DPP divorces Ko

I’ve been too busy to blog much. I’m way overscheduled for most of the rest of the year, so this probably won’t be a great year for Frozen Garlic. Sorry. I’ve been thinking about this post for about two weeks, and, unlike most of the things I think about these days, I finally found some time to sit down and bang it out.

 

The DPP has finally made a decision about the Taipei mayoral race. It will not cooperate with Ko Wen-je this time and will instead nominate its own candidate. This decision to split with Ko has been building for a long time.

Four years ago, the DPP was desperate to win what seemed an impossible race in Taipei. They didn’t have a strong candidate of their own, and they (and their new young allies from the Sunflower Movement) absolutely detested the KMT nominee, Sean Lien. Ko Wen-je emerged seemingly from nowhere as a viable candidate who was generally sympathetic to DPP ideals, and yet he was different enough to pull a few votes from the KMT base. The DPP yielded to him, and he eventually won with a seemingly unfathomable 57% of the votes. Ko was lauded in the media as an electoral juggernaut, but let’s not forget that he was running against a terrible KMT candidate. Ko was probably never as popular as he was made out to be. As mayor, Ko governed as an independent. He appointed people from both sides to his mini-cabinet, and he pointedly mostly stayed home during the 2016 election. He did not go out of his way to reinforce ties with the DPP.

That would have been fine. Mayors are not really expected by the national parties to do specific things. As long as they are competent and don’t get into any major scandals, the parties are pretty much ok with anything else. The decisions to pay down Taipei debt, stop the Taipei Dome project, tear down lots of overpasses, and not build very much are not at issue.

What really damaged Ko was his trip to China when he famously uttered that people on both sides all belong to the same family 兩岸一家親. With that statement, he crossed a line for many DPP supporters. Ko later “explained” that he worried about the possibility that China would cause problems for the upcoming University Games, so he was willing to say whatever was necessary to “get through it” 過關. China is famous for asking Taiwanese to go one step further, and Ko is not the first person to fall into this trap. Eric Chu did the same thing right after taking office as KMT chair in early 2015. Ko, like Chu, was guilty of thinking that he was simply playing word games, and that he could be cleverer than everyone else. The problem is that you can’t win that game. You can’t say one thing to one audience and another thing to another audience. On this topic, everyone is always watching, and everyone sees and hears everything you do and say. Moreover, everyone understands the little nuances of the words, and when there is ambiguity, unfortunately China’s superior international presence and influence allows it to clarify the ambiguity as it sees fit for the rest of the world. Ko might have thought he was cleverly walking a thin line without falling over by plausibly meaning that the two sides are distant relatives from the same family, thus implying no need for unification. However, it could also mean that the two sides are close family. Ko might have satisfied China (which certainly chose to hear the latter interpretation), but DPP supporters back home also heard Ko’s ambiguity and wondered why they had put him in office.

There is only one way to play the word games with China, and that is not to play them. You have to carefully settle on a formula that says exactly what you want to say and then stick doggedly to that formula. You simply cannot “go a little further” in order to make a few PRC officials at a banquet happier; any deviations from the formula have to be carefully planned and vetted. Cleverness is not an advantage; you have to stick to the script. Ko may think he is the smartest person in the room, but that lack of humility is exactly why he messed up.

Let’s also be cynical about Ko’s motives. He probably wasn’t just worried about the University Games. After freezing out the Tsai government and with the impotence of the KMT, the PRC was actively looking for a new partner in Taiwan. Ko was exploring whether he might fit into that role. His ambiguous statement about the nature of Taiwan was a message to China that he might be someone they could work with if they wanted to bypass Tsai. Likewise, China’s appeal for him to go a little further was a probe to see if he might be their conduit. In this sense, Ko was not merely building amiable ties between the Taipei and Shanghai city governments; he was actively undermining the Tsai government’s ability to demand that the PRC deal with Taiwan’s national government.

 

At the beginning of this year, the DPP still had not decided whether to cooperate with Ko again. From the outside, it certainly looks to me as if President Tsai was the strongest voice in favor of cooperation. In January, she lobbed a softball to Ko, publicly asking him to “reassure” everyone that he shared “Taiwan values”. All Ko had to do was state in some vague way that he believed the 23 million people of Taiwan had the right to determine their own future, that Taiwanese are close family and China is distant family, that he subscribed to Tsai’s formula of respecting the ROC constitution, or something of that nature. Instead, he publicly wondered what Tsai meant by “Taiwan values.” This was not the answer Tsai and the DPP were looking for.

DPP legislator Yao Wen-chih 姚文智 wants to run for mayor, so he has been leading the calls for the DPP to nominate its own candidate. He has held several demonstrations, each one seemingly larger than the previous one. Notably, almost all of the DPP city council candidates have joined him. They have developed two powerful (and plausible) rationales for nominating their own candidate. First, city councilors fear that, because DPP loyalists are so disgusted with Ko’s China discourse, they will not come out to vote. They argue they need a strong mayoral candidate to drive up turnout so that they can also win their races. One might doubt this argument, but the DPP city council candidates have almost all voted with their feet. They have almost unanimously gone on record against Ko. Second, they have argued that Ko is going to run for the presidency in 2020, whether or not they cooperate with him in the mayoral race. According to this reasoning, it is better to split with him now rather than build him up even stronger. Amazingly, as this consensus within the DPP built and built over the past four months, Ko did almost nothing. It was as if he was oblivious to what was happening. A couple weeks ago, the DPP national party made one last effort, suggesting that internal polls showed that DPP supporters were split on whether to support Ko. However, while casual DPP supporters may still be amenable to Ko, the loyalists are not. Over the last few weeks, faction after faction has come out in favor of nominating their own candidate.

Ko did finally seem to awaken last week, he belatedly made an “apology” for his statement in China. However, he did not disavow the statement that both sides belong to one family. Rather, he said that he was sorry if anyone had been upset by his statement. You know, “Sorry, not sorry.” Then he made his excuse about just trying to successfully hold the University Games and claimed he had said things in the moment without really thinking about them. To me, it was a fairly pathetic show. Ko’s apology probably made people angrier. Moreover, he was suggesting he a) thought holding some stupid games were more important than cross-straits relations, and b) was basically incompetent at diplomacy. Also, he finally announced that he would support Tsai in her 2020 re-election bid for the presidency. This might have had some impact if he had said it in January, but now it is far too late. After several months of distancing himself from the DPP, his denial of presidential ambitions at the moment the DPP was making a final decision on whether to nominate its own mayoral candidate rang a bit hollow. It is certainly plausible to look at events and conclude that Ko was keeping his options open and might eventually turn on the DPP.

 

Aside: This whole process is a case study in President Tsai’s leadership style. Tsai believes strongly in consensus. She has her own preferences, but she does not generally try to impose them on the rest of the party. Instead, she prefers to slowly let a consensus build, and then she will lead the party in that consensus position. We have seen this on pensions and marriage equality, and now the same thing is playing out with the mayoral nomination. If Ko was counting on her to insist that the party yield, he hasn’t been paying much attention.

 

I’d like to think briefly about an article written by DPP city councilor Liang Wen-chieh 梁文傑. Liang argues that Ko won in 2014 because voters despised Lien’s actions as a comprador, but that Ko in office has followed exactly that path. As with all good political attacks, this takes events and stretches them a bit. I don’t think Ko’s feelers toward China constitute Lien-level comprador activities, but he was plausibly taking the first steps in that direction. The significance of this article isn’t so much that it is incisive analysis; rather, this is more important as a blueprint for how the DPP will attack Ko over then next few months (or years, if he runs for president). They will pain him as a political speculator ready to sell out Taiwan’s interests for the sake of his own political career. It looks like a pretty good line of attack to me.

 

I’ve consistently underestimated Ko Wen-je over the past five years. I may be doing so again, but this looks like the beginning of the end for him to me. I expect the DPP to start attacking him, and these attacks will take their toll on his popularity. Right now the DPP is in third place in the race, but if they can knock Ko down to third place, strategic voting will eviscerate him. Right now, my guess is that he will end up between 10% and 15%, far behind the KMT and DPP candidates.

I can still see a second act for Ko if he, in fact, does hold presidential ambitions. I’ve been saying almost since he was elected that there is a political vacuum waiting for him to step into. James Soong is old and ripe to be replaced. With the DPP now repudiating Ko, it is certainly plausible that he will slide over into that space in the political spectrum, perhaps taking over the PFP or perhaps leading a new force centered on current PFP supporters. If the KMT does not figure out how to revitalize itself, Ko could eventually displace the KMT as the main political force opposing the DPP. We are a long way from that happening, but it is a bit more plausible today than it was at the beginning of the year. If it does happen, we might look back on the One Family discourse as a foundational strategic move launching Ko into national politics rather than as a monumental blunder that cost him the mayorship.

 

 

2 Responses to “DPP divorces Ko”

  1. Alexandre Says:

    So happy when the feed came up.

    Even who’s not into Taiwanese politics can enjoy your texts: there’s context, humor, analysis, prediction and just easy-to-read and entertaining writing.

  2. Joseph Says:

    “They will pain’T’ him as a political speculator”

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