campaign trail: DPP event in Miaoli 2

Last night I went to a DPP rally in Toufen, which is part of Miaoli 2. I have traditionally neglected Miaoli in my election observations in part because it is fairly small and out of the way, but more importantly because it is never very much of a race. The KMT has always dominated Miaoli. Unlike other deep blue places such as Hsinchu or Taoyuan, the DPP has never really even mounted a serious challenge to KMT power in Miaoli. The DPP has very few local politicians, and what little support they have tends to be concentrated on the coast, where the population is mostly Min-nan. In the 2/3 of the county that is Hakka, the DPP has had almost no success at all. When Chen Shui-bian got 39% of the vote in 2004, it was a miracle. In the inland, Hakka Miaoli 2 legislative district, 30% is a good showing. In 2008, the KMT couldn’t resolve its factional conflict, so it nominated two candidates in Miaoli 2. Both finished far ahead of the miserable DPP candidate. So it’s safe to say I didn’t expect all that much from this rally.

Still, there are reasons to be curious. All the national trends apply in Miaoli. All the local factions know that Tsai is going to win, so they are all looking to establish ties with the incoming central government. People in Miaoli are deserting the KMT at just about the same rates as people everywhere else, so there are a lot of disaffected former KMT supporters here, too. Locally, Tsai Ing-wen has worked hard on her Hakka identity over the past four years, making a real effort to become conversant in Hakka. We’ll see if that gets any sympathy. Most importantly, the Miaoli county government is broke. When the new county magistrate took over last year, he announced that the county coffers were completely empty. After lavish spending by his predecessor, the current magistrate has slashed all spending. All the construction projects have been halted or scaled way back, and social welfare programs have been cut. Just last week, they announced they would not be providing lunches to schoolchildren, a very popular and highly symbolic program. There have even been times when they couldn’t pay civil servants’ salaries on time. People in Miaoli should be furious, so it will be interesting to see if they take out their anger on KMT candidates. Punishing the KMT isn’t necessarily the logical conclusion: the KMT incumbent in Miaoli 2 is from the current magistrate’s faction. Defeating him opens the door for the previous magistrate’s people to come back into power. (I don’t know where the KMT incumbent in Miaoli 1 fits in the complex world of Miaoli factions.)

A word on party loyalties. The KMT has always dominated Miaoli, but party ID isn’t necessarily the same beast in Miaoli as in a place like Taipei. Loyalties and habitual voting behavior are not nearly as ideologically driven here. Rather, they are much more deeply enmeshed in social networks. Pundits tend to talk in terms of factions delivering votes, which makes it seem as if factions command some sort of loyalty. In fact, factions are nothing more than a dense mesh of social networks. In a place like Taipei, you often don’t know who your neighbors are. In rural Miaoli, you know them, their children, and their aunts and uncles. With a close-knit neighborhood, you also know everyone’s political loyalties, which makes social sanction possible. This doesn’t have to be oppressive; it can be something as simple as smiling whenever one politician’s name comes up and furrowing one’s brow when another name arises. These social networks are the real force delivering votes. Things like vote buying, which get all the attention, are next to useless unless they are embedded in social networks. In addition to the social structure, ethnicity shapes Miaoli politics. On a survey, people in Miaoli might be more likely to say that they are Chinese, but I suspect that means something very different than when people in Taipei say it. Because Taiwan’s population is over 70% Min-nan, Taiwanese identity is often conflated with Min-nan identity. Many Min-nan people are oblivious or indifferent to how this makes Hakkas feel. They demand that everyone should learn and speak Taiwanese with little sympathy toward people whose mother tongue is something else. This is one of the main reasons that the DPP – a Min-nan dominated party – has had such a hard time making inroads with Hakka and indigenous voters. When Hakkas say they are Chinese, I think many of them do not mean that they think they are part of the Chinese people in China. I think what many mean is that they are not Taiwanese – which they see as being Min-nan. In the past, the KMT has always been able to paper over this difference. I wonder if Ma Ying-jeou’s efforts to pull Taiwan closer to China have made Hakkas reconsider their position in the world. At any rate, this is all a long way of saying that, at least in theory, Miaoli should be a place where partisan change is possible. If Tsai can redefine the DPP as a party that is broader than its Min-nan core, there is no reason that it can’t make inroads into the local social networks and develop support in Miaoli. As of now, a transformation like the one that happened in Chiayi a decade ago – when one of the KMT’s factions switched sides and turned Chiayi from blue to green – probably isn’t possible. For that to happen, the DPP would have to convince Hakkas that the “other” is China, not Min-nan.

 

The rally was in Toufen, on the southern side of the Hsinchu metro area. Toufen is the fastest growing area in Miaoli. It recently surpassed Miaoli City as the largest township in Miaoli, and, just two months ago, it was upgraded from Toufen Town to Toufen City. This administrative upgrade is more symbolic than substantive, but it does speak to Toufen’s increasing importance. The rally was held in an unexpected place. We were in a newly built commercial area that had the feel of a new-style American strip mall. The shops were the types of things you might find in a department store, complete with restaurants serving the kind of food you’d find in a typical Taiwanese food court. That is, they weren’t very good. The whole complex was anchored by a multiplex cinema. As an American who likes not living in America, I was horrified. Come on, guys. Don’t copy the worst parts of American culture!

The rally was small, with maybe 1000 stools. They eventually filled the whole thing and had some people standing, so maybe there were 1500 people in total. They didn’t bother with any musical sound track, so we could hear the audience interact with the speakers. They were a pretty enthusiastic crowd. The speakers didn’t ask them to respond very much, but I got the feeling that this crowd would have been fantastic for a more interactive set of speakers.

The first speaker was an official in the transportation bureaucracy. He was there to tell the crowd about a plan to extend the elevated expressway on Freeway #1 from Taoyuan to northern Miaoli. There is a need for this plan. With the extension of the elevated expressway from the outskirts of Taipei past the airport to southern Taoyuan, the worst traffic is now in the Hsinchu section. I dread trying to drive through Hsinchu, and I usually take the other freeway and go around the city. It’s an obvious construction plan, and this bureaucrat explained how the DPP legislators came to him to request it. He showed us the plan and promised that, if all the DPP people were elected, they’d get right to work on it. I suspect they’ll build it no matter who gets elected. It was a little strange to hear this guy speaking at a DPP rally. Usually this type of appeal from a sitting bureaucrat usually pops up at KMT rallies.

While he was speaking a guy in a campaign vest who was working the crowd said hi to me. I quickly read his name to see who he was, and while my brain was registering that it was the mayor, he moved on down the line to the next group of people. Wait a minute. The mayor of Toufen, which has always been solidly blue, is campaigning for Tsai and the DPP? What? I quickly checked the internet, and Hsu Ting-chen 徐定禎 was elected as an independent last year over the KMT nominee. I didn’t pay any attention, since I assumed it was just a factional fight. However, when he got up to speak, after talking about some local things, he started talking about the Ma-Xi meeting and national dignity. This guy seems to actually be comfortable in the green camp. I wonder if the 2014 national wave extended to local Toufen politics.

After the Toufen mayor spoke, they introduced the Miaoli mayor, Chiu Ping-kun 邱炳坤. He is less of a surprise, since he has switched back and forth between the KMT and DPP. In 2014, he won an overwhelming victory in his re-election bid running as an independent. He is also a fiery speaker, though it was all in Hakka so I didn’t understand any of it. I’ll bet he is gearing up for a run at the county magistrate in 2018.

Then they introduced the next speaker, Chunan Township mayor Kang Shi-ming 康世明, and my brain exploded. First, Since Yuanli mayor Tu Wen-ching 杜文卿 is the DPP’s legislative candidate in Miaoli 1, that meant the mayors of the four biggest townships in Miaoli were all supporting Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP. Those four townships account for about 55% of Miaoli’s total population. What?? Second, Kang’s older brother Kang Shi-ju 康世儒, who is the real power behind the mayor, is running for legislator in Miaoli 1 on the MKT label and against the DPP candidate. How does this work? Is the Kang family not supporting their own party’s vice presidential candidate? Third, Kang was also elected as an independent, but unlike the Miaoli and Toufen mayors who were wearing the purple vests of Tsai’s support organization, Kang was wearing a green DPP vest. Did he join the DPP?? So many questions! In his remarks, Kang asked people to vote for Tsai and the DPP’s candidate in Miaoli 2, but he didn’t say much substantive. He did, however, ask people to vote for his brother, which made for an awkward moment.

Something is clearly going on with Miaoli local factions. Tsai is building ties to all those operatives who traditionally side with the KMT. The old proverb says that the watermelon rolls over to the heavier side, and the watermelon faction seems to be out in force here in Miaoli. Remember, the county government is broke, so these mayors all need to look to the central government for financial support. The host made note of this change, saying it was probably the first time the mayors of the three biggest townships had ever appeared together on the same stage in support of a DPP candidate. I don’t know how hard they will work in trying to deliver votes to Tsai or DPP legislative candidates, and I don’t know how many votes they could deliver if they really tried. Still, this is an interesting and unexpected development. (I probably should have been aware of it. This excellent article from Storm Media a couple months ago discusses Tsai’s efforts with grassroots Hakka politicians. I wonder if Tsai was only able to make these sorts of inroads because the KMT’s candidate at the time was Hung Hsiu-chu.)

The race in Miaoli 1 is wide open. I think the KMT incumbent is probably a little ahead and the MKT candidate Kang is probably in third place, but those are just guesses. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if any of the three won. Miaoli 2, however, is still a safe KMT seat. Tsai will probably win a plurality and the DPP candidate, Wu Yi-chen, will probably beat all previous DPP efforts, but that probably won’t be enough. Wu did well in the by-election in early 2015, but she still lost 58-40%. This is a rematch of the same two candidates. The question is really how far they can cut the KMT’s margin of victory.

Wu and the other speakers touched on somewhat different themes than I’ve been hearing at other DPP rallies. Everywhere else, the DPP is stressing the need to get a majority in the legislature. In Miaoli, they talked more about local development, talking about the need to have strong ties between the central and local governments. Again, keep in mind that the county government has no money. Wu’s slogan on the backdrop read, “A direct line from president to legislator will produce good finances and development” 總統立委一條線,財政建設好表現 (admittedly, my translation is a bit clunky).

The feature speaker was VP candidate Chen Chien-jen. He is improving his stump speeches very quickly. He still doesn’t know enough people, so he struggled with the introduction section where he recognizes all the local VIPs. However, when he got to the content, he started rolling. Maybe I underestimated his communication skills. Two of his points stood out to me. First, he said that the DPP would designate Hakka as an official national language, and that he would start to study Hakka. Otherwise, he said, if Hakka was a national language and he couldn’t speak it, he would be linguistically handicapped. I’d like to see the DPP embrace this idea. It is one thing for Tsai, with her Hakka heritage, to study Hakka. It would be far more symbolically potent if people like Chen, with no Hakka roots, personally embraced it as one of their own languages. Second, Chen promised that the Tsai administration would not abandon Miaoli just because it has always voted for the KMT in the past. If the county government couldn’t pay for things like all the social welfare programs, the central government would step in to make sure that people were taken care of.

I wasn’t expecting much, but this rally turned out to be one of the more interesting ones I’ve been to this year.

IMAG2613.jpg

The host, county assembly member Chen Kuang-hsuan 陳光軒,telling the crowd to appreciate the historic nature of this photo. Never before have the mayors of Miaoli, Toufen, and Chunan all supported a DPP candidate.

 

[update: Jan 5, 2016: The Miaoli City government and the Miaoli County government are now having a public petty feud. The city mayor is accusing the county government of cutting funding for garbage collection because the mayor is supporting the DPP legislative candidate against the KMT candidate from the county magistrate’s faction. The mayor is refusing to pick up garbage from any county government buildings. It’s hard to say if this is an old-fashioned punitive punishment for taking the wrong side, or if this is really a result of the county’s financial troubles.]

5 Responses to “campaign trail: DPP event in Miaoli 2”

  1. Jack Says:

    “The old proverb says that the watermelon rolls over to the heavier side”

    I think that’s specifically a Minnan proverb (西瓜偎大邊). I’m very impressed. You call yourself an American (and describe American strip malls) and yet you also know the local non-Mandarin proverbs? And all in one single post!

  2. Joseph Says:

    Is it alright if I go off topic and disagree with you about the freeway?
    What the central government really should do is upgrade the TRA, even add another track. Freeway expansion is just going to suck away passengers from public transit, causing more smog and more traffic in the streets below, while being less useful for the many people who don’t own cars. Meanwhile, TRA trains are stuffed to the gills but don’t receive similar levels of investment. Like malls, driving is another part of American culture Taiwan would be better off not copying.

  3. Joseph Says:

    More on topic, I’ve been struck by the resistance people I know there (Hakka small business owners in Miaoli City) to abandoning the KMT. Even after the KMT went too far voting for the DPP seems totally taboo, leaving them to grudgingly support the PFP.

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