Taipei 5 recall and Taichung 2 by-election

On Sunday, Taiwanese voters in two legislative districts will go to the polls. In Taipei 5, they will vote on whether or not to recall Freddy Lim 林昶佐. In Taichung 2, they recalled their legislator Chen Po-wei 陳柏惟 a few months ago, so on Sunday they will vote to choose the replacement.

I don’t have any special insights or information about either of these votes, but I think it’s worth thinking about the two districts. In 2020, both of these districts elected a legislator who was associated with the green camp but who was not a DPP member. It takes a special kind of district for that to happen. In solid blue districts, the green politician can’t win. In solid green districts, the DPP has an entrenched incumbent or a gaggle of ambitious members eager to take over an empty seat. In swing districts, the DPP usually isn’t willing to step aside for another party. However, under Tsai, the DPP has been willing to leave a few less promising seats open for allied smaller parties. Tsai seems to have a strong belief that the DPP should not seek to ruthlessly squash all smaller competitors, as was the common KMT and DPP practice. Instead, she seems willing to let them develop their organizations with the assumption that they will end up in a larger DPP-led coalition. Small party supporters overwhelmingly voted vote Tsai and, to a lesser extent, DPP district legislative candidates in 2020, so maybe this is smart strategy.

Moreover, sometimes the smaller party wins one of those “less promising” seats. This is not usually because the smaller parties have fantastic candidates who can build bigger coalitions than a DPP candidate could have. Rather, the district usually wasn’t all that hopeless to begin with. In 2016, the DPP designated any district in which their 2012 legislative candidate had gotten less than 42.5% as “difficult,” and it yielded some of these to smaller parties. However, there are lots of reasons a DPP candidate might do badly: it could be a very blue district, it might have a very popular KMT incumbent, a small party might split the vote, or it might just be a lousy DPP candidate. It’s also important to remember that districts change. Developments go up, and people move in and out.

At first glance, Taipei 5 doesn’t look like a classic “difficult” DPP district. The DPP’s strongest areas in Taipei are along the Tamsui River, where the city first grew up back in the Qing and Japanese areas. When the KMT showed up and needed to find spaces for all of its followers, the areas to the east were much emptier. And over the next few decades, the development was all to the east, and the old neighborhoods slid into decay. Wanhua 萬華 is the oldest part of Taipei, and it has been one of the DPP’s best areas in Taipei since before there even was a DPP. However, Wanhua has changed in the last two decades. Developers realized that it had some of the lowest land prices remaining in the core urban area, and Wanhua has seen a fair amount of new, expensive housing go up. The people moving into Wanhua have been a bit bluer than the old residents. More importantly, Wanhua is only half of Taipei 5. The other half is Zhongzheng 中正. The Qing bureaucrats didn’t want to get involved with the rivalry between (modern) Wanhua to the south and (modern) Datong to the north, so they established the government center in (modern) Zhongzheng in between those two towns. The Presidential Building, the Legislative Yuan, the Executive Yuan, and most of the central government ministries are in Zhongzheng. When the KMT arrived, many of their most important followers established residency in Zhongzheng. Juancun 眷村 is usually translated as military village, but in Zhongzheng the juancun were mostly filled with high- and middle-ranking civil servants and their dependents. Today, most of the juancun are gone, but Zhongzheng is still disproportionately filled with civil servants. While this is changing, civil servants are still more likely to vote blue than green.

The upshot is that Taipei 5 hasn’t been as blue as most of the rest of Taipei, but during the Chen and Ma eras it was more blue than green. It was the type of place that the DPP might win every now and then if everything went right. In 2012, the DPP nominated a city councilor which a few problems who could only manage 42.4% of the vote. And that was how it came to be designated a “difficult” district and left open for the NPP and Freddy Lim. However, when the partisan lines shifted after Ma’s turbulent 2nd term, Taipei 5 shifted from slightly blue to slightly green. Lim won in 2016 and 2020 by soaking up Tsai Ing-wen voters. I suspect most of the DPP city councilors would have also narrowly won this district.

If you take all 73 legislative districts and arrange them in order of Tsai Ing-wen’s vote share in the 2020 presidential elections from worst to best, Taipei 5 is #26. That is to say, if the KMT is going to win a legislative majority, it needs to win Taipei 5. If the DPP can win Taipei 5, it’s probably going to have a solid legislative majority. That has been the case in the last two elections. In 2020, Tsai beat Han in Taipei 5 by 13.9% (54.8% to 40.9%). However, Tsai ran ahead of most of the DPP candidates, and most of the KMT candidates ran ahead of Han. On average, Tsai was 7.9% better than green legislative candidates while Han was 3.2% worse. If the candidates in Taipei 5 were average, Freddy should have won by a narrow 2.8%. In fact, he won by 3.0%, almost exactly that margin.

If you were a KMT strategist looking to target someone for a recall, Freddy was an obvious candidate. Most importantly, of course, he is not a DPP member. The KMT has concentrated its fire on small party politicians who don’t have a solid local network to support them rather than directly challenging the DPP. (It feels a bit like the Cold War, when the USA and USSR fought their battles in places like Angola and Nicaragua rather than directly facing off against each other.) He’s also Freddy Lim, and blue politicians and voters still can’t fathom how they have lost to THIS GUY – twice!! That aside, it helps that this is a marginal district for the green side. There are enough blue voters in Taipei 5 to give the recall reasonable hope of success.

Taichung 2 is a very different district. It’s part of the old Taichung County, stretching along the southwest part of the old Taichung City from the coast nearly to the foothills of the Central Mountain Range between the Dadu Mountain (between the city and county) and the Dadu River (between Taichung and Changhua). The five townships[1] are the kinds of places where people think of themselves as living in small towns even though the rest of the world would think of them as outright urban. When I lived in Nantou, I went through Wufeng 霧峰 every time I went to Taichung. It was the most rural part of my trip, but even Wufeng had a significant downtown area. Historically, it is the home of the Wufeng Lin clan, one of the four or five great clans of the Japanese era.[2] The three towns in the middle of Taichung 2, Lungching 龍井, Dadu 大肚, and Wuri 烏日, form a county assembly district and are often thought of as a single group.[3] Some of my earliest experiences in Taiwan were in Lungching, which includes the neighborhood right outside Tunghai Unversity. This area also includes Chenggongling 成功嶺, a military installation that was traditionally the first place for draftees in central Taiwan. Nowadays, the area is changing quickly due to the presence of the Taichung high speed rail station. Between 2008 and 2020, the number of eligible voters in Taichung 2 increased from just under 250,00 to just under 300,000.[4]

Taichung 2 has long been the stomping grounds of Yen Ching-piao 顏清標. Yen got into politics winning a seat in the county assembly in early 1994. Later that year, he moved up to the provincial assembly. At the time, the media often referred to him as a leader of the Zongguanxian 縱貫線 Gang. In the 1990s, Taichung was littered with brightly lit “barber shops” (ie: brothels), and it was evident to anyone paying attention that organized crime was pretty profitable. This was the heyday of organized crime in KMT local politics, but Yen usually ran as an independent. Evidently, he was too toxic even for the KMT. After a stint back in the county assembly (where he was elected speaker), he moved to the legislature, where he served four terms. He was stripped of his seat for illegally using public money to visit hostess bars, but his son Yen Kuan-heng 顏寬恆won the by-election.  Yen’s daughter is now the city council vice speaker. Yen has an extensive network on the ground. I don’t know if he can still do widespread vote buying, as was common back when he broke into politics, but the rest of his operation feels like a throwback to the glory days of “black and gold politics.”

Nonetheless, Taichung 2 is changing. With the population group, new people are moving in who aren’t part of the old mobilization networks. Moreover, as with the rest of Taichung County, this is no longer a desert for the DPP. In 2020, Tsai Ing-wen won Taichung 2 by 20.4% (57.5% to 37.1%). In the ranking of the 73 districts by her vote share, Taichung 2 came in at #37, which makes it exactly the national median district. Since the DPP won a clear majority, you would expect this to be solidly in the DPP column. However, all things are not equal. The Yen family runs Taichung 2, and you can see the impact in the votes. The average KMT candidate ran 3.2% ahead of Han; Yen ran a whopping 11.7% ahead. He didn’t win, but he only lost by 2.2% rather than the 9.3% you would expect with generic candidates.

In a recall, fewer voters turn out, and Yen’s local organizational advantage should be magnified. Again, this was a logical place to try a recall vote, both because the incumbent was not a DPP member and because the special local circumstances gave them hopes of winning.

All this said, if I had to bet, I’d probably bet against the KMT in both races. In Taipei 5, there just doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm around the recall. The media coverage is pretty sparse, and it doesn’t feel like many people are furious at Freddy. I’m expecting that that yes and no votes will be close and that neither will hit the 25% turnout threshold. Taichung 2, which has no legal threshold, is much more intense. As Donovan Smith has pointed out, the grand break with the past in this by-election is that the media has suddenly overcome its collective fear of accusing the Yen family of corruption. Suddenly, the Yen family is facing a multitude of accusations. I suspect that the weight of all these charges will have an impact. Candidates like Yen are best when they can slip under the radar. However, this race has been the focus of most media coverage for the last two months. Even during the last days of the referendum campaign, the talk shows were more eager to talk about Yen and corruption than the imminent referendums. The Yen family has never been under such a harsh spotlight. Organizational votes involve a vote broker telling the voter that the candidate is one of us, a good guy who we can trust to look out for us. Suddenly, voters have a lot of competing information telling them that actually he isn’t such a good guy. I expect that this vote will be close, but I think I’d rather be in the DPP candidate’s shoes.

[1] Yes, I know they have technically been “districts” for a decade. I’m stuck in the past.

[2] We Nantou people have never forgiven the dastardly Lin clan for stealing so much land from the noble and honorable Hung clan of Tsaotun. Ironically, one of my wife’s aunts married into the Lin clan, and I never miss an opportunity remind them of their rapacious perfidy!

[3] Together, they are often referred to as dawulong 大烏龍, which can also loosely be translated as a “big fucking mess.” Sometimes Taiwan gives us strange and wonderful gifts.

[4] It was actually over 250,000 in 2008, but that includes nearly 10,000 voters from Dali who have since been shifted into Taichung 7.  

One Response to “Taipei 5 recall and Taichung 2 by-election”

  1. Rams Says:

    You’re right! KMT lost in both races, yes and no votes were not close in Taipei though. Enthusiasm gap between KMT and DPP supportors? Or most of TPP supportors voted yes?

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