On the eve of the referendums

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.

One Response to “On the eve of the referendums”

  1. Mark S. Says:

    Can it be the some KMT higher-ups actually believe their rhetoric of Taiwan being an illiberal democracy? Former KMT legislator Pang Chien-kuo (龐建國) killed himself earlier today, declaring “Bùgōng bùyì de Táiwān, wǒ shēng bùrú sǐ” (不公不義的台灣,我生不如死 ).

    Of course, he also had cancer. But still….



    Is the KMT going to break out cries of “Green terror” again?

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