Archive for the ‘elections’ Category

Not much change?

July 17, 2022

It has been six months since I last posted anything on this blog. I apologize for my inactivity. It has been a difficult period in my personal life, and I just didn’t have the energy to work on this blog.

Lots of things have happened since January, so there has been plenty to write about. Covid has swept through Taiwan, Taiwan and the USA have started trade talks, Russia invaded Ukraine and the world has become more aware of Taiwan’s security challenges, KMT chair Eric Chu took a trip to the USA, there is no water crisis this year but now we are starting to worry about electricity, and on and on. The news never stops. However, if you step back and look at the wider picture, I’m not sure anything has fundamentally changed. President Tsai’s satisfaction ratings haven’t changed much, and neither has the relative popularity of the two major parties. The PRC’s ambitions for Taiwan probably haven’t changed that much, and neither has Taiwan’s willingness or ability to defend itself. The two parties have almost finished putting together their nominations for this year’s local elections, and none of the candidates are big surprises (with one glaring exception: the KMT in Taoyuan). The KMT is still in relatively good shape for this year’s elections, and they are still clueless about how to fight the 2024 national elections. VP William Lai still has the clearest path to the presidency. There are lots of new leaves and even a few new trees, but it’s still basically the same forest.

As always, I like to use the My Formosa polls as a standard reference. They ask the same questions over and over using the same methodology at regular intervals. They aren’t picking and choosing dramatic moments when someone will look better or worse, and they aren’t designing new questions each month to highlight someone’s successes or failures. This is a pretty good snapshot of how public opinion is evolving. There hasn’t been a lot of dramatic movement thus far during 2022.

President Tsai’s satisfaction ratings remain quite good. She’s had about 55% satisfied and 40% satisfied all year. There was a dip in May when the Covid outbreak seemed scariest, but her ratings rebounded in June. The Covid effect has turned out to be pretty small. About 20% of the population has been confirmed with Covid since January, but society has mostly shrugged it off. People haven’t been anywhere near as panicked as they were in the outbreak last summer. While last year’s outbreak was much smaller, it was scarier. The population was almost entirely unvaccinated, and about 1 of every 20 people who contracted the virus died. This year, nearly 90% of the population has gotten at least one shot, and only about 1 of every 500 cases has been fatal. Of those fatalities, nearly half have come from the small portion of the population that is still completely unvaccinated and a disproportionate number of the rest are from people who only got one shot. About 2/3 of the population has gotten three shots, and fatalities are quite low among that group. The public is no longer ecstatic about the government’s pandemic response, but it also isn’t particularly angry about it. Covid is still in the news, but it is usually the fifth or eighth most important news story of the day. There was a small but temporary effect in the May survey, but it doesn’t seem to have had a lasting effect. Covid is not going to be the dominant issue for the 2022 local elections unless there is a big change. In the meantime, President Tsai is still enjoying positive, stable job approval ratings.

If you want to look for some change in the data, perhaps there is something happening in party ID. It is possible that the KMT is losing popularity. The June poll was downright horrifying for the KMT. Only 9.5% expressed support for the KMT, barely more than the 8.9% for the TPP. We’ve seen plenty of lousy, sensationalist polls find that the TPP and KMT are even, but this is the first time I’ve seen them so close in a poll that I trust. This chart shows party ID aggregated into camps, and My Formosa always finds a few more people who said they support parties in a particular camp without naming which one, so the blue camp is noticeably higher than the TPP. Still, that is a dismal result for the KMT. Now, this is one poll, and the KMT’s party ID is quite different from previous months. It is possible that large numbers of previous KMT supporters were alienated by Chu’s trip to the USA or by nomination conflicts, but that seems a bit of a stretch to me. I’ll watch this number over the next few months, but I expect it to bounce back from the June data point. However, even ignoring the June number, if you squint your eyes a bit, you can see a slight downward trend in the blue camp’s popularity over the first half of 2022. It’s a small change (prior to June), but if I were a KMT strategist I’d feel a bit queasy looking at this overall trend.

Meanwhile, support for the DPP and green camp seems to be pretty stable. You might think that two years after the national election and six years into Tsai’s presidency, people would be getting tired of the status quo and itching for change. This is normally the time period in which the governing party is running out of steam and the energetic opposition party is gearing up to challenge for power. However, we don’t see much evidence of that this year. The DPP seems to be steadily maintaining its popularity, and the KMT isn’t showing many signs of rejuvenation.

As I have told several people this year, this might create an unusual context for local elections. In almost all of the recent election cycles, the government has been unpopular. This has meant that the opposition party has had a powerful appeal: send a message to the government and teach them a lesson! There was strong anti-government sentiment in 2018, 2014, 2005/6, and 1997. There was moderate anti-government sentiment in 2009/10 and 2001/2. I think the last time the government was actually popular might have been 1993/4. In 1993, I was a recent college graduate teaching English in a rural Nantou township and just starting to learn some of the basics of Taiwanese elections. That’s so long ago that the Central Election Commission website doesn’t even bother to report the 1993 results. Since many readers will not immediately think back to 1993/4, let me quickly recap. The DPP, which was still a fledgling party with no realistic hopes for taking power, made a big push in 1993 to exploit KMT factional rifts and win local power. It didn’t work. The KMT comfortably won most of the “contested” races. They even defeated the DPP incumbents in Changhua and Pingtung, the latter of whom was a charismatic bald guy who no one would ever hear of again. The next year, Taiwan held its first election for governor of Taiwan Province. The DPP had a fantastic nominee, the popular former Yilan County magistrate and widely respected Chen Ting-nan. The KMT could only put up a party hack with no electoral experience at all, a mainlander who didn’t speak any Taiwanese. All the energy was on the DPP side. Naturally, James Soong and the KMT won a decisive victory. At the same time, the KMT comfortably maintained its majority in the Provincial Assembly. The last time the government was popular in local elections, the opposition got swamped. I’m not predicting that the DPP will have a smashing victory in 2022. However, I do think it is worth remembering that the context might be different this time. We don’t really know what a popular government should expect from local elections in the current fully democratic regime.

At the beginning of this post, I said that the KMT seems to be in relatively good shape this year. It has a good roster of nominees. One of the effects of the 2018 KMT wave is that this year it has a lot of incumbents running for re-election. That is usually a big advantage. Hou Yu-ih in New Taipei and Lu Hsiu-yen in Taichung seem comfortably positioned to win their races. Those two are the traditional swing areas, so it’s a big deal if the KMT can safely put them in its column. The KMT should also be favored in Hsinchu County, Miaoli, Nantou, Hualien, Taitung, and, of course, Kinmen and Lienchiang. Even if they don’t win anything else, that’s a pretty solid result for a party that is showing such meager popularity in the national polls. And of course, they could certainly win a few other races. Taipei City might be hotly contested, but I’d still put my money on Wayne Chiang and the KMT to emerge victorious. And their incumbents give them a shot in greener-leaning areas such as Yilan, Changhua, Yunlin, Chiayi City, and Penghu. However, that latter group of races is where we might see the national partisan trends change some outcomes. Again, we don’t know how much it matters for local elections that people are mostly satisfied with the Tsai administration. But we can be fairly sure there won’t be a massive wave of voters angrily trying to send a message to the national government the way they did in 2018.

Taipei 5 and Taichung 2 results

January 9, 2022

Today’s vote is now complete. In Taipei 5, Freddy Lim 林昶佐 has survived the recall attempt. In the Taichung 2 by-election, the DPP’s Minorta Lin 林靜怡 has defeated the KMT’s Yen Kuan-heng 顏寬恆.

The vote in Taipei 5 was tighter than I expected. From the earliest results, it was pretty clear that the yes votes would outstrip the no votes. Yes ended up with 55.8% of the valid votes. The only question was whether they would pass the threshold of 25% of eligible voters. The KMT needed at least 58,756 yes votes, and they ended up getting 54,813, or 23.3% of eligible voters. 4,000 votes isn’t a comfortable cushion, and for the 45 minutes I thought they might have enough votes.

Interestingly, the main reason the KMT lost is that it didn’t turn out enough votes in Zhongzheng, which was supposed to be their stronger part of the electoral district. Given 55.8% yes votes, 45% turnout would have been enough to pass the threshold. It almost reached that target in Wanhua (43.2%), but it was quite a distance away in Zhongzheng (39.6%). When the election is that close to the threshold, you can point to a million factors and say that each one was decisive. For example, Taiwan has had a few domestic transmissions of Covid in the past few days, so maybe a handful of people didn’t want to risk voting. Or maybe the Sunday election (rather than the normal Saturday) depressed turnout.[1] More probably, the KMT couldn’t quite muster enough anger against Freddy. It was close, though.

The fact that it was so close is another example of how ridiculous the current recall law is. Freddy was elected with 81,853 votes two years ago. There is no evidence that a significant number of those people have changed their minds. In fact, 54,813 is far smaller than the 100,392 who voted for other candidates in that election. That isn’t what I would consider the picture of universal outrage. It is ludicrously easy to overturn an election.

At any rate, Freddy has survived and will be able to finish his term in the legislature.

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Turnout might also have been decisive in Taichung 2, but turnout there was sky high. By-elections usually see turnout in the 30s. 40% is high, though not unheard of. Turnout in Taichung 2 was a whopping 58.3%. That is unheard of. The 2008 legislative election had 58% turnout, and that was a national general election. 58% in a by-election is insane.

A low turnout in this by-election probably would have decisively favored the KMT. Tsai beat Han by 20% in this district in the presidential race, but that election had very high turnout. More specifically, it had extremely high turnout among young voters, who overwhelmingly voted against the KMT. However, young voters are famously inconsistent, and I did not expect many of those voters to show up in this by-election. In a low-turnout election, you expect the voters to be hard-core party supporters on both sides, people in the candidates’ mobilization networks, and only a few other people. The DPP probably has more partisans in this district, but Yen’s powerful local network should have given him a significant advantage. However, that third group was far bigger than could have been expected, and they might have swung the race.

Or maybe turnout wasn’t decisive. As I discussed in the previous post, perhaps the intense national media focus on Yen’s corruption had an impact on the effectiveness of his organizational network.

In 2020, Yen lost by a mere 2.3%. In this election, that margin doubled to 4.6%. That’s not a crushing victory for the DPP, but they were running an unfamiliar candidate with no previous electoral experience. (It seems she turned out to be pretty good at this game, though.) This wasn’t an indication of a KMT collapse, by any means. The KMT is still just about as strong as they were before. As with the recall vote a few months ago, it seems the electoral balance right now is just about the same as it was in January 2020. However, losing is more damaging to patronage-oriented politicians than to those who build their careers on ideas. The latter can shrug off losses and start preparing for the next fight. If you rely on money to motivate your machine, it helps to be in office to secure a steady source on income. Moreover, this campaign pointed out several places for the judicial system to attack the Yen family. The election is over, but the inquiries might continue. Now Yen will have to resist those inquiries as a private citizen, not as a national legislator.[2] Old-school factional politics have been on the decline for a couple decades, and the Yen family’s defeat is one more symbolic step in that process.

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Today’s votes mark the end of the recalls and by-elections, at least for a while. The recall of Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu sparked a series of KMT-initiated “revenge” recalls.

  • Kaohsiung city councilor Huang Chieh: recall failed
  • Taoyuan city councilor Wang Hao-yu: recall succeeded
  • Taichung 2 legislator Chen Po-wei: recall succeeded but DPP won by-election
  • Taipei 5 legislator Freddy Lim: recall failed

At the end of this process, the KMT has one clear victory. They (barely) got Wang Hao-yu. Not coincidentally, his electoral district is the bluest of the four. This isn’t a huge reward for all that effort. The KMT has been pursuing a strategy of fighting like hell at the behest of the deep blue wing of their party. Chao Shao-kang has been calling on them to be “the fighting blue” 戰鬥藍, and the Johnny Chiang, Eric Chu, and the rest of the nominal party leaders have obediently followed him. This combative posturing didn’t win the referendums, and it hasn’t produced a great track record in the recalls. The KMT base likes it, but the base is small. The broad masses that the KMT needs to attract don’t seem energized by the KMT’s campaign of resistance.

Perhaps the main reason the “fighting blue” strategy isn’t working is that the general population isn’t as dissatisfied with the DPP’s performance in office as the deep blue believes. President Tsai had a 54.6% satisfaction rating in the December My-Formosa poll, and being 12.6 points above water is pretty darn good. It has been a long time since a sitting president has been this popular in the middle of a term. I was trying to remember the last time a president who wasn’t unpopular going into a round of local elections. It has been a long time.

  • 2018 Tsai: quite unpopular
  • 2014 Ma: extremely unpopular; massive protests
  • 2009-2010 Ma: mildly unpopular
  • 2005-2006 Chen: very unpopular; massive protests
  • 2001-2002 Chen: maybe mildly popular??
  • 1997-1998 Lee popularity was tarnishing; large protests
  • 1993-1994 Lee: popular!

Tsai is probably the most popular president going into local elections in nearly 30 years. We really don’t know what this will mean, since the last time this happened Taiwan was still in the early years of the democratic system. DPP chair Hsu Hsin-liang 許信良 went into the 1993 elections asking voters to give the DPP a mandate by surrounding the central government 以地方包圍中央; since Taiwan had never had a national election and polling was still developing, we didn’t know if that was a reasonable demand. Hsu was sorely disappointed; the KMT did really well in 1993 and 1994. But that was such a different world; it’s probably not a great precedent to understand what just happened or what will unfold over the next year.

Tsai’s popularity has almost certainly been the crucial factor in the recent referendums, recalls, and by-elections. The fightin’ KMT is behaving as an angry electorate wants to send her a message. That is usually a good assumption. In normal years, there probably would have been enough anger to pass the referendums, recall Freddy Lim and Chen Po-wei, and replace them with KMT members. This hasn’t been a normal year, though. Tsai’s resurgence in 2019 was one of the most astounding political reversals I have ever seen. Her ability to maintain that popularity over the past two years has been only slightly less impressive.

The KMT has a lot of advantages going into the local elections. They have lots of popular candidates, and the open seats are pretty favorable. If they can make this a calm election about individual candidates and local issues, they should do pretty well. The worst thing they could do is keep using the fightin’ blue strategy, screaming about how terrible the DPP is and the need to send President Tsai a message. Unless her popularity suddenly tanks, they might find once again that, if it is a choice between Tsai and the KMT, voters still prefer Tsai.


[1] If you want to make those arguments, you have to explain the high turnout in Taichung 2.

[2] His sister is still the deputy speaker of the Taichung city council, so the family isn’t entirely defenseless.

Taipei 5 recall and Taichung 2 by-election

January 7, 2022

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.  

Rethinking referendums

December 21, 2021

What have we learned from this round of referendums?

The most surprising outcome was that votes for the four ballot items were essentially identical. The polls suggested that many voters saw differences among the four items, and the parties certainly acted like they expected differences. However, the people who voted seem to have almost all voted the same way on all four. I didn’t see this coming, and it forces me to rethink some previous ideas about referendums in Taiwan.

I had thought that the strongest argument for separating referendums from general elections was to create a richer information environment for the referendums. Without candidates to soak up everyone’s energy and attention, voters have more opportunity to learn about the issues involved in the referendums. With more information, they might be less prone to make decisions based on superficial cues. And indeed, there was a pretty robust discussion about the details and wider implications of each referendum. However, with more information, I expected some voters to decide that some items were reasonable while others were not. I did not expect everyone to become highly informed and for half the people to reach one conclusion and the other half to reach exactly the opposite conclusion. One might think that the richer information environment did not matter at all. People voted with their party, just as they would have if the referendums had been combined with a general election.

However, I just cannot believe that all this discussion and all this information did not matter. It may not have mattered in the way I expected, but it must have mattered in some way.

One way it could have mattered was in convincing partisans to vote with their party. The November My-Formosa poll showed that significant numbers of partisans planned to vote against their party’s position on all four items. Another sizable group (though not quite as large) of partisans weren’t sure about how to vote. These voters seem to have either changed their minds and voted with the party or just stayed home. Voters tend to listen to trusted sources. For partisan voters, this often means partisan media or the parties themselves. The information these voters got could certainly have played an important role in aligning voting decisions with their preferred party’s positions.

 % of green identifiers% of blue identifiers
 against or unsure aboutagainst or unsure about
 green positionblue position
   
R17 4NPP19.230.7
R18 pork30.814.2
R19 same day41.534.2
R20 LNG/reef35.545.3

Another possibility is that the campaigns taught voters that what initially looked like a very easy decision was actually very complex. It is easy to imagine many voters two months ago saying, “of course I want to protect the reefs” or “of course I want safe food.” At the time, there wasn’t really a reason to doubt these positions. No one had made a serious argument against them. On pork, for example, the DPP government opened up the pork market last August, but there wasn’t a big information campaign to persuade people that ractopamine is safe. In the referendum campaign, the parties had to face these issues head on and make serious arguments about each topic. These arguments were often hard to follow. For example, in the 4NPP debate, the sides cited numerous technical reports on geology, nuclear waste disposal, energy prices, the status of the construction at different time points, safety inspections, and so on. To make a fully informed decision on the four items, you needed to be an expert in nuclear physics, climate science, oceanography, food science, international trade, political institutions, and a half dozen other fields. It is possible that the rich information environment taught people that these were difficult choices. Without an obvious right answer, I can imagine large numbers of people deciding to just stay home. This seems especially likely for nonpartisans. The partisans could trust that their party’s experts had looked at all facets of the problem and had come to a good conclusion. They could also ignore the difficulty and go out to vote to support their party (or oppose those jerks in the other party). Nonpartisans overwhelmed by the complexity of the choice didn’t have any easy solutions. And if you don’t know what the right answer is, there isn’t much incentive to go vote to express your opinion or to prevent the wrong choice from being made.

I’m not unhappy that all four items failed. Part of this is that I have my own partisan preferences. However, I also have a general skepticism toward referendums. When in doubt, I always vote no. It should be difficult to pass laws, and it should be prohibitively difficult to pass laws when you can’t figure out what you are passing. Moreover, Taiwan’s referendum law stipulates that referendum results can’t be overturned for two years. If you make a mistake, you are stuck with it.

What about the small parties?

The small parties didn’t play much of a role in this referendum. The NPP and TPP both supported some but not all of the items, but their endorsements don’t seem to have had much of an impact at all.

I guess it’s not all that surprising. Referendums are a majoritarian institution. When you need a majority of votes, the small parties are never going to play much more than a supporting role. Still, it’s surprising they didn’t even play a supporting role. They were basically absent.

The most shocking absence wasn’t the TPP or NPP, though. It was the Green Party. Where the hell was the Green Party?!? Two of these referendums were right in their wheelhouse, and pork should also arguably be one of their best issues. How is it possible they weren’t out on the front lines every day screaming about their ideals? Honestly, I don’t know what the environmental position on R20 (reef/LNG). It’s complicated. But this is precisely the kind of thing that an environmentally-centered party should take the lead on. If the Green Party doesn’t have an opinion on environmental questions, what good are they?

What should we expect from future referendums?

R19 failed, so future referendums will be held in August of odd-numbered years. This creates two very different environments. The 2025 referendums will be held a year and half after the 2024 national elections and over a year before the 2026 local elections. That’s a relatively dead time in the electoral calendar, and the referendums will be the biggest story for a couple of months. In contrast, the 2023 referendums will be held just as the 2024 presidential race is heating up. In August 2023, the two big parties will probably already have nominated their presidential candidates and most of their legislative candidates. Smaller parties will also be making their decisions about how to position themselves. The 2023 referendums are going to be completely subsumed by the upcoming national elections. They will almost certainly be seen as a dress rehearsal for the big clash. There will be very little oxygen for nonpartisan discussion of the various referendum issues.

Taiwan desperately needs to revise its electoral calendar. The easiest thing would be to shorten one presidential term[1] so that the president is inaugurated in early February. All elections and referendums could be held in late November or early December, and there would be a full year between each vote. I’m not holding my breath, though. I think we will have two very different referendum experiences depending on which part of the election cycle it is.

All four items failed, and both parties missed the threshold by about a million votes. One thing we learned from this experience is that you can’t just assume that people will turn out to vote for a referendum. It may simply be easier to mobilize people to vote for a candidate. In 2018, the concurrent general elections meant that the referendum threshold was not a problem, and seven items passed. This includes a few that I have almost no impression of. I learned very little about R7, R8, or R16. My biggest fear was that activists and special interests of all stripes would try to imitate these, putting their pet issue on the ballot and hoping it sails through without much consideration. I’m relieved that R19 didn’t pass, so the threshold will remain an obstacle. It costs money to launch a petition drive, so hopefully only efforts that can withstand public scrutiny and inspire intense, broad public support will bother. Free rides are likely to be more of a problem in the referendums five months before the presidential election because the parties and the general public will be treating them as a dress rehearsal for and bellwether of the upcoming (more important) contest. It will be much easier to get over the threshold, so that is where you might see more efforts by special interests to piggyback on partisan emotions to pass their pet law (which can’t be undone for two years – ka-ching!).

Why do we have referendums?

Ko Wen-je, Hou You-yi, and a few others complained that the two big parties were perverting the referendums by turning them into ordinary party-based election campaigns. They weren’t having rational[2] debates about the issues. Instead, they were just telling people to vote all four yes or all four no.

I don’t have a lot of patience for this complaint. If Ko and Hou sincerely believed this point, they are political simpletons. First, there was a lot of good debate. Maybe they weren’t paying attention, but I heard a lot of people delving into the nitty-gritty of complicated policies. Second, of course the main political parties are going to take a position! These are significant policies, and they are tightly related to many of the parties’ other goals. Ignoring the referendums would be irresponsible.

Third, these referendums were politicized right from the start. The KMT directly sponsored two and enthusiastically supported the other two. They didn’t do that because they were pursuing some apolitical goal. The primary purpose was to inflict political damage on the DPP government. They wanted to give the DPP a black eye and obstruct its policy agenda. The KMT directly or indirectly sponsored all four, so of course they asked voters to vote yes on all four. By the exact same logic, the DPP naturally opposed all four. In a system dominated by two strong parties, this is how almost all referendums will inevitably unfold. If it matters, it will be partisan and politicized. The calm, rational, detached, apolitical debate that Ko, Hou, and others are imagining is just never going to happen.

One of the interesting things in this campaign was that both the KMT and DPP seemed to understand referendums in the same way. Americans often talk about them as a way to go around the parties to make public policies that the parties can’t because of their conflicts of interest. That wasn’t how the KMT and DPP talked about them. Rather, they seemed to understand referendums as a mechanism to restrain a government that has gone too far. Referendums are a roadblock for elected politicians, not a detour around them. As I wrote in a previous post, this is how Sun Yat-sen understood referendums a hundred years ago, and that thinking seems to have trickled down to contemporary politicians. It is significant that three items were attempts to undo a current government policy (and the fourth was an attempt to reverse the longstanding DPP anti-nuclear policy).

Of course, in a democratic polity there exists another mechanism to discourage government overreach: general elections. I generally think that referendums are a lousy way to make public policy. I also think they ask too much of the voters. Representative democracy allows voters to make a fairly simple decision. This set of politicians has a vision for the society based on a set of ideas about what is desirable and possible. That set of politician has a different vision based on a different set of values. Voters don’t need to figure out all the details. They can choose a vision and a set of values and let the elected politicians figure out how to make all the complicated tradeoffs necessary to pursue that vision. Representative democracy works because voters don’t need to understand everything. Referendums demand much more from voters. It might be great in theory, but it isn’t practical to expect each voter to understand the details of every policy. Referendums simply produce decisions by uniformed policymakers.

However, I will suggest two constructive roles for Taiwan’s referendum system. First, in Taiwan’s strange electoral calendar, the 34-month gap between the national elections and local elections is just too long. It’s always difficult to be in the opposition, and it is especially difficult if you don’t have an outlet for your frustrations. Putting the referendums in the middle of that long gap provides that outlet. The opposition can put their energy into referendums that might show the government is out of touch with public opinion and should be restrained. It is important to have an institutional mechanism for opposition to keep it inside the system.

Second, Taiwan’s system is fairly majoritarian, and the party system is grounded in national identity. As you are doubtless aware, the national identity trends have turned pretty decisively against the KMT. There is a danger that the KMT might be turned into a permanent minority, too small to win but too big for a different challenger to emerge. And with this, there is a danger that the DPP will become entrenched in power, unconcerned with electoral pressures because the KMT is unacceptable to most of the population. Japan managed to get through most of the second half of the 20th century with this sort of dominant party system, but an entrenched government with no credible opposition is not generally a recipe for democratic stability. If the KMT insists on remaining unelectable, perhaps referendums can keep the DPP afraid of the voters. One can imagine unhappy voters approving KMT-sponsored referendums in order to show their displeasure and punish the government without facing the risk of actually putting the KMT in power.

All in all, I’d prefer to have elections every 24 months with two (or more) viable parties and no referendums at all.


[1] If it is politically impossible to shorten the current term because Tsai wants her full eight years or the upcoming term because Lai, Chu, Hou, Ko, and others think they will be the president, then change the 2032 inauguration date.

[2] I cringe at the term “rational” in Taiwanese political discourse. It seems to mean “arguments that I agree with.”

A KMT debacle

December 18, 2021

The results are in, and all four referendums have failed. This is a spectacular defeat for the KMT.

 yesYes%noNo%Yes/eligible
.     
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.

Election eve KMT madness

December 18, 2021

I thought I’d write this while waiting for them to start counting votes. By the time you see this, it will either be prescient or comically misguided.

I was unable to go to any referendum-eve events last night. I can’t remember the last time I was physically present in Taiwan and didn’t go to an event on the last night. Maybe 1992 or 1993? Some genius at the Election Study Center decided to schedule a conference (on a topic completely unrelated to the referendums) early Friday and Saturday mornings, so a late Friday night just wasn’t going to happen for me.

I did watch the KMT and DPP rallies on YouTube. The DPP rally on the street in front of the presidential office was pretty standard. They had a nice crowd, though I’ve seen bigger. They didn’t need to block off traffic on the circle around the gate, but the area in front of that was pretty full. It was probably 4000-8000 people. They had all the standard speakers who said all the standard things. It was pretty much exactly what I expected.

The KMT rally, though, was a different matter. This was perhaps one of the worst events I have ever seen. I wish I had been there in person so that I could be surer of this, but what I saw on YouTube was pretty disastrous.

They never turned the camera around, so I never saw the crowd. I have no idea how big it was or how enthusiastic it was. The event was at the CKS Memorial. I have been told that it wasn’t inside the plaza. Rather it was in the space in front of the main gate. That’s enough space for 2000-3000 people, but not much more. From there, they could probably see the DPP crowd, which had to be a little disheartening if my guesses about crowd size are correct.

At most rallies, there are five to ten speakers who each speak for 10-30 minutes. A this KMT rally, they didn’t do that at all. They had dozens of speakers, but each on only got 30-120 seconds. Everyone got up there, proclaimed their support for the four referendums, added one or two other ideas, and then they were done. There was no time at all for subtlety, nuance, or logical argument. Instead, they enthusiastically screamed their support as quickly as possible. It was exhausting. A good rally needs emotional peaks and valleys. You need to turn the volume up and down. At this rally, they kept the emotions at full blast the entire time.

This event had one goal: the KMT wanted to display party unity. They brought up every city councilor and every legislator (the only legislator I noticed as missing was Wu Szu-huai 吳斯懷), one-by-one, in an effort to show that the entire KMT is all on the same page. Apparently, they were pretty spooked by the impression that they are internally divided since they felt they needed to prove their unity. Unified parties don’t need to send this message; everyone just assumes they are all working together. However, a series of statements from several high-profile KMT mayors questioning the party’s actions and positions on the referendums might be having an effect on KMT supporters. So they paraded all their office-holders out to try to show a unified front.

One problem is that they don’t really have a unified message. The DPP keeps hammering the same reasons why you should vote against the four items. The KMT isn’t quite as sure why they are supporting them. For example, several of them screamed that they wanted to teach President Tsai a lesson. Then Wayne Chiang 蔣萬安 got up and told the audience that referendums should not be used to try to teach anyone a lesson.

Another problem was that they let the most extreme voices in the party speak more loudly. Legislator Yeh Yu-lan 葉毓蘭 got a bit more time than other legislators. Yeh is an unpopular ideologue, and the DPP has featured her in its ads as someone they want voters to think about when they are making their decisions. Former party chair Hung Hsiu-chu 洪秀柱 got a lot of time, and when her time was up, she told the crowd that she was just going to keep talking until she was finished. Her speech, in which she imagined talking to the ghosts of several deceased and still living DPP politicians, might have seemed playful to a KMT fanatic, but it would have struck more neutral voters as inappropriate and DPP supporters as downright offensive.

The biggest problem was that the display of unity actually highlighted party disunity. After going through all the city councilors and legislators they got to the mayors. Aah finally, the main event! Now is when you hammer home the message of unity! Since mayors need to stay in their home areas, they had a short video message from each one saying how they strongly supported a “yes” vote on all four referendums. The went through eleven nearly identical videos, teaching us what to expect from each one. Then suddenly, the next video didn’t show a mayor talking directly to the camera in a specially recorded message. Instead, Yilan mayor Lin Tzu-miao 林姿妙 was shown campaigning on the street in her sound truck. And then Taichung mayor Lu Hsiu-yan 盧秀燕 was shown responding to questions in the Taichung city council. Hou You-yi 侯友宜 was shown at an event sitting next to Eric Chu 朱立倫, and the TV news crawl said “Eric Chu says ‘agree with all four.’” The three of them were clearly talking about pork, though it is not clear whether this was recent footage. Lin Tzu-miao’s footage seemed to be from the 2018 election. More importantly, they had clearly not agreed to film a short video for this event, and they were clearly not supporting all four referendums. Why in the world was the KMT showing them actively not being team players? If you knew beforehand that they weren’t going to cooperate, why frame the entire event as a show of party unity? What were they thinking?

During the second half of the rally, the emcees started teasing us about a very special guest who was going to show up at 9:45, so be sure to stay right here! Again and again, they promised us someone really big. Former President Ma and party chair Chu both gave (forgettable) speeches, so it wasn’t them. I wondered whether they would bring out Hou You-yi, after all. Wouldn’t that be a surprise! Nah, that couldn’t be it. The only other person I could think of was presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu. Hey, where has he been? He has been completely absent from this campaign, hasn’t he. It would be silly to save him until the last 15 minutes of the campaign, but who else is there? After all, the theme is party unity, so they wouldn’t want to make me think of another prominent party leader who wasn’t on board, would they? Well, whoever it was, it was definitely a very important person.

At the end of Chu’s speech, he announced he was going to sing a song. Did you know that Chu can sing? No? That’s because it turns out he is a terrible singer. He didn’t know when to start the lyrics, he couldn’t remember the lyrics, and he could barely carry a tune. Someone tried to give him a sheet of paper with song lyrics, but he brushed them away. Other people started singing, and Chu spent the rest of the song looking at his phone. It was painful to watch. Again, if you aren’t a good singer, why are you choosing this moment to show off your ineptitude? Maybe he wanted to imitate Han Kuo-yu’s rallies. Han and his adoring fans always loved singing a few songs. Hey, maybe Han is going to come onstage next!

At 9:45, with 15 minutes left in the campaign, the KMT finally announced the last mystery guest. This is the last voice they wanted you to hear, the final message of the campaign. It was … a middle-aged pop star? I don’t know much about pop music so I had no idea who she was, though my wife knew Tsai Ching (?) right away. She made a few jokes about getting paid (or not getting paid?), barely said anything remotely political, and then sang two songs. The last one was Silent Night. It was a very weird way to end a political rally, much less an entire campaign.

On the eve of the referendums

December 16, 2021

With only a few days left until voting on the referendums, I have a few comments about the overall campaigns and how I will interpret the results.

The referendum campaigns have been very top-down. What I mean by that is that almost everything has been driven by the same few people. Nearly everything has featured Tsai Ing-wen, Su Tseng-chang, Eric Chu, and maybe Johnny Chiang. Other politicians have joined in, but they haven’t been nearly as engaged as they would be in a general election campaign. If one of the headliners isn’t organizing an event, no event is organized. Those headliners are working hard. At a recent event, Su said it was his 65th event this campaign. But no one else is working quite as desperately.

This is something we see in the media as well. In a general election, the last month is absolute saturation of election news and commentary. If you read or watch any news, nearly everything will be about the election. It hasn’t been that way this year. The newspapers usually have a story or maybe even half a page, but it is buried on page 3 or 4. Likewise, the TV news will mention the referendums, but it usually isn’t the top story and it isn’t very long or in-depth. But what really surprises me are the political talk shows. Several times over the past month, I have tried to see how they are talking about the referendums only to find that just one or two of them – sometimes none at all – are talking about the referendums. They seem to think that viewers are more interested in other topics. The green stations more likely to be talking about the Taichung by-election in three weeks than the national referendums this weekend, and the blue stations seem mostly disenguaged.

The visual campaign is almost entirely absent. There are almost no flags or billboards for this campaign.

I’m sure almost everyone is aware that there will be voting this weekend, but there just isn’t the same sense of urgency that we normally experience. I just don’t get the feeling that most people are desperate to express their opinion in the same way that they might demand to register their support or opposition to Han Kuo-yu or Lin Chia-lung. The lack of a specific individual to personalize the choice makes a difference, I think. Abstract things such as pork chop safety and LNG transportation are just not as easy to get emotional about as a concrete hero or villain.

I’m expecting a turnout to be fairly low. I think the general expectation is that it will be in the mid- or high-50s. I suspect it might not even break 50%.

I haven’t been able to go to a KMT event this year, but I have watched a few on YouTube and Facebook. The first thing you notice is how unprofessional they seem. Several of them haven’t had a proper stage with a standard background. Instead, all the events I’ve seen have been on a carnival truck with flashing neon lights. You typically see these portable stages at night markets and someone is singing, selling medicine, or having some other performance. Moreover, the cameras have been terrible. There is usually only one camera that doesn’t move at all. Some of them seem to have been shot on someone’s cell phone. I had to turn off one video posted on Eric Chu’s FB page because it there was just too much static and interference.  Look, I know the KMT wants to scream about its horrible financial straits, but political communication is the core function of the party. Instead of wasting money on expensive local networks, setting up an office in DC, or talking about putting together a bounty fund for people who expose DPP corruption, maybe they should prioritize actually talking to voters. After all, they do get a significant state subsidy precisely for these kinds of expenses. A proper camera, camera operator, and sound system isn’t that expensive.

Most of the speeches I saw were more emotional than substantive. That is, they weren’t calmly making a step-by-step case for why it was reasonable to move the LNG unloading station from Taoyuan to New Taipei, for example. Maybe one of every three speakers made any detailed points. For the most part, they were just angrily screaming about how awful the DPP is.

The most common talking point was not about the referendums at all. Instead, KMT speakers repeatedly railed about the DPP’s internet army. They assert, almost as an article of faith, that the DPP uses state funds to cultivate an online army on social media, YouTube, blogs, and so on. This is a point straight out of the Han Kuo-yu presidential campaign, and the sense of victimization seems to be getting deeper. It also fits in with Ma Ying-jeou’s recent argument that Taiwan is becoming an illiberal democracy.[1]

I find these statements to be distressing for a few reasons. First, they are flat-out ridiculous. Taiwan has a healthy, free, and fair democratic system. Second, I’d like the KMT be a confident party focused on the biggest challenges facing society rather than inwardly concentrating on imagined grievances. This might be red meat for their deepest, most loyal supporters, but it doesn’t help them appeal to ordinary voters who don’t share those grievances. Third, I think this obsession with an internet army is how the KMT is rationalizing its problems attracting young voters. They tell themselves young voters don’t like the KMT because they get their information from the internet, and the DPP is unfairly manipulating that information. This allows them to avoid the possibility that young people simply don’t like the KMT and are producing anti-KMT content to express their own opinions. We know that politics in Taiwan are organized by identity, and about 80% of young voters identify as exclusively Taiwanese. Should it be surprising that they are repelled by a party that insists on retaining the name “Chinese Nationalist Party”?

In the TV debates sponsored by the CEC, the speakers representing the “yes” side have generally refrained from calling on voters to cast a no-confidence vote against President Tsai. Her approval ratings are pretty good, so that probably wouldn’t be a great argument with neutral voters. However, in their own events, the KMT is absolutely asking for voters to vote “yes” in order to punish Tsai. I heard this appeal far more often than I heard them saying voters should vote “yes” to protect the algal reefs, because nuclear power is safe, or even because ractopamine is dangerous. When they are preaching to their own choir, the specific issues aren’t as important as partisan passions.

One of the most important developments of the past week involves New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi. Hou is running for re-election next year, and he is popular enough that many people think he is the front-runner to be the KMT presidential candidate in 2024. One reason that Hou is so popular is that he has repeatedly distanced himself from unpopular KMT people and positions and has instead positioned himself as a less ideological politician. During the 2020 presidential campaign, he mostly kept his head down and refused to energetically campaign for Han Kuo-yu, saying he needed to focus on New Taipei city local government issues. Likewise, he hasn’t been actively promoting KMT positions in this referendum campaign. About six weeks ago, he expressed concerns about the 4th nuclear power plant, and this forced the KMT to soften its position on that referendum. About a week ago, he posed a long statement on his Facebook page decrying how the referendum campaign had become like a partisan election campaign instead of a rational discussion in which every citizen could freely make their own choice. Effectively, he gave his supporters his permission to ignore the KMT’s entreaties to cast four “yes” votes or even to just stay home. Hou is the most popular KMT politician, and he is declining to actively support the KMT position. It is unclear how important this will be, but it can’t be great for the KMT.

The polls suggest that the nuclear referendum is likely to fail and the pork referendum is likely to pass. The other two are closer to toss-ups. When I think about those polls and my turnout expectations, I think a range of outcomes – everything from three passing to all four failing – are in play.

Suppose the pork referendum passes. How should we interpret this? Specifically, would it represent a no-confidence vote for President Tsai and the DPP government?

I would not interpret that result as a no-confidence vote, though I can see why people would. It would be a defeat for her policy agenda, but it would not be a sign that the DPP has lost the support of the average voter or that the DPP was headed for electoral defeats in 2022 and 2024. Unless the defeat came by an enormous margin, losing the pork referendum would not make Tsai a lame duck or necessitate Su’s resignation.

In both KMT and DPP events, speakers have framed this choice as one of trust in the current administration. DPP speakers have talked about all the wonderful things the government has done, reminded listeners that the country is on the right track, and argued that the KMT is using the referendums to create chaos and disruption. They argue, “you like us, you think we’re doing a good job, and we are trustworthy, so trust us to continue on this right track by rejecting the KMT referendums.” Meanwhile, the KMT argues that the Tsai government is doing a terrible job and is running democracy into the ground, so vote “yes” to deal her a political defeat and slow her down.”

However, these are the messages the parties are sending out to their loyal supporters. These voters have strong partisan preferences, so the two parties are trying to remind them that this is a partisan choice and they should vote the party position. But remember, the DPP is a much more popular party than the KMT. The KMT can’t win by relying solely on its core supporters. If a referendum passes, it will be because non-partisans voted for it. In fact, the polls show that a clear majority of non-identifiers favor barring ractopamine pork.

However, there is not much evidence that these non-identifiers would vote for the referendum in order to punish Tsai. Tsai’s approval ratings are pretty good right now precisely because lots of non-identifiers think she is doing a good job. This is not like 2018, when the DPP was dealt a heavy political blow causing Tsai to resign as party chair, Lai to resign as premier, and then Lai to feel emboldened to challenge Tsai for the 2020 presidential nomination. Tsai’s approval rating then was about half of what it is now. That was a vote in which a disgruntled electorate sent her a message. What we see in this year’s polling is quite different. The people who are for the pork ban tend to separate that from all other considerations. They think it will not affect relations with the USA or Taiwan’s attempts to join CPTPP, and it isn’t related to how much they like Tsai. It is just a food safety issue, pure and simple. They may reject Tsai’s arguments that this is a complex issue or that they should trust her on this matter, but they do not necessarily reject Tsai or the DPP in other political matters.

If, on the other hand, the pork referendum is defeated, I would see that as a tremendous political victory for Tsai and Su. I understand that some readers will wonder about this logic: don’t blame Tsai if it passes but do reward her if it is defeated?? Again, I refer you to the context. Two months ago when the campaign started, this referendum would have passed easily. For the past decade, we have learned that ractopamine is a dirty word. Tsai has had the task of overturning that consensus in a very short time, and the main weapon in her arsenal has been to ask the voters to trust her, put aside any doubts, and vote to accept ractopamine. This is a heavy lift and, it would be an impressive display of public support if it comes to fruition.


[1] On a recent CTV newscast, I watched a talking head rhetorically ask what the difference was between current Taiwan and Nazi Germany. No one questioned this comparison. Even more disorienting, the anchor went from this statement straight into a story about a traffic accident, seemingly unaware that the speaker was making a very serious charge that demands careful consideration and would, if accurate, require immediate actions.

DPP referendum event: starring Premier Su

December 3, 2021

On Wednesday night, I went to a park in Taipei City to hear a DPP rally against the four referendums. The crowd wasn’t big, probably a bit less than 1,000 people, but it was a weekday night and a cold front had just hit. It didn’t rain, and it wasn’t as cold as people feared.[1] As you can see, it is a fairly old crowd. Normally, that would be a warning sign, but, as I argued in a previous post, the key this time might be mobilizing the traditional DPP base. At the very least, this is a necessary step. The crowd was shockingly enthusiastic. You rarely see DPP crowds in Taipei this engaged for a candidate; I certainly didn’t expect them to be so hyped up for an abstract referendum.

They didn’t plan for a big crowd. This is probably about what they expected.

I got to the event late, so I missed the beginning. It was organized by city councilor Liang Wen-jieh 梁文傑 and his wife, legislator Lin Chu-yin 林楚茵.[2] I assume one or both of them spoke before I arrived. When I got there, Taoyuan mayor Chen Wen-tsan was speaking. He finished before I found a place to sit down and really settle in, so I don’t have any strong impressions of his speech. It was effective, though I can’t tell you more than that.

Minister of Economics Wang Mei-hua 王美花 followed Cheng. She has played a major role in the campaign against the four items. In the CEC-sponsored TV debates, she has represented the no side twice, once in a pork debate and once in a LNG/reef debate. I had never seen her speak publicly before this campaign, and, at least for me, she has emerged as one of the most persuasive voices for DPP policies. In this event, Wang went heavily into the details of pork and energy while somehow still being easily accessible. It was an impressive talk in which she answered questions at various levels of sophistication. If you just wanted a general impression, she gave you that. If you wanted to know about how the revised LNG project was designed to protect the reefs, she gave you that, too. If you wanted to know about energy supply, carbon emissions, and projected demand, she had broad and detailed explanations there, too. She speaks with the expertise and authority of a career bureaucrat, never raising her voice or getting too emotional. However, unlike most bureaucrats, she was able to bring it all down to a level that most people could understand. Moreover, she kept the audience engaged. The college professor in me was in awe of her ability to communicate complex ideas while still holding the attention of an audience that could have easily tuned her out.

In the buffet of campaign speeches, she was a really good salad. I mean that as a complement – I love salad. But when you eat a really good salad, you are always still aware that you are eating something nutritious. No matter how great it tastes, there is no guilty pleasure in vegetables because in addition to being delicious they are also packed with nearly everything else you need for good health. Wang didn’t thrill the audience with the empty calories of a chocolate cake or a deep-fried treat, but she satisfied them with wholesome content.

Don’t forget how grateful we are for the 4 million Moderna vaccines.

American pork is safe. AIT Director Oudkirk feeds it to her children.

Defeating this referendum is crucial to our application to join CPTPP.

The main speaker of the night was Premier Su Tseng-chang 蘇貞昌. In my informal list of Taiwan’s great outdoor speakers, Su is probably at the top. It’s a joy for a rally junkie like myself to observe a master of the craft at work, and, on Wednesday, Su had a good night even by his lofty standards. The audience was eating out of his hand right from the start. He spoke for about 45 minutes without any lulls in energy or passion. There were several times when the audience broke into impromptu applause, and, even if these were started by staffers planted in the crowd,[3] the rest of the people picked up those cues immediately and joined in enthusiastically.

Su spent more than half of his time talking about his record as premier. He talked about keeping swine flu out of Taiwan, the government’s quick and effective response to Covid, economic growth, various social welfare policies, fruit exports, wage increases, and other wonderful policy successes. One thing that impressed me was how he presented old-age stipends and long-term health care to this audience, most of whom were seniors. First he talked about welfare for younger people, such as day care and stipends for new parents. Only after that did he turn to things for seniors. It felt to me that he was allowing the crowd to feel generous rather than selfish. First, let’s talk about all the important things we are doing to take care of other people in society; your grandchildren are our priority. Then, there is something for you, too; you are also important. Deft!

This was all presented with the flair of a confident showman. After his introductory remarks and some praise for the two local politicians, Su announced he was about to start the main talk by dramatically pulling out a pool cue.[4] You rarely get a crowd response from a gesture, but this got a few murmurs, then a bit of laughter, and finally some applause. He went through a series of slides using his pool cue to emphasize his points. Last week, I questioned Chao Yi-hsiang’s 趙怡翔 use of powerpoint to give his speech. On Wednesday, I realized that both Wang and Su were basically using powerpoint slides in their speeches, even if they didn’t feel like powerpoint presentations because they were so flawlessly integrated. Thinking back, Su started doing this in the 2020 campaign. Then, it was only a few slides. Now, he has built his entire speech around the pictures on the screen behind him. So I should apologize to Chao Yi-hsiang. It turns out he is an early (though a bit clumsy) adopter of what might turn out to be the next great campaign innovation.

Remember how swine flu devastated our pork farmers? No? That’s because we didn’t let it in!

Check out our fantastic economic growth!

And we have some great welfare for all you old geezers, too!

After Su finished the extensive segment about how wonderful the DPP’s record of governance has been, he turned briefly to the KMT. The KMT, he said, has been obstructing the government at every turn. As an example, he pointed to the current visits by representatives from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which he considered major diplomatic breakthroughs. The KMT had dismissed them as three “small” countries. Each of them, Su pointed out, has twice as much land as Taiwan, and they are all fairly wealthy countries inside the EU. They’re important! Meanwhile, the KMT legislative caucus was refusing to review the Foreign Ministry’s annual budget to protest Foreign Minister Joseph Wu’s decision to meet the Baltic delegations rather than show up in person at the legislator. Is this party on the same side as the rest of us, Su asked incredulously.

Su also lambasted the KMT for brawling in the legislature, which is a richly ironic attack coming from the DPP. I can’t remember such a specific accusation in a campaign speech. The KMT and New Party used to routinely call the DPP a chaotic party 亂黨, but they rarely explained in any detail. It was a reference to legislative brawls during the transition to democracy, but it was also probably a reference to years of street protests. Su, however, was talking about two specific legislative brawls (the infrastructure brawls and the pork brawl) to make a more general point about the KMT’s character. The KMT, he explained, was always trying to twist things up in order to obstruct progress.

Look at these guys. Aren’t they disgusting.
(Note: He didn’t neglect the opportunity to single out Yen Kuan-heng, the KMT’s candidate in the upcoming Taichung City by-election.)

Look on the floor. Those are pork intestines. That’s what the KMT really thinks of Taiwanese pork!

And the referendums were another example. The KMT was twisting people’s honest and good impulses – to protect the environment and food safety – in order to obstruct policies necessary for Taiwan’s future.

I won’t go into the details of Su’s arguments about the pork and energy referendums. He made most of the same, familiar points. He didn’t have the depth of Minister Wang, but he had a lot more charisma and flair. She made the rational arguments, and he filled in some of the emotion. The two complemented each other very well.

Can you believe this guy! When he was New Taipei mayor he said we should build the project as scheduled in Taoyuan. Now that he is party chair, he suddenly wants to move it to New Taipei.

The last thing he talked about was R19, the proposal to hold referendums on the same day as general elections. He barely spent any time at all on this. He simply reminded people of the horrible lines in 2018 and concluded that he was definitely against R19. R19 is a difficult referendum for the DPP base since it has been taught for years that referendums are unquestionably good. Strategically, it seems the DPP is trying to win R19 by mobilizing its base to vote against the other three items. Once they are in the voting booth voting no on everything else, hopefully they will trust the DPP to vote no on this one too.

Su’s more general strategy is to make this a referendum on both the government and the KMT. He wants you to remember how good the DPP has been in office, and he also wants you to remember how much you don’t like the KMT. Remember, polls show that the DPP is pretty popular right now, Tsai’s approval ratings are pretty good, and the KMT’s numbers are miserable. Su doesn’t want you to think about the ractopamine pork referendum, he wants you to think about the KMT pork referendum intended to block the DPP government.

A final thought on Premier Su. I was stunned by his energy and vitality. A few years ago, he seemed tired and ready to leave the stage. He wanted his protégé Wu Ping-jui 吳秉叡 to run for New Taipei mayor in 2018, but Wu fizzled and the party dragged Su back into the fray. After the 2018 election debacle and Premier Lai’s resignation, the DPP turned once again to their old warhorse. It reeked of desperation. However, Su’s second stint as premier has gone better than anyone could have predicted. He is known as a workaholic, and the pressure of the job seems to have made him younger and sharper. You can make a good argument that he saved Tsai’s presidency, and, as an encore, he led Taiwan’s world-acclaimed Covid response. On stage Wednesday, he was fully engaged and committed. This didn’t seem like a person counting down the days until he can retire to a life of leisure and relaxation. For the first time on Wednesday, the thought crossed my mind that maybe this isn’t the last triumphant act of his illustrious career. Most people expect the DPP’s 2024 presidential nomination to be a contest between VP William Lai and Taoyuang mayor Cheng Wen-tsan, with an outside chance that Transportation Minister Lin Chia-lung will get involved. Lai ran against Tsai in 2020, and Cheng is positioning himself as the heir to Tsai’s more progressive platform. Currently, Lai is pretty far ahead in the polls, and Cheng doesn’t seem to be catching up. If Cheng isn’t up to the challenge, perhaps the progressive side of the DPP will turn to Su to stop the much more conservative Lai. He’s 74 years old now, but in the age of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, maybe that’s not too old to launch a new enterprise. It’s highly unlikely, but after watching him oozing charisma, vitality, optimism, and pluck on Wednesday, it suddenly doesn’t seem impossible.


[1] The weather reports had suggested it might be 12-13, but my car thermometer said it was around 16-18.

[2] Yes, it seems awkward and perhaps a bit sexist to name the man first and the woman second when she holds a higher position, especially since I devoted quite a bit of the past decade to documenting the rise of women in Taiwanese politics. But in this case, Liang is almost certainly the primary organizer. He has been in electoral politics for a decade and is one of the national leaders of the New Tide faction. This is his district, and he has been organizing it for a long time. Lin was a TV reporter who, seemingly out of nowhere, suddenly got placed on the DPP party list in 2020. It probably shocked everyone — including them — that she got to the legislature before he did.

[3] I don’t know if they were. I’m trying to be as skeptical as possible.

[4] It reminded me of Phantom Regiment. I’ll be shocked if any of my readers understand this reference, but maybe there’s a drum corps fan out there who will absolutely get it.

My-Formosa poll on referendums

November 29, 2021

My-Formosa 美麗島電子報 has released its November poll. This is the first high quality poll to be released since the referendum campaigns began in earnest about a month ago. Earlier polls showed that all four items were favored to pass, but the DPP has been waging an energetic campaign to vote “no” on all four. This poll is the first solid evidence we have of the effectiveness of that campaign.

Before looking at the referendums, let’s first look at the general lay of the land. From a partisan perspective, this month’s poll is similar to or even slightly better for President Tsai and the DPP than the previous few months. Tsai’s favorability rating is currently +14.0% (55.8% satisfied, 41.8% dissatisfied). On party ID, 40.4% support a green party, 19.0% support a blue party, and 7.0% support the TPP. If you consider the TPP to actually be in the blue camp (and that increasingly seems to be a reasonable assumption), the numbers look a lot like those right around the January 2020 election. As you’ll recall, Tsai won that election by 19%. As far as I can tell, the electorate hasn’t changed very much since then. So that’s the underlying partisan structure.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the referendums. Here are the bottom-line numbers.

All respondentsyesnoYes – no
R17: Restart 4NPP37.851.9-14.1
R18: Ban ractopamine pork55.437.9+17.5
R19: Referendums on same day46.141.7+4.4
R20: Move LNG / protect coral reef35.041.1-6.1

The two energy referendums (R17 and R20) are now showing more opposition than support, and this is particularly evident for R17. This probably has something to do with the KMT withdrawing its all-out support for these two items a month ago. The two items that the KMT explicitly sponsored are still in positive territory. The gap in R19 is positive, though it is smaller than it was in much earlier polls. The gap in R18, the pork referendum, is still a gaping 17.5%. At first glance, the DPP doesn’t seem to have made any headway there at all.

But wait. That might not be the entire story. We don’t know what turnout will be, but it certainly won’t be 100%. Only 62% of respondents said they would definitely turn out to vote. For reference, a month before the Jan 2020 election, 77% said they would definitely turn out. I’m skeptical we will get 62%, but mid- or high 50s seems plausible. At any rate, those 62% are a bit different from the 38% who aren’t so sure about voting.

Will Definitely Vote (62%)yesnoYes – no
R17: Restart 4NPP39.154.9-15.8
R18: Ban ractopamine pork51.044.6+6.4
R19: Referendums on same day47.246.5+0.7
R20: Move LNG / protect coral reef37.946.6-8.7

The two energy referendums are basically the same, but the two KMT referendums are much closer. R19 is now basically tied. R18 is still passing, but more than half of the margin has evaporated. If this is the right way to look at the polls, R18 is within shouting distance.

Let’s unpack these results a bit. One of the great things about the My-Formosa polls is that they give us lots of cross-tables, so that we can look at the results in a bit more detail.

Why does turnout matter so much? Green voters are more motivated to vote, and they are the biggest section of the electorate.[1] In the full sample, green voters make up 40% of the sample. When you adjust for turnout, they make up nearly half the voters.

Party IDWill definitely voterespondentsGroup sizeAdjusted group size
Blue67.420519.020.6
Green73.643540.447.8
TPP67.2757.07.5
neutral46.332830.522.7

Ok, but are those green voters a disciplined, monolithic voting bloc? Actually, no. And neither are the blue voters. As for TPP supporters, they are pretty close to the KMT in every category. This isn’t just a matter of referendums; their answers to more partisan questions such as satisfaction with President Tsai also look a lot like those from blue supporters. There really isn’t much point in discussing them separately; mentally you can just lump them in with the blue voters.

R17 has the clearest partisan lines of the four items. Since Taiwanese have been fighting over the 4th Nuclear Power Plant for three decades and the fights were sharply defined along partisan lines early in Chen Shui-bian’s presidency, maybe this isn’t surprising. However, even here the two big camps aren’t monolithic. This is a more difficult topic for blue voters, and only 70% of them support this referendum.

R17: 4NPPyesnootherGroup size
Blue69.321.88.919.0
TPP60.636.23.27.0
Green14.880.84.440.4
neutral44.136.819.130.5
All respondents37.851.910.3100.0

The pork referendum is the mirror image of 4NPP. Here, the blue side is overwhelmingly in favor, and the green side is a little divided. One-fourth of green voters plan to vote against the DPP’s position. Given that they are trailing and still need to change some minds, this isn’t necessarily bad news for the DPP. The existence of a pool of voters who generally like and trust Tsai for the DPP to work on is a good thing. It should be a lot easier to appeal to those voters than to other groups. If they can persuade DPP sympathizers to turn out and vote for the DPP position, victory is not impossible. It is also stunning how lopsided the neutral voters are. These will be harder for Tsai and the DPP to persuade since they don’t necessarily trust the messengers. A higher turnout of this group would probably guarantee passage of the referendum.

R18: porkyesnootherGroup size
Blue85.812.71.519.0
TPP78.220.41.47.0
Green26.669.24.240.4
neutral67.319.313.430.5
All respondents55.137.97.0100.0

R19 has even more muddled partisan lines. For the blue camp, this probably reflects longstanding skepticism toward referendums and the memory of the chaotic 2018 elections. For the green camp, it is probably due to decades of arguing for the establishment of referendums and then for more permissive rules.

R19: same dayyesnootherGroup size
Blue65.826.18.119.0
TPP64.333.12.67.0
Green32.358.59.240.4
neutral47.032.720.330.5
All respondents46.141.712.2100.0

R20 is the most opaque. Both camps are internally divided. More than that, voters seem to be more unsure about this referendum than the others. Nearly one-fourth of respondents did not express a preference on R20. This is a technically difficult question, and, unlike the others, voters haven’t been discussing this topic for years and years. There will be a lot of voters who turn out to vote for the other three items and then, by the way, also cast an unsure vote on R20, and those voters could well decide whether this referendum passes or fails.

R20: LNT / coral reefyesnootherGroup size
Blue54.726.518.819.0
TPP63.527.68.97.0
Green19.664.515.940.4
neutral36.923.239.930.5
All respondents35.041.123.9100.0

I had expected that support for the two energy-related items would look similar, but I was dead wrong. This table shows the percentage of the electorate in each box (so if you add them horizontally or vertically you will get the subtotal). I expected people to vote yes on both or no on both, but the poll shows a much more complex picture. About 10% of all respondents chose yes-no, and about the same number chose no-yes. And there are a lot more who are still unsure. Clearly, large parts of the electorate do not think of these two measures as being closely related.

  R20LNG, reef  
  yesnootherall
 Yes21.29.07.637.8
R17No12.131.48.451.9
4NPPOther1.80.77.910.4
 All35.041.123.9100.0

Finally, let’s look at some demographic differences. There aren’t a lot of dramatic patterns, and many of the differences can be explained by partisanship.

On gender, it is useful to remember that men generally support the DPP a bit more than women. For example, President Tsai’s satisfaction rating is 5.6% lower among women than men.

On three of the four items, there is not much of a gender gap. For example, women are against R17 by a 14.5% margin while men are against it by a 13.5% margin. That’s not much of a difference. However, there is a gaping gender gap on the pork referendum, where women support it by 28.1% but men only support it by 6.6%. If R18 passes, it will be driven by women.

The other thing to note is how many more women are unsure. On R20, 84.1% of men expressed a preference while only 68.8% of women did. If you stare at the numbers long enough, you can almost hear the mansplaining.

 R174NPPR18porkR19same dayR20LNG, reef
 yesnoyesnoyesnoyesno
Women34.749.259.631.544.839.332.236.2
Men41.154.651.144.547.444.138.046.1
Gender gap-1.0 21.5 2.2 4.1 

There aren’t a lot of geographic differences, and most of those are probably related to partisanship. However, I will note that support for R20 is highest in Taoyuan-Hsinchu-Miaoli (+9.6% locally; -6.1% nationally). Cynically, I suspect that they are more interested in blocking construction of a local power plant than saving their local coral reef.

I’m also not seeing a lot of dramatic patterns in age and education. Perhaps the most interesting deals with education and R20. Recall that R20 was the most confusing item. There isn’t a lot of difference in the “no” vote, but there are enormous differences in “yes.” I’m not sure how to interpret this, but it is striking. R17 and R19 show similar patterns, but they are not quite as extreme. R18, the pork referendum, is the outlier. In that one, there is a U-shaped pattern, with support for R18 lowest in the primary or less group, highest in the high school group, and just about at the national average in the university and up group.

 R20LNG, reefSize of group
 yesno 
Primary or less11.842.512.0%
Junior high28.346.311.8%
High school34.438.927.6%
Technical college46.634.811.6%
University and up41.442.636.9%

Many of these patterns are probably insignificant or even ephemeral. There are only two that I’m fairly confident about. There are clear partisan patterns, and there is a clear gender gap on the pork referendum.

Right now, the pork referendum is the most likely to pass, and the 4NPP referendum is most likely to fail. However, there are clear indications in this data of how the DPP might defeat the pork referendum, which is after all far and away the most important of these. In a nutshell, they need to convince their supporters to support them. If they can persuade voters who already prefer to the DPP to vote overwhelmingly against the pork referendum, they have a realistic path to victory. It’s a heavy lift, but there is a path.


[1] There isn’t much to learn about the New Power Party (1.1% support), Taiwan Statebuilding Party (2.2%), or People First Party (0.2%) from this poll. They just don’t have enough support to fruitfully analyze. The overwhelming majority of the blue (green) voters support the KMT (DPP). Both camps also have about 5% who don’t mention any specific party but place themselves in that camp. Generally speaking, all the trends are a bit sharper if you look specifically at KMT and DPP support, but I prefer simplifying things into four big groups. I’m also ignoring the 3.1% of the sample that didn’t give a valid response to the party ID question since they are very small and the least likely to turn out.

The referendum campaigns so far

November 27, 2021

We are now three weeks away from the referendum votes, and the battle lines in the campaigns are now pretty well established. I’d like to offer some general thoughts about the process in general and some on the individual items.

Referendum #19 is a good place to start since it deals with the institutional question of how to conduct referendums.[1] This item will allow referendums to be held on the same day as general elections.

I’m on the record as being against referendums in general. I think they are a lousy way to make public policy. There are two fundamental problems. First, referendums invite voters to consider issues in isolation without thinking about possible tradeoffs. However, very few decisions are isolated. Almost everything affects something else, and tradeoffs are unavoidable. If you don’t consider the full array of tradeoffs, you are going to make some lousy choices. Second, referendums place a high burden on voters to become educated. When the question is about a highly technical question, it is unrealistic to expect all voters to read technical reports and academic papers. It is simply unreasonable to demand that voters become experts in every policy area. Without sufficient information, even educated and sophisticated voters are prone to manipulation and making ill-advised choices. Unfortunately, there isn’t much support for eliminating referendums altogether. Nevertheless, I’ll come back to these flaws in my subsequent discussion.

This round of referendums is a new experience for Taiwan. We’ve had referendums in the past, but they have always been conducted at the same time as a larger election. In fact, that has usually been the point. Starting with Chen Shui-bian, parties have used referendums to mobilize sets of voters that they were worried might not otherwise turn out or be energetic enough. Prior to lowering the threshold in 2017, there was no hope of passing the referendum. The entire purpose was to create another talking point to whip your supporters into a frenzy to maximize turnout in the general election, which is what the politicians (and most of the people promoting the referendum) really cared about. The 2017 reform changed these calculations a bit by making it very easy to put a question on the ballot and making it possible to actually pass that item. In 2018, there was a flood of items trying to get on the ballot. More than 50 items started the process, ten actually got on the ballot, and seven actually passed. It was a clear signal that a powerful tool had been unleashed. If nothing had changed, we would have seen an even larger flood of referendums in the next general election. Of course, we all know that the 2018 election was an administrative disaster. The referendums led to long lines and chaotic polling stations, with many people waiting three hours, as people slowly tried to figure out how to vote on each of the measures. To avoid a repeat, the law was changed in 2019 to conduct referendums separately from general elections. There was some uncertainty about how this would affect political calculations. Most importantly, many people speculated that the turnout in a referendum-only election wouldn’t be high enough, so items wouldn’t easily pass. This probably discouraged quite a few groups from launching ballot initiatives this time. Only four items qualified. However, it won’t discourage them in the future. What we have learned this time is that the threshold is so low that the main parties have to assume turnout will be high enough. As a result, the parties have conducted energetic campaigns, which ensures turnout will be high enough. In other words, future activists will have every incentive to put their pet cause on the ballot. We will probably be flooded with referendums in the future, regardless of whether R19 passes. If the law isn’t further revised, I think we should probably expect 25 next time, give or take a dozen.

To me, the critical question is whether the system will work better if those 25 referendums are held jointly with a general election or on a separate day by themselves. So far, the only arguments for the same day are that turnout will be higher (and higher turnout is always better), voters who don’t live near their household registration only need to make one trip home, and it is cheaper to administer one election than two. Personally, I don’t find any of these very compelling. Voting once a year is not an unreasonable burden on citizens, and people who don’t care enough about the referendums to turn out probably aren’t informed enough to make very good choices. As for the costs, democracy costs money. When you skimp on administrative costs, you usually get low-quality democracy. Anyway, if you have 25 referendums with your general election, the lesson of 2018 is that you need a lot more polling stations and polling workers. You won’t be saving as much as you might think.

I think there is a very good reason for holding referendums separately, though it hasn’t been anyone’s main talking point. The process this year has been markedly better than it was in 2018. By that, I mean that the public debate has focused on these four items, and voters have much more information about the choices.

Think back to 2018. A month before the election, what was everyone thinking about? We weren’t talking about the referendums at all. The TV coverage was all about Han Kuo-yu and the possibility of a Han wave. If you were watching blue media, you got 17 hours of Han Kuo-yu a day with a bit of weather, sports, and traffic accidents on the side. If you weren’t thinking about Han Kuo-yu, you might have been thinking about your local candidates. But there was very little in-depth discussion of the ten referendums. Can you remember ever having a substantive discussion about education and homosexuality, the importance of Clause 95 in the Electricity Act, or whether reducing the output of power plants by 1% a year was good public policy? I certainly didn’t, and I consider myself to be a fairly well-informed person. Almost everyone was focused on the mayoral races. This is how all those long lines were produced. Almost all voters knew which mayoral candidate they supported – that’s why they were there. And they mostly knew about their local city council and neighborhood head candidates. Those votes didn’t take very long. But then they had ten other votes to think about, and many people hadn’t really thought very much about them. So in the voting booth, they had to read each (confusing) question, think about it, and come up with an answer. Everything ground to a halt. If it takes ten minutes for each voter to complete their votes, the lines are going to back up pretty quickly.

Now compare that experience to this year. There are not mayoral candidates to dominate our attention. All the discussion has been on the four referendums. We have learned all the main talking points, as the politicians have guided us in the best ways to think about each question. We have had to think about tradeoffs. When one side has raised the costs of a decision, the other side has generally denied that there is, in fact, a serious tradeoff. But at least voters have been exposed to this debate. Some of the debates have been better than others, but all of them have been more substantial than any of the 2018 referendum debates. And when it is time to vote, every voter will go to the polls with an idea of how they want to vote on these four items. That is, after all, why they are going to vote this year. Election administration should be much, much smoother.

There is no question in my mind that holding referendums separately from general elections has created a better referendum system. This doesn’t make it a good system, but at least it isn’t quite as terrible.

Ironically, the debate over R19 has arguably featured the worst quality of the four items. Instead of talking about how referendums work better, both sides have spent most of their energy calling the other side an unprincipled, insincere, anti-democratic flip-flopper. The typical attack is something like, a decade ago they said this, but now they say the opposite. Were they lying then, or have they abandoned their principles now? Both sides have used this heavily; the KMT has used it almost exclusively. One of their debaters dressed up as Lin Yi-hsiung 林義雄, and they have all discovered a reverence for Tsai Trong 蔡同榮. Another one even quoted Chen Shui-bian (who the KMT has always held in the highest esteem!). It’s a very cynical game of gotcha. Look at how insincere the DPP is! They’ll say anything! Their elders would be appalled at how the current party has utterly betrayed its ideals! Now they’re even trying to take away your right to a referendum! I think the main purpose is simply to criticize the DPP, but this might also have a strategic purpose. They need to win a majority, and the KMT doesn’t have a lot of credibility on referendums, especially with DPP-leaning voters. They might think that reminding voters of those DPP elders’ campaigns for referendums will persuade some people to vote “yes” out of fondness for those old guys even if it means voting with the KMT. They have tried to argue that the constitution guarantees the right of referendums based on Sun Yat-sen’s ideas,[2] but that isn’t very persuasive. After all, the KMT spent six decades trying to not to honor that pledge.

It might work, because the DPP isn’t mounting a very powerful argument either. The DPP has been trying to argue that they have always been the party of referendums, and the KMT has always opposed them. (Look at what they said twenty years ago!) Now they have to argue that they are protecting referendums by separating them from general elections (Look at all the chaos it caused in 2018!). I’m not convinced all of them believe themselves. They have been arguing that more referendums are better for so long, and some of them just seem uncomfortable with the nuanced argument that is required now. It is much easier to argue simply that the DPP has always been the party for referendums, and the KMT has always been against them, and so the voters should trust the DPP to make the right choices on referendums. In the third debate, the DPP speaker spent as much of his time on the other three items as on R19.

The debate on R20 has been much more informative. The government is planning to build a facility to unload liquid natural gas (LNG) on the Taoyuan coast so that it can run a new power plant. Taoyuan is the most industrialized region in Taiwan, and the nearby Hsinchu science park also consumes large amounts of electricity. The plan is to generate power locally with LNG so that the coal-burning plants in Taichung and Kaohsiung can cut back their emissions. Air quality is a major political issue in Taichung. This is also part of the plan to retire the aging three nuclear power plants. The problem is that there is a coral reef on the Taoyuan coast, and environmental activists fear the LNG project would destroy or severely damage the reef. Their proposal is to move the LNG unloading facility elsewhere. The government has dismissed this as unrealistic. It has also argued that the original plan has been dramatically modified in order to ensure that the reef will not be damaged.

This referendum was proposed as a simple environmental measure: save the reef. However, through the various rounds of debates, we have learned a lot about the potential tradeoffs involved. Both sides argue that we need to worry about climate change, though they have different angles on how to do that. The government has stressed the impact this will have on air quality in other areas, since stopping an LNG project here inevitably means more coal elsewhere. They have also talked about whether this is a development vs environment problem or merely a tradeoff between different environmental values. And of course, the impact on TSMC has been raised, since Taiwan can’t do anything these days without talking about semiconductors.

This has largely been a sincere and respectful debate. Both sides seem to sincerely believe in their position, and they seem to have been trying to honestly present solid scientific evidence in their favor. They don’t always agree about which evidence is more important or even about the meaning of that evidence, but they don’t seem to be trying to willfully manipulate voters.

Can I follow their debate? Not very well. I don’t have a PhD in environmental studies, civil engineering, marine biology, oceanography, or climate change. The studies they are citing are well beyond my capacity. When they say the project would have a devastating impact or very little impact, I don’t have any idea how I’m supposed to judge which conclusion is more authoritative. I’m much more informed about the choice than I was a month ago, but I don’t think I’m remotely qualified yet to make a good decision. Unfortunately, I suspect most voters will make their choices based on even less information than I have right now. At least I watched all three of the hourlong debates on R20. I’m guessing that puts me in the top 10%. R20 is the best of the four information campaigns, and it is still inadequate. This decision will be based on emotions, not science.

R17 has been much worse in every way. R17 proposes restarting work on the 4th nuclear power plant. 4NPP has been Taiwan’s nightmare for three decades, and they finally sealed the plant in 2014 after wasting massive amounts of money on what turned out to be a Frankenstein project that (thankfully) never started operations. I don’t know if I am for or against nuclear power in the abstract, but 4NPP is a horrifying rusted-out jerry-rigged monstrosity that is nowhere near operational. Regardless of this referendum result, it isn’t ever going to open. The entire referendum is an exercise in cynicism.

I’m fairly confident this one won’t pass. Several weeks ago, the referendum campaign kicked off when two prominent KMT members, New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi and Ilan County magistrate Lin Tzu-miao, said they were against it. Then the KMT decided it wasn’t really responsible for this referendum, so members were free to vote against it. A few other KMT members have since joined in, though the top leadership remains sympathetic.

R17 has become synonymous with one person. Huang Shi-hsiu 黃士修 is the sponsor and the voice. Each referendum has now had three public debates. Everyone else has used three different people for the three debates. Only Huang has represented his side each time. He becomes nastier, less likeable, and less credible each time. Unlike the R20 debate, this has not been an honest, sincere exchange. We only see bad faith.

Huang speaks fast, throwing facts out left and right. It seems to me that he might not always be careful with his research. He gives the impression of someone who scans papers for lines he might use, regardless of what the rest of the paper says. Several times during the debates, his opponent has said something to the effect of “you seem to have misunderstood that part.” They clearly believe it is willful misuse.

The worst moment came in the second debate, in which Huang faced off against a former employee of Taipower who had been involved in several safety inspections.  As Huang finished his opening statement, he warned his opponent to be careful with his words. If Huang detected any lies, he and his team of lawyers would sue. Be careful! His opponent had not yet said a word, mind you. In the second section, Huang repeatedly pointed to reports the guy had signed and accused him of making false statements. In the third debate, he gleefully reported that he had, in fact, brought a lawsuit. Let’s just say that I don’t consider bullying and intimidation hallmarks of a good faith debate.

In the third debate, he proudly admitted to sending reporters materials with the wrong dates on them. This was, he explained, a brilliant trap that he had set for them. (I didn’t follow his logic.) Now, he was revealing his cunning scheme. See how smart he is! (Oh yeah, a few reporters caught the error before he corrected it.) So, we are supposed to trust this guy who is deliberately sending out false evidence because he thinks you are too stupid to notice?? What a creep!

There are some reports that he is connected to Chang Ya-chung, the pro-unification radical who just lost the KMT party chair election. Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me at all. I think he is aiming for a city council seat or a political talk show on CiTV. Or maybe he will just specialize in referendums. He sponsored one in 2018 (R16, dealing with the Electricity Act). With no one paying much attention, that one passed. He seems destined to be an onerous troll for years to come.

Most of the debates have had Huang saying things like 4NPP has passed many safety tests, nuclear waste storage is not a problem, and there are more active faults in central Taiwan than in northern Taiwan so earthquakes are not a problem. His opponents have refuted all these claims and pointed out that 4NPP couldn’t possibly come online for at least another decade.

R17 has been a miserable experience.

That leaves us with R18, the pork referendum. Overall, I think the debate on pork has been pretty informative. There have been plenty of cheap shots and irrelevant tangents, but we have gotten a fairly good depiction of the question at hand. The main considerations are:

  • How safe is ractopamine?
  • How much does the USA care? Will this affect relations with the USA?
  • Will this affect TIFA and/or CPTPP?
  • Does Taiwan have an obligation to follow international standards?

The KMT wants to argue that ractopamine is unsafe, and that is the only thing that matters. Those other concerns are wildly exaggerated. The DPP argues that ractopamine is mostly safe, and those other concerns are extremely important.

Unlike R20, which involves extremely technical considerations, the pork debate is relatively easy to follow. I don’t understand the chemistry or biology of ractopamine, but I can understand pork chops. 33 pork chops every day for five years or six bowls of pork liver soup a day for five years would be too much. In many ways, it is harder to understand the effect this would have on international trade. Many voters will see this as a “he said, she said” situation. However, it is relatively easy to follow the logic of how it might matter. The tradeoff is clear to see if the voters are willing to see it.

I’m not going to make any predictions about how this will turn out. We haven’t had much polling, and what we do have is either extremely low quality or too long ago to reflect the effects of the campaign. I’m waiting anxiously for the monthly My-Formosa poll which should come out in the next few days and provide a much better picture of where we are.


[1] Ok, it’s a good place to start because I am a political scientist who studies political institutions. For everyone else, this seems to be the least interesting of the four referendums.

[2] I wonder how many of them have actually read SYS on referendums. His justification was that democratic government works like a piston. Elections push the piston out, and referendums push the piston back in. There’s are reason no one outside the KMT church considers SYS a genius political philosopher.