Archive for August, 2020

Kaohsiung mayoral by-election

August 15, 2020

Kaohsiung City held its by-election today, and the DPP won a smashing victory. Chen Chi-mai got 70.0% of the valid votes, leaving the KMT’s Jane Lee and TPP’s Wu Yi-cheng far behind, with 25.1% and 4.1%, respectively. Chen’s 70.0% was the highest vote share the DPP has ever gotten in Kaohsiung, beating the 68.1% Chen Chu got in her re-election campaign in 2014. Contrary to what the talking head on my TV kept saying tonight, Lee’s 25.1% was not quite the worst result the KMT has ever seen in Kaohsiung. For that, we must go back to 2000 and the juggernaut that was the Lien Chan presidential campaign. Lien got 24.0% in the old Kaohsiung City and 24.0% the old Kaohsiung County (I’ll let you do the math to figure out his overall vote share). But if this election wasn’t technically the KMT’s worst ever performance, it was substantively (since there was no James Soong taking most of the KMT vote).

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that Chen did so well. If we start with the January presidential results as our baseline, the DPP won Kaohsiung 62.2% to 34.6%. That election took place in the before times, back when almost no one (outside the presidential office) had an inkling of the coming pandemic. During the first half of this year, all the polling numbers for President Tsai and the DPP have improved, while all the polling numbers for the KMT have been miserable. In retrospect, the recall election at the beginning of June was just about the apex of DPP fortunes. The turnout to recall Han Kuo-yu was spectacular, but it was probably the worst possible time (from his perspective) to hold that vote. If it had been a few weeks or months earlier or later the recall would probably have passed but not with quite such a spectacular number. At any rate, the last two months in Taiwanese politics have been something of a reversion to normality. Rather than talking about the pandemic every day, we have been talking about normal political issues such as judicial reform, nominations to the Control Yuan, and ho to deal with China.

Some of the polling numbers have regressed toward the mean. Looking at the monthly My-Formosa polls, satisfaction with President Tsai’s performance was around 70% in the March, April, and May polls, but it fell to around 63% in the June and July polls. However, the numbers for party ID haven’t rebounded quite as much. The blue camp is still mired in the high teens, while the green camp is holding steady in the low 40s. Overall, there is good reason to believe that the DPP is more popular now and the KMT is less popular now than in January.

When looking at the candidates, we also shouldn’t be surprised that Chen did so well. Chen is clearly qualified, and he spent the first half of the year at the center of the DPP’s pandemic response team. Moreover, given all that has happened in the last 21 months, there is probably a feeling in the electorate that they made the wrong choice in 2018. It’s not unrealistic to expect him to get a sympathy vote to make up for that wrong. Meanwhile, the KMT’s candidate had a terrible campaign, continually reinforcing the notion that she was not terribly qualified for this job.

Nonetheless, I did not expect Chen to get 70% of the vote. It is very hard to add votes, and even harder when you are starting from a high baseline. I thought that there would be a number of voters who wanted to vote against whoever was in power, and, since Chen was almost sure to win, they would feel free to vote for someone else. In my head, I was picturing something like a 65-25-10 result (with the TPP candidate soaking up a lot of protest votes). 70% is impressive, any way you cut it.

Quick note about the TPP. This was a terrible result for them. This election was almost a best-case scenario for the TPP. The KMT candidate was clearly incompetent, which might have encouraged anti-DPP voters to look for another option. In addition, there has been a corruption scandal in recent weeks, featuring DPP legislators, KMT legislators, and the NPP party chair. The TPP was the only party not tarnished, which plays right into their main discourse that the other parties are all corrupt. I thought they might get double digits with an outside chance that they might get nearly as many votes as the KMT. Instead, they got a meager 4.1%. We don’t know who unhappy and disgruntled voters turned to, but, given the results, it seems most likely that they supported Chen. They certainly didn’t support the TPP. The fact that the TPP did so badly is just about the only good news of the night for the KMT.


As to what this all means, I have two big questions in my head. First, how will the KMT react to this result? 26% is not good. Remember, Han got nearly 35% in January, and that was considered a humiliating result. If 35% in Kaohsiung is not sustainable for the KMT, 26% is a disaster. For the KMT to feel good tonight, they really needed to get back to that 35% mark. With that, they could have told themselves that they weren’t losing ground even after this miserable year. To feel great, they needed 40%. 26% should tell them that Han’s result wasn’t necessarily the low-water mark. It can get worse.

The immediate question for the KMT concerns the party chair. I don’t think Johnny Chiang will resign, but he seems like a lame duck to me. During his tenure, the KMT has lost the recall (badly), lost the by-election (badly), been rolled in the legislature several times, lost ground in the polls, and Chiang seems utterly unable to persuade the KMT to adopt any of his reforms. Most pointedly, the party seems completely uninterested in revising its stance toward China. Barring more big changes, it seems nearly inevitable to me that Eric Chu will return as party chair. It also seems highly unlikely that he will push for any meaningful reforms, and so the best-case scenario for his leadership is for the KMT to peak somewhere around 45% of the national vote. If the KMT decides that the lesson of this election is to double down with ideologues and put Han in charge of the party, they could be looking at falling to the low 30s. At some point, one might expect the KMT to decide it is tired of losing and think about revising some of its cherished positions. However, Johnny Chiang is the person best positioned to lead that charge, and he is now crippled. The only other hope is for Hou You-yi to decide he wants to dip his toe into national politics.

My other question concerns Chen Chi-mai. Chen now holds one of the springboard positions to the presidency. There aren’t many such positions (vice president, premier, six municipal mayors, two party chairs, and perhaps one or two billionaires). Chen has the intellectual capacity to move up. I’ve interviewed him, and I was quite impressed with his grasp of both policy details and the bigger picture. Of the next generation, he is perhaps closest to the Tsai Ing-wen model. He isn’t dynamic or charismatic, but he oozes competence. However, 2018 might be a millstone that is difficult to escape from. What we learned in 2018 is that he is not charismatic enough to turn around a disadvantageous environment. He should have won that election, but he could not figure out how to force the election back to regular partisan ruts. Until he shows that was an aberration, I’m not sure DPP loyalists will trust him with a presidential nomination. One of the things that stood out to me in this campaign was that when he was attacked, he hit back. He seemed to have decided that the 2018 campaign should be positive, so he never went all-out negative against Han. That’s great if you’re winning, but not so smart if you are losing. In this campaign, he was far enough ahead that he could have stayed positive. Instead, when the other candidates brought up his father’s corruption history, he hit back by talking about Lee’s plagiarism. To me, that decision shows a growing understanding of what it takes to play at the highest level of electoral campaigns.

To be sure, Chen isn’t a legitimate contestant for the 2024 presidential nomination. He needs to have a successful tenure as mayor before he tries to move up. This must include a decisive re-election victory in 2022; another underwhelming result would be devastating to his career. Realistically, he might the cabinet (perhaps as premier) in 2027 and then try to obtain the VP nomination in 2028. Or, if the DPP loses the 2024 election, he might be a viable contender for the 2028 presidential nomination. With his performance as vice-premier and now this impressive electoral victory, I think Chen has mostly put his career back on track. However, there are still some lingering doubts in the back of my head.