A KMT debacle

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.

8 Responses to “A KMT debacle”

  1. pgriff90 Says:

    It’s stunning how well Tsai’s second term has gone thus far compared to CSB and Ma, particularly given she seemed like she would be Taiwan’s first one term president after the 2018 elections.

    It will be interesting to see how the dynamic you describe within the KMT plays out in next year’s elections. Many KMT incumbent mayors and magistrates are fairly popular and should be able to win re-election fairly easily if their races revolve around local issues, but if they get tied to the party things could get hairy.

  2. kezza Says:

    I don’t think Ma was the driving force for 4NPP ballot. Afterall, it was his administration that halted the construction in 2014 and so is remembered as part of his legacy (regardless of his original intentions). It also gave him (and KMT supporters) some perverse pleasure in reminding DPP that they were merely following his policy. Instead, have this nice little conjecture that it was actually Terry Guo, however it is just a conjecture with absolutely zero proof, except for some very minor pieces of circumstantial evidence such as Huang’s absurdly low robocalling bill in the final days and Guo’s openly pro-nuclear stance going back years (plus his post-referendum outburst which doesn’t even make any sense in context).

    Anyway, this referendum is just one more on the list of clearly self-inflicted wound in the last 6 years of KMT opposition. The tragedy is that none of the “opposition” parties demonstrated any sort of competence in the aftermath of this referendum (KMT, TPP, NPP all try to claim the ~58% not voted as opposing DPP, which is completely absurd).

  3. Jack Hol Says:

    Voters don’t care if they eat pork with substances what are banned in more than 150 countries in the World. Voters don’t care if Taiwan will use more imported fossil gas than ever before. Voters don’t care about the possible natural disaster caused by the LNG terminal and the long term effect on the environment. Yeah, such a great success for Tsai! /s

    • wang Says:

      Taiwanese have already eaten a lot of beef with zero consequence. Why we should worry about a tiny piece of pork?

    • Dreamlucid Says:

      It’s all about costs and consequences, while screaming out lound how bad Americans are forcing their pork to the Taiwanese table, did any of KMTER care to mention that unfair trade practice would silly the relationship between Taiwan and US?

      Sure, voters do care why you turn a blind eye on beef but scream at pork like there is no tomorrow.

    • Gustav Says:

      nobody forces you to eat the US imported pork, or any pork or any meat for that matter.

  4. Chen Ya-hsiung Says:

    The recent pork issue was occured in Aug. 2020, when the Tsai Aministration unexpected ly claimed the lift of the ban of the Ractopamine pork imported from US. KMT would not scream about the issue in 2016.

    Nevertheless, the article is the best analysis with accuracy about the referendum I have ever read.

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