Scenes from election eve

Last night was election eve. For the first time in all the years I have been in Taiwan, I did not go to any of the election eve rallies. Instead, I watched several of them on YouTube. If you know me at all, you will appreciate that I would rather have been there in person. Alas, we do what we can.

Election rallies are a terrible predictor of election outcomes. There might be a hint or two of something informative, but the candidate with the biggest or most raucous crowd isn’t necessarily the one who will win. Prediction isn’t the point. At any rate, the actual results will be out in a few hours, so my predictions would be superfluous. However, rallies can tell you something about how parties and candidates see the race and themselves.

The most surprising thing about all the election eve rallies was Ma Ying-jeou. He was missing. As far as I can tell, Ma went to Keelung in the morning, Miaoli in the afternoon, and then back to Keelung in the evening. Nothing against Keelung and Miaoli, but these are not exactly marquee races. Ma was doing second- and third-tier events, and he even went back to the same place twice on the last day. Didn’t he have any other cities or counties to go to? More shockingly, the events in Keelung were not speaking events. He was merely accompanying the KMT candidate to on visits to traditional markets and waving at commuters in traffic. (I don’t know what type of events they held in Miaoli.) No KMT candidates wanted to give him five minutes on stage to endorse them and criticize the DPP? This is the former president! He’s still the most important figure in the KMT deciding whether the party will or will not alter its ideological path! No one wanted him to stand next to him while he said (as he has repeatedly over the past few weeks) that a vote for the DPP is a vote for war and a vote for the KMT is a vote for peace?

The rallies were generally smaller and more subdued than in past years. There was nothing remotely like the Kaohsiung Han or Chen rallies four years ago. Partly this was because it was rainy all over northern Taiwan. But the organizers also planned for smaller events before they knew the weather would be lousy. In Taipei, the DPP reserved two locations. One was Ketagalan Blvd, in front of the presidential office. That’s where they traditionally do their election eve event. However, Ketagalan was silent last night. Instead, they held their event on Beiping E Rd, in front of Chen’s campaign headquarters. This is a much smaller space, and, while it was “full”, I’ve probably seen twice as many people jammed into that space in past events. The DPP wasn’t really even trying this year to mobilize enormous crowds. To a lesser extent, neither was the KMT.

The DPP rallies seemed pretty standard to me. Their four big guns (President Tsai, Premier Su, VP Lai, and former VP Chen) all appeared at four or five rallies, gave their standard stump speeches, and were relatively charismatic and persuasive. The most memorable part to me was watching them campaign in the rain. Tsai’s glasses were completely fogged up, and (bald) Su cracked up the crowd with a joke about his hair not getting wet.

Chen Shih-chung’s speech was better than normal, but that’s not a high bar. Whenever a candidate starts waxing poetic about “love,” I have to suppress my gag reflex. Over the years, I have come to understand “love” as code for “please ignore my ineffective policies, blatant corruption, and loathsome ideology.” Chen did briefly make an argument that I think he should have hammered more throughout the campaign. Chiang Wan-an, he said, looks new, shiny, and different, but the people behind him are the same old KMT party hacks who have disappointed you again and again.

When I switched over to Chiang’s rally, he was enthusiastically making Chen’s point. The lineup of speakers included former mayor Hau Lung-pin, former deputy mayor Ou Chin-teh, former New Taipei and Kaohsiung deputy mayor Lee Si-chuan, former Taipei Education Bureau chief (and current legislator) Lin I-hua, the head of the KMT legislative caucus Tseng Ming-tsung, Chiang himself, Chiang’s wife, and KMT party chair Eric Chu. That’s a whole slew of old KMT warhorses who don’t exactly exude new ideas. However, I don’t think many people watched the DPP rally and then the KMT rally, so probably not too many people were impressed by this juxtaposition the way I was. Overall, Chiang’s event was … fine. Not spectacular, not terrible, not too memorable. It was serviceable.

Eric Chu had a full schedule yesterday, but one place was noticeably absent from his itinerary. He did not speak in New Taipei City. Remember, Chu was New Taipei mayor from 2010 to 2018, and current mayor Hou Yu-ih was his deputy. You might expect that Chu would be an obvious person to show up and say lots of nice things about Hou. On the other hand, Chu and Hou are the two leading candidates for the KMT’s 2024 presidential nomination. Perhaps Hou did not want to share a stage with Chu, especially since this would make Chu appear as the senior partner in this relationship. Hou brushed off not inviting Chu by explaining that he wasn’t inviting any famous speakers. Instead, he would invite a lot of ordinary people to speak. I didn’t watch this event, but I imagine amateur hour wasn’t very slick. Maybe that’s what Hou wanted.

There was a story in the international media a few days ago about how Tsai was trying to recast this election as a referendum on her leadership and policies. The unstated assumption was that, if the KMT does well as many people expect, it would be because the people had voted no-confidence in her. I’m expecting to see multiple versions of that story tomorrow. There are two problems. First, neither the DPP nor the KMT are really pushing the referendum angle very hard. Of course the DPP is claiming that Tsai is doing a great job and the KMT is arguing that she has done a terrible job! They would hardly be competent political parties if they weren’t saying those things! But those aren’t their main arguments. Both sides generally talk about local politics ten minutes or more for every one they talk about national politics. Second and more importantly, think about the strategy here. Most people think the DPP is facing a challenge because the KMT is running a cohort of popular local incumbents. Meanwhile, a wealth of survey evidence shows that Taiwanese identity is much more prevalent than Chinese identity, the DPP is much more popular than the KMT, Tsai’s satisfaction ratings are pretty decent, and people generally agree with her approach to handling China. Changing the election frame from a local question to a national question would be an obvious advantage for Tsai and the DPP. However, that doesn’t mean the voters will accept this new frame. They might ignore the national appeals and continue to vote on local issues. That would be better understood as a rejection of the proposed frame, not a no-confidence vote in Tsai and her policies. [Ex: In the USA, if Republicans want to talk about crime and Democrats want to talk about health care, a Republican win probably means that voters focused more on crime rather than that they are now winning on health care.] I acknowledge that this seems like a tortured conclusion: if voters don’t support Tsai after she asked them to vote for her, it doesn’t actually mean they don’t support her. Nevertheless, I don’t think the referendum angle would be the right one.

The polls are about to close, so I’ll post this now. It will all be irrelevant in a few hours.

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