausting period. Public disgust with the DPP eventually climaxed with the KMT’s massive 2008 victory. There was even a short period in which people were unsure the DPP would survive to the next election. In short, Chen’s second term was a train wreck, and that’s putting it kindly.

Amazingly, I’m becoming less and less hesitant to compare Ma’s second term to Chen’s second term. I’m slowly coming to the realization that, as bad as Chen’s was, Ma’s might be worse. We have had massive street protests. We have seen abuse of power (eg: Huang Shih-ming case). The KMT’s internal struggle has perhaps been worse than the DPP’s, with Ma’s attempted purge of Speaker Wang and all its attendant fallout. Ma’s approval ratings are certainly lower than Chen’s. Chen at least always had the firm support of the fundamentalist wing of the party. I have always assumed that the dissatisfaction to Chen was more intense, but my subjective impression is that Ma is catching up. That is, it seems to me that the 75% or so who are dissatisfied with Ma today are more intensely dissatisfied than the roughly 75% who were dissatisfied two years ago. The local elections were certainly worse for Ma than Chen. In 2005/6, the DPP lost places like Yilan, Taipei County, Nantou, Changhua, and Chiayi City. Of course these were painful defeats, but these places were, except for Yilan, swing districts rather than traditional bastions of party support. The DPP held onto the rest of the south, even managing to transfer power to a new mayor in Kaohsiung City. There were no equivalents of the KMT’s humiliations in Taipei and Taoyuan Cities in 2014. Both presidents struggled with becoming a lame duck. When Chen appointed Su Tseng-chang as Premier in January 2006, he announced that he would be retreating to the second line, away from everyday politics. This reticence only lasted a few months before he publicly tried to muscle his way back into all critical decisions. Similarly, President Ma may be regretting his decision to resign as KMT party chair. His recent public insistence that the KMT continue to pursue the legal case against Speaker Wang and his many statements that he is not a lame duck suggest that he is trying to reclaim political authority.

You can clearly see the impact of Ma’s awful second term in a recent TVBS survey on party images. The TVBS survey team helpfully put together long term trend lines for several of the questions. There is a consistent pattern across a range of questions. In the late 1990s, the KMT image was bad, and the DPP image was good. In the 2004-6 period, the lines shifted. Assessments of the DPP crashed while those for the KMT rose. The KMT had a superior image through Ma’s first term, but it has cratered in Ma’s second term. The DPP’s image looks roughly as good as it did in the late 1990s, while the KMT’s image is generally even worse than it was then. Graph 7-1 shows the percentages of people who believe the KMT or DPP are somewhat incorrupt or very incorrupt. Graph 8-1 shows the percentage who feel that the KMT or DPP is an energetic party. (“Energetic” 有活力 is a very vague term in Mandarin; I think most people understand it to mean the opposite of bureaucratic, stultified, or incapable of reflection.) Graph 9-1 shows the percentage of people who believe the KMT or DPP is a united party. (Note that the intervals between surveys do not represent equal time periods. For example, there are five data points between Oct 2007 and Oct 2008, but there are a full two years between the last two data points. If you spaced them by time, that plunge in the KMT’s image over the last two years would look more imposing.)

Some of the other questions in the TVBS survey are also interesting. Table 3 shows the percentage of people who think the KMT is trustworthy (22%) or not trustworthy (64%). That is a huge deficit. Never mind the 40% of the population that will never vote for the KMT; a large part – maybe half – of the KMT’s target population doesn’t see it as trustworthy! Table 4 asks how much the KMT understands public opinion, and 70% say it doesn’t understand well at all. Table 5 asks whether the public interest or the party’s interests are more important to the KMT, and a whopping 73% believe the KMT places more importance on its own interests. In Table 6, 76% believe that the degree to which the KMT by large corporations is at least somewhat serious, and 57% believe that it is very serious.

These are awful numbers for the KMT. It is seen as corrupt, out of touch, selfish, and beset by internal squabbles. Perhaps this is the reason for what may be the most astounding number of all. TVBS asked which party respondents would prefer to govern after 2016. Among the 23% of respondents who self-identified as KMT supporters on the standard party ID question, only 60% wanted the KMT to remain in power! President Ma’s second term has been such a disaster that a significant minority of party identifiers (and this group is much smaller than it was three years ago) have to wonder if the KMT needs to be thrown out of power.


One of the final elements of the Chen’s second term was the seeming inability of the DPP to see the coming disaster. They simply seemed oblivious to their awful public opinion ratings. Even as the electorate was clearly fed up with them, they engaged in a vicious power struggle to see who would succeed Chen. Hsieh vanquished Su in a rancorous fight, but he never came close to winning the election. As we enter into the final chapter of Ma’s presidency, I wonder if the KMT is any less oblivious. Ma certainly seems grimly determined to maintain his policy line until the bitter end. Ironically, the KMT’s saving grace may be that Ma has discredited himself so much that he no longer has the power to try to arrange the 2016 nomination. VP Wu might be willing to fight vigorously for the nomination as the person who will continue Ma’s policies, but I’m not sure that President Ma still has enough clout to make a real fight of it, much less win. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Whoever emerges as the KMT nominee will face a monumental task. Right now, the KMT’s image and reputation is simply awful.

The recall

February 16, 2015

The recall effort against Alex Tsai is now over. The turnout rate of 24% was far lower than the necessary 50%, so Tsai will continue in office.


In principle, I believe that recalls should only be used in the most egregious cases. One of the great things about democracy is that it allows a society to make a decision about who will make the important decisions for the next time period and then move on. Once the decision is made, there is no need to keep fighting. In an authoritarian system, this is not the case. Decisions can be reversed at any time, so you can never stop defending your position. Democracies have institutionalized the power struggle so that it will be held at a specific time, according to specific rules, and it has a clear end. After the fight, everyone can move onto other matters.

Recalls threaten to upset that logic. If recalls are too easy, losers have a strong incentive to reopen old fights as soon as possible. For me, the overriding principle of recalls is that recalling an elected official should be significantly harder than electing that same official.

Let’s think about a few hypothetical cases. Case One: In 1992, Fidel Ramos won a seven-way race with only 23% to become the president of the Philippines. In other words, 77% of Filipinos voted for someone else. In a recall you don’t need to agree on an alternative, you only need to agree that you don’t want the current officeholder. All of the losers might have been able to mobilize their backers to throw Ramos out so that they would have another shot at the office. Even if Ramos were brilliant in office and his support only increased and never decreased, opponents would have ample opportunity to recall him. In other words, even if every person who originally voted for Ramos continued to support him, he might be vulnerable to recall. Of course, none of the other six aspirants were very popular either. After the recall and by-election, the new losers (perhaps including Ramos’s supporters) might start all over again with a new recall drive. Happily for the Philippines, this never-ending cycle didn’t happen. Instead, Ramos turned out to be a force for stability, and many people consider “Steady Eddy” to have been the best president in modern Filipino history.

Case Two: In 2004, Taipei City District 2 elected 10 legislators. The eighth and tenth seats were won by the TSU’s David Huang and independent Li Ao, an ultra-Chinese nationalist. These two, coming from opposite extremes of the political spectrum, combined for roughly 12% of the total vote. Suppose a coalition of the mainstream parties decided to launch a recall effort of the middle against the extremes. The 12% who supported the two winners would be utterly helpless to defend their favorite legislator. Even if every person who originally voted for Huang and Li continued to ardently support them, the other 88% of the electorate would be able to easily vote for recall. I’ve ignored the 50% turnout threshold so far, but this mainstream coalition might be able to reach that barrier. Each side would turn out lots of voters who hated the guy from the other side, and some of the moderate voters might also dislike the extremist on their own side. If they explicitly worked together and each major party told its supporters to vote in both recall elections (regardless of whether they voted yes or no), they might be able to turn out 50%. This would literally be tyranny of the majority, with the major parties cooperating to deny representation to smaller minorities.

What would justify a recall? I believe that to revoke a mandate, people who originally voted for the elected official must turn against him or her en masse. It should not be sufficient for angry voters who have always opposed the politician to get even angrier. If they can’t persuade people who originally voted for the politician to change sides, the original election result should stand.

This is the problem I had with the recall election effort against Alex Tsai. Sure, Tsai says inflammatory things and he is probably corrupt, but he was inflammatory and (probably) corrupt back in 2012 when his district gave him 33,000 more votes than the runner-up. He is still fundamentally the same person; we haven’t suddenly learned something new and unexpected about him. There isn’t a whole lot of evidence that his former voters suddenly started clamoring to get rid of him. As far as I can tell, what happened is that he offended people who have always opposed him and made them dislike him even more intensely.

Imagine a legislator who owned a company that was selling tainted cooking oil or another who was caught up in a spectacular and lurid corruption case (such as fishing bags of cash out of hiding places in a fish pond). With such sudden new and damning information, many former supporters might turn against those two legislators, regardless of their party preferences. In such cases, recalls might be warranted. Short of that sort of smoking gun, it is best to simply wait until the next general election.


Postscript: While the recall against Alex Tsai officially failed, I think it might have partially succeeded. The effort got 24% turnout, which is an astonishing number. I had expected them to get about half of that. Consider that in last week’s by-election in Taichung City, with both major parties mobilizing as intensely as they could, turnout was only 30%. In this recall, one side completely sat out, and the politicians from the other side were noticeably absent. This effort was orchestrated by a ragtag, underfunded group of political amateurs. Yet roughly as many people voted against Tsai yesterday as voted for the DPP legislative candidate in 2012 when there was a presidential race driving voters to the polls. There is almost no way to spin this as a triumph for Tsai. (Admittedly, he went before the TV cameras and tried to do exactly that. He’s pretty brazen.) Other KMT figures might collectively decide that it isn’t worth the risk to let Tsai run for re-election. His district has always been considered safe for the blue camp, but the Sean Lien experience should be fresh in everyone’s minds. The KMT can’t afford to risk losing another race with a controversial candidate. It has plenty of boring and safe candidates who are locks to win. (Tsai has said that he won’t run again, but (a) that was when he was running for mayor and (b) he’s been known to change his mind.) The Appendectomy Project might not have cut him out of the legislature this week, but it might have demonstrated that Tsai is unpopular enough that the KMT will finish the job for them in a few months.

Combine or separate?

February 12, 2015

The Central Election Commission is set to decide later today whether the 2016 legislative and presidential elections will be held separately or simultaneously. As everyone no doubt remembers, the 2008 elections were held separately and the 2012 elections were combined. I hope they are held separately, though I don’t think the political effects will be that large. Some of the most common arguments are as follows:

  • Combining the elections will save money and reduce social disharmony.

Uggh. I hate this stupid argument. Elections aren’t that expensive to stage. If you need to save money, don’t hold a stupid university games or give sweetheart BOT contracts to conglomerates. For heaven’s sake, don’t skimp on democracy. If the better option is to separate the two elections, then spend a (very) little money and do it right. As for the social disharmony, we live in a pluralist society. Not everyone thinks the same way. There is nothing wrong with this. Harmony, which is usually imposed by social elites, is much more sinister than an open airing of disagreements in the context of an election. Let’s move on to sensible considerations.

  • The legislative election has to be held by mid-January, but the presidential inauguration isn’t until May 20.

To me, this is the most important argument. Since President Ma has already served two terms, there will be a new president in 2016. Four months between the election and the inauguration is a long, long time. Some might argue that President Ma is already a lame duck, and power is already gravitating to the likely presidential contenders. This is true, but until the election there will be some degree of uncertainty about who the next president will be. Once the result is known, all uncertainty is removed. Further, the time between the election and the inauguration is typically taken up with determining the composition of the new government. Elites have a strong incentive to ignore the current officeholders in order to angle for a new position or to curry favor with those who have already been designated. In short, we would face a four month power vacuum. This could easily be shortened to two months by separating the two elections.

If the elections were separated, the legislative election might be moved to its traditional spot on the calendar. Prior to 2008, legislative elections were held in late November or early December. I think this was done in order to avoid the late December holidays and the early January student exams. I never really cared for such an early election because it meant that the old legislature usually reconvened for a lame-duck session in January to pass lots of politically sensitive legislation – ie: stuff that voters didn’t want. Regardless, the point is that separating the elections would allow the legislative election to be held at the optimal time, whatever that might be. (I’m not sure this is possible in 2016 since the Central Election Commission has a number of procedural deadlines, but it could be a possibility in the future.)

  • If combined, the legislative election will be dominated by the presidential election. This has several variants:
  1. Media will focus entirely on the presidential contest.
  2. Turnout for the legislative election will be ~80% instead of ~60%.
  3. Small parties without a presidential candidate will be ignored.
  4. The party list vote will merely be a copy of the presidential vote.
  5. Voters will be more likely to decide their district legislative votes based on the presidential races rather than on the individual legislative candidates.

(6a) The KMT will do better in the legislative election if it is not combined.

(6b) The DPP will do better in the legislative election if it is not combined.

These arguments are all basically correct. The presidential vote will dominate the legislative vote. However, it will do that whether or not the elections are combined, so the effects will be limited. In 2012, the presidential race completely dominated the legislative election. Almost all the media focus was on the presidential election. For example, there were new polls nearly every day on the presidential race, but there were almost no polls on individual legislative district races. The TSU, New Party, Green Party, and the litany of hopeless parties were almost entirely ignored unless they were able to convince one of the two main presidential candidates to go on stage with them. Likewise, the PFP was also mostly ignored even though it had a presidential candidate. The legislative votes also turned out to be very close to the presidential votes if one looks at the blue/green divide. However, a significant number of voters opted for one of the smaller parties on the party list ballot. Indeed, the TSU probably benefitted, since it never came anywhere close to 9% in the polls.

In 2008, when the two elections were held separately, there was more media focus on the legislative elections. For example, there were some polls on the individual races. Turnout was under 60%. This is important, as it is generally desirable to have as many people vote as possible. For many people, especially those who don’t live near their voting location, going to the polls twice in a short time is a sizeable burden. Nonetheless, the political effects were muted. The media, the two big parties, and the voters all treated the legislative elections as preliminaries to the main event. With just two months between the two elections, the presidential campaign was already in full swing. For many people, the legislative elections were merely the first opportunity to express their presidential preferences. In 2008, there were slightly larger deviances between presidential and legislative vote totals than in 2012, but not by that much. Further, the long-term trend has been toward stronger partisan voting, so the decline from 2008 to 2012 might not even be due to the different electoral calendar.

As for 6A and 6B, most people seem to think that separate elections would be better for the KMT. The logic is that the KMT is unpopular now, and by separating the elections the KMT could allow its incumbents to rely on their individual local popularity. That might be reasonable. However, I’m not sure what effect the lower turnout would have. In 2008, the different turnouts didn’t seem to matter, implying that the two sides failed to mobilize roughly the same number of supporters in the legislative elections. After the 2014 elections, in which there are some indications that the green side was better at mobilization, I’m not sure the KMT should want to compete in another mobilization contest so soon. In a presidential election, given the intensity of the media coverage and the total attention paid by society, just about all of the electorate living in Taiwan will turn out. (To put it another way, the overwhelming majority of the 20% that does not vote live outside Taiwan.) In a legislative election, not everyone in Taiwan will turn out to vote simply because legislators don’t seem as important as the president. You have a much harder task in mobilizing your supporters, and I think this might be harder for a demoralized KMT voting base than for a relatively energized DPP. Maybe not, but my second point is that it isn’t necessarily obvious which major party would benefit from separating the two elections. (My first point is that the legislative election will be dominated by the presidential election no matter when it is held, so whichever party benefits won’t benefit very much.)

If it were up to me, I’d separate the two elections in order to shrink the period between the presidential election and inauguration. If they combine the elections “in order to save money,” I’ll puke in my mouth just a bit. Either way, don’t get too excited about which party is getting the advantage, because any advantage will likely be very, very small.

by elections

February 8, 2015

The votes are now in from the five legislative by-elections. The DPP held its three seats, and the KMT held on to its three seats. While no seats changed hands, this was a slightly better day for the DPP than for the KMT.

We had some reason to expect that it might be a great day for the DPP. In the previous election cycle, the DPP smashed the KMT in the by-elections in early 2010 and 2011, with landslides in all of the green and tossup districts, victories in several solid blue districts, and fairly close defeats in some of the deepest blue races. In this cycle, the DPP did much better in the local general elections and the KMT government suffers from significantly lower levels of satisfaction. However, the KMT managed to stave off the worst-case scenario this time.

One difference may have been mobilization. Four years ago, the turnouts were generally in the low 40s. This year, Changhua 4 and Nantou 2 were the highest at 37%. My highly unscientific impression is that the DPP didn’t campaign quite as effectively or energetically this cycle as last cycle. Last time, I thought that Tsai Ing-wen did a better job of nationalizing the fight and keeping the campaigns in the national media eye. This time, they seemed to get buried in the back pages. It is hard to tell what the effect of turnout is. I’m pretty sure that blanket statements (eg: low turnout favors the DPP; if turnout is over 70% the KMT will win; etc.) are useless. My hunch is that the KMT did a similarly lousy job of turning out its potential voters both times, but the DPP did an ok job last time and maybe a poor job this time. (By the way, the highest turnout of any of the bye-elections happened last year in Taichung 2, when Yen Ching-piao’s son edged out the local DPP politician. 48% of the electorate voted, and Yen probably won because he was much better at mobilization than other KMT politicians.)

The reason that I think the DPP won a small victory has to do with the results in Taichung and Changhua. Both of these wins came by a wide margin – roughly 25% in Taichung and 18% in Changhua. While the DPP won both of these seats in 2012, these have hardly been solid DPP territory. The KMT held both prior to 2012, and Ma Ying-jeou won more votes than Tsai Ing-wen in both districts. On election night 2012, it was fairly easy to argue that the DPP had won the seats due to the popularity of the individual candidates rather than to general support for the entire party. Today’s result changes that picture. Now it appears that the DPP might really have a clear edge over the KMT in both districts. Further, it now has two new people sitting in those seats who have a year to consolidate their support before the next general election. The KMT will certainly run competent candidates in 2016, but there aren’t any looming heavyweights preparing to challenge either of the two new legislators. From today’s vantage point, it looks as if these two seats, which were marginal for the DPP in 2012, are quickly turning into safe DPP seats.

This result bodes well for the DPP’s drive to win a majority of seats in 2016. The DPP needs to win another 13 nominal seats. The next 15 seats it could win probably include the 5 KMT seats in the south, New Taipei 4, 5, and 6, Taoyuan 2, the three Changhua seats, and Taichung 3, 4, and 8. The fact that the DPP has now followed up the December landslides with similarly easy victories in central Taiwan should scare the pants off the remaining KMT incumbents in Taichung and Changhua. It is looking increasingly likely that most of them will be in the unfamiliar position of needing to rely on personal popularity to offset the KMT’s deficit in presidential and party list votes.

Nantou 2 might be #16 on the list of DPP targets. Winning this seat today was a tremendous relief for the KMT. It is also exactly the type of race the KMT needs to have if they are to hold their majority next year. Nantou 2 is not as blue as most people think. Most of the KMT’s advantage in Nantou County comes from the other legislative district. With a strong DPP candidate and a ho-hum KMT candidate, this district could easily swing to the green side. In a bye-election, if the two sides had had generic candidates, I would have expected the DPP to win. However, the KMT had a clear advantage in candidate quality this time. The DPP desperately needs to transition to a new generation of politicians in Nantou. They keep running old warhorses from a decade ago. Unfortunately, they don’t have an ample stable in Nantou the way they do in Taichung and Changhua. The DPP is much weaker at the county assembly and township mayor level in Nantou, which is probably the reason they had to turn to a guy who hasn’t won anything in a decade in the first place. This narrow victory certainly doesn’t indicate that Nantou 2 is beyond reach for the DPP, but it does give the KMT an important head start going into 2016.

There isn’t much to learn from the DPP landslide in Pingtung. The most significant result of that race is simply that Chuang Jui-hsiung 莊瑞雄 will be entering the legislature. I expect him to be one of the more high-profile members of the DPP caucus over the next decade. (Huang Kuo-shu 黃國書 is the other person elected today with potential as a future political star.  Hsu Shu-hua 許淑華 has some promise, but she seems to be aiming toward county magistrate rather than any national role.)

The DPP never had any real chance in Miaoli 2. This is a deep, deep blue district, and the KMT united behind a perfectly good local politician. Moreover, the DPP ran an incumbent party list legislator. This gave the KMT a lethal argument: If you elect her, she will lose her list seat to a person from somewhere else. If you elect the KMT candidate, the DPP candidate will keep her party list seat and Miaoli will get a second local legislator! Even so, the DPP managed to win 40% of the vote. Remember, this is a district in which the DPP has historically had trouble breaking 30%. The KMT won this seat, but the DPP can’t be too upset about this result.

One thing that I would not take from this election result is any judgment of Eric Chu’s leadership of the KMT. He hasn’t been in office long enough to affect public appraisals of the KMT, and, frankly, he is no more than the fourth most important factor, behind overall party images, the local candidates, and attitudes toward President Ma. I simply don’t believe that this election result sheds any useful light on how people are reacting to Chairman Chu.