Kaohsiung mayoral by-election

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.

7 Responses to “Kaohsiung mayoral by-election”

  1. frozengarlic Says:

    I forgot about 2010. The KMT got 20.5% in the mayoral race that year, so that was their worst performance. However, like the 2000 presidential election, that was also a three-way race.

  2. Kevz Says:

    I’m still hoping William Lai is the 2024 presidential candidate.

    That being said……..I believe that the KMT, unfortunately, may just be able to get by without having to revise its pro-China stance. In 2018, they were as pro-China as ever, and they won a smashing victory – and if it weren’t for the Hong Kong protest crisis (which nobody could have predicted,) and Han’s buffoon-ish behavior, they very well could have retaken the presidency this January as well. Bear in mind that in early 2019, Han was leading Tsai by a whopping thirty percentage points or so.

    So it’s entirely possible the KMT can just double down on being pro-China and stubbornly refuse to reform, and still remain a strong political force in Taiwan, just waiting for Tsai and the DPP to cock things up again. Although, the lowering of the voting age to 18, and the fact that Taiwanese youth overwhelmingly oppose the KMT, may be what finally drives a nail in the Pan-Blue coffin.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Lowering the voting age will have almost no effect. It adds something like 600,000 new eligible voters. However, half of those will not vote — youth turnout is always very low. So even if the DPP wins that slice of the electorate by some enormous margin — let’s say 80-20 — it would only be a net gain of about 180,000 votes.

      • Surfer Says:

        Mr. Frozen, I think you might be underestimating the impact of the voting age change. You assume low turnout and apply to a 1 year increment of 600k new voters … but the elections are not in 1 year increments. 2024 is 4 years away, so that is 4x your number already. In addition, I am not sure if your 600k number corresponds to 1 year age group or 2; in this case the increment is 2 age years from 20 to 18.

        Either way, I agree with Kevz’ point about the long-term impact of the changes generationally phasing out the KMT. It may take a decade but the direction at least is clear.

        For now, though, KMT continues to be a surprisingly sticky political force despite its countless demerits. The legacy of decades of propaganda and cooption in Taiwan is depressingly tenacious.

      • frozengarlic Says:

        You are confusing two things. Generational replacement will happen regardless of whether the voting age is 18 or 20. Elections are, as you say, on a four year cycle, so every election includes four years of new voters. That is, currently people who turn 20, 21, 22, or 23 during the election year are already included as new voters. The only thing changing the voting age does is add 18 and 19 year olds to that mix. There are about 300k new voters in each year, though because of low birthrates this will soon decline to 250k or even closer to 200k.

        Lowering the voting age would not have much impact on the (youth oriented) New Power Party’s support, much less be able to swing the balance between the two big parties.

      • Soul Surfer Says:

        OK I see now that your 600k number accounts for both year-age groups of current 18 and 19 year olds, rather than just one year.

        And I also see your point about the 4 year cycle working in favor of generational replacement regardless of the age limit change.

        So what we have is a marginal acceleration of generational replacement. Not as dramatic as I had thought.

        Anyway we all agree here on the direction, right? We can debate about the timeframe as to how long it takes; but ultimately Taiwan’s process of demographic generational replacement of its voting population is med/long-term extremely unfavorable to KMT, no?

        As for your assumptions on young voter turnout: I wonder do you have any voting age group data for the recent presidential and Kaohsiung recall election? In both instances, anecdotally it seemed that the youth vote provided a substantial new cohort of voters; but I have no numbers to back that up. I only have casual observations: e.g. young guys that I play sports with who are usually apathetic, but ALL voted BOTH times (in contrast, they seemed unenthused about last weekend’s by-election and assumed it was a done deal already w/o them).

  3. mba1413 Says:

    Just to point out that Hou You-yi correct spelling is Hou Yu-ih. Sorry for being pedantic but his name ha been misspelled for eternity and nobody seems to bother fact checking.

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