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.