Campaign Trail: KMT event in Xizhi

On Sunday evening, Mrs. Garlic and I went to a KMT rally in downtown Xizhi, which is part of New Taipei 12th District. Technically, my residence is in the next city over, so New Taipei 12 is not my home district. But actually, it is. We do most of our shopping in Xizhi, and we live close enough to this event that we could have walked there. For once, I was on home turf.

New Taipei 12 is really two separate territories. There is Xizhi, and there is everything else. Xizhi, which has about 70% of the voters, is an extension of Taipei City. Xizhi has grown rapidly over the past thirty years, and it has transformed from a discreet small town into the easternmost edge of the Taipei metropolis. The boundary between the two jurisdictions is almost invisible, so many people who technically live in Xizhi actually do most of their noodle-eating in the Nangang or Neihu districts of Taipei City. Almost all of Xizhi’s voters live in dense urban neighborhoods, and, while people are more likely to know their neighbors here than in Taipei, the social networks are not as thick as in more rural areas. The other 30% of New Taipei 12 is, by Taiwan standards, quite rural. There are six townships with fairly small core areas of only a few thousand people each. Politically, relationships matter a lot. Voters in these small towns will split their tickets if they know you personally, so establishing good relations with organizations such as the farmers associations is crucial.

Prior to 2016, New Taipei 12 was blue territory. The incumbent was KMT princeling Lee Ching-hua 李慶華, whose father, Lee Huan 李煥, was one of CCK’s closest proteges and a former premier. The younger Lee was elected in 1992, so by 2016 he was trying to win his ninth term in the legislature. Lee had started out as a KMT member, but he joined the New Party when it was founded in 1993 and was re-elected twice under that label. He had originally been elected in the southern half of Taipei City, but to make room for new people he agreed to relocate to Taipei County, where he concentrated on the military communities of Zhonghe. After the 2000 presidential election, he shifted his allegiance to the PFP and continued to mine the Zhonghe mainlander vote bank through the 2001 and 2004 elections. After electoral reform, he searched his heart and discovered that his true ideals were consistent with the KMT’s, so he returned back to his original party. He wanted to run for the Zhonghe seat, but he lost the KMT nomination for Taipei County 8 to the KMT local faction candidate Chang Ching-chung. As a compromise, the KMT arranged for Lee to take over the Taipei County 12 seat, centered on Xizhi. Under the old system, the areas that became New Taipei 12 had been in Lee’s old district, which covered a third of Taipei County. However, he had always spent most of his energy on Zhonghe. Suddenly, this staunch unification supporter and champion of mainlander interests found himself in an overwhelmingly Taiwanese district with a large rural population. It wasn’t an easy fit. In 2008, Ma Ying-jeou racked up 62.5% of the vote in the district, but Lee Ching-hua could only manage 52.0%. Likewise, in 2012 Ma collected 55.0%, but Lee squeaked by in a three-way race with a meagre 42.1%. There were plenty of blue votes, but Lee was consistently unable to soak them all up.

In 2016, the DPP designated New Taipei 12 as a “difficult” district. The 2012 candidate, city councilor Shen Fa-hui 沈發惠, wanted the DPP nomination, but Tsai Ing-wen eventually prevailed upon him to withdraw so that they could yield the district to Huang Kuo-chang 黃國昌 and thus cement their alliance with the newly established New Power Party. Huang defeated Lee (51.5-43.7%) in the general election, with both sides soaking up almost all of their camp’s presidential votes (53.1-46.9%). With historical perspective, Huang’s victory isn’t as impressive as many contemporary observers thought. Huang basically fought a very weak KMT candidate to a draw but was able to ride Tsai’s coattails to victory.

In that 2016 election, one of the minor candidates was from the Faith and Hope League, whose main demand was to stop the legalization of same-sex marriage. He didn’t get that many votes, just under 5,000, but his presence might have signaled the coming troubles for Huang. As the leader of the NPP, Huang did not bother doing a lot of constituency service. Sensing vulnerability and seeking to make a statement against the leader of the marriage equality movement, local anti-marriage activists put together a successful recall petition drive and forced Huang to face a recall vote. The turnout was not high enough to remove Huang from office, but significantly more people voted against him than for him.

It was never clear whether the 2016 alliance between the DPP and NPP would extend to the 2020 election. In the legislature, the NPP continually struggled with the question of how closely it wanted to work with the DPP and whether it should try to establish a separate identity or even announce a willingness to work with other parties. Huang Kuo-chang favored maximizing the NPP’s bargaining power by positioning the NPP as an unaligned party that could negotiate with any party willing to give it a better deal. Back in New Taipei 12, this position understandably caused a rift with the DPP. If the NPP wasn’t going to be a reliable partner, there was no need for the DPP to return the favor. Even though Huang was still publicly running for re-election, Shen Fa-hui announced that he would seek the DPP nomination. Shen even gave up his city council seat in order to concentrate on the legislative race. For the first half of 2019, both Shen and Huang were angling to represent the green side on the ballot, with no guarantee that one would yield. In late June, however, Shen announced he was abandoning his bid. The dominant media explanation was that forces inside the DPP – probably a reference to President Tsai – wanted to yield the seat to Huang again. However, even though the DPP decided it would cooperate with Huang, Huang wasn’t sure he wanted to cooperate with the DPP. In late August, Huang announce he would not seek re-election, and instead the NPP would be represented by Lai Chia-lun 賴嘉倫, who ran his Xizhi constituency service office. Some people speculate that Huang had decided he wanted to run for Taipei mayor, perhaps in alliance with Ko Wen-je. Perhaps he simply decided that he wasn’t going to win re-election. Either way, Huang’s announcement threw the green side of the race wide open. The DPP did not consider Lai Chia-lun to be a viable candidate, so it announced it would nominate its own person.

It was not until mid-September that the DPP drafted Lai Pin-yu 賴品妤, a 27 year-old former Sunflower leader. Lai’s father, Lai Chin-lin 賴勁麟, was a DPP legislator from 1998 to 2004. A member of the New Tide faction, he claimed to represent labor interests. Like Lee Ching-hua, he technically represented Xizhi. However, even more than Lee, the elder Lai ignored Xizhi votes. His support was almost entirely in the urban Zhonghe, Yonghe, and Xindian areas. If the DPP thought that Lai Pin-yu could simply reactivate her father’s dormant network in Xizhi, they were making a big mistake. Her father never had a network in Xizhi, so Lai Pin-yu would have to start from scratch.

Over on the blue side, the process was more orderly. After the 2018 triumph, New Taipei 12 was seen as an almost certain pickup. The only question was which KMT figure would win the seat. Three people registered for the KMT primary, a local lawyer and two candidates from Taipei. Of the three, Lee Yung-ping 李永萍 had by far the most impressive resume, having served as legislator and Taipei City deputy mayor. The local lawyer was supported by the local factions, and usually local candidates beat famous outsiders in polling primaries. You might think that, after putting up with the outsider Lee Ching-hua for over a decade, the local politicians might be desperate to grab control of this seat. However, for some reason, the local forces did not prevail. Lee Yung-ping won the May polling primary. The early resolution and the chaos over on the green side did give Lee one big advantage. While she may be an outsider, she has had a six-month head start over Lai Pin-yu in making local connections. Lee has been talking to local people since March or April, while Lai didn’t start until September. That head start might prove decisive, especially in appealing to the rural areas of the district.

One big question has nagged at me for the past several months. Why are the candidates so terrible? There are four perfectly competent former and current city councilors who have deep roots and high popularity in this district. Any one of those two KMT and two DPP politicians could have easily won their party’s nomination, and any one of them would have been favored to win this general election against the current field of candidates. Why did they all refuse to run? It’s almost as if the KMT, DPP, and NPP are actively trying to lose this district. Every time one of them shoots itself in the foot, the other compete to choose an even less appealing candidate.

At any rate, there are four candidates in the race. The KMT and DPP candidates will compete to win the race, while the number of votes siphoned away by the NPP and Stabilizing Force Party might swing the balance between the top two. Lee Yung-ping is stressing her experience and qualifications, while Lai Pin-yu stresses her youth and idealism. Lee says that Lai is too inexperience, while Lai retorts that Lee has extensive experience at doing the wrong things. Realistically, Lai’s only hope is to be dragged along to victory by Tsai Ing-wen. Lee, unlike some other KMT candidates, is not trying to distance herself from Han, which might be an unwise choice, given her advantage in candidate quality and in building relationships in the district. It should be a close race. If I had to bet, I might give Lee a small advantage.

 

This brings us to Sunday night’s rally. The rally was held in a big athletic field, surrounded by a running track. This was a fantastic event with a big crowd.

Because it was in such an open area it was fairly easy to see the entire crowd all at once. This makes gauging the size of the crowd quite a bit simpler. Moreover, the stools were laid out in a simple block, so you could cut the crowd in half or into quarters and estimate how many people were in smaller areas, an even easier task. The organizers had laid down mats to protect the grass and then put stools in that area. The stools were almost totally occupied, and I estimate they had seats for about 8,000 people. However, there were also people standing on the grassy periphery of the seating area, and there were people in the grandstand as well. By the end of the event, Mrs. Garlic and I agreed that 10,000 was a pretty good estimate, give or take a thousand people. Once again, let me say: 10,000 people is a LOT of people! This was a huge crowd. And if one gages by the number of stools they prepared, it was larger than they expected.

The crowd was somewhat different from other Han crowds I’ve seen this year. It wasn’t quite as raucous, there weren’t as many vendors selling ROC and Han paraphernalia, and the people weren’t wearing quite so many ROC flag shirts, hats, and other clothing. This should be seen as good news for Han. At some other events, I got the impression that a significant proportion of the crowd were serial rally attendees (like me). I know I’ve seen a few people more than once. However, I think the dedicated Han fans were probably all in Kaohsiung this weekend. The crowd at the Xizhi rally seemed much more local and much less cultish. In other words, this crowd had far more normal people and far fewer of the Church of Han choir. Again, that is a good sign for Han; he is once again showing an ability to reach out beyond his core supporters to a slightly wider audience.

 

It has been several days since the rally, and things are running together in my mind. Rather than discuss each speaker individually, I’m just going to make a couple of points about the event as a whole.

The speakers mentioned the crowd size several times. One early speaker proclaimed there were 30,000 people. The emcee must not have been paying attention, because soon after he congratulated the crowd on exceeding 10,000. Toward the end of the event, they decided on 20,000 as the number and repeated that several times. They also told us several times that this was now the largest political rally in Xizhi’s history. At the end of the event, just after Han finished speaking, someone repeated the 20,000 number, and then, within 30 seconds, someone else proclaimed that the crowd had reached 30,000. The speakers also talked quite a bit about the crowd sizes at the Kaohsiung marches, assuring the audience that the 350,000 people claimed by the Han side was an accurate number while the 500,000 claimed by the other side was a complete falsehood.

Now that the Han camp has proclaimed polls are meaningless, crowd sizes are particularly important to them. This is now the main way they publicly measure their popularity. As long as the crowds are large, they can reassure their supporters that Han is still competitive. If the crowds become too small, they risk seeing morale drop and turnout suffer.

However, there is a deeper meaning to the Han obsession with crowd size. These crowds are the concrete representation of what Han calls “ordinary people” (庶民, shumin). Han’s entire appeal is framed around these ordinary people, so it is vital that they continue to manifest their support for him. Without that support, he is delegitimized. For exactly the same reason that Donald Trump repeatedly insists his crowds are overflowing, Han needs us to believe that his crowds are massive. Fortunately for Han, his crowds are still very large, even if they aren’t quite as massive as he claims.

 

After the rally, I asked Mrs. Garlic what the KMT’s main points were. She succinctly and brilliantly summed up their entire discourse in a few bullet points:

  • Everything used to be good, but now it is bad. People now lead bitter lives.
  • The government is working for the DPP, not the people.
    • The DPP spends its energy doling out the spoils of office
    • The DPP corruptly abuses its power to further its own interests
  • Governing is simple. Just do the right things to help the people.

 

Everything the speakers at the rally fit neatly into that framework. They talked about how terrible the economy is, and how the DPP government makes up fake numbers to make it look better. They talked about how the ROC used to be widely respected around southeast Asia (everyone loved Teresa Teng’s music!) but now is looked down upon (new Thai tourist visa requirements). They continually hammered the idea that the DPP relies on distributing the spoils of office (酬庸政治), such as “bribing” Lin Fei-fan to join the party by making him deputy secretary general. They talked at length about the Yang Hui-ju case, which they see as an example of using government money to hire internet bullies to suppress their opponents. To them, this is clear-cut corruption. And finally, Han personally delivers the final point, explicitly saying that government is not complicated, you just do things for the people. Sometimes he likens government officials to Chinese gods, since all of them, from the Jade Emperor to the humblest local earth god, benevolently look after the humans in their realm.

 

In my next post, I hope to unpack Han’s discourse and entire appeal at length. Spoiler: It’s populism. Populism is the prism that brings the entire last year and a half into focus. It took me a year and a half to understand this, including three weeks staring blankly after being told exactly where to look and what to look for. It has been populism all along. So let me stop here and start working on that post, which I hope will be much more enlightening than this one.

 

2 Responses to “Campaign Trail: KMT event in Xizhi”

  1. Roo Says:

    Listening to the KMT, you’d think the eight years of Ma Ying-Jeou were great economic prosperity and freedom from corruption.

  2. Jay Says:

    Hello and thank you for sharing. I was looking for information on Lai Pin-Yu after news of her campaign trail broke out.

    I am aware that Taiwan has a diverse culture but Lai’s stunt (for a lack of a better term) is a rare sight.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: