campaign trail: KMT in Taichung

This is my favorite anecdote from the campaign so far. As a bonus, it’s also a pretty good encapsulation of the most important trend in this election cycle.

Lu Hsiu-yen is running for re-election as Taichung mayor. Four years ago, she was swept in as part of the Han wave, winning a shockingly high 57% of the vote. The partisan balance in Taichung is roughly the same as Taiwan overall, so it was stunning to see her get that many votes. Given her background, I didn’t expect much of her in office. Lu is a mainlander who rose to prominence as a TV news reporter. She won a seat in the provincial assembly in 1994 and moved to the legislature in 1998, relying heavily on support from the KMT’s Huang Fu-hsing (military veterans) party branch. Back in the old days, that kind of resume was a pretty good indicator of ideological extremism. She never jumped to the New Party or the People First Party, but she was always mentioned as a potential ally, and her popular support base overlapped pretty heavily with theirs. I expected she would govern as an ideologue and become unpopular pretty quickly. I probably should have paid more attention to the fact that she married into the Lai faction, one of the old Taichung city local patronage factions. In office, she has been sensitive to all sorts of constituencies, not just mainlander military veterans. Her polls weren’t very good at first, but since about the second year of her term she has had very high approval ratings.

This is an event from October 28 at Shalu District in the coastal area of the old Taichung County. There were no national KMT leaders speaking at this event. No Ma, no Chu, no Han. Johnny Chiang Chi-chen, the former KMT chair, spoke, but, in this context, he is a local figure. (In fact, Lu Hsiu-yen is the mayor today because she narrowly and unexpectedly beat Chiang in the primary four years ago.) Other speakers included a local legislator, a city council member, and both of Yen Ching-piao’s children (former legislator Yen Kuan-heng and current city council deputy speaker Yen Li-min). It was a very local cast.

Lu Hsiu-yen spoke almost entirely in Taiwanese. I think this might be the first time I have ever watched one of her rallies, and I didn’t know she was so eloquent in Taiwanese. She is framing herself as a competent, compassionate, and nurturing “Mama mayor,” who just wants her citizens to live happy and healthy lives. She emphasized her competence in office by talking extensively about building roads and making commute times easier for people. Near the end of her speech, she turned to air quality.

Air quality was one of the biggest issues in Taichung four years ago. There is an enormous coal-fired power plant on the coast, right near this event, and local residents are very sensitive about the notion that they have to suffer bad air so that people elsewhere in Taiwan (read: Taipei) can have abundant electricity. Lu has had a couple of high-profile disputes with the central government about how much coal this plant should be allowed to burn, and now she was going to take full credit for improvements. Taichung had never met the national standard for PMI 2.5, and neither had any other city in central or southern Taiwan, she said. However, under her leadership, this year Taichung met that standard for the first time! What an achievement!

And then she did something that elevated this from merely a good talking point to something much more powerful. It was not enough to just talk about the statistical data, she said. “People should be able to feel the difference. Look up at the sky,” she told the crowd. “Can you see the stars?” This was October, the worst time for air pollution, and you could never see stars in the past. “But now, can you see stars?” When they turned the cameras around, people were staring up at the sky, gazing at stars. It was one of those fantastic moments of political theater, where good government is suddenly demonstrated in a dramatic and concrete way. People might not remember exactly what she said, but they will probably remember staring up at the sky and thinking about how clean the air was (thanks to Mayor Lu). It was simply a brilliant rhetorical moment.

[A couple of skeptical points. Some might object that maybe the central government had something to do with promoting green energy and reducing air pollution. To that, I say good politicians always take credit for popular things. They certainly don’t habitually try to share the credit with people from the other party. More immediately, we don’t know if seeing stars was, in fact, rare in the past or whether they could actually see stars on this occasion. If they couldn’t, Lu had a ready answer. She told them that they had to look over there, since the bright stage lights would make it impossible to see stars if they looked in the wrong place. So, if they couldn’t see anything, it was probably user error. She projected absolute assurance that she had fixed the air! Fantastic!]

If we step back to look at the big picture, I think this anecdote is a pretty good illustration of what is happening this election cycle. The dominant trend this year is the power of incumbency. KMT mayors were swept into office all over Taiwan four years ago in the enormous KMT wave. That wave has long since subsided, and it turns out that Han Kuo-yu had not unlocked a powerful new formula for how to talk about the challenges Taiwanese voters face. Nevertheless, a big cohort of KMT mayors was left in office with an opportunity to govern. The dominant political cleavage has to do with attitudes toward China, which doesn’t necessarily have much to do with local politics. In the USA, there are clear differences in how Republicans and Democrats approach local politics since the two sides have ideological biases toward things like taxation, bureaucracy, and social welfare. However, there are not abstract KMT ways or DPP ways to pave the roads or build social housing. In purely local affairs, there is no reason that the KMT can’t perform just as well as the DPP. And apparently, the cohort of KMT mayors running for re-election this year has done a pretty good job. Most of them are pretty popular, and most seem on track to be re-elected.

However, it’s notable that Lu Hsiu-yen was not talking about national issues. I was very impressed with her performance at this rally, but she has not figured out a new way to talk about China. She was asking voters to give he another term because she has done a good job building roads and cleaning the air, not because they should punish President Tsai for refusing to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus. If this election is a referendum on her, Lu will win. If it is a referendum on Tsai, maybe not. KMT incumbents all over central and southern Taiwan seem to be making the same calculation and striving to keep this a purely local election.

One Response to “campaign trail: KMT in Taichung”

  1. 王宏恩專欄︱2022地方選舉投票率會比較低嗎? – 思想坦克|Voicettank Says:

    […] 上面這些因素,對於台灣目前的三大黨來說,形成一個「大家都想降低投票率」的一個神奇結構。對於國民黨來說,因為2018的大勝,大多數國民黨縣市長在爭取連任;而如同Frozen Garlic的分析,大多數國民黨的縣市長現任者並不採取直接攻擊蔡英文的策略,而是保持低調、多談論地方議題、或僅攻擊自己選區的對手,希望靠上一次的較多選票來連任成功,而盡量不要上升到統獨因素、藍綠對抗。 […]

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