four by-elections

Four legislative by-elections were held yesterday, in New Taipei 3, Tainan 2, Changhua 1, and Kinmen. The former two seats were originally held by the DPP, while the latter two were originally held by the KMT. The by-elections didn’t really change that. The DPP held its two seats, and the KMT won the Changhua seat. An independent won the Kinmen seat against the official KMT candidate, but she is a former KMT member who immediately announced her intention to try to return to the KMT.

The biggest headline today is that the DPP avoided a disaster by holding its two seats. I think this is basically right. You wouldn’t call these results good news for the DPP, though you also wouldn’t call them terrible news. From the KMT’s point of view, this is a missed opportunity. Other headlines suggest that the Han Kuo-yu Wave™ is receding. I think this is probably wrong. More on that later.

Here are the results.

New Taipei 3  

Votes

%

Yu DPP

56888

52.0

Cheng KMT

51127

46.8

Su  

1303

1.2

Turnout: 42.1      
.      
Tainan 2      
Kuo DPP

62858

47.1

Hsieh KMT

59194

44.3

Chen IND (from DPP)

10424

7.8

Yang  

492

0.4

Wu  

350

0.3

Hsu  

269

0.2

Turnout: 44.5      
.      
Changhua 1      
Ko KMT

47835

52.1

Huang DPP

41946

45.7

Chi  

2022

2.2

Turnout: 36.6      
.      
Kinmen      
Chen YC IND

7117

28.7

Chen TC IND (former DPP)

6020

24.3

Hung LP KMT

5681

22.9

Tsai IND

5175

20.9

Lu  

570

2.3

Hung CH Kaoliang Party

240

1.0

Turnout: 21.2      

 

The first thing we can do to sort out these results is to ask about the partisan lean of each district. In my previous post, I rated each district by comparing Tsai Ing-wen’s presidential vote in each district to her national total. This gives two indicators: a ranked ordering of the 73 districts from the DPP’s strongest to weakest and a number showing how many points above or below the national average the DPP is in this district. The data for these four districts is:

district

2012 Tsai

2012 rank

2016 Tsai

2016 rank

Rating

New Taipei 3

51.2

19

61.4

21

D+5

Tainan 2

62.9

2

71.3

1

D+16

Changhua 1

47.5

28

57.0

33

D+1

Kinmen

8.2

72

18.0

72

D-38

Recall that overall Tsai received 45.6% in 2012 and 56.1% in 2016.

New Taipei 3 covers most of the Sanchong District. This is traditionally considered deep green territory, though it is not actually as green as most people think. I think population mobility has regressed it toward the mean. In recent elections it has been about 5% better for the DPP than the national average, which makes it one of those districts that the DPP needs to win. It has in fact won all four elections (counting this by-election) since 2008, though the KMT has been competitive in three of the four. This was a contest with two high quality candidates. The DPP ran Yu Tien, the New Taipei party chair and the former legislator who managed to win this seat in 2008 in the face of a national KMT landslide. Yu is actually less famous as a politician than as a singer. He isn’t exactly an intellectual powerhouse, but he is a proven campaigner. His KMT opponent is a newcomer, but he is the nephew of Lee Chien-lung, the KMT legislative candidate in 2012 and 2016 and a longtime stalwart in local Sanchong politics. Yu won this race by a 52-47 margin, which was a solid victory for the DPP.

Next, let’s skip over to Changhua. Changhua 1 is a classic bellwether district. Tsai was about 2% better than average in 2012 and about 1% better than average in 2016. This should be a median district, meaning that the KMT should have won it narrowly in 2012 and the DPP should have won it fairly easily in 2016. In fact, Changhua 1 has not followed national trends at all. Instead, it has been a horror show for the DPP. In 2012, the KMT vote was split two ways, but the DPP candidate (himself a defector from the pan-blue camp) couldn’t even manage a third of the vote. In 2016, the DPP nominated a documentary film director, and got totally wiped out. Hey, any time you can nominate an intellectual who wants to talk about class conflict to a rural district, you’ve got to do it! (Just to make sure he was incompetent, that same guy ran for mayor of Homei Township in 2018 and got destroyed again.) I think most observers were expecting more DPP incompetence in this race. Instead, it turned out to be fairly close, with the KMT winning 52-46.

There was an interesting geographical split in this district. The legislative district covers six townships and two county council districts. Each county council district has one big town (Lugang and Homei) and two smaller towns. Huang, the DPP candidate, is the former mayor of Lugang and a former county councilor from county council district 2 (CC2). Ko, the KMT candidate, is presented in the media as being a technocrat – the bureaucrat with a legal background who rose to deputy county magistrate. Don’t be fooled. Technocrats with shiny degrees are a dime a dozen. His most important credential is that he is a from a political family. His uncle 柯明謀 was a longtime county councilor and faction leader who was eventually appointed to the Control Yuan and as senior presidential advisor. The Ko family is from Shengang, in CC3. As you might expect, Huang did quite a bit better in CC2, winning that half of the district by three thousand votes (51.8%-45.6%). However, Ko dominated the other half, winning CC3 by nine thousand votes (60.3%-37.9%). Let’s just say that there was quite a thick layer of local politics spread on top of the national political structure.

Given the partisan lean of this district, this result is quite similar to the result in New Taipei 3. Both imply that the DPP’s national vote is roughly 45-47%, or similar to the 2012 presidential election. This looks quite a bit better for the DPP than the 2018 local elections or the two January by-elections, though it is still a far cry from the 2016 results.

 

Next, let’s visit the charming island of Kinmen. From a partisan standpoint, Kinmen is a D-38 district. The DPP is basically irrelevant here. Everyone is some shade of pan-blue, so voters are free to choose their favorite candidate without worrying about national considerations. The official KMT usually does well, but not always. This was one of those other times. This turned out to be a true four-way race, with four candidates getting between 20-30%. Geographically, all four of the candidates had a home base in one of the five townships (ignoring the barely populated sixth town), and they all competed in Jincheng, the biggest town. The winner, Chen Yu-chen, won by winning Jincheng and her hometown, and by coming in second in two of the other towns. The official KMT nominee, Hung Li-ping, came in third. She had the misfortune to be based in the smaller Lieyu Township, and she didn’t do very well in the other townships.

Chen Yu-chen is a county councilor and the daughter of Chen Shui-tsai. Chen Shui-tsai is perhaps the most important elected official in Kinmen’s history. He was the first elected county magistrate. (Remember that, unlike Taiwan, Kinmen was not allowed to hold local elections until 1994.) During his term in office, Kinmen underwent a fundamental transformation. On the one hand, the military started withdrawing its enormous garrison, necessitating a wholesale transformation of the local economy and fundamentally transforming everyday life. On the other hand, Chen transformed the kaoliang distillery from a small military operation into what would eventually become the main source of funds for the county government. The decisions made under Chen’s administration reverberate in every corner of the county today. I don’t know if he still has political influence or to what extent those political ties contributed to his daughter’s victory, but I’m sure they at least helped to start her political career.

One thing that did surprise me about this election was the performance of Chen Tsang-chiang, who finished second. Above I said that the DPP is basically irrelevant in Kinmen. Chen is the caveat to that statement. Chen is a former county councilor and the only person ever elected to public office in Kinmen under the DPP label. However, because he was dissatisfied with the Tsai government’s performance, Chen withdrew from the DPP and did not run for re-election to the county council in 2018. Chen ran as an independent this time, but I did not expect that it would be so easy for him to shed the stench of the DPP label. I assumed that his former association with the DPP would have been toxic in Kinmen. That proved not to be the case, as he came shockingly close to winning.

The Kinmen election was probably a fascinating story. However, this is the kind of race that you need to have detailed local knowledge to fully understand. I’m sure there was all kinds of intrigue and interesting coalitions, but only the people on the ground involved in the campaigns will ever know the whole story. Without strong party lines to structure political conflict, the possibilities (and chaos) are limitless. From my perch at 30,000 feet, I can only sense that I am missing out on a fantastic soap opera.

 

Finally, there is Tainan 2. Tainan 2 is a D+16 district, and it is either the DPP’s best or second-best district in the entire country. (Neighboring Tainan 1 is the other; no other district is within four points of them.) This is a district that not only should the DPP never lose, it should never even come close to losing. The KMT just came very, very close to winning Tainan 2.

For the KMT to come so close to winning here, it needs a perfect storm. I see at least three important ingredients. First, the DPP is undergoing nasty factional infighting in Tainan between the New Tide faction (led locally by former mayor and premier William Lai) and the Chen Shui-bian/Independence faction. In the recent mayoral election, Huang Wei-che (the former legislator from this district) and Chen Ting-fei were more or less the representatives of the two sides, though it was a little messier than that. At any rate, it is safe to say that the eventual nominee and winner (Huang) has not yet managed to unify the local party. In this by-election, the DPP candidate was from the New Tide faction. I think it is safe to speculate that probably not all of the CSB/independence faction was working 100% for Kuo. Second (and related), there was a splinter candidate. Chen Hsiao-yu lost the DPP nomination fight and then ran as an independent. She is from a local political family. Her mother 郭秀柱 is a longtime city council member who has sometimes been inside and sometimes outside the DPP but has always claimed to be a strong supporter of CSB. During the mayoral primary, one minor DPP aspirant accused Huang Wei-che of cooperating with organized crime, by which he meant Chen Hsiao-yu’s mother. (Note the illogical factional alliances. Local politics don’t always make sense.) In the last few days of the campaign, CSB made a video endorsing Kuo. This probably saved the election for the DPP.

Third, even if you ignore the split in the green camp, the KMT overperformed in this election. Hsieh got 44.3%. For reference, when Ma Ying-jeou won re-election in 2012 (with 51% of the national vote), he only got 34.8% in Tainan 2. To put it another way, Hsieh’s 59,194 votes this time were more than the KMT mayoral candidate in 2018 won (58201), even though the turnout was 20% lower this year than last. In 2016, the KMT collapsed in this district, losing the legislative race by a comical 76-19% margin. It seemed like the KMT might never be competitive here again. Yet, they lost yesterday by less than 3%.

After 2016 I said that the KMT had to figure out some way to appeal to voters in the south if they wanted to win a future presidential election. When Han Kuo-yu ran for party chair with a distinctly different discourse than everyone else, I suggested that they might want to test that message in a general election to see if it could be the solution. It certainly worked in the Kaohsiung mayoral election, and I think the KMT’s excellent performance in Tainan 2 has a lot of elements of that same general approach.

Hsieh Long-chieh is, like Han, an outsider who parachuted into a strange new district. Hsieh is from the southern urban part of Tainan, not the rural north. He has some experience talking to farmers in small towns (he was chair of the KMT city branch), but most of his experience is in talking with urbanites. Like Han, he made a few outlandish claims related to agriculture. Hsieh railed about the pomelo industry, exaggerating how badly it was doing and making wild promises about how wonderful he would make it if only he were elected. Finally, Hsieh is TV personality. He is nowhere near the cult hero that Han is. Han gets 24-hour blanket coverage on some stations and merely excessive coverage on the others. No one can match that. However, Hsieh is a regular talk show guest, and he gets more than his fair share of media coverage. I suspect that the combination of extensive media exposure and being an outsider is critical to the recipe. People with long local associations might be better known and have more established reputations. The outlandish promises might be more “credible” or easily swallowed if you don’t have direct evidence from years of experience that this fellow is not actually superman.

At any rate, I expect we will see a wave of Han Kuo-yu imitators in the upcoming legislative general election. Not all of them will be able to pull it off. Some won’t have the personality. Not everyone is comfortable with blowing smoke or promising outlandishly wonderful and immediate results. Very few will be able to match the media exposure. There is only so much exposure to go around, and not everyone can be a media superstar. If the KMT nominates Han at the top of the ticket, he might be able to drag a lot of local candidates along, but I don’t think they can follow his recipe individually. Finally, most of the KMT candidates will be locally established politicians. If being an outsider is important, most will fail that test. However, this might be Ko Wen-che’s opportunity. If he tries to run a slate of legislative candidates, he won’t get the A-List politicians on his team. He will be forced to choose from the D-List politicians (remember: two years ago everyone would have considered Han Kuo-yu a D-List politician), and that might work to his advantage in this climate.

To sum up, if we ignore Tainan, the DPP didn’t do too badly. However, you can’t ignore Tainan. Following the Kaohsiung mayoral race, the KMT has once again made dramatic inroads in the south. The Han Kuo-yu recipe seems to be working, and that should terrify the DPP. I don’t know if this recipe is scalable, but I suspect we will find out next January.

2 Responses to “four by-elections”

  1. shiyali Says:

    Thank you for the insights and analysis, it’s going to be an interesting year.

  2. What Do Legislative By-Election Results Tell Us Ahead of 2020 Elections? | New Bloom Magazine Says:

    […] this extent, as argued by political scientist Nathan Batto, it is probably not incorrect either that the KMT has made significant ground in pan-Green […]

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