Campaign Trail: Crazy Huang rally in Taipei

We just went through the “Golden Weekend,” the last weekend before the election on Saturday. This was the last weekend for all the candidates and parties to make their case. I can no longer go out to the events in person, but I was able to watch several of them on TV or YouTube. My overall impression is that they were all pretty standard; there wasn’t much surprising. “Standard” is not an insult. Election culture has evolved over the years into what politicians collectively think is their most effective form. If it seems “normal” this year, that is because these practices have been judged effective in the past. Incumbents talked about their fantastic records, challengers bemoaned those miserable records and promised they would do much better, and popular term-limited asked voters for a third term by voting for their hand-picked successor. If you were listening to one of them, you were probably already a little sympathetic to that candidate, and these events probably made you a bit more certain about your vote. It was all very standard.

Well, not all of it. There were a few moments that were … um … unexpected?

The weirdest happened at Huang Shan-shan’s rally in Taipei City. This isn’t a particularly important story. It’s just a fun story and something I have never seen before.

Quick background: Huang Shan-shan served in the Taipei city council from 1998 to 2019, first representing the New Party and then the People First Party. In 2019, she accepted a position as Taipei City deputy mayor under Ko Wen-je. She is now running for the top job as his successor, though as an independent rather than as a TPP nominee. Her surprisingly strong candidacy has turned this into a three-way race. Most people (including me) believe she takes more votes from the KMT than the DPP, so one of the themes of this race has been KMT voices trying to convince blue sympathizers to come home to Chiang Wan-an or at least to vote strategically for him in order to stop the detested DPP from taking advantage of a divided blue camp vote. Huang has been telling people that she is much more qualified than Chiang and that they have the democratic freedom to vote as they wish rather than just mindlessly being manipulated by the big parties.

This was a solid event with a big, enthusiastic crowd, and she convinced me that her support is not going to evaporate. Some of it might drift over to Chiang, but it looks to me like most of her supporters will stay with her. I don’t expect her to fall below 20% when the votes are counted, and it wouldn’t shock me too much if she were in the upper 20s. A victory is a longshot, though not absolutely unthinkable. If she gets 22% or so, that could spell big trouble for Chiang. Six months ago, I would have told you that Chiang was cruising to an easy coronation and there was no way blue voters would do anything to derail the ascent of their new political great hope, but here we are. I guess back in those days I was young and foolish.

Anyway, that serious stuff isn’t the topic of this post. This post is about the end of the rally. After several other speakers, Huang finally came up to the stage in a heroic entrance and gave a pretty effective speech. The emcees had been pretty aggressive all night about breaking into people’s speeches to start a cheer whenever they paused to take a breath or for dramatic effect. Huang seemed to be in the middle of a point when they broke in to do a Frozen Garlic cheer. And then they announced that there was special mystery guest who came on stage and started speaking. I’m not entirely sure Huang had planned to end her speech then and there. She didn’t do a standard ending (“Thank you everyone!!”), and there wasn’t a long period for the audience to applaud Huang. When they announced the mystery guest, Huang was still holding her microphone up and seemed ready to go on with the next section of her speech. It really felt like they cut her off, which is … uh … not how you normally treat a person who wants to be the boss of the capital city. I mean, you might do that if the candidate is running for city council and the mystery guest is the president or premier who is on a tight schedule, but here??

So who was this very important mystery guest? It all happened so fast that I didn’t have time to think about it, but the media reports pointed out that obvious person was James Soong. Huang was a PFP mainstay for two decades, and Soong has been conspicuously absent from this campaign. If he came out to endorse her on the final weekend, that would certainly galvanize her blue sympathizers! But it wasn’t Soong. It was Yu Mei-jen 于美人. Yu is a political talk show host. She isn’t what I think of when you ask me about a game changing mystery guest. At some point, she was Soong’s spokesperson, but she never mentioned Soong and I don’t think most people think of her as Soong’s surrogate. Honestly, I think Huang Shan-shan is more famous and influential than Yu, so it was strange to just see Huang’s campaign push her aside and give the stage over to Yu. I can’t remember ever seeing anything like this before. Weird.

But wait, there’s more. Yu gave a fairly standard speech, making most of the same points that everyone else had already made. Again, it was reasonably effective.

[Aside: Yu made one little addition point that people usually skip over just to stimulate my nerdy political science neurons. When encouraging Huang’s voters not to abandon her, she told them that this wouldn’t be the last time they voted. If they always compromised and voted for their less favored option, politics would never get better. In the strategic voting formal models, one of the conditions is that voters must be short-term rational. That’s a fancy way of saying that you will only vote strategically if your priority is the outcome of the election immediately at hand. If you have some more important longer-term goal, such as party building or changing the political culture, you probably will not vote strategically. Yu was essentially encouraging voters not to be short-term rational. Defeating Chen Shih-chung isn’t the most important thing!]

When Yu got to the end of her speech, she said that, as a Taipei resident, she would cast her mayoral vote for Huang Shan-shan. Everyone cheered. Oh, then she had one more final thing. For city council, she would vote to save Wang Shi-chien 王世堅. And as we all gasped, she calmly turned and walked off the stage.

Wang Shi-chien is not exactly on this team. He is a long-time DPP Taipei city councilor who, how shall I say this, comes from the caricature wing of the party. He’s the kind of person who will say any and all incendiary and unsophisticated things that come to his mind. He’s an old-school type from back when the KMT labeled the DPP rank-and-file as a bunch of street rabble. During the party infighting during Chen Shui-bian presidency, he pugilistically labeled Bi-khim Hsiao (蕭美琴; Mandarin name: Hsiao Mei-chin) as “China Chin” 中國琴. And he was one of the first DPP people to turn against Ko Wen-je, calling him a monster well before the 2018 election. So Yu Mei-jen announcing she was going to vote for Wang Shih-chien was a bit like Barack Obama telling voters in Texas to vote for Ted Cruz and then doing a mic drop. What just happened? The TPP city council candidate in that district, Lin Chen-yu 林珍羽, was stunned. She was standing right behind Yu and Huang, and as Yu walked off Huang turned around to her – still holding a live microphone – and the shocked Lin asked her “What should I do??” 我怎麼辦?

Ok, I’ve really never seen anything like that.

After the event, everyone in the Huang campaign and TPP quickly explained that Yu was joking. Of course, everyone supports the TPP candidate, Lin Chen-yu. Ha ha ha, wasn’t that hilarious! [Yu didn’t make any statement.] On the internet, some people wondered whether Wang had some kind of under-the-table with Huang or the TPP, and Wang responded by screaming about the radical faction of the DPP and their internet army.

I don’t know what Yu was thinking, but I can speculate on the logic behind it. This looks to me like an old-fashioned campaign tactic that we used to see all the time in the 1990s: use someone controversial from the other side to put the spotlight on your candidate. As with all new candidates in a large SNTV district, Lin was a bit anonymous and probably struggling to break through in public consciousness. The first battle is always just to break out of the tangle of competitors into the public eye. With her shocking announcement, Yu turned the focus onto Lin, and now Huang supporters will more closely associate her with Huang and the TPP. More importantly, she now seems like an important person to consider when sympathizers decide which of the three or four acceptable city council candidates to vote for. I think the odds of Lin winning a seat just skyrocketed. But is there a cost to endorsing Wang? On the one hand, I don’t think Yu actually persuaded any of her followers to vote for him. On the other hand, more DPP voters might vote for him now that the focus is squarely on him. Since he has a solid base and was almost certainly going to win anyway, concentrating more DPP votes on Wang only hurts the third and fourth DPP nominees. On the third hand, Wang’s reaction played right into all the stereotypes the blue side loves to repeat about the DPP. See, even DPP politicians think they have an extremist internet army! Really, was a win, win, win, win for Yu, Huang, Lin, and the TPP.

Aren’t Taiwanese elections fun!

Update: I was discussing this post with the Mrs. Garlic last night, and she plucked a notion from the nether regions of her formidable brain that she had seen something about Wang saying he was planning to vote for Huang. We did some internet searching, and, sure enough, last week he did say that. Wang and Huang were both in the Taipei city council together, and they have known each other for twenty years. Wang said he owed Huang a debt of gratitude 欠黃人情. In 2015, Wang proposed a motion in the Taipei city council opposing the controversial Taipei Dome project, and Huang was an early an consistent supporter of this bill even while several of Wang’s DPP colleagues shied away under pressure from the developer. So even though he would publicly support Chen Shih-chung and have his organization work for Chen’s campaign, Wang said he would reserve his own personal vote for Huang.

This additional twist to the story makes Yu’s “endorsement” even better. In Wang’s account, Huang is depicted as an incorrupt public servant who sticks to her principals and is willing to work across party lines. All the other benefits probably still apply, except Wang might suffer a bit for failing to understand that it isn’t ok for a politician to ask other people to do something he isn’t willing to do himself. But Wang’s fate isn’t exactly Yu’s top priority.

Lesson One: When something doesn’t make sense, it’s probably because you aren’t seeing the whole story.

Lesson Two: Marry a brilliant spouse and bask in the reflected glow of her awesomeness.

One Response to “Campaign Trail: Crazy Huang rally in Taipei”

  1. Shelley Rigger Says:

    Four dimensional chess! Incredible!

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