Archive for the ‘elections’ Category

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.

DPP referendum event: Politics is Hard

November 26, 2021

Mass politics is hard. Sometimes it looks easy, but it isn’t. Political communication is a skill, and it is easy to overlook all the hours that have gone into refining that skill. Every now and then, however, I am jolted back to an appreciation of just how hard this game is.

On Thursday,[1] I went to a small event in a basement in downtown Taipei where three potential future DPP leaders were arguing against the four referendums. I wanted to get a closeup look at Hsieh Pei-fen 謝佩芬, Enoch Wu Yi-nung 吳怡農, and, especially, Vincent Chao Yi-hsiang 趙怡翔 in action. In 2020, both Hsieh and Wu both ran for the legislature in difficult districts, and both lost. I have seen Wu a few times. His challenge to Wayne Chiang Wan-an 蔣萬安 was, after all, one of the glamour races of the cycle. I had never seen Hsieh in person. The conventional wisdom was that her race was hopeless, and I tried to see candidates in the most competitive races. Arguably, Hsieh’s loss by 10% in that district was a better performance than Wu’s loss by 6% in a significantly easier district. Onstage Thursday night, Wu and Hsieh were fine. Wu is slowly learning to be a better speaker, though he still has room to improve. Hsieh was the best speaker of the night, which might be expected since she is currently a DPP spokesperson. However, I thought everyone went too fast to try to cram too much information into a limited time, and the result was that none of them really made any memorable points. I’m struggling right now to remember one killer point that either of them made. Admittedly, I have been thinking most intensely about the other main speaker, so their speeches didn’t really have a fair chance to sink in to my brain. So let’s talk about the event as if it were just a showcase for Chao.[2]

Vincent Chao has a pretty spectacular resume. He is only in his early 30s, but he has already worked in a variety of influential positions. He has worked in the DPP’s International Affairs Department, Office of the Secretariat of the National Security Council, Office of the Secretariat for the Presidential Office, and the head of Foreign Minister Joseph Wu’s office. I ran into him in TECO the last time I was in DC. He is known and trusted by a wide array of powerful DPP figures, including, if media speculation is to be believed, President Tsai herself. For a person working in other people’s offices, he already has a fairly significant national profile. The obvious next step in building his career is to move out of other people’s staffs and get his feet wet in electoral politics. If you want to go anywhere in the DPP, party culture demands that contribute to the party by winning some elections. He has announced that he will run for the Taipei City council, and that is a great place to start. It is an entry level job in which aspiring politicians can learn the craft of electoral politics. Even if you don’t stay in electoral politics, the experience of fighting for votes is a prerequisite for power at the highest levels of the DPP.

The city council election is still a year away. Right now, we are in the final stages of a referendum campaign. It’s a good time to try to develop your skills at mass politics. This is, as we shall see, a very different skill set than that required to be a policy advisor.

The event was not designed to be a mass, outdoor rally. Rather, it was supposed to be a small, indoor event in which a real discussion could occur. It was supposed to go for 60 minutes (or maybe 90?), and after each of the four speakers gave a short (roughly ten minute) speech, they opened the floor to questions. The room might have held 200 people if it had been absolutely packed, but there were lots of empty chairs. I’m guessing there were about 80 people present, including staff. We are a month before the vote, so maybe it might be a good time to switch from retail to wholesale campaigning. At this point, winning 10 more votes is meaningless. For this event to be a success, it had to produce a multiplier effect. Each of those 80 had to be inspired to go out and get 10 other votes. But this was not a church revival filled with Hallelujahs; neither was it a “how to” seminar filled with easily memorable and repeatable talking points that the audience could take home with them.

Chao prepared a powerpoint. I can’t remember ever seeing a powerpoint presentation at a political event before. He started by talking about Brexit. His point was that the Brexit debate was filled with fake information, and British people now all think that they made the wrong choice because of this fake information. His powerpoint slide listed about six or seven misleading arguments in the campaign, but he talked mostly about the famous bus that promised the UK could stop sending an enormous amount of money each week to the EU and save it to support the national healthcare system.

At this point, I was already shaking my head. In a short speech, you have to get right to the point. Brexit is not on the ballot in Taiwan this year. Moreover, if you are going to use an event as an illustration, you need to be sure that (a) it is something that everyone has a deep, emotional reaction to and (b) that everyone has the same understanding of it. I don’t think Brexit meets either of those conditions here in Taiwan. In the Q&A, one of the questioners challenged Chao’s interpretation of Brexit, and we wasted five more minutes on this irrelevant topic. This did not persuade anyone to vote against the pork referendum.

After the Brexit introduction, we got to what should have been the heart of his talk. Chao listed four areas of misleading information in the pork referendum. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you exactly what the four topics were. I’m pretty sure the first one was that American pork is not safe, and the second one was that there won’t be any backlash if this referendum passes. The other two? I wish he had hammered them home and forced me to remember them, but he didn’t.

The point about American backlash was the most glaring missed opportunity. This is the crucial point of the debate. If Taiwanese voters believe there will not be any serious cost to voting yes, they will vote yes. Even people who believe ractopamine is mostly safe will vote yes to help domestic pig farmers. No one in Taiwan is desperate to gain access to American pork. On this point, Chao is in a unique position to make a powerful point. He can say something like, “They tell you Americans won’t care. I’ve spent a lot of time in DC recently talking to influential American politicians and bureaucrats, and let me promise you that they absolutely DO care. They have made it clear to me that opening the pork market is absolutely crucial to any and all future trade deals. If we backtrack on this opening, they will absolutely retaliate.” If he has a concrete anecdote about someone who told him something one time, even better! The point is that Chao could have put a credible personal stamp on the debate, transforming it from a hypothetical potential consequence into a much surer, highly predictable reaction.

And then Chao could have brought out the sledgehammer. Maybe you don’t believe him. Maybe you think the people who say the USA won’t react at all seem more credible. Well, Chao had a unique window on what Americans are saying. On Wednesday, he had interviewed Bonnie Glaser on his podcast.[3] Admittedly, Glaser is not an official representative of the American government, but official representatives typically stay silent before other country’s votes. Glaser, a highly connected, well-informed scholar in an influential DC think tank is exactly the sort of person who can informally communicate American sentiments. In the interview, Glaser spends the first ten minutes talking about the tortured history of the trade talks, explaining how American negotiators have seen several previous Taiwanese moves to block beef and pork as betrayals. She makes it clear that bureaucrats at USTR already don’t trust Taiwanese promises because of this troubled history, and she solemnly concludes that another backtrack from a promise would have a devastating effect on trade talks for years to come. Chao simply had to tell us about this interview, and then soberly assure us that there is no doubt at all that passing the pork referendum would have disastrous consequences for Taiwan.

It would have been a powerful argument. And let’s not forget that Chao is running for office next year in a 13-seat district in which the DPP will probably nominate five or six candidates. This is an argument that only he can make, and that makes him stand out from the crowd. No one else has the high-level international contacts that he has. And he has those international contacts because he has pull at the highest levels of government here. This would have been a good argument in the current debate, and it would have been good politics for next year’s election.

Chao didn’t make those arguments. He never talked about how people in DC had personally convinced him that they really care about pork. He didn’t put his own credibility on the line by saying, “Believe me, I can assure you this is true.” And most inexplicably, he never once mentioned his interview with Bonnie Glaser. Instead, he made a few bland statements based on stale media reports that anyone else could have made. If you didn’t already believe the USA would react, nothing he said would have changed your mind. It was a bewildering missed opportunity.

Chao did not close his talk by issuing a passionate plea to vote against the pork referendum. Instead, he encouraged everyone to educate themselves on the referendums and make the best decision possible. If, after extensive consideration, they came to the conclusion that the pork referendum was a good idea, he would respect that. In the Q&A, he came back to this theme. The KMT, he said, wanted to present it as a black and white issue. But it is really a complicated problem with several layers of gray.

That might be the right approach in a university seminar where the main goal is for students to develop critical thinking skills rather than to reach any specific conclusion. It might also be appropriate for a policy advisor, admitting that it is a difficult choice and the boss must weight the positive and negative aspects of each option (and maybe a third path might be best). However, this doesn’t work at all in mass politics. By the time we get to the campaign, the politicians are supposed to know what they think. They are supposed to have considered all the pros and cons and come to a clear decision on what the best path is. And then the politicians are supposed to lead the public, telling them how to think about the choice and why one option is clearly the better one. When you say both sides have some good points and don’t add that they are clearly outweighed by the bad points, what you are really saying is that you don’t believe your own argument. You might be speaking for the “no” side, but, deep down, you suspect that “yes” might be the better option. If you don’t have confidence in your position, why should ordinary voters? Of course you must respect voters’ decisions. Accepting election results is a minimum requirement for every democrat. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t passionately advise them to vote in a certain way, especially if you believe that the other outcome will have serious negative consequences. In mass politics, politicians have to know what they stand for, and they have to passionately urge voters to join them.

Chao clearly hasn’t learned or accepted this lesson yet, but he will eventually. The alternative is to be drummed out the game, either by voters who have no reason to follow him or by fellow party members who cannot trust him. Politics is a team sport.

All in all, I don’t think this was a very successful event. No one had enough time to make a full argument, and they didn’t make very good use of the time they had. The questions from the audience were mostly off topic (eg: “How did these questions get on the ballot?”), so there wasn’t a very fruitful discussion. I don’t expect that they changed many votes or inspired many people to go out and work to persuade other people. And I don’t think the four speakers did very much to enhance their own personal reputations, though three of them could at least claim they were fighting the good fight for their party.

When you see a master at the top of their game, politics looks easy. But persuading large numbers of people is actually very difficult. Some voters need a message that is simple and forceful while others want a bit more complexity and evidence. Ultimately though, you need large numbers of people all come to the same conclusion and vote with you. Figuring out how to craft a message that can do all that is really hard. And then you have to deliver that message effectively, which is an entirely different challenge. All of the speakers at this event spoke too fast, trying to jam in as many words as possible in a limited amount of time. The result was that I didn’t remember very much of what they said. The best speakers slow down when they want to make an impact. In effect, they say that   this   is   the   point   I    want    you    to    remember.

The good news is that political communication is a skill that can be learned. Mrs. Garlic and I were recently watching a speech by President Tsai, and we were struck by what a polished and effective speaker she has become. When Tsai first ran for office in 2010, she was a pretty terrible at mass events. (I’ll never forget when she told a crowd to stop cheering because she needed to lecture them about her policy agenda. We can should slogans in a little while.)  She is a much better president now because she has learned to be a much better communicator. What I saw last night from Chao (and to a lesser extent, from Wu and Hsieh) is that he is at the beginning of a path. He clearly has political talent, but he will have to do some work to develop that potential.


[1] Personally, I can’t think of any better way to spend a Thanksgiving in Taiwan than at a mass politics event! I’m Frozen Garlic, after all!

[2] There were actually four speakers. The first was three-term Taipei City council member Juan Chao-hsiung 阮昭雄. He gave a pretty standard-issue performance. He might run for the legislature again, but he’s a bit older and I don’t think he has the same potential to rise much higher than that the way the other three do.

[3] Most of the news outlets had a short story on this interview in which they reported that Glaser thinks the referendum will have a significant impact on the American trade relationship if is passes. Mrs. Garlic saw one of these stories and alerted me to it. I looked for five minutes for the entire interview, but Chao did not post it on Youtube where it might be easily found. I finally found it on his Facebook page, where it was obscured underneath an advertisement for the Thursday night event. The full interview presents a much more powerful argument than the media stories convey; it is the kind of message that opponents of the pork referendum should take pains to amplify as loudly as possible. The media seems to have taken it more seriously than Chao and the DPP. Doesn’t anyone remember the power of Douglas Paal in 2012?

The 2nd pork debate

November 21, 2021

The CEC held the second round of debates on the four referendums last week. There will be one more round of official debates. I’m going to continue to focus on the pork referendum.

For the pork question, the pro- side was represented by Chao Shao-kang (趙少康, also spelled Jaw Shao-kang). This is an interesting choice, since Chao has a long history in Taiwan politics. Let me stop here to refresh your memory about Chao.

Chao Shao-kang burst on the scene in the 1980s, winning huge numbers of votes in his two Taipei City Council elections in 1981 and 1985 and then winning seats in the legislature easily in 1986 and 1989. He was nicknamed the “political golden boy” 政治金童 and the media covered him heavily. He was an unapologetic Chinese patriot and a cheerleader for the ROC, but he was also part of the “liberal KMT” that was in favor of opening up the political system to democratic reforms. In the early days of Lee Teng-hui’s presidency, Chao was sometimes an ally in the fights against the old KMT dinosaurs. However, Chao quickly changed sides, and spent the rest of his career fighting against Lee and the DPP. During the fight between Lee and Premier Hau Pei-tsun (roughly 1990-1993), Chao was one of the primary organizers of the New KMT Alliance, a legislative caucus supporting Hau. Chao then resigned his seat to enter Hau’s cabinet as Environmental Protection Council Chair. In December 1992, Taiwan fully elected the LY for the first time, and this marked Hau’s loss. Without the automatic majority of the eternal legislators, Hau no longer had enough support in the legislature to continue. He resigned as premier and was replaced by LTH’s protégé, Lien Chan. Chao, who could see the writing on the wall, stormed back into the legislature, winning a remarkable 215,000 votes in Taipei County. In August 1993, Chao led the New KMT Alliance to quit LTH’s KMT and form a purer party, the Chinese New Party. For the first year, the New Party talked a lot about ordinary people 小市民 and things like corruption, land prices, and income inequality. In 1994, Chao decided to run for Taipei City mayor, and his campaign changed Taiwanese politics. Chao’s candidacy split the KMT vote in Taipei, allowing Chen Shui-bian to sneak into office with only 43% of the vote, and CSB’s performance in office set the stage for his presidential run in 2000.  Chao also transformed the New Party. During the campaign, he stopped talking so much about ordinary people and started talking about his sacred quest to protect the ROC. LTH, he said, had a secret timetable for Taiwan independence. Chao successfully rallied his base of true ROC believers, but he also narrowed the party to that base. The New Party became increasingly identified with Mainlanders, and surveys showed that half of his voters were Mainlanders. Mainlanders made up about 13% of Taiwan’s electorate at the time, and the New Party got about 15% of the vote in the 1995 legislative and 1996 national assembly elections, but Chao had effectively capped their support at those numbers. After the 1994 election, Chao faded from the front line of electoral politics. When Ma Ying-jeou decided to preemptively sell off some KMT assets, Chao managed to buy a controlling interest in the China Broadcasting Company (CBC, 中廣). He then reinvented himself as a media figure. For the last decade or two, he has been the Taiwanese equivalent of Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh. In the last year, he has made noise about rejoining the KMT, running for KMT chair, and running for president in 2024. He is also the person who started calling for the KMT to become the “fighting blue” force 戰鬥藍。

The point of this history is that Chao is not a very neutral figure. He is also not an expert on pork, food safety, or free trade. He is a very partisan and polarizing figure who has strong opinions on everything (almost all of which, coincidentally, involve the DPP being terrible). He’s a good choice if you want to whip up a fervor among people who are already on your side, but he might not be the best person to talk to neutral voters or those who want a calm discussion. Younger voters might not have strong feelings about him, but for anyone my age or older, Chao comes with some significant baggage. The KMT is sponsoring this referendum, so I assume they picked Chao. Again, it’s an interesting choice.

The anti- side was represented by Lee Chun 李淳, a public policy expert at the Chung Hua Institution for Economic Research (CIER). He is just about the polar opposite of Chao. He wasn’t boring or unpersuasive, but he also never seemed interested in making things about himself.

Here are the main points that each side made.

First Round, In favor of banning imports of ractopamine pork

  • First, he presented three complaints about the debate. It was unfair that he didn’t get the last word. It should go 1-2-2-1, not 1-2-1-2. Second, the CEC should have all three debates on the weekend when more people can watch. They are unfairly trying to depress turnout. Third, the government should provide funds for the pro- side to make its case. Unfair.
  • The government has several arguments against us. 1) Opposing racto-pork is opposing American pork. Opposing American pork is opposing America. 2) If we don’t allow racto-pork, Americans will be angry. 3) Americans eat racto-pork, so why shouldn’t Taiwanese? 4) If we don’t allow racto-pork, we won’t be able to enter CPTPP. These are all wrong.
  • Racto-pork is only a small part of pork imports. How can you equate this to be anti-American? I love the USA. I studied in the USA, I drive a Tesla, I love macadamia nuts, I have an iphone, I have a Costco membership. I love the USA, I’m just against racto-pork.
  • The USA should be angry against the DPP for not allowing students, soldiers, and athletes to eat American pork. They are only allowed to eat Taiwan pork. Why? If it’s safe, you should let them eat it. Last year we imported 16m tons of American pork; this year it’s only 0.4m tons. This policy of not labeling ractopamine pork is hurting the USA.
  • You should tune into my program next week to hear my interview with an AIT representative talking about importing American agricultural products.
  • They talk about scientific standards. Codex was only passed by two votes. That is politics, not science.
  • The international standard is in ppb. Why did we change it to ppm?
  • The EU doesn’t allow racto imports.
  • If racto is so great, why don’t we allow domestic pigs to eat it?
  • The Mainland doesn’t allow it. Are we second-class citizens?
  • The three big American pork packers (Smithfield, Tyson, JBS) have stopped raising racto-pigs. Why should we import it?
  • If we allow racto-pork, will we be able to enter CPTPP? Why didn’t we apply to join CPTPP as soon as we opened? Why were we a week later than the Mainland? Before you said the critical barrier to CPTPP was food imports from Fukushima. Now it is racto-pork? Anyway, the USA is not in CPTPP.
  • According to DPP, we must allow pork to enter CPTPP. The Mainland has terrible relations with the USA and doesn’t allow racto-pork. Why should we be worried that they can enter CPTPP before us?
  • Three questions for Lee: 1) If we allow racto-pork, can we enter CPTPP? 2) Is opposing racto-pork equal to opposing American pork equal to opposing the USA? 3) Why doesn’t the DPP allow students, firefighters, soldiers, and athletes to eat American pork?

First Round, against banning imports of ractopamine pork

  • Let me answer those three questions. Yes, racto-pork is a barrier to CPTPP. 1) We have already opened up. If we reverse that, it will be cancelling an international promise our president made. We will be bouncing a check. 2) CPTPP requires members to follow international standards or provide scientific evidence for why they can’t. We have done two studies under President Ma and President Tsai, and both showed that conditions in Taiwan are consistent with using the international standard. If we don’t follow our own scientific evidence and instead allow politics to override the decision, our CPTPP negotiators won’t have any credibility. We already did this in 2012. Are we going to do it again in 2022? If we are going to refuse to use international standards without any scientific justification, they will worry that we will do the same thing with Malaysian shrimp or Vietnamese fruit. It’s already hard enough to enter CPTPP. We should set up another obstacle. We shouldn’t use a referendum to reject an international standard.
  • Is opposing racto-pork equal to opposing American pork equal to opposing the USA? This measure will hurt the USA more than anyone else. We get our pork imports from Canada, the EU, and the USA. Canada uses racto domestically, but not for export in order to differentiate Canadian pork from American pork. The EU doesn’t use racto. So the only real target is American pork. So opposing racto-pork is opposing American pork. I’ll reserve comment on whether that is also opposing the USA.
  • Why don’t we eat American pork? This is support for domestic food products, not opposition to American pork.
  • Do other countries ban ractopamine? Japan, Korea, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam allow it; all 11 CPTPP countries have made their regulations according to international standards. China and EU are not exceptions. Ractopamine is a hormone, and the EU bans all hormones including ractopamine. However, the WTO has never accepted this choice. The USA sued the EU in 1997 and won, so the EU has to make an annual payment of USD100m to compensate the USA as well as zero tariffs on beef and guaranteed soybean purchases. They have to do this every year. China? In the recent agreement, China promised to make rules according to the Codex.
  • Is ractopamine really dangerous? If it were, I’d be against it too. It’s not. We opened to American beef in 2012. We eat more pork than beef, but 90% of our pork is domestic and 50% of beef is from the USA. We each eat an average of 2.7kg/year of American beef and only 0.6kg/year of American pork. It’s important to note that there hasn’t been a single case of racto health problems in the nine years that the market has been open to American beef.
  • According to our studies, a person would have to each 10 jin (6kg) of racto pork every day to cause a problem. That’s about 33 pork chops. My wrist is injured (shows wrist brace), so my wife fed by pork soup three meals a day. That was only 0.5 jin – it’s impossible to eat 33 pork chops a day. And you have to do that every day for five years for it to be toxic. And since 90% of our pork is domestic, it’s nearly impossible to buy that much racto pork. Everything is toxic if you take too much. The doctor gave me some pain medicine for my wrist. A small amount is safe; too much is dangerous. As long as you stay under the limits, it is fine. We don’t eat anywhere near 33 pork chops, and you can’t buy that much racto-pork. Our culture and practices are perfectly consistent with following the international standard.

Second Round, In favor of banning imports of ractopamine pork

  • Those explanations are not reasonable.
  • We eat 2.7kg of beef a year. Do you know how much pork we eat? 38kg! Of course we worry more about pork! All our box lunches are pork, not beef. You can’t compare beef and pork. We eat 3kg of pork offal every year. This is why President Ma could open up the beef market.
  • The EU pays a fine. We can do that too! I’m willing to pay a fine. We love American pork; we just don’t love racto-pork. Don’t you understand?
  • Codex was 69-67. How is that science? That is politics!
  • Why would we oppose Australian beef or Malaysian shrimp? They’re fine, so we don’t have any reason to oppose them.
  • You are afraid of bouncing checks on our promises. I don’t know what various presidents have promised. But this is a referendum. This is the will of 23m people. The DPP says this is the highest moral value. Taiwan’s future is determined by the 23m Taiwanese people. The will of 23m people is higher than the government’s policy. What government would dare override the result of their country’s referendum? The government can explain that they didn’t break their promise. It was the referendum that did it; it’s the public will. 沒辦法.
  • Why can the Mainland import 5m tons of American pork without ractopamine and we can’t import even 10,000 tons? Are we second class citizens? If they can, why can’t we?
  • If American racto pork can’t go to other countries, all of it will flood into Taiwan. Isn’t that scary? Do we need that?
  • Isn’t the USA our great friend? Will they really break their rock-solid friendship over a bit of pork? We can buy something else. We are buying a lot of military weapons. In the end, they will care about the bottom line, not whether we are specifically buying pork.
  • He talked about 33 pork chops, but scientists say that 6 bowls of pork liver soup is dangerous. Don’t tell me that 6 bowls is impossible. Mother-in-laws make pregnant women eat a lot of things.
  • I’m worried about offal. Last year we imported 6000 tons of pork intestines and bones, and 20,000 tons of ground up offal. That goes into all kinds of pork products we eat (lists several). Can we tell which ones have ractopamine? Why can’t we label it? What rule is that breaking? We can label GMO foods, so why not this?
  • He says there are no bad health effects. Have you asked any doctors? Maybe its ok for ordinary people, but people who are pregnant, have high blood pressure, heart problems shouldn’t touch it. How many people have high blood pressure? Why do we need this?
  • Domestic pork hold 93% of the market. If imported pork increases to 20-30% of the market, Taiwanese pork famers will lose at least NTD 15 billion (USD500m).
  • On CPTPP, the Japanese agricultural market is only 78% open. 21% of their market is closed and protected. Peru and Vietnam are 96% open. Canada and Mexico are 94%, New Zealand, Australia, and Singapore are 100%. Every country has its own national conditions. You never see a country like Taiwan that loves to eat certain pork offal products. This is science. Every year we eat 3kg of offal. That is science. We eat 38kg of pork. That is science.
  • Americans don’t eat this stuff, especially offal. Americans barely eat any pork. Just bacon and sausage. Taiwanese eat lots of pork. That’s why we care about this.
  • When they talk about nuclear power, they don’t talk at all about science, it’s all emotion. We import less than 20kg of American pork a year. One nuclear power plant is at least USD10 billion. That’s GE and Westinghouse. That’s a big deal. When you stopped the 4NPP, weren’t they angry? Then we didn’t care about Americans. Isn’t that a double standard?
  • Why is the government using ppm instead of ppb?
  • Taiwan has a trade surplus of USD150billion with the Mainland. We don’t allow 2,444 agricultural products from the Mainland. Is that fair? Is this fair trade?
  • Legislators are useless. From both parties. All we have left is a public opinion. The government lies to us. Medigen is a fraud. Racto pork is a fraud. Algal reefs are a fraud. Green energy is a fraud. Four yes votes: that is public opinion.

Second Round, against banning imports of ractopamine pork

  • Chao asks why we can’t use a referendum to decide policy since public opinion is the highest value. Don’t forget: every country has public opinion. If we use public opinion to decide international trade, countries that rely on exports will be the biggest losers. Last year we had over NTD9 trillion in exports. Our total tax revenue was only NTD 2.9t. International trade is critical to all of us. Take computer chips. Countries don’t tax our chip exports because of WTO rules. Our chip trade surplus depends on other countries respecting their agreement to follow the rules. If Taiwan goes outside those rules to use a referendum to decide its trade policies, this would violate those international rules. If we use public opinion instead of international rules, Taiwan will be the biggest loser.
  • We eat 38kg of pork a year. 90% is domestic pork. Only 1.2% of our pork is American. It’s actually quite difficult to buy racto pork right now. Domestic pork doesn’t use racto. So if you are worried about racto, eat domestic pork and you won’t eat any ractopamine. It’s easy. If you are like me and don’t worry about ractopamine, most of the time I will still buy domestic pork. How much danger is there in that 38kg if we barely eat any American pork?
  • We eat 0.7kg of American pork and 2.7kg of American beef. After 9 years of imported beef, we have confidence that it is safe.
  • Why can’t we pay a fine like the EU? The EU has already paid 15 years, and it will continue to have to pay. Do our pork producers even want this? Anyway, why does the EU agree to pay this fine? If it is to ensure safety, I’d say it was worth it. But all our evidence shows that, even considering Taiwan’s eating culture, there is no danger to our health. Why should we pay this fine?
  • Chao says the Codex is political. It’s true that all international standards are voted on. But remember, our standards are just set by the Codex. We start from the Codex and then our experts do our own studies. President Ma did one; President Tsai did another. Australia, Singapore, and Japan all did their own studies of food safety and decided to open. The vote on the Codex is irrelevant. Our decisions are based on our own studies, just like everyone else’s.
  • Chao says that he has heard things on Line and the internet. Every society has people who don’t believe things no matter how much scientific evidence there is. That’s ok. That’s why we label the country of origin. Domestic pork doesn’t have ractopamine, so if you care about it you can avoid it.
  • Chao is worried that American pork will flood the market. We’ve been importing pork for over 20 years (since we joined WTO) and the market share has rarely been much above 10%, even when we had an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. We finally defeated foot and mouth disease in 2020, and we were able to resume pork exports. What if Japan and other countries use public opinion to pass a referendum saying they don’t believe we are really free of foot and mouth disease and ban our pork imports? Would that be fair?
  • According to our studies, Japanese studies, Australian studies, Singapore studies, there is no issue with food safety. If people don’t believe these studies, it’s ok. They can just look at the label and choose domestic pork.
  • GMO labeling is voluntary, not mandatory, so there is no question of international rules. If you want to use mandatory labeling for ractopamine, you have to provide a scientific justification for violating the international rules. This would cause stress with Canada, the USA, and others, and our own domestic pork producers would oppose it. Labeling country of origin and forbidding domestic use of ractopamine is simple, effective, and follows the rules.
  • Chao says Japan is only 78% open. Japan has several categories that are slowly transitioning to zero tariff, but they allow all these imports. None of the imports are banned. This is different from a move to ban imports of racto pork. The rules say you can only ban a product if you have a scientific basis. Again, our studies (and those from Japan, Australia, Singapore) don’t provide a scientific basis to ban racto pork, even considering our dietary customs. Again, we haven’t had a single case in 9 years of eating American beef, and we eat even less American pork. If you don’t believe this, just eat domestic pork and you don’t have to worry.
  • If the world uses public opinion to make decision, Taiwan will be the biggest loser.

My impression is that Lee generally made more persuasive arguments. Chao asked a lot of questions, but didn’t provide nearly as many concrete points to support himself. He likes to ask simple questions of the “If they can, why can’t we?” variety. These sound good until someone challenges them and explains that either “they can’t” or “here’s why we can’t.” The danger for the government side is that it is a lot easier to remember the simple question than the complex answer.

As an American, I’m a bit offended that Chao thinks that consuming American products is the same as loving America. Driving a Tesla is more an act of conspicuous consumption than one of patriotism. Also, I’m shocked to learn that Americans don’t eat pork. Chao got a MA from Clemson. Surely, he must have been introduced to Carolina BBQ.

More seriously, we can now see that debate focusing on several critical points.

  • Is ractopamine safe?
  • Is this referendum anti-American?
  • Will this referendum have an effect on CPTPP?
  • More generally, is it acceptable for Taiwan to make decisions case-by-case, or does Taiwan have an obligation to make its decisions according to international standards?

If people are paying attention to this debate, they are getting a fairly solid set of criteria to make their decision. I’m not sure how many people are paying attention, though.

Referendum campaigns start. Pork is debated.

November 15, 2021

We are now about a month away from the Dec 18 referendums. Following the KMT’s successful attempt to recall Taiwan Statebuilding Party legislator Chen Po-wei last month, the government has given up any hope that they can just rely on low turnout to defeat the four referendums. They are going to have to mobilize voters to actively reject them. We are starting to see outlines of how this campaign will unfold.

There are four items on the ballot.

  • Bar pork imports containing ractopamine
  • Hold referendums on the same day as national elections
  • Restart work on the mothballed Fourth Nuclear Power Plant (4NPP)
  • Relocate a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal to protect algal reefs

The former two are sponsored by the KMT. The latter two are not directly sponsored by the KMT, but the KMT was heavily involved in the signature drives to get these items on the ballot. All four can be seen as KMT initiatives designed to deal the government a defeat.

Let’s be clear. I fundamentally do not think these are sincere efforts to seek a good public policy outcome. Most people don’t really have strong opinions about these topics, with the possible exception of 4NPP. We have been talking about 4NPP for 30 years, and attitudes about 4NPP cross party lines. However, the debate among normal people rarely goes beyond the most basic ideas (it isn’t safe; we need clean air; renewables are better). It isn’t the case that the broad population is well-versed in the nuances of energy policy. Ractopamine has been on the national radar for a decade, but it is still generally talked about in alarmist rhetoric rather than any nuanced discussion. Notably, both major parties have been on both sides of this question, depending on whether they were in government or opposition. As for the other two, I just don’t believe many people have strong opinions at all. “What’s this one about? Protecting the environment? Sure, I’m for that.” “What’s this one about? Increasing the amount of coal we burn? I don’t want that!” It’s a problem we face in survey research all the time: If you ask people a question that they have never thought about, they’ll probably give you an answer. It just won’t be very meaningful. For the most part, positions on these referendums just reflect where the voter stands on other, more fundamental questions. “People I like say to vote yes, so I guess I’ll vote yes.” These referendums are about power, not good public policy. The KMT wants to kick the DPP in the teeth. Supporters of smaller parties wouldn’t mind seeing the DPP suffer some embarrassment.

Polling on the referendums is limited and fairly low-quality, but I think it is fair to say that all four were favored to pass in October (when the media and general public started to focus on the upcoming referendums). A few months ago, there were KMT leaders talking about how the referendums would be a referendum on President Tsai’s performance. In my opinion, that was an entirely accurate depiction of how referendums actually function. However, the KMT has stopped asking people to vote for the referendums to vote against Tsai for one simple reason: Tsai’s approval ratings have recovered. The October My Formosa poll shows Tsai has 53.7% job satisfaction and 43.3% dissatisfaction. If the vote is purely a referendum on Tsai, the KMT will probably lose. The DPP is losing the referendums right now, but Tsai and the DPP are not dragging the “no” campaigns down. They are popular enough to make a case. Still, it’s an uphill battle to change people’s minds once they have decided where they stand.

There is some garbage internet polling on the referendum that I won’t bother with. The only telephone polls thus far come from two of my least favorite pollsters, the deep green Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation and the deep blue TVBS. Still, this is what we have.

   yesnoDon’t know
PorkTPOFOct 2668.125.76.3
PorkTVBSNov 12553213
Same DayTPOFOct 2657.437.28.4
Same DayTVBSNov 12503713
4NPPTPOFOct 2646.741.711.5
4NPPTVBSNov 12424513
LNGTPOFOct 2647.729.622.8
LNGTVBSNov 12373330

The first major development in the campaign came in early November when important people inside the KMT started rebelling against the 4NPP proposal. Yilan county commissioner Lin Tzu-miao expressed opposition, and New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi expressed doubts. KMT chair Eric Chu, who a few weeks ago was talking about passing all four items, suddenly changed his tune. The KMT had only proposed two items (pork, same day referendums), and it was only dedicated to passing those two. The other two (4NPP, LNG) came from other groups. While the KMT was sympathetic to them, it would not demand its party members all support them. It was up to each member to decide for themselves. In effect, Chu was trying to distance the KMT from the two energy-related proposals.[1] The polls showed that these were the least popular of the four, and the arguments against them are the easiest to make. Without enthusiastic KMT support and loud DPP opposition, they seem to be in a bit of trouble. We’ll see if the polls continue to slide for these two.

On Saturday, the Central Election Commission held four public forums, one for each referendum. In the hour-long event, the proposer made the case for the referendum and one person made the case against. I’m not sure how the latter people were chosen, but they are all high-ranking government bureaucrats in the agencies responsible for the specific policy [edit: they are all political appointees, not regular civil servants]. I haven’t watched all four forums yet, but I have watched the one on pork, which is the one I assume my readers will care more about. KMT legislator Lin Wei-chou 林為洲 presented the case in favor, while Council of Agriculture Chair Chen Chi-chung 陳吉仲 presented the case against. To give you a flavor of how the two sides are making their arguments, I present a summary of their main points.

For the anti-pork referendum (1st round)

  • The DPP was against ractopamine beef and pork before the adoption of the Codex establishing acceptable levels (in 2011), and continued to oppose it after that.
  • Racto-pork is not the same as American pork. This referendum is not anti-American. That is government misleading people.
  • Ractopamine is not safe. The Codex vote only passed by two votes, and lots of countries – including Taiwan – still prohibit its use domestically.
  • Why did the government suddenly approve ractopamine last August? Some people wonder whether the government was trying to support a particular candidate in the American election.
  • The KMT legislative caucus proposed several bills regulating racto-pork (no offal, protecting students, labeling whether pork contains ractopamine), but they were all rejected.
  • Taiwanese eat 6-7 times more pork than beef, so it is much more important to regulate pork quality. We are especially worried about processed pork products, which are harder to trace.


Against the anti-pork referendum (1st round)

  • This is an anti-American pork initiative. Past KMT protests have said they were against American pork.
  • Since the Codex was passed, 109 countries allow imports of meat with ractopamine
  • The market has been opened for several months, and there haven’t been dire effects on the domestic pork industry. The price of pork is still high, and pork exports are higher. The government has implemented a program of new policies in order to minimize the impact of opening the market. President’s Chen and Ma tried to open the market, but couldn’t. Tsai has been able to do it because she has pushed the entire policy package.
  • Taiwan is following the Japanese model of differentiating between imported meat allowing ractopamine and domestic meat not allowing it so that consumers concerned about ractopamine will be able to tell which meat does not contain it. Thus far since there is no market demand, no pork with ractopamine has been imported. Consumers win, local producers win, and Taiwan follows the international rules of the game.
  • Taiwan has been importing American beef since 2012. There haven’t been any health problems. In fact, there haven’t been any reported ractopamine-related problems globally.
  • Many countries have opened up to ractopamine mean, including many CPTPP members.
  • This is a question of international economic arrangements, not food safety. Because President Tsai opened the market, Taiwan has been able to restart TIFA talks. We have a NTD2.4trillion trading relationship with the USA, including a trade surplus of NTD530billion.
  • CPTPP has rules about food safety. Applicants must follow international standards.


For the anti-pork referendum (2nd round)

  • You are misrepresenting our position by calling it anti-American. Taiwan has been importing American pork for 30 years with no problem.
  • 160 countries don’t allow ractopamine in domestic production. Would they do this if there were no health problems? The Codex allows countries to make their own domestic policies. The EU does not allow any ractopamine imports, including from the USA. If the EU can, why can’t we?
  • Pork is labeled as American, but we can’t tell if it contains ractopamine. The government wouldn’t let us label ractopamine or not. It’s all mixed together. But these meats will all get into processed pork products whether we want them or not.
  • We haven’t had American ractopamine pork imports, but if the referendum fails they will all flood in since they are cheaper.
  • On CPTPP, the USA is not in CPTPP. Several CPTPP countries don’t allow racto-beef but allow racto-pork. Why? Because Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia eat more beef than pork, so opening the pork market doesn’t have much impact. We eat more pork than beef. Why can’t we act strategically like them?

Against the anti-pork referendum (2nd round)

  • In fact, this is an anti-American pork initiative.
  • No country allows labeling ractopamine, so this is against international practices. Actually, sales of American pork have declined since we opened the market. Consumers win, producers win, the country wins.
  • We each eat 2.7kg of American beef annually. Ractopamine goes through your system quickly. This is not a food safety issue.
  • President Tsai’s policies have been good for Taiwanese farmers. They successfully eradicated foot and mouth disease so that pork farmers could export meat.
  • There were a lot of food safety scandals under President Ma. There haven’t been any under Tsai. Food safety isn’t done by a referendum; it takes detailed policies and action. He talks about inspecting food in markets. We use more domestic food products for school lunches than before and teach students about where it comes from and how it is produced. That is food safety.
  • Food safety is not what is driving this question. We don’t decide international rules of the game with a referendum. President Tsai is taking Taiwan into the world. Remember when China suddenly and arbitrarily blocked our pineapples? We were angry. If we do that, won’t the USA be angry? This is respecting the international rules.

A few final thoughts. In writing this out, Lin Wei-chou’s arguments in favor seem a bit thin. They seemed much better when I was just listening to him. I think Chen Chi-chung had the better performance, though I’m wouldn’t say he clearly won the debate. For example, much of Lin’s argument was based on worries that ractopamine might be dangerous rather than solid arguments that it actually is, while Chen could say that there isn’t a single documented case globally of a ractopamine-caused health problem. In the abstract, that’s a point to Chen. However, if you – like many Taiwanese – are predisposed to suspect that ractopamine is dangerous, Lin’s argument becomes much more compelling.  

It is also interesting to me that Chen mentions President Tsai again and again. Both sides have strategic reasons to not explicitly turn this into a referendum on the government’s performance, but they both know that it is one. Chen is much more aggressive in making the case that the government has generally done a good job and deserves voters’ trust.

The two sides seem to agree that the crucial question is whether or not this is a narrow question about domestic consumption of ractopamine pork. Lin argues that there are no international implications, while Chen argues that the international effects would be dire.[2] Chen says that ractopamine is safe, but he implicitly admits that Taiwanese don’t really want ractopamine pork.[3] Remember, he brags about how domestic sales of Taiwanese pork have risen since labeling of the country of origin became mandatory –presumably because consumers don’t trust the safety of imported pork. Opening the market to ractopamine pork is something he says we have to do for TIFA, CPTPP, and the larger economy. The point here is that, if this referendum is defeated, it won’t be because people see the wonderful benefits of cheaper American pork. It will be because they value good relations with the USA and are willing to pay a hefty price for those relations.

The government is starting this campaign from behind, and it only has a month left to change people’s minds. This is a daunting task, but at least it has finally started directly attacking the problem.


[1] After watching the 4NPP forum, I can see why Chu wants to distance himself. That guy is a disaster! His solution for dealing with nuclear waste was to flippantly say they could store it at his house.

[2] Above, I assumed that my readers are more interested in pork than the other referendums. I don’t think most of you care very much about the quality of the pork I eat; I assume most of you – especially those living outside Taiwan – are primarily worried about the effect this referendum could have on Taiwan-USA relations. Lin is betting that many Taiwanese voters will reject this premise.

[3] For the record, I’m not crazy about American pork, either. This is not specifically due to ractopamine; I’m generally concerned about industrialized agricultural products. I’m not crazy about American beef or milk, either. I prefer the higher prices created by Taiwan’s smaller farms, since the smaller scale farmers don’t have the same incentives to “rationalize” every aspect of their operations. On pork, I’m partial to meat from black pigs, a local breed that grows more slowly and is less responsive to lean meat enhancers. I can’t be sure our local pig farmers don’t use all kinds of hormones and chemicals to make more profit, but I assume that the farmers interested in those sorts of strategies wouldn’t be raising the less competitive black pigs in the first place. Lin worries about pork in processed foods and restaurants, and he has a point. No one is monitoring my local noodle shop every day to ensure that the pork they bought in the market that morning for their 榨菜肉絲麵 noodles is actually ractopamine-free. We inevitably consume some of it, though I don’t think I eat enough meat to consume dangerous levels of ractopamine or (hopefully) any other chemicals.

Recall of Chen Po-wei (Taichung 2)

October 24, 2021

Chen Po-wei 陳柏惟 (Taiwan Statebuilding Party, TSP) was recalled from his seat in Taichung 2nd district yesterday. I haven’t paid a lot of attention to each cut and thrust of this recall, so I can’t comment a lot on the strategic decisions of the pro- and anti-recall efforts. However, I will say that this incident has neatly displayed many of the flaws in the recall law. I have argued that the current recall law invites big parties to bully small parties, makes it easier to recall someone than to elect them in the first place, and encourages losers to continually try to overturn election results, even without a major change in public opinion. Check, check, and check. The fact that Chen will lose his seat is a clear indication that the electoral law must be reformed to make recalls much more difficult.

The recall law currently requires that the yes side exceed 25% of eligible voters and that yes notes must outnumber no votes. Taichung 2 has 294,976 eligible voters, so the yes side needed at least 73,744 votes.

  Valid %Eligible %
Yes (recall)77,89951.526.4
No (don’t recall)73,43348.524.9

It was a very close result by both standards. The yes side beat the no side by fewer than 5,000 votes, and they only exceeded the 25% threshold by 1.4%.

This is not much different from the results of the general election. In January 2020, Chen won a very close race against KMT incumbent Yan Kuan-heng. Yen played a leading role in this recall election, and he is expected to try to regain his seat in the coming by-election. I don’t think it is much of a stretch at all to suggest this recall was an attempt to overturn the 2020 election result.

  Valid %Win
Yen (KMT)107,76648.9 
Chen (TSP)112,83951.1*

I believe that recalls should be reserved for extraordinary cases in which an incumbent clearly loses large amounts of previous support. Going from 51-49% to 48-51% doesn’t strike me as a massive shift in public opinion. This is more like the kind of shift that you get several times a month on one direction or the other depending on the headlines of the day. Relitigating elections every time there is a 3% shift is a recipe for chaos.

It isn’t obvious why this is a stronger indication of a public mandate than the previous result. Why should 77,899 votes be more powerful than the 112,839 votes that were cast to elect Chen? This may have been more of a mobilization victory than a change in public opinion. Yen may simply have mobilized 73.3% of his previous support, while Chen could only mobilize 65.1% of his. It wouldn’t be surprising if Yen had (as pretty much everyone believes) a significant advantage in grassroots organization that allowed him to mobilize more of his supporters at any odd time in the middle of the election cycle. However, let’s keep in mind that over a fourth of the people who voted against Chen the first time neglected to vote against him this time. We certainly don’t have any reason to believe that many people who voted for Chen in 2020 changed their minds and voted against him this time.

I know that some will object that Chen and his supporters should have mobilized more to defend his seat. However, I believe that the burden of proof should be on the side trying to overturn the previous result, not on the incumbent. At any rate, Chen demonstrated that he maintains most of his previous support. The recall side did not demonstrate any massive change in public opinion.

A successful recall should provide a clear repudiation of a previous electoral result. This recall failed to do that. It was much easier to defeat Chen Po-wei in a recall than in the general election. That is an institutional failure.

Book review: Taiwan’s Green Parties

August 23, 2021

My friend Dafydd Fell’s new book, Taiwan’s Green Parties: Alternative Politics in Taiwan, has been staring at me for several months. I was finally able to read it this week, and it was quite informative and stimulating. I consider myself to be quite knowledgeable on Taiwan electoral politics, but I learned A LOT about this little corner of the political spectrum. Dafydd spent about eight years working on this book, and during that time he interviewed nearly everyone in or around the Green Party Taiwan (GPT). When he tells us about the internal conflicts or soap operas, he isn’t drawing on secondhand information gleaned from actors who gave political spin to reporters. He is getting it straight from the actors themselves, usually a few months after the events in which they have had time to distance themselves from the day-to-day events. The result is as much of an insider account as you will ever find in an academic book. This is fantastic research, and if you are interested in Taiwan’s electoral politics, the Green Party Taiwan, movement parties, or what life is like inside a fringe party, you need to read this book.

 Most of the book is centered around explaining the GPT’s electoral ups and downs from its founding in 1996 to the 2020 elections. A number of factors are considered, but two are identified as the most important. On the one hand, the GPT has had to find space in a political system dominated by two mainstream parties, and it hasn’t always been easy to find such space. For each election, Dafydd starts with a discussion of the party system. How has the party system (including events that shape the party system) changed since the last electoral cycle, and how did that present or restrict opportunities for the GPT? On the other hand, given the concrete space that the GPT faces in each election, how did it go about trying to take advantage those opportunities? The GPT has agency, and it has made many consequential decisions over the years. After giving the broad overview of each election, we look at individual campaigns. The GPT hasn’t nominated all that many candidates over the years, so Dafydd is able to look at a lot of obscure campaigns in quite a lot of detail. This includes not only campaigns for the national legislature, but also many campaigns for city and county council.

Now, I’ve done more work on city and county council elections that most political scientists, but even I found a lot of these campaigns to be obscure. One example that was compelling to me personally was the case of Chang Ming-li 張明麗, who in 2014 ran for the Keelung City Council, District 6. It was a four-seat district, and her 1048 votes placed her 10th out of 12 candidates. It wasn’t that close; the last winner got two and a half times as many votes as she did. The reason I know anything at all about her is that I live in this district. I have only a very vague memory of her. As with all candidates, the first question is whether to take them seriously. I think I looked at one of her leaflets and dismissed her as a certain loser. Dafydd devotes an entire page to her, concluding that she realized too late that she needed to go out and campaign and that she was actually quite good at it. If only she had started earlier! It was such a pity that she didn’t try again in 2018! Um, that might be a slightly optimistic interpretation of the result… Regardless, I rejoice in academic work that digs down into the weeds to find things that others might have neglected, and this book is a celebration of weed-digging. From all this minutia, we emerge with a rich picture of what GPT campaigns look like on the ground. And since they don’t look like KMT or DPP campaigns, this is a fresh perspective on Taiwanese politics.

The GPT’s electoral record is unimpressive. Dafydd identifies different eras as being more or less successful. So 1996-8 was better, 1999-2005 was dormant, the party re-emerged from 2006-2010, and it was close but never quite made an electoral breakthrough in 2012-2020. I think this is quite a generous reading of history. From my perspective, there is clear failure, dismal failure, and utter failure. I don’t think the GPT has ever been politically relevant in any meaningful sense. There’s a reason that pollsters almost never include the GPT as one of the options when they ask about party ID.

The book is full of stories like Chang’s, in which a candidate didn’t come particularly close to winning. In most cases, the GPT figures explain these results in terms of candidate quality. We didn’t nominate early enough, they didn’t get out of the office and go talk to voters, they didn’t work hard enough, we didn’t have enough money. One of the oldest tropes in politics is that when my side loses, it’s because we had a lousy candidate. When my side wins, it’s because we had better ideas. The GPT uses this trope quite liberally.

Another reason for the GPT’s lousy electoral record is incessant infighting. Fringe parties are notorious for internal squabbles and inability to cooperate (The Judean People’s Front!). The GPT seems to have been constantly bickering. Whenever anyone tried to do something that might win more votes, other people in the party complained that they were sellouts. There were many instances of a new leadership trying to marginalize former leaders. And proposed coalitions with other parties … well I’ll get to that in a minute. For now, let’s just say that the GPT placed far more importance on maintaining their “purity” than on winning elections.

There are numerous occasions in this book in which someone says something extremely revealing. Perhaps the most shocking instance involves Wang Hau-yu. Wang became the party leader from 2017 until he not only resigned that position but withdrew from the Green Party altogether in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Wang was unique among GPT politicians for his ability to regularly get media attention. One way he did this in the 2020 campaign was by releasing survey data on the state of the race. He claimed to have commissioned 25 separate surveys, and each time he was able to add his own spin to the resulting media reports. If nothing else, his continual presence in the media reminded potential voters of the GPT’s existence. At the time, I wondered how he was funding all these surveys. 25 surveys add up to a pretty penny for a cash-strapped organization like the GPT. One of the informants hints at an answer. According to an anonymous party insider, Wang had a secret arrangement with the DPP in which the DPP provided him with survey data. In return, Wang would attack the KMT, NPP, and TPP (p 264). In short, Wang got exposure and chances to argue against GPT rivals, while the DPP was able to outsource negative campaigning and avoid any blame. This doesn’t sound terrible for the GPT, but there’s more. In the last days of the campaign the DPP (predictably) issued a plea with sympathetic voters to vote for the DPP on the party list. One might have expected Wang – the GPT party leader – to make a counterargument that it was the GPT that desperately needed the votes. A few days after the election (in which the DPP won a comfortable majority while the GPT was completely shut out of the legislature), Wang explained why he did not do this on his Facebook page, “of course I knew that at this time the best method would be to tell everyone that the DPP was not in danger. But I did not, I could not do that. I could not put the GPT’s interests first if that meant there was the slightest possibility of there not being a [DPP] parliamentary majority and Han Kuo-yu winning the presidency” (pp 264-5). This is a stunning betrayal! If Wang thought it was most important for the DPP to get votes, he had no business at all representing the GPT! It appears that Wang was simply a DPP agent using the GPT to do the DPP’s dirty work. If this is correct, he had no business leading the GPT, and the only surprising part of his departure from the party immediately after the election is that it wasn’t more acrimonious.

Movement parties often find elections difficult. One reason for this is that social movements and electoral politics demand different priorities. For example, a labor movement might push workers to strike in order to obtain higher salaries or better working conditions, even though strikes are usually very unpopular among the general public. Movements have to be more radical; elections demand currying favor with mainstream voters. There is an inherent contradiction. However, this hasn’t been the GPT’s problem. They have been a lousy electoral party, but they’ve also been pretty lousy at movement politics. The GPT hasn’t offended mainstream voters because it was staging sit-ins on construction sites, leading marches against Formosa Plastics, protesting nuclear power plants, or engaging in any kind of civil disobedience for … anything. The GPT simply hasn’t been a radical force. When GPT members talk about their record, they point to the fact that some of their longtime positions – against nuclear power, for marriage equality – how now been accepted as mainstream. See, they’re winning! The only problem is that the GPT hasn’t had much to do with that process. In any neutral account of the anti-nuclear movement, for example, the GPT is merely going to be a peripheral actor. The other thing the GPT repeatedly stresses is their international character. They are part of the Global Green Movement! When they talk about what they do between elections, time after time they talk about attending the Global Green convention. Hooray. Forgive me for suggesting that taking a week to go on a trip to London, New Zealand, or Tokyo isn’t exactly my idea of a political movement. They are proud that they persuaded the Global Greens to pass a resolution recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty. Ok, but when the German Foreign Minister was from the German Green Party, did he care at all about that resolution? The GPT has a party platform, but they don’t seem to do any of the hard work necessary – electoral or movement – to turn those ideals into concrete public policy. In fact, in discussing the aftermath of the 2020 election, the GPT talks about needing to rebuild its ties to social movements since they have let those wither over the past decade.

While this book is an exhaustive look at GPT leaders and candidates and their roles in elections, there is one largely overlooked actor: the voters. Does the GPT have a stable block of supporters? The GPT estimated that between 2016 and 2020, it lost about 1 million voters and gained about the same number (pp 269-71), which suggests that the GPT’s core support base is smaller than they might hope. Who is the GPT tying to appeal to? Some people suggest they should concentrate on Taipei City, while others argue they will have more success in rural areas and small cities. Are they targeting affluent people or working-class voters? Do they expect more support among young or old voters? More important than any demographic categories, how do voters think about the GPT’s issue appeals? Throughout this book, we find GPT politicians rejecting the notion that they are a single-issue party. In their minds, they are promoting a whole range of progressive positions, such as labor rights, housing justice, social inequality, good government reforms, trade policies, and national sovereignty. However, I suspect that most ordinary voters do not share such a broad image of the GPT. In a telling quote, GPT activist Robin Winkler recalls early discussions of cooperation with the SDP before 2016, “my first question [to SDP representatives] was ‘why don’t you just join us?’ They said that you’re just about the environment. I said, ‘have you read our charter?’” (p 211). If these politically sophisticated and sympathetic people – activists who were considering cooperation – thought that they GPT was merely a single-issue party, it seems very likely that most ordinary voters probably would as well. (Winkler’s reaction, that they needed to educate themselves, is also revealing. Successful parties don’t reflexively assign homework to the people they are trying to attract.) Even if most voters don’t know what the GPT stands for, are many voters open to those positions? Do the different arguments conflict with each other, attracting some voters but repelling others?

It is hard to do research on fringe parties since our standard survey data isn’t very useful for parties that have less than 3% support. Dafydd devotes five pages (103-108) to this topic, but the lack of good data means that he is only able to come up with some speculative suggestions. The only data we see about issues comes from a 2016 internet survey of 116 GPT/SDP supporters, which is very small and probably has a skewed sample (60% were students). We find that LGBT rights, environmental protection, labor right, and land justice were the top four issues for these supporters. Unfortunately, we don’t know if labor rights supporters, for example, were expressing support for the GPT, the SDP, or both. All in all, we simply don’t learn much about the GPT’s support base beyond the stories that they tell themselves. And given that we have learned that they aren’t exactly a group of professional politicians deeply embedded in their constituencies, I don’t have a lot of faith that they actually know who votes for them and why.

It is finally time to talk about the beast looming over everything related to Taiwanese politics including the GPT: national identity. National identity is impossible to ignore. China forces this issue on Taiwan, and it permeates all sorts of seemingly unrelated questions. Baseball, airline names, vaccine purchases, a trip to Bolivia, hotel development on Taiwan’s east coast, pineapple farming, national health care costs, my quest for Taiwanese citizenship: China twists them all. There simply aren’t any issues on which Taiwanese voters don’t have to think about the relationship between Taiwan and China. Decisions about how to respond to all these different questions are usually grounded in national identity. People who feel a bit Chinese tend to opt for different policies than people who don’t feel at all Chinese. National identity will continue to dominate Taiwanese politics until Taiwan’s sovereignty is settled. It is inescapable.

From one perspective, the GPT has taken a quite clear stance on Taiwan identity. Kao Cheng-yen sailed out into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 to “catch” the missiles China was firing. The TGP got the Global Greens to pass resolutions on Taiwan sovereignty. The GPT issued statements in favor of Hong Kong protesters. Isn’t all that pretty clear? Well, no. While there are undoubtedly many GPT figures with a strong stance on Taiwan identity and almost none screaming about how they are Chinese, there are hints of ambiguity. A GPT executive committee member suggested the GPT’s task was, “the GPT needs to convince the public that the GPT wants to transcend the issue of unification or independence, either way Taiwan needs to survive and have a good environment” (p 140). This person wants to play both sides; she is not interested in a clear position. An even more striking statement comes from a GPT supporter, “young people in Taiwan today, they have a good life. Young people today don’t say, ‘I want to be independent.’ They don’t think about that as much as before. We have a good life now. … If you keep shouting about independence, unification all days, people will feel annoyed. We are a country now, why do you need to keep repeating those things? (p107). I have spent quite a bit of time over the past year looking at Han Kuo-yu’s rhetoric, and he repeatedly said almost exactly the same thing (except he would have insisted that life in Taiwan is currently lousy). In the current environment, when someone insists identity is not important, it often means they simply don’t want to talk about their opinion because they know it is unpopular.

The GPT seems to know they have an ambiguous stance. GPT activists blamed their poor showings in 2016 and 2020 on a popular desire for a clearer stance on China questions after the Chou Tzu-yu incident and the Hong Kong protests. Either they don’t believe their own autopsy, or they are willingly paying a price for this ambiguous stance.

It isn’t just a question for voters. National identity is probably behind the GPT’s problems in forming electorally advantageous coalitions. In 2012 and 2016, the DPP yielded a legislative district to a GPT (or GPT allied) candidate. This should have been a golden opportunity. The GPT’s candidate was guaranteed media coverage, and the DPP was basically inviting it to make a sales pitch to its tens of thousands of local supporters. This was also an opportunity for the GPT to make contact with organizational networks and potential financial backers. However, the GPT was not able to take advantage of these opportunities. In both cases, when Tsai Ing-wen campaigned with the GPT candidate (national attention!! this is your chance!!), GPT party activists publicly revolted against any suggestion that they were endorsing her presidential campaign. In a contest between the KMT and DPP presidential candidates, they did not want to take a side (even though the DPP presidential candidate was endorsing their legislative candidate). They might have argued that their neutrality had nothing to do with national identity, but presidential elections are essentially referendums on exactly that question. The GPT might write something about sovereignty in its party charter, but very few people read party charters. These incidents got national press coverage, making it clear for all to see that the GPT was internally divided on Taiwan identity. Moreover, because of this internal division, they weren’t able to commit to an electorally advantageous alliance. They wanted to tell people to ignore identity and focus on the environment, but they were unable to take their own advice. Identity is inescapable.

Reforming the Recall Law

February 6, 2021

The recall vote against Kaohsiung city councilor Huang Chieh failed miserably today. Under the current law, there are two ways a recall can fail. This one failed both ways. At least 25% of the eligible voters must vote for the recall, and only 19.0% actually did so. Moreover, 10,000 more people voted against the recall than voted for it. This was a decisive repudiation of the recall, and one might wonder why it even got this far. However, perhaps the real takeaway is that the current recall law is so permissive that even someone as popular as Huang Chieh is vulnerable.

This marks the fourth major recall vote since the new law was passed in November 2016. (There have also been many recalls for grassroots offices.) Two have passed, and two have failed. This new law has proven to be a disaster, and it should be modified to make recalls much more difficult.

 25% thresholdyesnoPass?
Huang Kuo-chang638884869321748no
Han Kuo-yu57499693909025051yes
Wang Hao-yu81940845827128yes
Huang Chieh728925526165391no

Let’s think about the rationale for fixed terms in political offices. On the one hand, you want politicians to be responsive to public opinion, so holding regularly schedules elections is a good idea. On the other hand, you don’t want a constant election. You have a contest, there is a winner, and the matter is settled for a period of time. We can all return to normal life. A recall is an emergency mechanism to be used in extreme circumstances when the elected official has violated public trust in some dramatic way such that there is overwhelming opposition to that person staying in office – including among large numbers of people who supported them in the first place. It isn’t a mechanism to overturn an electoral result you don’t like the first time someone loses a small sliver of their support.

What would be an appropriate time to recall someone? Remember former legislator Lin Yi-shih, who was guilty of sensational corruption? They fished garbage bags of cash out of the fish pond in front of his home in front of cameras from all the TV news stations. “014” (which sounds like his name) became nationally recognized shorthand for corruption. Lin was already out of office by that point, but imagine he had still been in office and prosecutors said that it would take several years to go through all the legal hurdles to remove him from office. Lin’s actions were a major breach of trust with his voters, since almost none of them voted for him with the expectation that he would engage in bribery or embezzlement. It certainly wasn’t one of the things he said he would do in his campaign slogans. Voters would certainly have been justified in recalling him. Alternatively, imagine a DPP legislator elected in a deep green district in Tainan who announced a month after taking office that she had decided to quit the DPP and join the KMT. This would mean opposing almost everything the voters had supported and supporting almost everything they had opposed. Again, this breach of trust would justify a recall.

What have the four recall targets done to violate trust with their voters? Have they fundamentally betrayed the ideals they presented to their voters in their original campaigns? The campaign against Huang Kuo-chang was fueled by people opposed to gay marriage. Huang had always supported this, so his actions inside the legislature should not have surprised anyone. The reasons given for recalling Wang Hao-yu and Huang Chieh are similarly lousy. They have acted in ways entirely consistent with how they presented themselves during their campaigns. Their recalls are fueled almost entirely by revenge for Han Kuo-yu’s recall. Han is the only one for whom there is even a plausible case. During the 2018 campaign, Han promised to put politics aside and concentrate 100% on economics. I don’t recall if he explicitly promised not to run for president before the election, but he certainly did make that promise repeatedly in the six months before he changed his mind and decided to run. Because he was running for president, he also was effectively an absentee mayor after promising to work hard to solve problems. On the other hand, being so nationally popular that your party demands you run for president is not generally seen as a breach of trust with the people who elected you. Han retained quite a lot of support in Kaohsiung. He got 611,000 votes in Kaohsiung in the presidential election, which is to say that about two out of every three people who supported him in 2018 still supported him in 2020 (for a higher office). In a telephone poll conducted just after he was recalled, 37% expressed satisfaction with his performance as mayor against 49% who were dissatisfied. That’s not great, but it’s also not a disaster. Did he deserve to be recalled? In my mind, probably not. At best, it’s a borderline case.

The current law makes it very easy to recall officeholders. This law has some roots in the Sunflower movement. After that upheaval, activists tried to recall several KMT legislators, including Lin Hung-chih, Wu Yu-sheng, Chang Ching-chung, and Tsai Cheng-yuan. Under the old law, the signature requirements for recalls were much more difficult, and Tsai Cheng-yuan was the only one who they actually managed to put on the ballot. However, the threshold for successfully recalling someone was also much higher – turnout had to be at least 50% of eligible voters. Tsai ignored the recall, and they fell far short of the required threshold. We should note that all of the recall targets lost their seats in the 2016 election. However, there is no evidence that any of them were overwhelmingly unpopular among the people who originally elected them. Still, the activists were convinced that their recalls SHOULD have succeeded, so the logical conclusion was that the threshold was too high. Many of those activists would end up in the New Power Party, which strongly supported the 2016 revision.

The other major force supporting the new law was the Taiwan independence wing of the DPP. They had never been interested in recalls, but they have always been interested in referendums. Prior to the revision, referendums failed for the same reason that recalls did. Turnout had to be 50%, and the side against the referendum simply wouldn’t vote. That meant that the side supporting the measure had to supply all 50%, and this had always been an insurmountable barrier. Ok, but what do recalls have to do with referendums? ROC political theory puts them in the same basket. In his Three Principles of the People, Sun Yat-sen said that people have the right to “election, recall, initiative, and referendum” 選舉罷免創制複決 and this phrase is the title of Chapter 12 of the ROC constitution. For most of ROC history, these “sacred” rights were ignored or grossly violated, but people (ironically, including people who would vomit at the idea that they were following ROC ideology) have internalized the idea that they are somehow related. It wasn’t much of a stretch to adopt the same thresholds for referendum and recall. The 2016 reform was based on the idea that the problem was that the people against the proposal were killing it by “unfairly” not turning out to vote, so they simply cut the threshold in half. Now, all proponents have to do is produce more “yes” votes than “no” votes and supply “yes” votes equal to 25% of the eligible voters.

This new law has fundamentally changed the strategy of recalls. In the past, officeholders could generally just ignore recalls. With the lower threshold, every recall has to be taken seriously. It is now much easier to recall someone than to elect someone.

Turnout in Taiwanese elections is usually 60-75%. In a single-seat race, if the winner gets a majority, that usually comes to 35-45% of eligible voters. Critically, the loser might also get 25-35% of eligible voters. That is, the losing side might not have enough support to win a general election, but they might have enough support to recall the winner from office.

Of course, it is difficult to turn out all your potential supporters. Mobilization is hard. Campaigns are enormously complex and expensive, and they take lots of time and energy. This is especially true in a recall campaign when the entire society hasn’t been building toward the excitement of a national election for several months. Just because the opposition theoretically has enough potential support to successfully recall the winner doesn’t mean they can actually produce it.

Politicians facing a recall have two choices: ignore it or fight it. If you ignore the recall, you are betting that the other side can’t mobilize 25% of eligible voters against you. You also are declining to divert precious resources – time, energy, manpower, money – away from your normal political priorities toward this unwanted political fight. However, since the other side usually has a pool of at least 25%, so you have to be confident that they are not competent enough to mobilize those votes.

Fighting – trying to mobilize your own supporters so that “no” votes outnumber “yes” votes – is also an unattractive option. As noted, mobilization is expensive. You’d almost certainly rather spend your time and money pursuing the normal duties of your office. Moreover, it’s nearly impossible to mobilize your side without also helping to mobilize the other side. When you put up ads or hold marches, you might excite your own supporters to go out to vote. However, you are also reminding people from the other side that there is an upcoming recall vote. The more you mobilize, the more you help them get to that 25% threshold. This means that you really have to think you can defeat the recall the other way, by getting more “no” votes. This is usually also problematic. Most recall targets are at least a little unpopular – that’s usually why they were targeted in the first place. Even if they have a partisan advantage in their district, their party supporters might not enthusiastic about turning out. Everyone is busy and has other things to do. If the opposition is enthused (as oppositions usually are) and voters are ambivalent about the incumbent (as they often are), it is entirely plausible that a recall could succeed. It’s also entirely plausible that the incumbent would win the seat again in a hypothetical general election held the next day.

Wang Hao-yu and Han Kuo-yu both chose to ignore the recall. Their choice was easy since both of them faced districts in which the other party had a clear partisan advantage. There was simply no way they were going to mobilize enough “no” votes to defeat the recall. Their only hope was that the “yes” side wouldn’t be able to get to 25%. They both lost this bet. Huang Chieh chose to fight. Her district has a clear green majority, so she could expect that there were enough potential “no” votes to defeat the recall if she was able to effectively mobilize. (The recall campaign also made it clear that she is generally well liked in her district.) Huang Kuo-chang came from a tossup district. He didn’t really make a clear choice. He said he was fighting and tried to mobilize “no” votes. However, he didn’t really have much mobilization capacity, and his turnout was pathetic. Fortunately for him, the other side wasn’t much better. There were far more “yes” votes than “no” votes, but they fell far short of the 25% threshold so the recall failed.

What we see is that strategies are largely determined by the nature of the district. You would hope that recalls would cross party lines since everyone could agree that the lousy politician had fundamentally betrayed the public trust, but that isn’t what has happened so far. The permissive rules encourage partisan recalls against politicians who don’t really deserve this political harassment.

Han Kuo-yu’s case illustrates another problem with the current law. When an incumbent chooses to ignore the recall, there is no constructive role for his supporters. They might think the recall is disgusting, but they are discouraged from mobilizing “no” votes. After all, their best bet is low turnout. Instead, they will be tempted to try to depress turnout. In a normal election, campaigns encourage everyone to vote. They can’t be sure everyone hearing their message will actually vote for their preferred candidate – the ballot is secret – but they can assume that most people listening to them will vote the “right” way. This produces a virtuous circle in which everyone encourages voting and works to ensure that all of their supporters can vote. Recalls are different. If only one side is mobilizing, opponents can assume that everyone voting is on the other side. They have a strong incentive to set up as many barriers, formal or informal, to voting as possible. In Han’s recall, the city government tried to limit the number of polling places to discourage voting. Han’s side certainly wouldn’t have minded if a shortage of poll workers caused long lines. The Central Election Commission eventually stepped in to ensure that there would be an adequate number of adequately staffed polling places, but the incentives against good election administration are embedded in the recall law. There were also persistent rumors that Han supporters – even organized crime gangs – would monitor who voted and enforce various types of punishments. Nothing eventually came of these rumors, but a healthy democracy should not want to encourage this sort of thing. The mere idea of voter intimidation erodes trust in the system. It would be far better to give opponents a constructive role.

The current law is bad enough for single-seat districts, but it is indefensible in multi-seat districts such as the ones city councilors are elected in. The basic premise of this electoral system is that voters vote FOR someone, not AGAINST someone. If a district has ten seats, each voter gets one vote and the ten candidates with the most votes win seats. If 7% of voters love the Bewildered Alpaca Party and vote to elect a Bewildered Alpaca candidate, it doesn’t matter how the other 93% feel about her. They can vote to elect their own damn candidates. The system is designed to empower relatively small slices of the electorate. Both Wang Hao-yu (Green Party) and Huang Chieh (New Power Party) were elected as small party candidates. (They have both since left those parties, but their party switching did not seem to motivate the recalls against them.)

However, while the election law is semi-proportional, the recall law is majoritarian. To pass a recall, you need 25% of the eligible voters. To defeat a recall, you need more “no” votes than the other side can muster. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter much that the Bewildered Alpaca Party has 7% support. What matters is the other 93%. There is basically no way the Bewildered Alpaca Party can defeat this recall. This law is designed to crush small parties.

The current recall law should not be used in multi-seat districts.

A Proposal

The recall law should be modified to make recalls much, much more difficult. The goal should be that recalls will only succeed in extreme cases. Most recalls should fail.

I propose that recall targets should be able to defeat the recall by any one of three ways:

  1. If the number of “yes” votes is less than 35% of eligible voters, the recall fails.
  2. If the number of “no” votes is greater than the number of votes the first loser got won in the general election, the recall vote fails.
  3. If the number of “yes” vote is not greater than the number of “no” votes times one plus the number of seats in the district [“no” * (m+1)], the recall fails.

Why 35%? Since most general elections have a turnout somewhere around 70%, half of 70% (ie: a majority of normal turnout) seems like a reasonable threshold. It will be difficult, but not impossible, to reach this threshold in a recall. Alternatively, this threshold could be set at half the turnout in the district in the previous general election. However, this would produce a different threshold in every district and every election. 35% is arbitrary, but it is consistent and easy to understand.

In Han Kuo-yu’s recall, there was a possibility that Han could be recalled by as few as 574,996 votes. Recall that 892,545 people voted for Han in 2018. His side complained that 574,996 people shouldn’t be able to overrule 892,545 people, and they had a good point. Perhaps the recall threshold should have been 892,546. However, there are two problems with this argument. First, Han didn’t need that many votes to win the 2018 election. He beat his main opponent by roughly 150,000 votes. Why should he be penalized for winning by so much? A more reasonable threshold would be 742,240, one more than Chen Chi-mai won. Second, the premise of a recall is that the incumbent doesn’t still have the same support as they enjoyed in the general election. If they can still demonstrate they do, in fact, have that much support, they should not be recalled. Instead of looking at the “yes” votes, we should look at the “no” votes. If Han could have turned out 742,240 “no” votes, it shouldn’t matter how many people voted “yes.”

Rule #3 is more complicated. Another basic idea is that the “yes” side has the burden of demonstrating an “overwhelming” level of support for the recall, but the meaning of “overwhelming” has different meanings in different contexts. Another basic idea is that opponents of the recall should be given a way to constructively oppose the recall within the system. Their votes should be crucial.

In normal elections, winning by one vote is sufficient. Recalls are extraordinary. Winning by one vote should not be sufficient. In a single-seat district (m=1), the recall would require at least twice as many “yes” votes as “no” votes. Most incumbents could easily manage to defend their seat under this rule. You would have to be extremely unpopular to fail to mobilize enough “no” votes to make it impossible to for other side to get twice as many “yes” votes. Of course, that’s the goal. Only extremely unpopular incumbents need worry.

This rule also makes recall possible in multi-seat districts. Theoretically, if you can get 1/(m+1) percent of the valid votes in your district, you are guaranteed to win a seat in this electoral system. Recall the Bewildered Alpaca Party. Their 7% isn’t theoretically large enough to guarantee victory in a general election, but in practice it will almost always be enough. In their ten-seat district, the other side needs to produce eleven times as many “no” votes as “yes” votes to recall their incumbent. Suddenly, the 7% of the electorate who are Bewildered Alpaca supporters can hope to defend their seat. The other 93% might really dislike them, but as long as the BAP can mobilize they have a reasonable shot at setting the threshold high enough to stay in office. This also puts the onus on the pro-recall side to produce a strong turnout to show that the incumbent really is horribly unpopular.

Let’s look at Wang Hao-yu’s recall. 84,582 voted to recall him, just a hair over the 81,940 threshold. Only 7,128 people showed up to vote “no,” but of course there wasn’t really any incentive for opponents to turn out. I think the 84,582 “yes” votes are pretty unconvincing in and of itself, especially considering how blue Chungli is. More importantly, it’s pretty unlikely that more than a handful of those 84,582 people voted for Wang in the general election. Why should their dislike of him matter now? There are eleven seats in this district, so my rule would require “yes” to twelve times as large as “no.” Even with the anemic turnout, Wang’s “no” vote is sufficient to (barely) defeat the recall. That is, he would have been able to defeat this frivolous recall while barely lifting a finger.

Wait, there’s more. Imagine that the “yes” side had produced a more impressive result. After all, Wang was elected from a tiny party; it isn’t implausible that most voters actively dislike him. In the general election, about 170,000 people voted for candidates other than Wang. What if 170,000 people had voted to recall him? By Rule #3, he could defeat that by getting 14,200 “no” votes. He got over 16,000 votes in the general election, but getting 14,000 votes in a recall is probably a lot harder than getting 16,000 votes in a recall. Rule #2 gives him another way to defeat the recall. The first loser in his district, the one who came in 12th, got 9508 votes. As long as Wang could mobilize 9509 “no” votes, he could defeat the recall and keep his seat. I’m confident he could have managed that. In other words, Wang was probably popular enough that his seat should have been impregnable.

One more case. Let’s think about former president Chen Shui-bian. Chen was elected president in 2000 in a three-way race. The KMT was unable to coordinate its support on a single person, so Chen won with only 39% of the vote. Under the current rules,* that election wouldn’t have settled anything. We’d have had a recall effort start the day after the election, the KMT would have overturned the election, there would have been a by-election, there would have been no guarantee of a different outcome, but there would have been very bitter feelings all around. It would have been a disaster for democracy. You just shouldn’t get a do-over. You get one chance to settle on a candidate, and you have to live with the results of that decision. We don’t want to live in a world of perpetual campaigns.

[*OK, technically not. There is a separate law for presidential elections, and they did not change the recall provisions for that one. This is an illustration.]

My proposed rules would help deal with this problem. Rule #3 says that a recall would have to produce twice as many “yes” votes as “no” votes. If Chen could maintain his 39% support, he would be able to defeat a recall. That is, even in a three-way race, a recall wouldn’t be inevitable. What if it had been a four-way or five-way race and Chen had won with only 31%? Rule #2 says that as long as the incumbent can mobilize as many “no” votes as the top loser got, the recall is defeated. This might require the incumbent to get some support from one of the smaller parties, but it would be doable. That is, there would be a path for the incumbent to defeat the recall as long as they weren’t horribly unpopular.

We want elections to resolve political conflicts, at least temporarily. We don’t want to live in a world of perpetual campaigns. The current recall law should be significant modified to make recalls much more difficult.

A lecture on populism

January 15, 2021

This is the most important story in Taiwan electoral politics in recent years. It’s too bad it took me so long to realize what was going on.

The 2020 surge in youth turnout

January 1, 2021

It isn’t often that I am floored by a single chart, but a few months ago I saw a chart that made me question a lot of things I thought I understood about Taiwanese politics. It turns out that youth turnout was sky-high in the 2020 election. I know some people will say, “Well, of course it was. I could have told you that.” Let me caution you. It wasn’t obvious at all. I don’t care about your personal anecdotes. I heard them all in 2016, and youth turnout wasn’t sky-high then. 2020 was qualitatively different from 2016, and it isn’t obvious why.

Here is the chart that shocked me. In 2016 and 2018, turnout for people in their 20s was somewhere around 55-60%. As the age of voters increased so did turnout, peaking at over 70% among voters in their late 60s. There was a huge gap in turnout among young and old voters. 2020 doesn’t look like that at all. More than 70% of young voters turned out. Turnout increased with age, but not nearly as much as in the past. There is an enormous gap between the lines for young voters in 2016 and 2020, and only a small one among older voters.

Before I discuss these numbers in more depth, let me tell you where they come from. This is NOT an ordinary random sample public opinion survey. This is a study by my friend Chuang Wen-jong 莊文忠 and our intellectual godfather Hung Yung-tai 洪永泰 commissioned by the Central Election Commission, which has a legal mandate to investigate any potential gender disparities. It is normally strictly forbidden to look at actual voting records due to Taiwan’s strict privacy laws. However, for this special purpose, the CEC allowed them to look at some voter rolls. They took a sample of precincts, and then they took a sample of voters from each of those selected precincts. For each voter, they collected age, sex, and whether the voter had showed up to vote. (They did not record how each voter voted. That is not recorded on the voter rolls or anywhere else.) They eventually recorded data for over 137,000 eligible voters, and this should be a pretty darn good representative sample. It is reasonable to have doubts about telephone surveys. Some people don’t have telephones, some won’t answer unfamiliar numbers, some will hang up when they realize it is a survey, and some won’t give you honest or accurate responses. None of those are problems here; you will rarely find higher quality data than this. The full report was published on the CEC website. The CEC commissioned similar studies after the 2016 and 2018 elections. I really wish we could go back in time and see data from 2012, which (I think) was a fairly “normal” election, and 2014, immediately after the Sunflower movement. However, voter rolls are destroyed within a few months after each election, so that is impossible.

Since the official purpose of the report is to study gender differences, we should first look at the differences between men and women. Young women have somewhat higher turnout – roughly 5% higher – than young men. The gender gap shrinks with age, until turnout is roughly the same for voters in their late 60s. Among the very old, men vote at higher rates than women. Overall, turnout in the 2020 presidential election was 76.7% for women and 73.2% for men. We saw similar trends in 2016 and 2018.

I don’t have much to say about gender right now. Eventually I’m going to try to figure out if young women vote differently than older women. Newcomers to Taiwanese politics are always shocked that women are about 5% more pro-KMT than men since the much-publicized gender gap in the United States favors the more progressive party. My suspicion is that older women are much more conservative than younger women (ie: the age difference for voting behavior is much larger for women than men), but I don’t have any hard evidence of that right now. This topic will have to wait for another time.

On to youth turnout. Wen-jong has thoughtfully given us a chart comparing each 5-year cohort’s turnout rate in 2016 and 2020. There’s a big gap for voters under 35.

This chart forces me to rethink some basic assumptions about how Taiwanese politics works. For about a decade, lots of people (usually those who sympathize with smaller parties) have enthusiastically been talking about mobilizing young voters. I have generally dismissed such ideas. I have always assumed that trying to mobilize young voters is a fool’s errand. You can dump a lot of resources into these efforts and it will look productive because the politically motivated youth are highly visible. However, overall youth turnout was pretty miserable, so I’ve always thought that expending too much effort on youth votes was a was of resources. Besides, due to declining birth rates, there aren’t actually all that many youth votes to be gained. Much better to focus your energy on the more numerous older voters who might actually show up and vote.

However, it turns out that you CAN mobilize young voters. In fact, maybe I’ve gotten it backwards. Maybe the way to think about it is that older voters will reliably show up in all sorts of elections, whereas younger voters might vote or they might stay home. If that’s the case, the rational thing to do might be to focus a disproportional amount of energy on the youth vote where you might be able to produce a significant difference.

We know that there are more voters in the older age groups, so how much difference does this surge in youth turnout make? As a careful scholar with a narrow mandate, Wen-jong has wisely declined to tackle this topic. I’m a lot more irresponsible, especially here on my blog, so let’s give it a whirl.

The government publishes population data for every month. The number of citizens over 20 is not exactly the same as the number of eligible voters, but it’s close enough. So we have a pretty good estimate for the number of voters in each five-year age group in January 2020. Multiplying these numbers by Wen-jong’s turnout estimates, we can get an estimate of actual votes for each age group in 2016 and 2020. (Since this is a quick and dirty exercise, I didn’t bother to get 2016 estimates for eligible voters even though everyone was four years younger then. It shouldn’t change things too much.)

agepop2016 votes2020 votesgap
20~24歲15119398769251099180222255
25~29歲16096289062211155713249492
30~34歲15911029164751137638221163
35~39歲196034811526851372244219559
40~44歲197795212342421408302174060
45~49歲177349611722811289332117051
50~54歲181282612925451395876103331
55~59歲182774013634941473158109664
60~64歲16589941282402136535282950
65~69歲13858061110031114744737417
70~74歲80938864103567179230757
75~79歲60908845498948057025582
80歲 & up82270249608951501118922
     
Total1572402512899413145116151612203

According to this, there were about 1.6 million extra votes in 2020 because of higher turnout. These were highly concentrated among the younger voters. In 2016, people 39 and under only made up 29.9% of the electorate, but this group accounted for 56.6% (about 912,000) of the “extra” turnout. As a result, the share of the under 39 group increased to 32.8% of the electorate in 2020. Nearly a million extra young votes seems like a lot.

But let’s go further. We know from quite a bit of survey evidence that young people were much more likely to vote for President Tsai. Let’s try to estimate how all those extra youth votes affected the final election tallies.

I’m going to use some numbers from the Taiwan Election and Democratization post-election survey. Surveys always ask respondents who they voted for, and post-election surveys always find inflated numbers for winners. (This is true every year, regardless of the winner’s party.) This year was no different. In the actual election, Tsai beat Han 57.7% to 38.6%. In the survey data, Tsai’s victory was an enormous 67.2% to 27.9%. To account for this, I inflated Han’s support by a factor of 1.38, Tsai’s by 0.86, and Soong’s by 0.88. This yields estimates for each of the age groups as follows:

Age groupSoong%Han%Tsai%
    
20-293.3%22.7%74.0%
30-396.6%27.8%65.5%
40-496.1%39.5%54.5%
50-592.9%48.1%49.1%
60&up3.3%45.8%51.0%

Remember, these are fairly dirty estimates suitable only for blogging purposes. A serious methodologist writing a serious academic paper would massage them in several different ways, and they’d certainly all be different (but maybe not by all that much).

What does this imply about the final vote totals? If you take the 2020 votes and the “extra” votes from the previous table and multiply them by the vote shares in this table, you get the following:

Age groupAll votes TsaiAll votes HanAll votes gap“Extra” Tsai“Extra” Han“Extra” gap
       
20-2916687025121581156544349110107149241961
30-391644687698353946334288798122627166171
40-491469929106425340567615862511484743778
50-5914074301379799276301044871024362051
60&up21298461912653217193996748951010164
       
total8320593556721627533771000694536568464126

Tsai won every age group, but she didn’t win older voters by very much. In this estimate, Tsai beat Han by 2.7m votes. More than three-fourths of this margin (2.1m) came from voters under 40. If we look at the “extra” votes, the gap is even more stunning. Compared to what would have happened if people had voted at 2016 levels, Tsai’s margin of victory was 464,000 larger. Of this margin, 88% (408,000) came from “extra” voters under 40.

If turnout had been the same in 2020 as it was in 2016, Tsai would still have won. All that extra youth turnout didn’t ultimately affect the outcome. However, the narrative might have been a bit different. Tsai got 56.1% in 2016 and surpassed that with 57.1% in 2020. Without that extra 400,000 votes from high youth turnout, some of the news coverage would have noted that her vote share had slipped a bit. “Tsai wins, but is less popular!” Han might have cracked the psychologically important 40% threshold. It wouldn’t have made THAT much of a difference, though. After all, it was a landslide either way.

However, there have been elections in which an extra 400,000 votes would have been crucial. Chen Shui-bian won the 2000 election by just over 300,000 votes and the 2004 election by under 30,000. Ma Ying-jeou won the 2012 election by a fairly comfortable 800,000 votes, though one can imagine the narrative would have been significantly different if that margin had been cut in half.

The extra youth turnout didn’t end up making that much of a difference in the presidential election, but what about the legislative election? I know there will be some readers who want to count all those extra 400,000 votes as mobilization triumphs for the New Power Party, Taiwan People’s Party, or some other small party. Let me remind you that there were plenty of small parties around in 2016. My guess is that a disproportionate number of these newly mobilized youth votes supported small parties, but it was probably less than half of the total. I suppose I could use the TEDS party vote estimates the same way I used the presidential estimates, but I’m not that brave. I can swallow a 3% error for an estimate of 55%; it’s a lot harder to feel good about a 3% error for an estimate of 6%.

Anyway, the election outcome wasn’t decided by the party list seats. Legislative outcomes turn on the 73 single seat districts. In this election, the DPP-led coalition won a legislative majority by winning 50 of the 73 SSDs. So how many of those did the green side win because of higher youth turnout?

It’s hard to tell, but let’s do some really shaky calculations. Dividing the “extra” gap by 73, higher turnout produced an advantage of just under 6000 votes for each legislative district. However, that is for the presidential election. It is reasonable to think that a fairly high number of young voters cast their legislative district vote for a small party rather than for one of the two main candidates. I’m going to assume that any green candidate in a normal sized district (ie: not tiny Penghu) who won by less than 4000 votes owes their seat to the surge in youth turnout. Here’s the list:

Lai Pin-yu (New Taipei 12, won by 2780 votes)

I was surprised to find that there weren’t more tight races; I had assumed there would be three or four of these districts. The blue side won a couple of tight races, but the green side didn’t have many squeakers this time. There were a few other districts in which the race might have been close enough if ALL the extra youth votes went to the green candidate.

Huang Hsiu-fang (Changhua 2, won by 4836 votes)

Chuang Ching-cheng (Taichung 5, won by 5272 votes)

Freddy Lim (Taipei 5, won by 5416 votes)

Chiang Yung-chang (New Taipei 8, won by 5597 votes)

Kao Chia-yu (Taipei 4, won by 6706 votes)

Of these, Chuang Ching-cheng and Kao Chia-yu might have been the most vulnerable. Both of them ran in very large districts, with almost 100,000 more valid votes than some of the smaller districts (such as Huang Hsiu-fang’s, Lai Pin-yu’s and Freddy Lim’s districts). There were presumably a higher number of “extra” youth votes in Chuang and Kao’s districts, and I think it is plausible that the surge in youth turnout changed the outcome in these two districts.

In the end, the surge in youth turnout probably didn’t fundamentally alter the election outcome. It was, after all, a landslide. However, in a different year with a much closer election, it absolutely could have been decisive. I will never again dismiss efforts to increase youth turnout.

(Caveat: The number of young voters is about to dramatically decrease. There were 1.51m people in the 20-24 age cohort. There were 1.25m in the 15-19 age cohort and 1.01m in the 10-14 age cohort.)

Kaohsiung mayoral by-election

August 15, 2020

Kaohsiung City held its by-election today, and the DPP won a smashing victory. Chen Chi-mai got 70.0% of the valid votes, leaving the KMT’s Jane Lee and TPP’s Wu Yi-cheng far behind, with 25.1% and 4.1%, respectively. Chen’s 70.0% was the highest vote share the DPP has ever gotten in Kaohsiung, beating the 68.1% Chen Chu got in her re-election campaign in 2014. Contrary to what the talking head on my TV kept saying tonight, Lee’s 25.1% was not quite the worst result the KMT has ever seen in Kaohsiung. For that, we must go back to 2000 and the juggernaut that was the Lien Chan presidential campaign. Lien got 24.0% in the old Kaohsiung City and 24.0% the old Kaohsiung County (I’ll let you do the math to figure out his overall vote share). But if this election wasn’t technically the KMT’s worst ever performance, it was substantively (since there was no James Soong taking most of the KMT vote).

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that Chen did so well. If we start with the January presidential results as our baseline, the DPP won Kaohsiung 62.2% to 34.6%. That election took place in the before times, back when almost no one (outside the presidential office) had an inkling of the coming pandemic. During the first half of this year, all the polling numbers for President Tsai and the DPP have improved, while all the polling numbers for the KMT have been miserable. In retrospect, the recall election at the beginning of June was just about the apex of DPP fortunes. The turnout to recall Han Kuo-yu was spectacular, but it was probably the worst possible time (from his perspective) to hold that vote. If it had been a few weeks or months earlier or later the recall would probably have passed but not with quite such a spectacular number. At any rate, the last two months in Taiwanese politics have been something of a reversion to normality. Rather than talking about the pandemic every day, we have been talking about normal political issues such as judicial reform, nominations to the Control Yuan, and ho to deal with China.

Some of the polling numbers have regressed toward the mean. Looking at the monthly My-Formosa polls, satisfaction with President Tsai’s performance was around 70% in the March, April, and May polls, but it fell to around 63% in the June and July polls. However, the numbers for party ID haven’t rebounded quite as much. The blue camp is still mired in the high teens, while the green camp is holding steady in the low 40s. Overall, there is good reason to believe that the DPP is more popular now and the KMT is less popular now than in January.

When looking at the candidates, we also shouldn’t be surprised that Chen did so well. Chen is clearly qualified, and he spent the first half of the year at the center of the DPP’s pandemic response team. Moreover, given all that has happened in the last 21 months, there is probably a feeling in the electorate that they made the wrong choice in 2018. It’s not unrealistic to expect him to get a sympathy vote to make up for that wrong. Meanwhile, the KMT’s candidate had a terrible campaign, continually reinforcing the notion that she was not terribly qualified for this job.

Nonetheless, I did not expect Chen to get 70% of the vote. It is very hard to add votes, and even harder when you are starting from a high baseline. I thought that there would be a number of voters who wanted to vote against whoever was in power, and, since Chen was almost sure to win, they would feel free to vote for someone else. In my head, I was picturing something like a 65-25-10 result (with the TPP candidate soaking up a lot of protest votes). 70% is impressive, any way you cut it.

Quick note about the TPP. This was a terrible result for them. This election was almost a best-case scenario for the TPP. The KMT candidate was clearly incompetent, which might have encouraged anti-DPP voters to look for another option. In addition, there has been a corruption scandal in recent weeks, featuring DPP legislators, KMT legislators, and the NPP party chair. The TPP was the only party not tarnished, which plays right into their main discourse that the other parties are all corrupt. I thought they might get double digits with an outside chance that they might get nearly as many votes as the KMT. Instead, they got a meager 4.1%. We don’t know who unhappy and disgruntled voters turned to, but, given the results, it seems most likely that they supported Chen. They certainly didn’t support the TPP. The fact that the TPP did so badly is just about the only good news of the night for the KMT.

 

As to what this all means, I have two big questions in my head. First, how will the KMT react to this result? 26% is not good. Remember, Han got nearly 35% in January, and that was considered a humiliating result. If 35% in Kaohsiung is not sustainable for the KMT, 26% is a disaster. For the KMT to feel good tonight, they really needed to get back to that 35% mark. With that, they could have told themselves that they weren’t losing ground even after this miserable year. To feel great, they needed 40%. 26% should tell them that Han’s result wasn’t necessarily the low-water mark. It can get worse.

The immediate question for the KMT concerns the party chair. I don’t think Johnny Chiang will resign, but he seems like a lame duck to me. During his tenure, the KMT has lost the recall (badly), lost the by-election (badly), been rolled in the legislature several times, lost ground in the polls, and Chiang seems utterly unable to persuade the KMT to adopt any of his reforms. Most pointedly, the party seems completely uninterested in revising its stance toward China. Barring more big changes, it seems nearly inevitable to me that Eric Chu will return as party chair. It also seems highly unlikely that he will push for any meaningful reforms, and so the best-case scenario for his leadership is for the KMT to peak somewhere around 45% of the national vote. If the KMT decides that the lesson of this election is to double down with ideologues and put Han in charge of the party, they could be looking at falling to the low 30s. At some point, one might expect the KMT to decide it is tired of losing and think about revising some of its cherished positions. However, Johnny Chiang is the person best positioned to lead that charge, and he is now crippled. The only other hope is for Hou You-yi to decide he wants to dip his toe into national politics.

My other question concerns Chen Chi-mai. Chen now holds one of the springboard positions to the presidency. There aren’t many such positions (vice president, premier, six municipal mayors, two party chairs, and perhaps one or two billionaires). Chen has the intellectual capacity to move up. I’ve interviewed him, and I was quite impressed with his grasp of both policy details and the bigger picture. Of the next generation, he is perhaps closest to the Tsai Ing-wen model. He isn’t dynamic or charismatic, but he oozes competence. However, 2018 might be a millstone that is difficult to escape from. What we learned in 2018 is that he is not charismatic enough to turn around a disadvantageous environment. He should have won that election, but he could not figure out how to force the election back to regular partisan ruts. Until he shows that was an aberration, I’m not sure DPP loyalists will trust him with a presidential nomination. One of the things that stood out to me in this campaign was that when he was attacked, he hit back. He seemed to have decided that the 2018 campaign should be positive, so he never went all-out negative against Han. That’s great if you’re winning, but not so smart if you are losing. In this campaign, he was far enough ahead that he could have stayed positive. Instead, when the other candidates brought up his father’s corruption history, he hit back by talking about Lee’s plagiarism. To me, that decision shows a growing understanding of what it takes to play at the highest level of electoral campaigns.

To be sure, Chen isn’t a legitimate contestant for the 2024 presidential nomination. He needs to have a successful tenure as mayor before he tries to move up. This must include a decisive re-election victory in 2022; another underwhelming result would be devastating to his career. Realistically, he might the cabinet (perhaps as premier) in 2027 and then try to obtain the VP nomination in 2028. Or, if the DPP loses the 2024 election, he might be a viable contender for the 2028 presidential nomination. With his performance as vice-premier and now this impressive electoral victory, I think Chen has mostly put his career back on track. However, there are still some lingering doubts in the back of my head.