The legislative race in Hsinchu County is shaping up as a really weird one. The incumbent is Hsu Hsin-ying 徐欣瑩, who won in 2012 as a KMT candidate. She is running for re-election, but not under the KMT label. She made the very strange decision leave the KMT – remember Hsinchu County is solidly blue territory – and launch her own party, the Min-kuo Party (MKT). Good luck with that.
[Aside: Every time the media brings up Hsu, they seem obliged to mention that she got more votes than any other candidate in 2012. This is a silly observation. Hsinchu County has more voters than any other district, and since it is a solidly blue district the KMT candidate should get well over 50% in a two-horse race. Actually, she didn’t do particularly well. She only got 62%, while Ma and Soong combined for 69% in the presidential race.]
Last week the KMT settled on its nominee. It has chosen county councilor and former legislator Lin Wei-chou 林為洲. Lin was elected to the legislature in 2004 as a DPP candidate. He was even the chair of the DPP county party branch and ran Chen Shui-bian’s 2004 campaign in Hsinchu.
So, let’s see. The former KMT politician is now the MKT leader, while the former DPP politician will now be the KMT champion.
But wait, there’s more. The DPP hasn’t finalized its nomination yet, but one of the leading contenders is Cheng Yung-chin 鄭永金, a veteran Hsinchu politician. Over the past two decades, Cheng has been county council speaker, legislator, and county magistrate. As you might expect by now, he did this all as a KMT party stalwart. So, in addition to the other two, we might also have a former KMT politician representing the DPP.
What is going on here? Don’t party labels mean anything in Hsinchu? This kind of rampant party switching is simply unthinkable in a place like Taipei. The difference has to do with the personal vote. Political scientists often (crudely) divide voters into party voters and personal voters. The former make their choice solely on the basis of the party label. They will vote for anyone nominated by their party, and they will never vote for anyone from an enemy party. Personal voters might have some party preferences, but they also care about other things. They might vote against their preferred party (if they have one) because a they have a personal connection with the candidate, the candidate takes a certain position on an issue they care deeply about, the candidate has done some sort of constituency service, the candidate represents their social group, the candidate has bought their vote, the candidate is good-looking, or anything else. In places like Taipei, society is more atomized. People move in and out all the time, and you might not know your neighbor. Without dense personal connections, voters rely more on issues and party labels to make decisions. In places like Hsinchu County, social networks are denser. People are more likely to know each other, and politicians can build networks along the social structures. Parties matter, but they aren’t the only thing and sometimes they aren’t even the most important thing. Politicians who have built up a strong personal vote can bring much of that support along with them if they ever find they need to change parties.
This interplay between personal and party votes has meant that when politicians change sides, they usually come from more rural areas. The other district this year with multiple important party switchers is Changhua 1, which (by Taiwan’s standards) is not that urbanized. An even stronger example occurred a decade ago, when most of the Chiayi County Lin Faction switched sides and joined the DPP.
Anyway, just remember that the Hsinchu race could be former KMT against former DPP against former KMT. So if you have a strong party ID, it should be easy to decide who to vote for.