Archive for December, 2021

Rethinking referendums

December 21, 2021

What have we learned from this round of referendums?

The most surprising outcome was that votes for the four ballot items were essentially identical. The polls suggested that many voters saw differences among the four items, and the parties certainly acted like they expected differences. However, the people who voted seem to have almost all voted the same way on all four. I didn’t see this coming, and it forces me to rethink some previous ideas about referendums in Taiwan.

I had thought that the strongest argument for separating referendums from general elections was to create a richer information environment for the referendums. Without candidates to soak up everyone’s energy and attention, voters have more opportunity to learn about the issues involved in the referendums. With more information, they might be less prone to make decisions based on superficial cues. And indeed, there was a pretty robust discussion about the details and wider implications of each referendum. However, with more information, I expected some voters to decide that some items were reasonable while others were not. I did not expect everyone to become highly informed and for half the people to reach one conclusion and the other half to reach exactly the opposite conclusion. One might think that the richer information environment did not matter at all. People voted with their party, just as they would have if the referendums had been combined with a general election.

However, I just cannot believe that all this discussion and all this information did not matter. It may not have mattered in the way I expected, but it must have mattered in some way.

One way it could have mattered was in convincing partisans to vote with their party. The November My-Formosa poll showed that significant numbers of partisans planned to vote against their party’s position on all four items. Another sizable group (though not quite as large) of partisans weren’t sure about how to vote. These voters seem to have either changed their minds and voted with the party or just stayed home. Voters tend to listen to trusted sources. For partisan voters, this often means partisan media or the parties themselves. The information these voters got could certainly have played an important role in aligning voting decisions with their preferred party’s positions.

 % of green identifiers% of blue identifiers
 against or unsure aboutagainst or unsure about
 green positionblue position
R17 4NPP19.230.7
R18 pork30.814.2
R19 same day41.534.2
R20 LNG/reef35.545.3

Another possibility is that the campaigns taught voters that what initially looked like a very easy decision was actually very complex. It is easy to imagine many voters two months ago saying, “of course I want to protect the reefs” or “of course I want safe food.” At the time, there wasn’t really a reason to doubt these positions. No one had made a serious argument against them. On pork, for example, the DPP government opened up the pork market last August, but there wasn’t a big information campaign to persuade people that ractopamine is safe. In the referendum campaign, the parties had to face these issues head on and make serious arguments about each topic. These arguments were often hard to follow. For example, in the 4NPP debate, the sides cited numerous technical reports on geology, nuclear waste disposal, energy prices, the status of the construction at different time points, safety inspections, and so on. To make a fully informed decision on the four items, you needed to be an expert in nuclear physics, climate science, oceanography, food science, international trade, political institutions, and a half dozen other fields. It is possible that the rich information environment taught people that these were difficult choices. Without an obvious right answer, I can imagine large numbers of people deciding to just stay home. This seems especially likely for nonpartisans. The partisans could trust that their party’s experts had looked at all facets of the problem and had come to a good conclusion. They could also ignore the difficulty and go out to vote to support their party (or oppose those jerks in the other party). Nonpartisans overwhelmed by the complexity of the choice didn’t have any easy solutions. And if you don’t know what the right answer is, there isn’t much incentive to go vote to express your opinion or to prevent the wrong choice from being made.

I’m not unhappy that all four items failed. Part of this is that I have my own partisan preferences. However, I also have a general skepticism toward referendums. When in doubt, I always vote no. It should be difficult to pass laws, and it should be prohibitively difficult to pass laws when you can’t figure out what you are passing. Moreover, Taiwan’s referendum law stipulates that referendum results can’t be overturned for two years. If you make a mistake, you are stuck with it.

What about the small parties?

The small parties didn’t play much of a role in this referendum. The NPP and TPP both supported some but not all of the items, but their endorsements don’t seem to have had much of an impact at all.

I guess it’s not all that surprising. Referendums are a majoritarian institution. When you need a majority of votes, the small parties are never going to play much more than a supporting role. Still, it’s surprising they didn’t even play a supporting role. They were basically absent.

The most shocking absence wasn’t the TPP or NPP, though. It was the Green Party. Where the hell was the Green Party?!? Two of these referendums were right in their wheelhouse, and pork should also arguably be one of their best issues. How is it possible they weren’t out on the front lines every day screaming about their ideals? Honestly, I don’t know what the environmental position on R20 (reef/LNG). It’s complicated. But this is precisely the kind of thing that an environmentally-centered party should take the lead on. If the Green Party doesn’t have an opinion on environmental questions, what good are they?

What should we expect from future referendums?

R19 failed, so future referendums will be held in August of odd-numbered years. This creates two very different environments. The 2025 referendums will be held a year and half after the 2024 national elections and over a year before the 2026 local elections. That’s a relatively dead time in the electoral calendar, and the referendums will be the biggest story for a couple of months. In contrast, the 2023 referendums will be held just as the 2024 presidential race is heating up. In August 2023, the two big parties will probably already have nominated their presidential candidates and most of their legislative candidates. Smaller parties will also be making their decisions about how to position themselves. The 2023 referendums are going to be completely subsumed by the upcoming national elections. They will almost certainly be seen as a dress rehearsal for the big clash. There will be very little oxygen for nonpartisan discussion of the various referendum issues.

Taiwan desperately needs to revise its electoral calendar. The easiest thing would be to shorten one presidential term[1] so that the president is inaugurated in early February. All elections and referendums could be held in late November or early December, and there would be a full year between each vote. I’m not holding my breath, though. I think we will have two very different referendum experiences depending on which part of the election cycle it is.

All four items failed, and both parties missed the threshold by about a million votes. One thing we learned from this experience is that you can’t just assume that people will turn out to vote for a referendum. It may simply be easier to mobilize people to vote for a candidate. In 2018, the concurrent general elections meant that the referendum threshold was not a problem, and seven items passed. This includes a few that I have almost no impression of. I learned very little about R7, R8, or R16. My biggest fear was that activists and special interests of all stripes would try to imitate these, putting their pet issue on the ballot and hoping it sails through without much consideration. I’m relieved that R19 didn’t pass, so the threshold will remain an obstacle. It costs money to launch a petition drive, so hopefully only efforts that can withstand public scrutiny and inspire intense, broad public support will bother. Free rides are likely to be more of a problem in the referendums five months before the presidential election because the parties and the general public will be treating them as a dress rehearsal for and bellwether of the upcoming (more important) contest. It will be much easier to get over the threshold, so that is where you might see more efforts by special interests to piggyback on partisan emotions to pass their pet law (which can’t be undone for two years – ka-ching!).

Why do we have referendums?

Ko Wen-je, Hou You-yi, and a few others complained that the two big parties were perverting the referendums by turning them into ordinary party-based election campaigns. They weren’t having rational[2] debates about the issues. Instead, they were just telling people to vote all four yes or all four no.

I don’t have a lot of patience for this complaint. If Ko and Hou sincerely believed this point, they are political simpletons. First, there was a lot of good debate. Maybe they weren’t paying attention, but I heard a lot of people delving into the nitty-gritty of complicated policies. Second, of course the main political parties are going to take a position! These are significant policies, and they are tightly related to many of the parties’ other goals. Ignoring the referendums would be irresponsible.

Third, these referendums were politicized right from the start. The KMT directly sponsored two and enthusiastically supported the other two. They didn’t do that because they were pursuing some apolitical goal. The primary purpose was to inflict political damage on the DPP government. They wanted to give the DPP a black eye and obstruct its policy agenda. The KMT directly or indirectly sponsored all four, so of course they asked voters to vote yes on all four. By the exact same logic, the DPP naturally opposed all four. In a system dominated by two strong parties, this is how almost all referendums will inevitably unfold. If it matters, it will be partisan and politicized. The calm, rational, detached, apolitical debate that Ko, Hou, and others are imagining is just never going to happen.

One of the interesting things in this campaign was that both the KMT and DPP seemed to understand referendums in the same way. Americans often talk about them as a way to go around the parties to make public policies that the parties can’t because of their conflicts of interest. That wasn’t how the KMT and DPP talked about them. Rather, they seemed to understand referendums as a mechanism to restrain a government that has gone too far. Referendums are a roadblock for elected politicians, not a detour around them. As I wrote in a previous post, this is how Sun Yat-sen understood referendums a hundred years ago, and that thinking seems to have trickled down to contemporary politicians. It is significant that three items were attempts to undo a current government policy (and the fourth was an attempt to reverse the longstanding DPP anti-nuclear policy).

Of course, in a democratic polity there exists another mechanism to discourage government overreach: general elections. I generally think that referendums are a lousy way to make public policy. I also think they ask too much of the voters. Representative democracy allows voters to make a fairly simple decision. This set of politicians has a vision for the society based on a set of ideas about what is desirable and possible. That set of politician has a different vision based on a different set of values. Voters don’t need to figure out all the details. They can choose a vision and a set of values and let the elected politicians figure out how to make all the complicated tradeoffs necessary to pursue that vision. Representative democracy works because voters don’t need to understand everything. Referendums demand much more from voters. It might be great in theory, but it isn’t practical to expect each voter to understand the details of every policy. Referendums simply produce decisions by uniformed policymakers.

However, I will suggest two constructive roles for Taiwan’s referendum system. First, in Taiwan’s strange electoral calendar, the 34-month gap between the national elections and local elections is just too long. It’s always difficult to be in the opposition, and it is especially difficult if you don’t have an outlet for your frustrations. Putting the referendums in the middle of that long gap provides that outlet. The opposition can put their energy into referendums that might show the government is out of touch with public opinion and should be restrained. It is important to have an institutional mechanism for opposition to keep it inside the system.

Second, Taiwan’s system is fairly majoritarian, and the party system is grounded in national identity. As you are doubtless aware, the national identity trends have turned pretty decisively against the KMT. There is a danger that the KMT might be turned into a permanent minority, too small to win but too big for a different challenger to emerge. And with this, there is a danger that the DPP will become entrenched in power, unconcerned with electoral pressures because the KMT is unacceptable to most of the population. Japan managed to get through most of the second half of the 20th century with this sort of dominant party system, but an entrenched government with no credible opposition is not generally a recipe for democratic stability. If the KMT insists on remaining unelectable, perhaps referendums can keep the DPP afraid of the voters. One can imagine unhappy voters approving KMT-sponsored referendums in order to show their displeasure and punish the government without facing the risk of actually putting the KMT in power.

All in all, I’d prefer to have elections every 24 months with two (or more) viable parties and no referendums at all.

[1] If it is politically impossible to shorten the current term because Tsai wants her full eight years or the upcoming term because Lai, Chu, Hou, Ko, and others think they will be the president, then change the 2032 inauguration date.

[2] I cringe at the term “rational” in Taiwanese political discourse. It seems to mean “arguments that I agree with.”

A KMT debacle

December 18, 2021

The results are in, and all four referendums have failed. This is a spectacular defeat for the KMT.

R17 nuke380475547.2%426245152.8%19.19%
R18 pork393655448.8%413120351.2%19.86%
R19 same day395188249.0%412003851.0%19.93%
R20 reef/LNG390117148.4%416346451.6%19.68%
threshold4956367   25.00%
Turnout: 41.1%     

Before getting to the KMT, let me talk about the DPP a bit. This is a win for President Tsai. She was facing significant policy setbacks if these referendums, especially pork, had passed. The polls showed all of them passing, and she managed to beat them all back. From a policy standpoint, a win is a win. It doesn’t matter how you win; it only matters whether you win or lose. She won, and her agenda is still on course.

I’m not a policy nerd, though. I’m an elections nerd, so I care about how she won. There are two thresholds, and the four referendums failed both of them. Yes didn’t beat no, and it failed to get 25% of eligible voters. I’ll talk more about the turnout when I get to the KMT, so here let me focus on the “no” vote. A TVBS poll in early November showed the KMT winning the pork referendum 55-32, and a Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation poll showed the gap at a spectacular 68-25. The gaps for the other items weren’t as large, but the KMT was leading in all of them in October. Somehow, the DPP made up that entire gap, and “no” actually outpolled “yes.” As I’ve previously written, the DPP made two arguments. On the one hand, they gave detailed arguments that these four were actually bad policy ideas. On the other hand, they argued that they have done a good job in office, and people who agree that they have done a good job should trust them to keep making the correct decisions. I think that last argument was the more effective. Tsai asked the voters to trust her, and they did, even going against their own instincts.

Why do I think it wasn’t the detailed policy arguments that mattered? These four referendum results all look almost identical. We just don’t see much difference in preferences for pork or reefs. Even nuclear power only differs from the others by less than 2%. I haven’t look at the results carefully place by place, but a first glance suggests there is very little geographic variation. If you got 900 yes votes and 800 no votes on R18, then you got just about the same thing for the other three. It sure looks like almost all voters either voted all four yes or all four no. If the policy arguments had been the crucial thing, you might have expected more people to decide that one referendum was reasonable while another wasn’t.

Taiwan doesn’t allow exit polls, so we don’t know much about whether the people who showed up to vote changed their minds. It is possible that all the ambivalent people stayed home and only the people who were always going to vote straight-ticket turned out. However, I think it is likely that Tsai persuaded a significant number of voters – perhaps including many DPP identifiers who had originally planned to vote the other way – to vote the party line.

The only damper in the DPP celebrations is the total number of votes that they mobilized. 4.1 to 4.3 million votes are not great numbers. For reference, Tsai won 6.89m in 2016 and 8.17m in 2020. The referendums needed 4.95m “yes” votes to pass. If they had managed to pass that threshold, the “no” votes would not have been sufficient to overturn them. Still, that’s picking nits. Overall, this is a great result for the DPP.

There are no disclaimers for the KMT. It was just a terrible result for them. The “yes” side lost all four referendums, and they weren’t even close to reaching the turnout threshold. They needed 5 million votes. Their best item didn’t even reach 4 million. None of these came close to actually passing.

Let’s step back and think about this battle. The KMT chose this battlefield. It could have put anything on the ballot, and it chose these four items. (Two were not formally sponsored by the KMT, but they would not have passed the petition stage without the KMT’s enthusiastic cooperation.) The KMT thought that these were the perfect issues to give the DPP a black eye. The polls certainly suggested that they were pretty good issues. It didn’t work.

One possibility is that when these issues became associated with the KMT, they became a lot less popular. That is, perhaps people were willing to support the LNG/reef policy, but they weren’t willing to support the KMT LNG/reef policy. The KMT was a dead weight that not even a popular issue could save.

Another possibility is that voters picked up on the disunity in the KMT and just stayed home. The kneejerk response is to blame Hou You-yi, Lu Hsiu-yan, and Lin Tzu-miao. However, I’d blame Johnny Chiang.[1] The energy referendums – especially the nuclear one – caused the three mayors to hesitate, and party chair Chiang was the one who let them get on the ballot. If the KMT had been disciplined enough to keep those two off the ballot, they would have been a lot mor unified. A better politician might have done some communication with their prominent members before this ever occurred to see whether anyone had objections to particular items. Again, the KMT picked this battlefield.

In their ungracious remarks tonight, Johnny Chiang and Eric Chu put the blame for the defeats on the DPP. Chiang said that the DPP had unfairly twisted these narrow issues by claiming they were about broader things, like international trade, relations with the United States, overall economic development, and what China wants. Apparently, when the KMT tries to deal the DPP government a serious policy setback, he doesn’t expect the DPP government to fight back to defend its agenda. Pointing out the negative consequences of a decision is hardly unfair politics. Chu complained that the autocratic DPP government has forever ruined democracy by putting referendums back in the birdcage. No referendum will ever be able to pass under these rules. Maybe someone can remind him that, just a few weeks ago, the KMT managed to mobilize enough voters to climb over this exact same (unfairly prohibitive!) threshold to recall Chen Po-wei.

Maybe the worst possibility for the KMT is that these simply weren’t great issues to start with. Sure, more people were for a ban on ractopamine than were against it, but most people just didn’t care all that much about it. The reason turnout was so low is that too many voters couldn’t be bothered to go out to vote (which is very easy for most people in Taiwan) for these boring topics. It’s not a problem for the KMT that they lost these specific votes. After all, I don’t think they particularly care about any of these issues. The problem is that this was a test case for a larger political strategy.

Party politics in Taiwan are founded on national identity and what to do about China, and the KMT represents what has clearly become a minority position. They don’t want to alter their cherished positions on the core questions in order to become more palatable to ordinary voters. That would be too painful. Instead, they would prefer to ignore identity and China and focus solely on smaller day-to-day issues. If elections are about paving roads, gas prices, inflation, or other non-partisan issues, maybe the KMT can compete. Food safety is a great example. The KMT started screaming about pork in the 2016 election. At the time, they were reeling from Ma’s attempted purge of Wang, the Sunflower Movement, the defeat of their nuclear policy, the 2014 election debacle, and the retracted presidential nomination of Hung Hsiu-chu. The didn’t want to talk about any of that. Pork was a safe haven, so suddenly they started pontificating about ractopamine. With all that strife, it wasn’t surprising that 2016 was a disaster. However, 2018 was a spectacular triumph. Han Kuo-yu talked about youth floating north, finding markets for Kaohsiung agricultural products, the moribund real estate market, potholes, and all kinds of other small issues. He pointedly avoided talking about China, except as a potential market for Kaohsiung goods. In the 2020 election, Hong Kong shifted the focus back to identity and China, and the KMT did very badly. See a pattern here? This referendum was going to be another triumph because identity and China aren’t involved.

What went wrong? Well, voters just don’t care enough about the small issues to come out to vote. They’re small. You simply can’t build a reliable party on issues that aren’t important. I suspect that almost all of the people who did come out to vote for the KMT positions in this referendum were actually motivated by identity and China, no matter how earnestly they explain to you that they have always passionately cared about referendums and election calendars.

Maybe this referendum will be a message to the KMT that it can’t paper over its unpopular identity and China positions by distracting voters with shiny objects. Maybe they will be motivated to finally start thinking about altering those unpopular stances on the most critical issues.

Probably not though. Eric Chu has already signaled that he is more comfortable finding excuses than reflecting on the causes of defeats. I keep waiting for the KMT to reform itself, and it keeps disappointing me.

I have a couple final thoughts. The KMT has already started turning on Hou You-yi. Apparently, his FB page has been inundated with angry KMT supporters who are blaming him for this debacle. Hou is probably the only KMT politician with a realistic chance in the 2024 election. This referendum might be the start of the KMT devouring its best hope.

The KMT lost the pork referendum, but they will still have to deal with the longer-term effects of this campaign. The KMT has been worried about how it is viewed in DC for a few years. Washington didn’t officially get involved in the 2020 election, but it was pretty clear they were more comfortable with Tsai and the DPP. Taiwanese voters care a lot about whether Americans trust the Taiwanese government. Chu is planning to open a KMT office in DC precisely to improve the KMT’s image there. Now, Tsai has just absorbed a big political hit to satisfy American trade negotiators, and they will trust her and the DPP even more. The KMT, on the other hand, just tried to foul up those relations, and DC will also remember this. When the 2024 KMT candidate goes to DC to talk at think tanks, he can probably expect a frosty reception.

This referendum was a disaster for the KMT. A disaster of their own making.

[1] Maybe Chiang wasn’t powerful enough within the KMT to make this decision. The most powerful voice speaking out for 4NPP in the campaign was Ma Ying-jeou. Maybe Ma was the driving force behind this ballot item. If so, I should blame Ma for the eventual party disunity. It wouldn’t be the first time he caused a party split.

Election eve KMT madness

December 18, 2021

I thought I’d write this while waiting for them to start counting votes. By the time you see this, it will either be prescient or comically misguided.

I was unable to go to any referendum-eve events last night. I can’t remember the last time I was physically present in Taiwan and didn’t go to an event on the last night. Maybe 1992 or 1993? Some genius at the Election Study Center decided to schedule a conference (on a topic completely unrelated to the referendums) early Friday and Saturday mornings, so a late Friday night just wasn’t going to happen for me.

I did watch the KMT and DPP rallies on YouTube. The DPP rally on the street in front of the presidential office was pretty standard. They had a nice crowd, though I’ve seen bigger. They didn’t need to block off traffic on the circle around the gate, but the area in front of that was pretty full. It was probably 4000-8000 people. They had all the standard speakers who said all the standard things. It was pretty much exactly what I expected.

The KMT rally, though, was a different matter. This was perhaps one of the worst events I have ever seen. I wish I had been there in person so that I could be surer of this, but what I saw on YouTube was pretty disastrous.

They never turned the camera around, so I never saw the crowd. I have no idea how big it was or how enthusiastic it was. The event was at the CKS Memorial. I have been told that it wasn’t inside the plaza. Rather it was in the space in front of the main gate. That’s enough space for 2000-3000 people, but not much more. From there, they could probably see the DPP crowd, which had to be a little disheartening if my guesses about crowd size are correct.

At most rallies, there are five to ten speakers who each speak for 10-30 minutes. A this KMT rally, they didn’t do that at all. They had dozens of speakers, but each on only got 30-120 seconds. Everyone got up there, proclaimed their support for the four referendums, added one or two other ideas, and then they were done. There was no time at all for subtlety, nuance, or logical argument. Instead, they enthusiastically screamed their support as quickly as possible. It was exhausting. A good rally needs emotional peaks and valleys. You need to turn the volume up and down. At this rally, they kept the emotions at full blast the entire time.

This event had one goal: the KMT wanted to display party unity. They brought up every city councilor and every legislator (the only legislator I noticed as missing was Wu Szu-huai 吳斯懷), one-by-one, in an effort to show that the entire KMT is all on the same page. Apparently, they were pretty spooked by the impression that they are internally divided since they felt they needed to prove their unity. Unified parties don’t need to send this message; everyone just assumes they are all working together. However, a series of statements from several high-profile KMT mayors questioning the party’s actions and positions on the referendums might be having an effect on KMT supporters. So they paraded all their office-holders out to try to show a unified front.

One problem is that they don’t really have a unified message. The DPP keeps hammering the same reasons why you should vote against the four items. The KMT isn’t quite as sure why they are supporting them. For example, several of them screamed that they wanted to teach President Tsai a lesson. Then Wayne Chiang 蔣萬安 got up and told the audience that referendums should not be used to try to teach anyone a lesson.

Another problem was that they let the most extreme voices in the party speak more loudly. Legislator Yeh Yu-lan 葉毓蘭 got a bit more time than other legislators. Yeh is an unpopular ideologue, and the DPP has featured her in its ads as someone they want voters to think about when they are making their decisions. Former party chair Hung Hsiu-chu 洪秀柱 got a lot of time, and when her time was up, she told the crowd that she was just going to keep talking until she was finished. Her speech, in which she imagined talking to the ghosts of several deceased and still living DPP politicians, might have seemed playful to a KMT fanatic, but it would have struck more neutral voters as inappropriate and DPP supporters as downright offensive.

The biggest problem was that the display of unity actually highlighted party disunity. After going through all the city councilors and legislators they got to the mayors. Aah finally, the main event! Now is when you hammer home the message of unity! Since mayors need to stay in their home areas, they had a short video message from each one saying how they strongly supported a “yes” vote on all four referendums. The went through eleven nearly identical videos, teaching us what to expect from each one. Then suddenly, the next video didn’t show a mayor talking directly to the camera in a specially recorded message. Instead, Yilan mayor Lin Tzu-miao 林姿妙 was shown campaigning on the street in her sound truck. And then Taichung mayor Lu Hsiu-yan 盧秀燕 was shown responding to questions in the Taichung city council. Hou You-yi 侯友宜 was shown at an event sitting next to Eric Chu 朱立倫, and the TV news crawl said “Eric Chu says ‘agree with all four.’” The three of them were clearly talking about pork, though it is not clear whether this was recent footage. Lin Tzu-miao’s footage seemed to be from the 2018 election. More importantly, they had clearly not agreed to film a short video for this event, and they were clearly not supporting all four referendums. Why in the world was the KMT showing them actively not being team players? If you knew beforehand that they weren’t going to cooperate, why frame the entire event as a show of party unity? What were they thinking?

During the second half of the rally, the emcees started teasing us about a very special guest who was going to show up at 9:45, so be sure to stay right here! Again and again, they promised us someone really big. Former President Ma and party chair Chu both gave (forgettable) speeches, so it wasn’t them. I wondered whether they would bring out Hou You-yi, after all. Wouldn’t that be a surprise! Nah, that couldn’t be it. The only other person I could think of was presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu. Hey, where has he been? He has been completely absent from this campaign, hasn’t he. It would be silly to save him until the last 15 minutes of the campaign, but who else is there? After all, the theme is party unity, so they wouldn’t want to make me think of another prominent party leader who wasn’t on board, would they? Well, whoever it was, it was definitely a very important person.

At the end of Chu’s speech, he announced he was going to sing a song. Did you know that Chu can sing? No? That’s because it turns out he is a terrible singer. He didn’t know when to start the lyrics, he couldn’t remember the lyrics, and he could barely carry a tune. Someone tried to give him a sheet of paper with song lyrics, but he brushed them away. Other people started singing, and Chu spent the rest of the song looking at his phone. It was painful to watch. Again, if you aren’t a good singer, why are you choosing this moment to show off your ineptitude? Maybe he wanted to imitate Han Kuo-yu’s rallies. Han and his adoring fans always loved singing a few songs. Hey, maybe Han is going to come onstage next!

At 9:45, with 15 minutes left in the campaign, the KMT finally announced the last mystery guest. This is the last voice they wanted you to hear, the final message of the campaign. It was … a middle-aged pop star? I don’t know much about pop music so I had no idea who she was, though my wife knew Tsai Ching (?) right away. She made a few jokes about getting paid (or not getting paid?), barely said anything remotely political, and then sang two songs. The last one was Silent Night. It was a very weird way to end a political rally, much less an entire campaign.

On the eve of the referendums

December 16, 2021

With only a few days left until voting on the referendums, I have a few comments about the overall campaigns and how I will interpret the results.

The referendum campaigns have been very top-down. What I mean by that is that almost everything has been driven by the same few people. Nearly everything has featured Tsai Ing-wen, Su Tseng-chang, Eric Chu, and maybe Johnny Chiang. Other politicians have joined in, but they haven’t been nearly as engaged as they would be in a general election campaign. If one of the headliners isn’t organizing an event, no event is organized. Those headliners are working hard. At a recent event, Su said it was his 65th event this campaign. But no one else is working quite as desperately.

This is something we see in the media as well. In a general election, the last month is absolute saturation of election news and commentary. If you read or watch any news, nearly everything will be about the election. It hasn’t been that way this year. The newspapers usually have a story or maybe even half a page, but it is buried on page 3 or 4. Likewise, the TV news will mention the referendums, but it usually isn’t the top story and it isn’t very long or in-depth. But what really surprises me are the political talk shows. Several times over the past month, I have tried to see how they are talking about the referendums only to find that just one or two of them – sometimes none at all – are talking about the referendums. They seem to think that viewers are more interested in other topics. The green stations more likely to be talking about the Taichung by-election in three weeks than the national referendums this weekend, and the blue stations seem mostly disenguaged.

The visual campaign is almost entirely absent. There are almost no flags or billboards for this campaign.

I’m sure almost everyone is aware that there will be voting this weekend, but there just isn’t the same sense of urgency that we normally experience. I just don’t get the feeling that most people are desperate to express their opinion in the same way that they might demand to register their support or opposition to Han Kuo-yu or Lin Chia-lung. The lack of a specific individual to personalize the choice makes a difference, I think. Abstract things such as pork chop safety and LNG transportation are just not as easy to get emotional about as a concrete hero or villain.

I’m expecting a turnout to be fairly low. I think the general expectation is that it will be in the mid- or high-50s. I suspect it might not even break 50%.

I haven’t been able to go to a KMT event this year, but I have watched a few on YouTube and Facebook. The first thing you notice is how unprofessional they seem. Several of them haven’t had a proper stage with a standard background. Instead, all the events I’ve seen have been on a carnival truck with flashing neon lights. You typically see these portable stages at night markets and someone is singing, selling medicine, or having some other performance. Moreover, the cameras have been terrible. There is usually only one camera that doesn’t move at all. Some of them seem to have been shot on someone’s cell phone. I had to turn off one video posted on Eric Chu’s FB page because it there was just too much static and interference.  Look, I know the KMT wants to scream about its horrible financial straits, but political communication is the core function of the party. Instead of wasting money on expensive local networks, setting up an office in DC, or talking about putting together a bounty fund for people who expose DPP corruption, maybe they should prioritize actually talking to voters. After all, they do get a significant state subsidy precisely for these kinds of expenses. A proper camera, camera operator, and sound system isn’t that expensive.

Most of the speeches I saw were more emotional than substantive. That is, they weren’t calmly making a step-by-step case for why it was reasonable to move the LNG unloading station from Taoyuan to New Taipei, for example. Maybe one of every three speakers made any detailed points. For the most part, they were just angrily screaming about how awful the DPP is.

The most common talking point was not about the referendums at all. Instead, KMT speakers repeatedly railed about the DPP’s internet army. They assert, almost as an article of faith, that the DPP uses state funds to cultivate an online army on social media, YouTube, blogs, and so on. This is a point straight out of the Han Kuo-yu presidential campaign, and the sense of victimization seems to be getting deeper. It also fits in with Ma Ying-jeou’s recent argument that Taiwan is becoming an illiberal democracy.[1]

I find these statements to be distressing for a few reasons. First, they are flat-out ridiculous. Taiwan has a healthy, free, and fair democratic system. Second, I’d like the KMT be a confident party focused on the biggest challenges facing society rather than inwardly concentrating on imagined grievances. This might be red meat for their deepest, most loyal supporters, but it doesn’t help them appeal to ordinary voters who don’t share those grievances. Third, I think this obsession with an internet army is how the KMT is rationalizing its problems attracting young voters. They tell themselves young voters don’t like the KMT because they get their information from the internet, and the DPP is unfairly manipulating that information. This allows them to avoid the possibility that young people simply don’t like the KMT and are producing anti-KMT content to express their own opinions. We know that politics in Taiwan are organized by identity, and about 80% of young voters identify as exclusively Taiwanese. Should it be surprising that they are repelled by a party that insists on retaining the name “Chinese Nationalist Party”?

In the TV debates sponsored by the CEC, the speakers representing the “yes” side have generally refrained from calling on voters to cast a no-confidence vote against President Tsai. Her approval ratings are pretty good, so that probably wouldn’t be a great argument with neutral voters. However, in their own events, the KMT is absolutely asking for voters to vote “yes” in order to punish Tsai. I heard this appeal far more often than I heard them saying voters should vote “yes” to protect the algal reefs, because nuclear power is safe, or even because ractopamine is dangerous. When they are preaching to their own choir, the specific issues aren’t as important as partisan passions.

One of the most important developments of the past week involves New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi. Hou is running for re-election next year, and he is popular enough that many people think he is the front-runner to be the KMT presidential candidate in 2024. One reason that Hou is so popular is that he has repeatedly distanced himself from unpopular KMT people and positions and has instead positioned himself as a less ideological politician. During the 2020 presidential campaign, he mostly kept his head down and refused to energetically campaign for Han Kuo-yu, saying he needed to focus on New Taipei city local government issues. Likewise, he hasn’t been actively promoting KMT positions in this referendum campaign. About six weeks ago, he expressed concerns about the 4th nuclear power plant, and this forced the KMT to soften its position on that referendum. About a week ago, he posed a long statement on his Facebook page decrying how the referendum campaign had become like a partisan election campaign instead of a rational discussion in which every citizen could freely make their own choice. Effectively, he gave his supporters his permission to ignore the KMT’s entreaties to cast four “yes” votes or even to just stay home. Hou is the most popular KMT politician, and he is declining to actively support the KMT position. It is unclear how important this will be, but it can’t be great for the KMT.

The polls suggest that the nuclear referendum is likely to fail and the pork referendum is likely to pass. The other two are closer to toss-ups. When I think about those polls and my turnout expectations, I think a range of outcomes – everything from three passing to all four failing – are in play.

Suppose the pork referendum passes. How should we interpret this? Specifically, would it represent a no-confidence vote for President Tsai and the DPP government?

I would not interpret that result as a no-confidence vote, though I can see why people would. It would be a defeat for her policy agenda, but it would not be a sign that the DPP has lost the support of the average voter or that the DPP was headed for electoral defeats in 2022 and 2024. Unless the defeat came by an enormous margin, losing the pork referendum would not make Tsai a lame duck or necessitate Su’s resignation.

In both KMT and DPP events, speakers have framed this choice as one of trust in the current administration. DPP speakers have talked about all the wonderful things the government has done, reminded listeners that the country is on the right track, and argued that the KMT is using the referendums to create chaos and disruption. They argue, “you like us, you think we’re doing a good job, and we are trustworthy, so trust us to continue on this right track by rejecting the KMT referendums.” Meanwhile, the KMT argues that the Tsai government is doing a terrible job and is running democracy into the ground, so vote “yes” to deal her a political defeat and slow her down.”

However, these are the messages the parties are sending out to their loyal supporters. These voters have strong partisan preferences, so the two parties are trying to remind them that this is a partisan choice and they should vote the party position. But remember, the DPP is a much more popular party than the KMT. The KMT can’t win by relying solely on its core supporters. If a referendum passes, it will be because non-partisans voted for it. In fact, the polls show that a clear majority of non-identifiers favor barring ractopamine pork.

However, there is not much evidence that these non-identifiers would vote for the referendum in order to punish Tsai. Tsai’s approval ratings are pretty good right now precisely because lots of non-identifiers think she is doing a good job. This is not like 2018, when the DPP was dealt a heavy political blow causing Tsai to resign as party chair, Lai to resign as premier, and then Lai to feel emboldened to challenge Tsai for the 2020 presidential nomination. Tsai’s approval rating then was about half of what it is now. That was a vote in which a disgruntled electorate sent her a message. What we see in this year’s polling is quite different. The people who are for the pork ban tend to separate that from all other considerations. They think it will not affect relations with the USA or Taiwan’s attempts to join CPTPP, and it isn’t related to how much they like Tsai. It is just a food safety issue, pure and simple. They may reject Tsai’s arguments that this is a complex issue or that they should trust her on this matter, but they do not necessarily reject Tsai or the DPP in other political matters.

If, on the other hand, the pork referendum is defeated, I would see that as a tremendous political victory for Tsai and Su. I understand that some readers will wonder about this logic: don’t blame Tsai if it passes but do reward her if it is defeated?? Again, I refer you to the context. Two months ago when the campaign started, this referendum would have passed easily. For the past decade, we have learned that ractopamine is a dirty word. Tsai has had the task of overturning that consensus in a very short time, and the main weapon in her arsenal has been to ask the voters to trust her, put aside any doubts, and vote to accept ractopamine. This is a heavy lift and, it would be an impressive display of public support if it comes to fruition.

[1] On a recent CTV newscast, I watched a talking head rhetorically ask what the difference was between current Taiwan and Nazi Germany. No one questioned this comparison. Even more disorienting, the anchor went from this statement straight into a story about a traffic accident, seemingly unaware that the speaker was making a very serious charge that demands careful consideration and would, if accurate, require immediate actions.

DPP referendum event: starring Premier Su

December 3, 2021

On Wednesday night, I went to a park in Taipei City to hear a DPP rally against the four referendums. The crowd wasn’t big, probably a bit less than 1,000 people, but it was a weekday night and a cold front had just hit. It didn’t rain, and it wasn’t as cold as people feared.[1] As you can see, it is a fairly old crowd. Normally, that would be a warning sign, but, as I argued in a previous post, the key this time might be mobilizing the traditional DPP base. At the very least, this is a necessary step. The crowd was shockingly enthusiastic. You rarely see DPP crowds in Taipei this engaged for a candidate; I certainly didn’t expect them to be so hyped up for an abstract referendum.

They didn’t plan for a big crowd. This is probably about what they expected.

I got to the event late, so I missed the beginning. It was organized by city councilor Liang Wen-jieh 梁文傑 and his wife, legislator Lin Chu-yin 林楚茵.[2] I assume one or both of them spoke before I arrived. When I got there, Taoyuan mayor Chen Wen-tsan was speaking. He finished before I found a place to sit down and really settle in, so I don’t have any strong impressions of his speech. It was effective, though I can’t tell you more than that.

Minister of Economics Wang Mei-hua 王美花 followed Cheng. She has played a major role in the campaign against the four items. In the CEC-sponsored TV debates, she has represented the no side twice, once in a pork debate and once in a LNG/reef debate. I had never seen her speak publicly before this campaign, and, at least for me, she has emerged as one of the most persuasive voices for DPP policies. In this event, Wang went heavily into the details of pork and energy while somehow still being easily accessible. It was an impressive talk in which she answered questions at various levels of sophistication. If you just wanted a general impression, she gave you that. If you wanted to know about how the revised LNG project was designed to protect the reefs, she gave you that, too. If you wanted to know about energy supply, carbon emissions, and projected demand, she had broad and detailed explanations there, too. She speaks with the expertise and authority of a career bureaucrat, never raising her voice or getting too emotional. However, unlike most bureaucrats, she was able to bring it all down to a level that most people could understand. Moreover, she kept the audience engaged. The college professor in me was in awe of her ability to communicate complex ideas while still holding the attention of an audience that could have easily tuned her out.

In the buffet of campaign speeches, she was a really good salad. I mean that as a complement – I love salad. But when you eat a really good salad, you are always still aware that you are eating something nutritious. No matter how great it tastes, there is no guilty pleasure in vegetables because in addition to being delicious they are also packed with nearly everything else you need for good health. Wang didn’t thrill the audience with the empty calories of a chocolate cake or a deep-fried treat, but she satisfied them with wholesome content.

Don’t forget how grateful we are for the 4 million Moderna vaccines.

American pork is safe. AIT Director Oudkirk feeds it to her children.

Defeating this referendum is crucial to our application to join CPTPP.

The main speaker of the night was Premier Su Tseng-chang 蘇貞昌. In my informal list of Taiwan’s great outdoor speakers, Su is probably at the top. It’s a joy for a rally junkie like myself to observe a master of the craft at work, and, on Wednesday, Su had a good night even by his lofty standards. The audience was eating out of his hand right from the start. He spoke for about 45 minutes without any lulls in energy or passion. There were several times when the audience broke into impromptu applause, and, even if these were started by staffers planted in the crowd,[3] the rest of the people picked up those cues immediately and joined in enthusiastically.

Su spent more than half of his time talking about his record as premier. He talked about keeping swine flu out of Taiwan, the government’s quick and effective response to Covid, economic growth, various social welfare policies, fruit exports, wage increases, and other wonderful policy successes. One thing that impressed me was how he presented old-age stipends and long-term health care to this audience, most of whom were seniors. First he talked about welfare for younger people, such as day care and stipends for new parents. Only after that did he turn to things for seniors. It felt to me that he was allowing the crowd to feel generous rather than selfish. First, let’s talk about all the important things we are doing to take care of other people in society; your grandchildren are our priority. Then, there is something for you, too; you are also important. Deft!

This was all presented with the flair of a confident showman. After his introductory remarks and some praise for the two local politicians, Su announced he was about to start the main talk by dramatically pulling out a pool cue.[4] You rarely get a crowd response from a gesture, but this got a few murmurs, then a bit of laughter, and finally some applause. He went through a series of slides using his pool cue to emphasize his points. Last week, I questioned Chao Yi-hsiang’s 趙怡翔 use of powerpoint to give his speech. On Wednesday, I realized that both Wang and Su were basically using powerpoint slides in their speeches, even if they didn’t feel like powerpoint presentations because they were so flawlessly integrated. Thinking back, Su started doing this in the 2020 campaign. Then, it was only a few slides. Now, he has built his entire speech around the pictures on the screen behind him. So I should apologize to Chao Yi-hsiang. It turns out he is an early (though a bit clumsy) adopter of what might turn out to be the next great campaign innovation.

Remember how swine flu devastated our pork farmers? No? That’s because we didn’t let it in!

Check out our fantastic economic growth!

And we have some great welfare for all you old geezers, too!

After Su finished the extensive segment about how wonderful the DPP’s record of governance has been, he turned briefly to the KMT. The KMT, he said, has been obstructing the government at every turn. As an example, he pointed to the current visits by representatives from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which he considered major diplomatic breakthroughs. The KMT had dismissed them as three “small” countries. Each of them, Su pointed out, has twice as much land as Taiwan, and they are all fairly wealthy countries inside the EU. They’re important! Meanwhile, the KMT legislative caucus was refusing to review the Foreign Ministry’s annual budget to protest Foreign Minister Joseph Wu’s decision to meet the Baltic delegations rather than show up in person at the legislator. Is this party on the same side as the rest of us, Su asked incredulously.

Su also lambasted the KMT for brawling in the legislature, which is a richly ironic attack coming from the DPP. I can’t remember such a specific accusation in a campaign speech. The KMT and New Party used to routinely call the DPP a chaotic party 亂黨, but they rarely explained in any detail. It was a reference to legislative brawls during the transition to democracy, but it was also probably a reference to years of street protests. Su, however, was talking about two specific legislative brawls (the infrastructure brawls and the pork brawl) to make a more general point about the KMT’s character. The KMT, he explained, was always trying to twist things up in order to obstruct progress.

Look at these guys. Aren’t they disgusting.
(Note: He didn’t neglect the opportunity to single out Yen Kuan-heng, the KMT’s candidate in the upcoming Taichung City by-election.)

Look on the floor. Those are pork intestines. That’s what the KMT really thinks of Taiwanese pork!

And the referendums were another example. The KMT was twisting people’s honest and good impulses – to protect the environment and food safety – in order to obstruct policies necessary for Taiwan’s future.

I won’t go into the details of Su’s arguments about the pork and energy referendums. He made most of the same, familiar points. He didn’t have the depth of Minister Wang, but he had a lot more charisma and flair. She made the rational arguments, and he filled in some of the emotion. The two complemented each other very well.

Can you believe this guy! When he was New Taipei mayor he said we should build the project as scheduled in Taoyuan. Now that he is party chair, he suddenly wants to move it to New Taipei.

The last thing he talked about was R19, the proposal to hold referendums on the same day as general elections. He barely spent any time at all on this. He simply reminded people of the horrible lines in 2018 and concluded that he was definitely against R19. R19 is a difficult referendum for the DPP base since it has been taught for years that referendums are unquestionably good. Strategically, it seems the DPP is trying to win R19 by mobilizing its base to vote against the other three items. Once they are in the voting booth voting no on everything else, hopefully they will trust the DPP to vote no on this one too.

Su’s more general strategy is to make this a referendum on both the government and the KMT. He wants you to remember how good the DPP has been in office, and he also wants you to remember how much you don’t like the KMT. Remember, polls show that the DPP is pretty popular right now, Tsai’s approval ratings are pretty good, and the KMT’s numbers are miserable. Su doesn’t want you to think about the ractopamine pork referendum, he wants you to think about the KMT pork referendum intended to block the DPP government.

A final thought on Premier Su. I was stunned by his energy and vitality. A few years ago, he seemed tired and ready to leave the stage. He wanted his protégé Wu Ping-jui 吳秉叡 to run for New Taipei mayor in 2018, but Wu fizzled and the party dragged Su back into the fray. After the 2018 election debacle and Premier Lai’s resignation, the DPP turned once again to their old warhorse. It reeked of desperation. However, Su’s second stint as premier has gone better than anyone could have predicted. He is known as a workaholic, and the pressure of the job seems to have made him younger and sharper. You can make a good argument that he saved Tsai’s presidency, and, as an encore, he led Taiwan’s world-acclaimed Covid response. On stage Wednesday, he was fully engaged and committed. This didn’t seem like a person counting down the days until he can retire to a life of leisure and relaxation. For the first time on Wednesday, the thought crossed my mind that maybe this isn’t the last triumphant act of his illustrious career. Most people expect the DPP’s 2024 presidential nomination to be a contest between VP William Lai and Taoyuang mayor Cheng Wen-tsan, with an outside chance that Transportation Minister Lin Chia-lung will get involved. Lai ran against Tsai in 2020, and Cheng is positioning himself as the heir to Tsai’s more progressive platform. Currently, Lai is pretty far ahead in the polls, and Cheng doesn’t seem to be catching up. If Cheng isn’t up to the challenge, perhaps the progressive side of the DPP will turn to Su to stop the much more conservative Lai. He’s 74 years old now, but in the age of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, maybe that’s not too old to launch a new enterprise. It’s highly unlikely, but after watching him oozing charisma, vitality, optimism, and pluck on Wednesday, it suddenly doesn’t seem impossible.

[1] The weather reports had suggested it might be 12-13, but my car thermometer said it was around 16-18.

[2] Yes, it seems awkward and perhaps a bit sexist to name the man first and the woman second when she holds a higher position, especially since I devoted quite a bit of the past decade to documenting the rise of women in Taiwanese politics. But in this case, Liang is almost certainly the primary organizer. He has been in electoral politics for a decade and is one of the national leaders of the New Tide faction. This is his district, and he has been organizing it for a long time. Lin was a TV reporter who, seemingly out of nowhere, suddenly got placed on the DPP party list in 2020. It probably shocked everyone — including them — that she got to the legislature before he did.

[3] I don’t know if they were. I’m trying to be as skeptical as possible.

[4] It reminded me of Phantom Regiment. I’ll be shocked if any of my readers understand this reference, but maybe there’s a drum corps fan out there who will absolutely get it.