Now that Eric Chu is going to run for president, the chattering class has turned to the question of his present job. Should he resign as New Taipei City mayor?
Let’s start with the calendar. The election law requires that a by-election be held within three months of a resignation. A few days ago in the legislature, the head of the electoral commission stated that they would need at least two months of preparation time after the resignation to hold a by-election. In other words, if Chu were to resign between October 16 and November 19, the by-election would almost certainly be held on January 16, concurrent with the presidential and legislative elections. If Chu wants the by-election to be held after the presidential election, he has to wait until at least November 20. Elections are always on a Saturday, and it is highly unlikely the CEC would schedule such a large-scale by-election on Jan 23 or 30, the two Saturdays immediately after the general election. Feb 6 and 14 fall during the lunar new year holiday, so the earliest reasonable date for a by-election is Feb 20. (February 27 is also out of bounds due to the national holiday for Feb 28.)
What about the politics? New Taipei City is extremely important, and Chu and the KMT cannot afford to treat it cavalierly. Because of their electoral debacle last November and their impending defeat in the presidential election, New Taipei City will be the only large territory the KMT has jurisdiction over for the next three years. A lot of KMT operatives will be trying to land jobs over the next few months, and New Taipei is by far the most desirable landing spot.
If there is a by-election, the KMT could easily lose. In fact, I think it is likely that the KMT would lose. They barely won in 2014 with a popular candidate against a ho-hum challenger. In the by-election, they will either be running a ho-hum second tier candidate or a decidedly tarnished Eric Chu coming off a year of disastrous KMT leadership and probably a thrashing (both nationally and in New Taipei) in the presidential election.
The cold-blooded choice would be for Chu to simply decline to resign. He should tell the public that he can manage the task of juggling the presidential campaign, the party chairmanship, and his duties as mayor. After all, he has a team of trusted subordinates to take care of the technical details while he is away.
The problem is that the previous two sentences sound terrible. Chu cannot say those things without admitting that he won’t be paying attention to the small (but often important) details. Moreover, his public reason (in the spring) for not running for president was precisely that he felt an obligation to the citizens of New Taipei to focus on his mayoral duties. He even tried to absent himself from an important KMT central standing committee because he was scheduled to appear at the city council. In other words, he was already having a hard time juggling duties as the party chair and mayor, and now he is going to add an even more demanding job. The New Taipei DPP politicians are going to have a field day asking why their mayor is not at work and pointing out problems that he is neglecting.
From the other side of the spectrum, there will also be some pressure from within the KMT for Chu to resign. Some campaign people will grumble that he is spending too much time on his mayoral duties rather than on their campaign events. This will be one way for them to avoid blame for the impending defeat: “Don’t blame me. There was nothing wrong with my strategy. It would have worked if the candidate had bothered to show up.” Other people will grumble that by refusing to resign, Chu is running a defeatist campaign. By holding on to the mayor’s position, Chu will effectively be publicly admitting that his presidential campaign is hopeless.
If Chu does not resign, he will have to answer a question about resigning every day for the rest of the campaign. It will wear on him, sucking the energy out of his campaign much as the questions toward Hung about being replaced on the KMT ticket wore on her campaign.
Is Chu really mentally tough enough to resist the enormous pressure he will face to resign? I have no idea. He was tough enough to resist running for president all spring and summer, and then he suddenly caved in a few weeks ago.
The recent speculation about the electoral calendar seems to imply that he will wait until late November or early December to resign so that he can run in the by-election. This is a bad strategy. If he waits until then to announce his decision, he will still have to answer questions for a full month. In other words, he will have a month of telling the public that it isn’t a problem, and then he will backtrack and admit that he needs to resign. He could also announce today that he will resign, but he won’t officially submit his resignation until late November because of the calendar. In that case, he will be open to attacks that he is playing politics with the mayor’s office. In order to maximize KMT interests, he will be leaving New Taipei City effectively rudderless for four full months. Moreover, if he resigns but then runs in the by-election, he will still be open to these same charges. What is the difference between having a lame-duck interim mayor appointed by the central government and delegating most of the power to his deputy mayor while he is away? Either way, the city government is leaderless for several months.
Chu doesn’t really have any good options. I think the least bad is for him to doggedly hang on to his office. That way, he (and the KMT) will still be holding one important office on Jan 17. Moreover, on Jan 17 he can immediately revert to full-time leadership of the city, so he will minimize any damage caused by an absence of leadership. However, if he is going to resign, he should probably do it immediately. Holding out for another month will simply suck energy out of his campaign. The KMT does have a somewhat higher chance of winning the by-election on Feb 20 than on Jan 16. They will almost certainly lose on Jan 16, since it would likely be swept along in the national DPP victory tide. On Feb 20, they could plead with voters to restrain the new majority party’s absolute power by reminding it that it can still lose elections. Historically, this “balancing” appeal has been a fairly effective campaign appeal. However, I doubt this would be enough to propel the KMT to victory in what will be an uphill race. If there is a by-election, they shouldn’t count on winning it.