Archive for the ‘elections’ Category

Han is recalled

June 6, 2020

Citizens of Kaohsiung voted today to recall mayor Han Kuo-yu. Less than two years ago, Han was an afterthought in Taiwan’s politics, one of those “didn’t-he-used-to-be?” figures. Sure, he had managed to obtain the KMT’s Kaohsiung mayoral nomination, but that was because the KMT didn’t have anyone good to run in a city they hadn’t won in two decades. Suddenly in about August 2018, he rocketed from being cannon-fodder in the Kaohsiung mayoral election polls to the front-runner. It was unlikely, but it wasn’t a polling error. Somehow, this outsider who seemed thoroughly incompatible with Kaohsiung’s partisan preferences romped to victory, beating the competent but bland DPP candidate by 9%. Almost immediately, KMT supporters started pushing Han to run for president. After all, he had just won an unwinnable race and led a national KMT sweep; he had the magic touch! Even though he had barely taken office as mayor, he rode this wave of enthusiasm. In retrospect, however, when he told a rabid crowd, “I do” [agree to run for president], what Kaohsiung voters seemed to hear was that his wandering eye had already found a prettier girl. His engagement to the KMT marked the start of divorce proceedings with Kaohsiung. As we all know, the presidential race didn’t go well for Han. His early polling lead turned into a landslide defeat. A social group started organizing a recall effort in the fall, and they found plenty of support. Now, less than two years after he dramatically burst on the scene, Han is out. His English name is Daniel, but maybe he should change it to Icarus.


I have two big topics that I want to address. First, I want to talk about the recall. Second, I will speculate on Han’s future and what this says about populism in Taiwan.


I’m not a big fan of recalls. One of the great things about elections is that they produce a resolution. You argue for several months, and then the votes are counted and one side ends up with more power. Especially in local politics, where the stakes are lower, you can then set aside political conflicts for a period of time. Democracy doesn’t work well when the population is at peak mobilization all the time. You need some ebbs and flows. Recalls have the potential to interrupt this rhythm by creating perpetual politics. It gets worse if the threshold for success is too low. When recalls are easy, you are inviting losers to try to overturn the election result. Even if the threshold for passing the recall is high, if it is easy to get a recall on the ballot, that can also be problematic. Long-shot recalls are a form of political harassment, in which the officeholders have to spend time and energy defending their seat. If one side has much stronger organizational and financial resources, it is easy to imagine how recalls could be systematically abused. The current recall law, passed in 2017, makes recalls too easy.

Let me talk in more concrete terms. In 2014, the DPP unexpectedly won the mayorship in Taoyuan. Cheng Wen-tsan turned out to be a very popular mayor, but the KMT has always had enough organizational muscle to put together a petition drive. Under the current law, they could certainly have placed a recall on the ballot. Since Cheng is popular, the KMT might not have been able to mobilize 25% of the eligible voters to vote for the recall. However, since Taoyuan has long been considered blue territory and 29.5% of eligible voters actually voted for his opponent in the 2014 election, Cheng probably would not want to count on that. He would be forced to spend immense amounts of time, energy, and money to mobilize all his supporters again. Remember, the point of this example is that there was never any real reason to recall the popular Cheng. It would simply be political harassment that would sap his resources and take his focus away from actually running the city.

Now that one recall has succeeded, expect to see more. Nothing inspires copycats like success. A plethora of frivolous recalls will not improve Taiwan’s democratic structure.

I don’t think that recalls are all bad, but the current law is too lax. In general, it should be harder to recall someone than for them to be elected in the first place. Recalls should only have a hope of success if the incumbent has become much, much less popular while in office. If there hasn’t been a dramatic change in public opinion, we don’t need recalls. The current law requires 10% of the electorate to sign a petition for the recall to get on the ballot. Maybe that should be increased. To pass the recall, you need more yes votes than no votes, and at least 25% of the eligible voters must vote yes. This is the part that I feel most strongly should be changed. 25% is too low. Rather than one-fourth, I think a more suitable threshold should be one-third. This would be high enough to deter all but the most intense recall efforts.


All that aside, Han’s recall was not frivolous. This was the rare recall that was warranted. I said that it should be harder to recall someone than to elect them in the first place. This recall met that demand.

In the 2018 general election, Kaohsiung had the highest turnout in the country and Han won 892,545 votes. The threshold for the recall was roughly 575,000 yes votes, and Han would have had a legitimate gripe if the recall had barely passed. Why should (for example) 600,000 recall votes be worth more than 892,000 general election votes? Of course, there are arguments to be made. If Han still had 892,000 supporters, he could have mobilized them and beaten back a recall. Moreover, it is a lot harder to get people to come out to vote in an isolated recall vote than in a general election. In a general election, the whole society builds to a crescendo focused on election day, and politicians build careers by learning how to mobilize voters. In a recall, the national focus might be elsewhere, and you certainly don’t have the same level of national mobilization. Still, if 600,000 beat 892,000, Han would have had something to complain about.

As you likely know, the yes side did not merely squeeze past the 25% threshold. An astounding 40.8% of the electorate voted to recall Han. 939,090 voted yes, and 939,000 is clearly bigger than 892,000.

Even more astounding, there were lots of reasons to expect a lower turnout. For one, the world is in the midst of a pandemic. To the best of our knowledge, Covid-19 is not loose in Taiwan. Still, some people might be scared. For another, the city government has been actively trying to hamper election administration. They tried to limit the number of precincts, change voting locations, tore down pro-recall billboards, and accused the recall side of vote-buying and other irregularities. Han told his supporters not to vote, which effectively deprived voters of the secret ballot. Some people, such as civil servants or others who lived in rabidly blue neighborhoods might have worried about repercussions if people saw them voting, since nearly every voter voted yes. There were also rumors that thugs might engage in voter suppression, though I did not see any actual reports of this. The DPP did not really get involved in this recall. While they clearly sympathized and supported it, they mostly left the rallies and mobilization efforts to amateur social activists. President Tsai, Premier Su, Health Minister Chen and other prominent DPP figures pointedly did not go to Kaohsiung and hold a big pro-recall event. The media covered the recall, but it did not get anywhere near the attention that a general election campaign would generate. The island was not gripped with an election fever atmosphere. Finally, there was a massive cloudburst in the afternoon, and most people think that huge rainstorms depress turnout.

In spite of all that, turnout was 42.1%, which would be pretty high for a by-election and is simply mind-boggling considering that only one side participated. (97.4% of the valid votes were yes votes.) I guess we have to remember that we haven’t had many recalls, so we shouldn’t really have strong prior expectations about turnout. We know that 40% is pretty good for a legislative by-election, but we also know that higher offices tend to produce higher turnout. Mayor is Taiwan’s second-highest directly elected office, but we’ve never had a by-election for the mayor of a direct municipality. I think it’s safe to say that the importance of the office helped drive up the turnout in this recall vote.

[Aside: In spite of all those challenges, the recall seems to have been competently administered. A neutral and efficient bureaucracy is a wonderful thing! Let’s hope that the conventional wisdom becomes that Han’s efforts to impede turnout caused a backlash and deters future politicians from repeating this strategy.]


However, I think the most important factor was Han himself, and that brings us to the second big topic. Over the last two years, Han has created a lot of strong opinions about himself. People who like him absolutely adore him, but people who don’t like him tend to detest him. Unfortunately for Han, we have pretty good evidence that there are more people in the latter group than in the former. I think Han is such a polarizing person that people wanted to have their say about him. He has been keeping a low profile for the past few weeks hoping to convince people that his is actually a conscientious administrator, but I think this cake was baked months ago. You can’t change opinions that are etched in stone with just a few weeks of bland behavior. I don’t think a different mayor, even one who isn’t that popular (eg Taichung mayor Lu Hsiu-yen or Changhua magistrate Wang Hui-mei) would inspire this kind of turnout. Han did this to himself.


So what does this mean? There have been suggestions that Han’s next move will be to run for KMT party chair next spring. He might try, but I have doubts about his prospects.

This was a crushing and humiliating repudiation on the heels of a similar crushing and humiliating repudiation five months ago. Han’s path to the presidential nomination was due in large part to the fact that he was a winner. He had conjured up the unimaginable victory in Kaohsiung where everyone else had failed. Somehow, he had convinced a traditionally green constituency to vote for him even though he never deviated from traditional KMT ideas about China and Chineseness. Further, his Han wave had pulled several other KMT candidates to victory all over Taiwan. A year ago, KMT supporters still had good reason to believe in Han. He was a winner. Now he is a loser. Whatever magic used to be there is clearly gone. It worked one time, and it doesn’t work any longer. He can’t even make the argument that the presidential race was all about Hong Kong but his mojo will still work in local politics. If the KMT selects Han as its new chair a year from now, they will do so in spite of clear evidence that he is a ballot box disaster. While party members might like his message, they also want badly to win. I suspect he will find enthusiasm lacking.


After the votes were counted, Han spoke to the media. After thanking his supporters and his governing team, he transformed into the angry populist version of himself. He complained that the Tsai government hasn’t done anything for the people since getting re-elected and instead has focused all of its energy on slandering and recalling him. He also insisted that the media is all against him and sarcastically commended them for working so hard. This message was straight out of his presidential campaign, but it felt especially disconnected tonight. The rest of society seems to think that since the January election the Tsai government has spent most of its energy dealing with the pandemic, both in keeping the virus out of Taiwan and in responding to new economic, diplomatic, and security conditions caused by the pandemic. If polls are any indication, the population seems to think the Tsai government has done quite a bit for ordinary people over the past few months. However, that’s apparently not the mental world Han is living in right now.

The presidential campaign largely turned on national identity, as Taiwan’s elections almost always do. However, Tsai also had to deal with Han’s populist attacks that her government was only concerned about amassing power to enrich itself and not at all about ordinary people. Tsai rebutted Han’s populist rhetoric with two main points. The first was a negative attack: Han is not the person he says he is. While Han wanted voters to think he was just an ordinary person like them, the Tsai campaign pointed to his real estate and other financial dealings. Han was complaining about corrupt politicians, but he himself was just another corrupt politician. The second was a positive message. Han screamed that politicians should work to make ordinary people’s lives better; Tsai responded that she was the one who was actually doing that. She talked at length about raising wages, opening day care centers, strengthening long-term health care, keeping swine flu out of Taiwan, economic growth, and all kinds of other big and small policy successes. Han talked; she produced. As far as I can tell, Tsai’s rebuttal was effective. Han was reduced to his nationalist supporters. In 2018, there were a lot of angry voters who wanted a rotation of power so that the city might produce better policies for them who voted for Han. In 2020, that support disappeared. If you weren’t a traditional KMT voter, you didn’t vote for Han in 2020. The populist argument seemed to have flopped.

With Han’s second repudiation, does that mean populism is dead in Taiwan? I think it probably means that Han’s populism is dead. He is no longer a credible messenger, and the next populist will need a somewhat different message.

However, what about populism in general? The best antidote to populism is good governance, and right now Taiwan is producing outstanding governance. It will be hard to argue that the government hasn’t done anything for ordinary people for the next few years. Everyone will remember that Taiwan has met the challenge of Covid-19 better than any other country in the world. However, you cannot rest on past laurels very long in politics. People will eventually start asking, “what have you done for me lately?” If there is a corruption scandal, that moment will come even sooner. That may be the signal for the next aspiring populist to try out his or her message.

I’ve said before that populism is a more obvious message for the DPP than the KMT. Populism involves a claim to represent “the real people,” implying that not all citizens are members of the real people. Han’s version was essentially anti-elitist, but it isn’t especially potent to claim that elites are not ordinary. A Taiwan nationalist politician railing against “the hidden traitors in our society” might have a much more powerful message. I can even imagine this cropping up in the next presidential election. Tsai’s rhetoric about ROC Taiwan, which explicitly includes all 23 million citizens, is decidedly anti-populist. She will try to ensure that her successor follows that inclusive line. However, a challenger might decide that a more exclusionary message is the best option to wrest away the presidential nomination.

So no, I don’t think Han’s defeat means that Taiwan has decisively and forever killed populism. But populism is not particularly vibrant in contemporary Taiwan.

Han recall, four weeks out

May 12, 2020

A little less that four weeks before the Kaohsiung mayoral recall vote, it isn’t looking really great for Mayor Han.

Remember, two conditions are necessary for the recall to succeed. Yes votes must outnumber no votes, and yes votes must be at least 25% of the eligible voters. The overall turnout rate does not matter.

There is a moderate amount of polling from pollsters of varying quality. However, the results are startlingly consistent. The wonderful Wikipedia editors have collected five polls since the beginning of February.

pollster date turnout yes no Turnout + yes
Apple May 8 47.7 51.3 33.0 37.3
INA May 5 47.5 55.1 32.0 36.0
NPP Apr 20 43.7 52.1 35.2 33.2
TBT Mar 20 51.2 59.5 34.5 39.5
TVBS Feb 7 44 53 32 34.8

All of them show that around 45-50% of respondents say they will vote. By about a 5 to 3 margin, people saying they will vote yes outnumber people who say they will vote no. There are some undecided voters, but with such a large margin of yes over no, it seems pretty unlikely that Han can defeat the turnout by mobilizing all his supporters to vote no.

If the first condition is likely to be satisfied, that means that Han’s best chance is for the yes votes to fall below 25% of eligible voters. These polls all show votes for the recall in the mid to high 30s, well above that threshold.

Of course, survey respondents always tell pollsters that they will turn out to vote. If memory serves me correctly, in the recent presidential election, in most polls somewhere around 90% of respondents claimed that they planned to vote. In fact, turnout was just under 75%. However, I think that turnout near 50% is not an unreasonable expectation. Lots of by-elections for legislators or even township mayors get 40% turnout, so it doesn’t seem unlikely at all that you would get 50% turnout for such a high-profile recall as this. There two reasons for this. One is that higher offices produce higher turnout. Direct municipalities are springboards to the presidency. All things equal, we should expect more interest in this race than in a legislative or township mayor race. Moreover, Han is an extremely well-known politician who arouses strong feelings.

In other words, if nothing dramatic changes between now and June 6, I think it is pretty likely that the recall will succeed.


Han has thus far tried a few things to turn back the recall. First, he has tried mobilizing his own loyal supporters to come out and vote no. He has some very loyal and ardent fans, but the polls show little promise for this strategy. Second, he has tried positioning himself as a serious and conscientious mayor who is concerned with public health. I don’t think this is working either. Attitudes about Han were baked pretty solidly during the presidential election; I doubt he can reshape his image this quickly with this little media attention. Third, he has tried to suppress turnout through his control over the city government machinery. Lots of the usual polling places have tried to refuse to be available as a polling place this time, claiming that serving as a polling place would clash with their anti-Covid responsibilities. I don’t think this is going to work either. On the one hand, the Central Election Commission is working hard to ensure that there are enough polling places available. On the other hand, voters who think that a politician is trying to deprive them of their right to vote often turn out in even higher numbers. The wider KMT is not going to actively support vote suppression tactics either. Neither party has a tradition of vote suppression, and being tarred with that label could have devastating long-term consequences.


Han’s best hope is that the Covid-19 pandemic will scare large numbers of voters into thinking that it is too dangerous to turn out. That is, actively trying to suppress the vote might not work, but passively (or through underground murmurs) hoping that people are scared might work. What would really help Han is if there were a few cases of domestic transmission over the next few weeks to terrify voters. In a nutshell, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) is making Han’s recall more likely by successfully keeping Taiwan virus-free.

There is a high-stakes game going on with relaxing restrictions. Every time the government announces a relaxation – allowing more fans into baseball games, encouraging tourism, relaxing social distancing on public transportation – it sends a message to Kaohsiung voters that society is safe. The safer people feel, the more likely it is that they will come out to vote. However, relaxing restrictions simultaneously makes it more likely that any person who has the virus and is out in society will infect a higher number of people. News of such a disaster would almost certainly lower turnout and might push the number of yes votes below 25%. Of course, I don’t think the government’s primary consideration is the Kaohsiung recall, but the success or failure of that recall may nonetheless depend on the success or failure of their relaxation measures.


I love the irony of Han’s fate depending on governance. Han is a populist who claimed that the DPP government was hopelessly corrupt and therefore bad at governing. Now, his best (only?) chance of survival is if the DPP government, which has been so glaringly competent for the last year and a half, suddenly morphs into the incompetent regime of Han’s rhetoric. On the other hand, if it was an ungrounded attack all along, Han is probably doomed. President Tsai’s good governance crushed his populism in the presidential election, and now even better performance from her administration this year might be the death blow to his mayorship.


Reflections on the legislative election: regions, urbanization, and split-ticket voting

January 14, 2020

Everyone is focusing on the presidential results. Well, of course they are. The presidential results are important.

But just looking at the presidential results is deceptive in a few ways. First, Tsai won by 18%, which is a huge margin. As we’ll see, the DPP’s actual political foundation is not nearly that much bigger than the KMT’s. Second, the presidential vote gives the impression of stability. Tsai’s vote in 2020 was geographically very similar to that in 2016. She was a point better in some areas, a point worse in others, but overall it was pretty similar. The legislative results were a lot more turbulent. Third, Tsai’s vote looks like a solid block of 57.1% green voters. The legislative results make that coalition look much more fragmented and tenuous. There was a LOT of split-ticket voting this time. Fourth, the legislative results reveal just what a terrible candidate Han Kuo-yu was.


Let’s start by giving the official party results. This is the kind of data you might have seen in the newspapers. (Hint: This is not the right way to look at election results.) Note also: the nominal tier includes both the 73 single seat districts and the two indigenous districts.

Nominal Nominal List List Prez Prez
votes % votes % votes %
DPP 6383783 45.1% 4811241 34.0% 8170231 57.1%
KMT 5761995 40.7% 4723504 33.4% 5522119 38.6%
TPP 264478 1.9% 1588806 11.2%
NPP 141952 1.0% 1098100 7.8%
Statebuilding 141503 1.0% 447286 3.2%
Congress 81508 0.6% 40,331 0.3%
PFP 60614 0.4% 518921 3.7% 608590 4.3%
Green 39387 0.3% 341465 2.4%
other parties 190349 1.3% 590484 4.2%
independents 1086463 7.7% 4811241 34.0%
total 14152032 14160138 14300940


According to this, the DPP only beat the KMT by 4.4% in the nominal tier. It was close, but not that close. Remember, there were a few DPP candidates who ran as independents (like Su Chen-ching in Pingtung 2). The KMT had a couple as well. Also, if we are going to look at the broad balance of power, shouldn’t we think about all the minor parties as well? Here’s a second table looking at the big camps.

Nominal Nominal List List Prez Prez
votes % votes % votes %
All blue 6103580 43.1% 5422764 38.3% 6130709 42.9%
All green 7135019 50.4% 6921468 48.9% 8170231 57.1%
All white 325663 2.3% 1588806 11.2%
No camp 587770 4.2% 227100 1.6%

The blue camp includes the KMT, PFP, New, CUPP, and a couple independents (Li Weng Yueh-e [New Taipei 3], Lin Kuo-ching [Chiayi 2], Fu Kun-chi [Hualien], Kao Chin Su-mei [mountain indigenous]). The green camp includes the DPP, NPP, Statebuilding, Green, Taiwan Action, Formosa Alliance, and various independents (Freddy Lim [Taipei 5], Hung Tzu-yung [Taichung 3], Su Chen-ching [Pintung 2], Chao Cheng-yu [Taoyuan 6]). The white camp is the TPP plus two independents, Hsu Li-hsin [Taipei 5] and Lee Chin-ying [New Taipei 10]. I didn’t know what to do with Congress Party, since they come from the blue side but their leader endorsed Tsai, so I put them in the no camp bloc.

This grouping is not meant to imply that that these blocs are one team or that they will work together. Rather, the idea is that they draw from the same broad set of voters. For example, I’m not sure we will still consider the NPP as part of the green camp four years from now, but for right now, I think they best fit in that big pool of voters.

Looking at it this way, the green camp beats the blue camp by 7.3% in the nominal vote and 10.6% in the list vote. This is a much better indication of where the country is than the presidential results or the official party totals. The presidential results make the blue side look far too weak because (a) Han Kuo-yu was a disaster and drove every wavering voter away and (b) the white camp is absent.


Before moving on, let’s linger a bit on the TPP. This table says the white camp got 2.3% of the district vote, which looks pretty inconsequential. However, they didn’t run in many districts. Moreover, wherever they ran, they were not one of the two main candidates. It’s really hard to be the third candidate in a plurality race. Nevertheless, they did amazingly well. Look at this list of how white camp candidates performed.

district name votes %
Taipei 3 何景榮 5,730 2.6
Taitung 陳允萍 3,527 4.5
Tainan 1 顏耀星 8,793 4.9
Kaohsiung 3 莊貽量 12,099 5.2
Taichung 4 張渝江 13,434 5.7
Kaohsiung 8 敖博勝 14,043 6.0
Taipei 8 張幸松 12,111 6.3
Kaohsiung 1 羅鼎城 10,661 6.5
Taichung 5 謝文卿 18,768 7.3
Taichung 3 張睿倉 14,700 7.5
Kaohsiung 5 李佳玲 20,336 8.6
Taipei 7 蔡宜芳 17,435 9.5
Taoyuan 1 陳泓維 21,951 9.7
Hsinchu County 2 林碩彥 17,902 11.1
Miaoli 1 朱哲成 16,566 11.1
New Taipei 7 吳達偉 20,579 11.7
New Taipei 3 李旻蔚 35,843 18.2
Taipei 5 徐立信 22,208 12.2
New Taipei 10 李縉穎 38,977 18.8

Every one of them got votes. There was not a single white camp candidate who got completely marginalized. Third parties are not supposed to do this well. And remember, it isn’t the case that all of these are great politicians. Remember that guy I mocked in a previous post for his stance on stray dogs? That guy competed with two extremely famous people (Hung Tzu-yung and Yang Chiung-ying), got nearly 15000 votes, and almost certainly affected the outcome of the Taichung 3 race. There is a clear message here: Mayor Ko can transfer (a good deal of) his support to other people. The white camp is a serious force in Taiwan politics.


The New Power Party also had a very strong showing at the district level, though they didn’t nominate nearly as many candidates. Here is their list

district name votes %
New Taipei 10 賴嘉倫 13,563 7.3
New Taipei 1 張衞航 19,641 7.6
Kaohsiung 7 陳惠敏 17,466 7.8
Taoyuan 3 林佳瑋 17,512 8.3
Hsinchu City 高鈺婷 73,770 28.6

Again, their first four candidates did extremely well to get significant numbers of votes as the third candidate in a two-way race. It looks as though the NPP has solid support in society. However, since the NPP didn’t need to nominate ten people to qualify for the party list, it could concentrate on its best candidates. This list might look artificially impressive; it’s possible that the next five NPP candidates would have all been turkeys.

Now look at the fifth candidate. Kao Yu-ting was not a spoiler candidate. She was a major candidate in a true three-way race. This was absolutely shocking to me. I was mildly surprised by candidates like Lee Chin-ying in New Taipei 10 who got nearly 20%. However, Kao Yu-ting was on an entirely different level. The three main candidates in Hsinchu City got 95298, 82011, and 73770 votes. Those numbers are all within spitting distance of each other. When the NPP is that close, the DPP can no longer argue that a vote for the NPP is a wasted vote (or a de-facto vote for the KMT). It’s true that the green camp vote was split and the KMT won a seat that it didn’t deserve. However, it is not obvious that the NPP should have supported the DPP and not the other way around.


Compared to past years, there were a lot more significant third candidates in district elections. 15 districts had third candidates getting at least 10%, and 28 more candidates got between 5% and 10%. That is to say, most districts this year had a significant third- party presence. This is new.

The two big parties got 95.7% of the presidential vote, which makes it look as if they absolutely dominate Taiwanese politics. That is misleading. They only got 67.4% of the party list vote, which makes it look as if the party system is quite fragmented. That is also a bit misleading. The truth lies somewhere in between. The two big parties still sit atop the political structure, but their coalitions are a lot less solid than they might appear. This is especially true for the DPP, which succeeded in pulling together a massive presidential coalition from several forces who don’t really all want the same things.


Ok, let’s go back to the two big parties in the district elections. The best way to look at how they fared is not to look at either the party labels or the big camp blocs. Rather, the best way to look at them is by looking at who they asked people to vote for in each district. Each big party sponsored (officially or unofficially) one candidate in each seat. How did that go?

Note: I assume that Fu Kun-chi was the actual KMT candidate in Hualien. Someone else was the formal KMT nominee, but the party sent a pretty strong message through its VP candidate that Fu was the real KMT candidate. The only place without a major party candidate was the DPP in Kinmen. Chen Tsang-chiang dropped out of the DPP a few years ago, but I didn’t see any reference to the DPP encouraging people to vote for him this time. [Please comment if you know more about the DPP in Kinmen this time.]


So, how did the main green and main blue candidates do?

votes %
Main blue candidates 5987296 42.3%
Main green candidates 6892140 48.7%

The spread that really matters, the one that decided who would have power in the legislature, was 6.4%. That is not a small advantage, though it is nowhere near the 18% spread from the presidential election (or 14.2%, if you add Han’s and Soong’s votes together).

[Aside: The green side got 6.89 million votes. That number seems familiar…]

Unlike the gap in the presidential election, the gap between the two big blocs in the legislative races is a lot smaller than in 2016. Four years ago, the main green candidates got 12.3% more than the main blue candidates. This year, that gap was cut nearly in half.

2016 2020 2016 2020
Vote% Vote % seats Seats
Main Blue 39.7 42.3 25 27
Main Green 52.0 48.7 54 52

Four years ago, I assumed that things would never again be quite as perfect for the DPP. Even if Tsai was re-elected, it would inevitably be with a reduced margin and a reduced legislative majority, just as happened for President Ma in 2012. It didn’t work out that way in the presidential race because Han Kuo-yu was such a terrible candidate, but it did work out that way in the legislative election.

There is one hitch: the seat shares were nearly unaffected by the dramatically reduced gap in votes. The green side won 54 of the 79 seats with a 12.3% advantage in 2016 and 52 with only a 6.4% advantage in 2020. Why?

Before I answer that, let me editorialize. I kept telling people to stop focusing on the party lists, because the legislative majority would be decided by the districts. That is, in fact, exactly what happened. The DPP did terribly in the party list vote, but that did not cause it to lose its legislative majority. Because it is still the biggest party and the nominal tier is so majoritarian, it managed to win two-thirds of the nominal seats and hold an overall majority.

Geography mattered in this election. Based on polling data, I had speculated that Tsai was a bit better in the north, relative to past performance, and a little worse in most other areas. She was, but it wasn’t a very dramatic shift. The biggest change came in Taoyuan, where she was 3.8% higher than four years ago.

Tsai 2016 Tsai 2020 change
North 53.4% 55.1% 1.8%
North-central 49.0% 52.2% 3.3%
Central 55.1% 56.3% 1.2%
South-central 65.8% 65.3% -0.5%
South 63.4% 62.2% -1.2%
East & islands 47.1% 47.5% 0.4%
national 56.1% 57.1% 1.0%

What’s striking about this is not how much things have changed, but how much things have remained stable. It appears voters decided their presidential vote based on sovereignty, identity, and the other aspects of national-level politics.

However, once they cast their “responsible” vote for the presidency, many of them seem to have expressed somewhat different values with their legislative votes. In the legislative vote, as with the 2018 mayoral votes, people were free to register some unhappiness, try to restrain the DPP’s power, or vote on local or secondary issues.

If the geographic shifts in the presidential vote were mild, those in the legislative nominal tier were not. Again, this looks at the vote for the main green and main blue candidate in each district.

2020 main blue maingreen mb% mg%
north 1855480 2014050 43.8% 47.5%
north-central 968922 909486 45.1% 42.3%
central 1203565 1358526 44.5% 50.2%
south-central 741114 1143779 37.0% 57.1%
south 806146 1167737 36.6% 53.0%
East & islands 233322 246947 40.0% 42.4%
indigenous 178747 51615 67.0% 19.4%
national 5987296 6892140 42.3% 48.7%

Note: These are the traditional regional groupings. North: Taipei, New Taipei, Keelung. North-Central: Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Miaoli. Central: Taichung, Changhua, Nantou. South-central: Yunlin, Chiayi, Tainan. South: Kaohsiung, Pingtung. East & islands: everything else.

Compare this with the data for 2016:

2016 main blue maingreen mb% mg%
north 1537669 1808346 41.5% 48.8%
north-central 771873 774850 43.1% 43.3%
central 1046801 1160655 44.9% 49.8%
south-central 512981 1127577 29.7% 65.3%
south 645211 1149444 34.0% 60.6%
East & islands 174188 257415 35.5% 52.5%
indigenous 129300 33710 62.3% 16.2%
national 4818023 6311997 39.7% 52.0%

Let’s compare the change in the edge that the green camp holds over the blue camp in each area.

2016 (G-B) 2020 (G-B) change
north 7.3% 3.7% -3.6%
north-central 0.2% -2.8% -2.9%
central 4.9% 5.7% 0.8%
south-central 35.6% 20.1% -15.5%
south 26.6% 16.4% -10.1%
East & islands 17.0% 2.3% -14.6%
indigenous -46.1% -47.7% -1.6%
national 12.3% 6.4% -5.9%

Nationally, the green camp lost 5.9%, compared to 2016. However, they didn’t lose anything in central Taiwan, only had small losses in northern Taiwan, and they had massive losses in southern Taiwan.

Fortunately for the DPP, they suffered losses in areas that, because they had such a large cushion, they could afford to absorb some losses. Even with double digit losses throughout the south, the DPP still swept all 21 southern seats.

2016 2020 2016 2020
Blue seats Blue seats Green seats Green seats
north 7 7 14 14
north-central 5 8 5 3
central 6 5 8 9
south-central 0 0 10 11
south 0 0 12 10
East & islands 2 3 4 3
indigenous 5 4 1 2
national 25 27 54 52

You might notice that the green camp went from being even in North-central (+0.2%) to slightly worse than the blue camp (-2.8%). They were right at the tipping point, where they could not afford losses, and, not coincidentally, the north-central region was where the green camp lost the most ground in terms of seats. It’s also pretty remarkable that the green camp maintained a 14 to 7 advantage in the north, even though their lead was much smaller this time. Several races could have easily gone the other way.


In addition to the dramatic losses the DPP suffered in southern and eastern Taiwan, there was also an urban/rural pattern. The DPP lost a lot of ground in rural areas.

I divided Taiwan into three big categories, very urban, suburban, and rural. The urban category includes districts in the core areas of major cities, and most of them have population densities of over 10,000 people per km2. Some examples are New Taipei 6, Taichung 4, Chiayi City, and Kaohsiung 6. The suburban areas are usually thought of as part of the city, but they are just a little further out. Examples are New Taipei 10, Taichung 7, Taoyuan 1, Changhua 2, and Tainan 6. Rural areas generally only have smaller towns (such is the definition of rural in dense, dense Taiwan). Examples include Miaoli 1, Changhua 4, Tainan 1, Kaohsiung 2, and Yilan. This is a quick and dirty classification; there are no hard rules for these choices. It is entirely subjective. You’ll have to trust that it is mostly right. Anyway, the patterns that I’m going to show you probably don’t change much if you insist on moving Pingtung 1 from category 2 to category 3, for example.

In 2016, the green camp did very well in the most rural areas.

2016 main blue maingreen mb% mg%
most rural 1277007 1757475 38.8% 53.4%
suburban 1474932 1953120 39.6% 52.5%
most urban 2066084 2601402 40.2% 50.6%

In 2020, not so much.

2020 main blue maingreen mb% mg%
most rural 1636532 1724987 44.6% 47.0%
suburban 1909851 2324929 41.3% 50.3%
most urban 2440913 2842224 41.7% 48.5%

Here are the gaps and the change:

2016 (G-B) 2020 (G-B) change
most rural 14.6% 2.4% -12.2%
suburban 12.8% 9.0% -3.9%
most urban 10.4% 6.8% -3.6%


Of course, there is a lot of overlap between rural and south/south-central/east. I don’t have the energy right now to look into which factor is really the dominant one. I suspect they both matter.

Why did the DPP suffer such enormous losses in rural areas and in the south and east? I can think of several possibilities. First, this could be a protest about regional economic inequality. Second, this could be a backlash against same-sex marriage (and other progressive values) by the more conservative rural population. Third, it could have something to do with leadership styles, with Tsai being more of a Taipei personality and Han being a less suave, urbane type of guy.


There are two points that I want to close on. First, I want to reiterate the point I have been making throughout. The DPP coalition does not look nearly as solid this time as it did four years ago. This time, there are far more people who split their tickets, voting for Tsai but not the legislative candidates or parties endorsed by her.

Second, Han Kuo-yu severely underperformed. There were a lot more voters out there who were open to voting for the blue camp, but Han could not soak them up. To put it bluntly, Han was a drag on the ticket. He certainly did not pull any legislators to victory, and he probably dragged some down to defeat. He probably played a role in pushing some potential blue voters over to PFP or TPP legislative candidates. At any rate, he was demonstrably less popular than the rest of the party.

Frozen Garlic in the New York Times

January 13, 2020

I didn’t post nearly as much on this blog as I expected to last week. This is one of the reasons.

Quick reactions

January 11, 2020

Almost all the votes are counted, but I haven’t really started digging into things yet. These are very, very immediate reactions, so they are probably deeply flawed.


When Tsai and the DPP swept into office four years ago, I assumed that their tidal wave was a unique event. Everything had lined up just right, and they would never be able to match those conditions. Just as Ma couldn’t quite match the 2008 wave in 2012, even if Tsai were to win re-election, her vote would inevitably be lower.

Well, she increased her vote share. In perspective, that seems an enormous surprise. Moreover, she increased her vote total by over a million votes. Four years ago, turnout was low (67%), and many KMT figures groused that the KMT had simply failed to turn out all its supporters. That reasoning won’t work this time. Turnout was much higher. Not everything is final, but it is at least 74.1% plus a bit more for invalid votes. Probably the final figure will be about 74.5%. That is the highest turnout we have had in years. (I can’t check because the CEC elections database of historical results is down, but I think this might be the highest since 2004.)

This is a humiliating result for Han Kuo-yu. He ended up being a drag on the KMT, not an asset.

I can’t be sure yet, but it looks as if Han Kuo-yu ran quite a bit behind most KMT legislative candidates, while Tsai Ing-wen ran considerably ahead of most DPP candidates. In other words, Han was dragging his side down, while Tsai was dragging some to victory. I think the KMT district candidates might have gotten more votes than four years ago. Legislative victory margins for the DPP seemed quite a bit smaller this time throughout the south. Tsai’s margins over Han, in contrast, looked about the same in the south (but a bit larger in the north).



There were several surprising legislative results. Since I specifically wrote that Lai Pin-yu (New Taipei 12) had torpedoed her chances of victory by wearing a cosplay costume in a previous post, let me take this opportunity to publicly acknowledge that I don’t know anything about anything. Hsu Shu-hua (Nantou 2) also dressed up in a costume on election eve, and she also won. I guess now cosplay is a good electoral strategy?!?

Everyone is paying attention to races like Taipei 3 (The Wayne and Enoch Show) and Taichung 2 (Chen Po-wei!). Some results you might have paid less attention to include the DPP winning a mountain indigenous seat, a historical breakthrough for them. Bi-khim Hsiao lost her race in Hualien, which I expected. The significance of this is that she is now free to assume an important spot in the central government (Foreign Minister?) and take a prominent place in President Tsai’s “squad.” I told several people to keep their eyes on Changhua 3, since that was the most likely place (conservative, rural central coast) for a backlash against the same-sex marriage. The KMT did indeed win that race, though there were certainly unique local factors that might have also contributed. I did not expect the DPP to lose New Taipei 1, but the biggest shock was in Taichung 5. A few months ago, I watched the DPP candidate’s event for opening his campaign on YouTube. It looked like amateur hour and a sure loser.

Wayne Chiang’s Taipei mayoral campaign starts tomorrow. Newly elected DPP legislator Kao Chia-yu might think about taking a run at it too.


According to my unofficial count, 46 of the 113 legislators are women. For you those of you who don’t have a calculator app on your phone, that’s 40.7%. [edit: The CEC says it is 47 women (41.6%). I can’t count.] The standard source for women in parliaments doesn’t include Taiwan because … you can guess why. But if it did, Taiwan would slot in at number 15 worldwide. Of course, I’m inclined to ignore a few countries on this list, since Rwanda and Cuba aren’t exactly liberal democracies. I’d prefer to point out that Taiwan is basically at Finland’s level, with over 40% female legislators and a female chief executive. Finland is great!! (This comparison is dedicated to Bruce Jacobs.)


Finally, I’d like to point out that, in spite of everyone insisting that the polls must be wrong because they FELT wrong, the polls were basically right. In my final weighted average, Han trailed by 27%. However, Soong was polling at 7% and only got 4%, so strategic voting shifted about 3% from Soong to Han, which isn’t shocking. And those of us who insisted that we shouldn’t throw out all the polls just because Han asked us to estimated that the effect of Han’s attack on polls could be accounted for by subtracting 3% from Tsai and adding it to Han. That gets you to – viola!!! – an 18% gap. That might be too convenient, but the larger point was that the polls were in the right neighborhood. The race certainly hadn’t closed to within 5%, as some people decided in their alternate realities. For everyone who insisted on looking at the underground betting odds, and breathlessly reported that you had heard about a local bookie setting the odds at Han -500,000 votes, I hope you bet on Tsai. She covered all the spreads that supposedly existed. I wonder if all those people who were spouting off about the wisdom of underground bookies will be talking about why the odds were so wrong on tomorrow’s talk shows.


As you can probably tell, I’m a bit loopy from exhaustion, so I had best stop here. If your side won, go and celebrate a bit. If your side lost, feel free to curse a bit. Either way, isn’t it wonderful that this election was held peacefully and smoothly, that the losers displayed a commitment to democracy by graciously conceding, and that there are no election disputes this year. Democracy is more about the process than about the outcome, and today the process was flawless.

Campaign Trail: TPP rally in Taichung

January 8, 2020

On Saturday of the Golden Weekend, I drove down to Taichung to see the Taiwan People’s Party in action. Ke Wen-je’s new party is only putting on three big events this campaign, two on the Golden Weekend and one on Election Eve, so I wasn’t going to have many other chances to hear what they have to say. Since the Ko-P Party is widely expected to pass the 5% threshold and get a few party list seats, I wanted to hear if they had any sort of coherent theme. To cut to the conclusion: they don’t. This party is intellectually vacuous. The legislative candidates do not have particularly impressive qualifications, do not exude an air of competence, and are not very skilled at political communication. Ke Wen-je has a discourse, but the rest of the party doesn’t seem aware of it. They certainly do not echo or reinforce his talking points. The only common thread holding the party together is the idea of working hard, which they hardly have a monopoly on in Taiwanese politics. Beyond Ko, this simply isn’t a very impressive party.

The rally was in Beitun District, next to a big night market. There were a lot more people at the night market than at the rally. I estimate that around 2500-3000 people attended the rally. It was stunningly small, given the proximity of the night market, the fact that this was the TPP’s first major event, and the popularity of the TPP in polls. They clearly expected more people, as they had a long street reserved and only used about a third of the space. Also, at least 100 of the people in attendance were party workers. It might have been the highest ratio of workers to regular attendees that I have ever seen. Size aside, the other interesting thing about the crowd was its age. This crowd was a bit older than what you might see at a NPP event, but it was quite a bit younger than crowds at DPP or KMT events. The typical person was in the 35-50 age group, and there were lots of parents with small children in attendance.

I arrived just as Lai Hsiang-ling, the top person on the party list was finishing her speech. Since she is almost certainly going to get a seat in the legislature, I went back and listened to her on Youtube. She was, outside of Ko, the best speaker of the night, though that is a very low bar. Her main theme was that the TPP would bravely face the important questions. She listed a few of them, reiterated that the party would address them, but she never proposed any specific solutions. This would become a refrain throughout the night. Another speaker complained that both the KMT and DPP had failed to do anything about air quality and concluded that, it didn’t matter if you voted for blue or green, neither would make the air clean. That speaker pointedly did not propose any solution or even a general direction. This happened again and again. The speaker would complain about something, say that the two big parties weren’t doing anything about it, promise to work hard and sincerely, and never propose any ideas for what to do.

After Lai and a musical performance, the TPP’s three candidates in Taichung took turns speaking. One of them talked about working hard (“I visit ALL the traditional markets!”) and having small children, apparently unaware that almost all politicians campaign hard and have children. He was the best one. The worst one was running in Taichung 3, where the KMT has nominated a former legislator and current deputy mayor and the DPP is supporting incumbent Hung Tzu-yung, who dropped out of the NPP and is running for re-election as an independent. He started his speech by complaining how unfair it was that he was running against two very famous candidates, and he didn’t have enough resources to match their advertising budgets. Yes, telling the audience that your race is hopeless and they probably shouldn’t waste their votes on you seems like a wise strategy. He ended by saying that, if he got enough votes to qualify for public funding, he would donate the money to charity. Um, the purpose of the public funding system is to help smaller and poorer parties compete. You are supposed to take that money and pay off your campaign expenses or reinvest it in the party for the future. If you aren’t going to use the public money that has been set aside explicitly for party-building purposes to build your party, then [insert profanity here] don’t complain about how unfair it is that your opponents are more famous than you! In between those two very brilliant statements, he proposed two concrete policies. First, he wants to amend the constitution to ensure that a certain proportion of party list legislators are young (similar to how 50% must be female). I don’t think he has thought this through. Very few people under 30 have put together an impressive resume, so who does he think would get these seats? Perhaps he might do well to think about all the politicians in their 50s and 60s – at the height of their power and influence – who have (unremarkable) children in their 20s and 30s who they think highly of. Is it really a good idea to set up an affirmative action system for political dynasties?? Second, he wants to set up a new government bureaucracy to monitor pet dogs so that they do not become strays. Ok, dude. Thanks for addressing the tough issues. Stray dogs are definitely one of the top five problems facing Taiwan today, right after claw machines, confusing bus timetables, excessively sugary bubble tea drinks, and the lack of a 7-11 in my neighborhood.

After another musical performance, Tsai Pi-ju spoke. She is Ko’s most trusted administrative lieutenant, and she was the one who he charged with the responsibility of setting up this party. Since she is an important person in the Taipei city government, I expected she would be much more polished than the previous speakers. Nope. Tsai is an absolutely horrible public speaker. She can barely string together two sentences. Some people in the crowd started shouting encouragement, as if she were a shy schoolchild terrified of standing in front of a crowd. Except she wasn’t shy or eager to get off the stage; she kept going on and on. That might have been ok if she had anything substantial to say, but – you guessed it – she did not. Listening to her was a painful experience.

It might seem unfair of me to harp on poor public speaking, but communication is at the very core of democratic politics. Democracy is all about building consensus around certain ideas, and you do that mainly by talking. You have to identify and prioritize problems, call on (and shape) values, propose solutions, and reiterate and reinforce those ideas to the people who have already heard them. Tsai (and the rest of the TPP on stage Saturday night) failed this test.


Mayor Ko finally took the stage and injected some competence into the rally. Ko has a relatively coherent discourse, which goes roughly as follows:

It is pointless to talk about “ideology,” by which he means unification or independence. The United States will never allow Taiwan to either declare independence, because that might lead it into war with China, or to unify with China, because that would destroy the natural blockade formed by the first island chain. However, most of the population does not realize this, and the KMT and DPP have been able to win majorities by appealing to ideology. Since they can rely on ideology to deliver votes, the KMT and DPP do not have to take governing seriously. Instead, they are lazy in office, continually make bad choices, and produce bad outcomes, all while enjoying the spoils of power. Ko, in contrast, understands that ideology is irrelevant, and he has to govern effectively in order to appeal to the public. As a result, he is diligent and careful with his power and decisions. He sums this all with a pithy expression of his governing philosophy, “Do the right things; Don’t do the wrong things; and Do them diligently” 對的事情做,不對的事情不要做,認真做。 The two big parties repeatedly “Do the wrong things; Don’t do the right things; and They are lazy.”

In a previous post, I discussed Han Kuo-yu’s populist rhetoric. Ko’s rhetoric has many similar elements, but I don’t think Ko qualifies as a full-blown populist. Maybe we can label him as slightly “populish.”

Like Han, a central point of Ko’s discourse is that the elites have not worked for the best interests of the people. However, Ko’s attack is far less vitriolic. Han claims that the DPP is drinking the blood and eating the flesh of the common people in order to satisfy their own lust for power. The DPP elites are actively and intentionally harming the people. Ko, in contrast, suggests that the KMT and DPP elites are merely lazy. They are lulled into making bad decisions by the ease of winning elections through ideology. They are more inept than evil.

Also like Han, Ko suggests that governing is easy and that the correct policy choices are fairly obvious. There is no need to discuss exactly how to lower PMI 2.5 levels; the government should simply choose appropriate air quality policies and work hard to implement them. Ko simply sidesteps the entire nuclear vs wind debate (both of which use fossil fuels during the transition period) that the DPP and KMT are engaged in.

Ko presents politics in a moral frame. For him, diligence is the hallmark of morality. Working hard is the only consistent theme that the TPP communicates. They talked over and over about starting meetings at 7:30, as early starts guaranteed good results. Ko likes to repeat, 嗡嗡嗡, an onomatopoeia meaning something like work, work, work.

However, Ko’s discourse is missing the defining elements of populist rhetoric. He does not invoke the “real people” in a populist sense. He does not see the people as homogeneous; rather, he talks quite a bit about diversity and pluralism. He also does not define a general will on behalf of the real people. Ko says that administrative efficiency is the most important thing for effective government, but he doesn’t seem to think that the general public has, above all, a burning desire for administrative efficiency. This is more of an internal, technocratic instruction to his team: if you want to perform well in office, you have to have administrative efficiency.


Ko’s discourse might have a coherent internal logic, but it is, nonetheless, horribly flawed. Ko’s fundamental assumption – that Taiwan can’t and so shouldn’t do anything about its relationship with China – is clearly false. The United States has never issued a blank check to Taiwan; that relationship must be carefully managed and nurtured. More importantly, the relationship with China does not reduce simply to unification or independence. Taiwan has to make important decisions about day to day economic, cultural, and political interactions. Those decisions will have an enormous impact on how the relationship develops in future years and decades, and that relationship will in turn affect the choices around Taiwan’s future status. Ko simply doesn’t want to talk about how he would manage China policy. For now, the handful of TPP legislators might be able to sidestep this question, but if Ko runs for president in the future, this answer will not be sufficient. The TPP might also eventually have to face the problem that lots of politicians work hard; they do not have a monopoly on their central selling point. However, other than ignoring cross-strait relations and working hard, it is unclear what the TPP represents. In the end, maybe all they are left with is Ko Wen-je’s personal charisma.


This street was supposed to be full of TPP supporters. Oops.

Lots of TPP swag available. Ko’s supporters don’t buy quite as much as Han’s.

The TPP has invested heavily in these backpack balloons. They had at least 50 people wearing them. Who needs specific policies!

Now that I think about it, the balloons are my favorite thing about the TPP.

The two pillars on either side of the stage read, “push blue and green to the sides, put the people in the middle.”

Do you love your dog? I do too! Is that good enough?

All the party list nominees came on stage, and Tsai Pi-ju spoke for them. Maybe they should have chosen one of the others as the designated speaker.

I didn’t get any good pictures of Ko on stage, so this will have to do. This banner plays on Ko’s medical background: “treating pain is really simple.” I think this slogan might be more revealing than they intended. Treating pain is not the same as treating the underlying problem. Aspirin doesn’t do anything to stop cancer. By telling voters to ignore cross-straits issues, the TPP is essentially telling them not to bother treating the disease — the most important question facing society. They should just dull the pain by pretending the China question doesn’t exist.

The TPP’s core demographic.

Presidential polls on the eve of the polling blackout

December 31, 2019

Today, Dec 31, is the last day that polls can be published before the ten-day blackout period starts. A couple last polls straggled in this morning, so I can now present the final weighted poll chart for this year’s election. (For methodology, please refer to the original post.)

This is an astonishing chart. All year long, Tsai Ing-wen’s fortunes have steadily improved while Han’s continually eroded. There was no single event that suddenly transformed the election; it happened bit by bit. While there was no single day that felt completely different from the day before, the race at the end of the year is completely different from at the beginning of the year. My chart only goes back to May, when we started to get a steady enough flow of polls that I could put together a daily average. However, if you look at individual pollsters with longer data series, you can see that the race had already started to change by May. In February, Tsai was much further behind. Here are the data series for the two most reputable pollsters this year, TVBS and Formosa. TVBS has a consistent blue bias, while Formosa tilts a bit toward the green side. Both show the same basic picture: Han starts out with a big lead, which slowly turns into a big deficit.  The “golden cross,” the point at which Tsai overtakes Han, is much earlier in the Formosa chart, but that is to be expected given the partisan skew of the two polls.

Do different types of people have different preferences? One problem with looking at demographic groups in normal polls is that the sample sizes are too small, so the numbers that pundits love to talk about (Han’s support in Hualien among women aged 30-39 has skyrocketed!!) are actually just random noise. In order to say anything reasonable, we need bigger sample sizes. Formosa conducted seven polls from mid-October through late December. Instead of looking at individual poll results, I have taken the average of these seven polls for various subgroups. This should yield a far more reliable look at the differences across categories.

Let’s start with sex. There has been a gender gap in Taiwan for decades. Men are more likely to support the DPP, while women are more likely to support the KMT. This gender gap surprises many outsiders, especially Americans, who assume that women should support the progressive side in Taiwan as they do in the USA. It doesn’t work that way, even with a woman leading the ticket. Tsai did better among men than among women both in 2012 and 2016, and the same thing will happen again in 2020.

We don’t know exactly why this gender gap exists. Most people think it reflects women’s desire for stability and safety, leading them to support the party promising it can avoid war with China. Now that questions concerning sexuality and personal autonomy, such as same-sex marriage and limiting abortions, as slowly entering Taiwanese politics, I’m curious to see if the gender gap will be affected, especially among younger or unmarried people.

Age has emerged as a very important variable in the last decade. As recently as 2012, there was not much of an age difference. Now, the gap is dramatic. Among people over 40, Tsai leads Han by 15 to 20 points. Among the 30-39 group, her lead is nearly 30 points. Among the 20 somethings, it is 45 points.

Younger people have strong Taiwanese identities and overwhelmingly dislike the KMT, but that does not imply that they love the DPP. In fact, they have decidedly mixed feeling toward the DPP. They will vote for it if the individual candidate is palatable (as with Tsai), but many would prefer to vote for another party. In non-plurality elections, younger people often look elsewhere.

Tsai leads all education levels by roughly similar amounts. A glance at 2016 pre-election surveys shows similar patterns. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

Region is interesting. Tsai is strongest in the Tainan and Kaohsiung areas, while Han is stronger in Taipei, New Taipei, and Taoyuan. We all know that Taiwan is blue north, green south, so this makes perfect sense.

Uh, wait a second. Did you notice that Tsai is a lot more popular in New Taipei than in Taichung, which are traditionally pretty similar for the DPP. In fact, Tsai is nearly as strong in Taipei and Taoyuan as in Taichung, which is not historically the case.

Let’s directly compare those polling averages to Tsai’s actual votes in 2016. The gap shows that she is doing a bit better in New Taipei and a bit worse in the Taichung area. People like to say that central Taiwan is the traditional bellwether zone; if you win it you will win all of Taiwan. That is correct, but it’s more accurate to expand the bellwether zone to central Taiwan and New Taipei, which historically fall at just about the same point on the partisan divide. However, this year, New Taipei is considerably greener than the Taichung area.

The differences between this year’s polls and the 2016 results are intriguing on the green side, but they are downright stark on the blue side. Compared to Eric Chu, Han is reasonably close to Chu in central, southern, and eastern Taiwan. The Tainan area may be his weakest region in absolute terms, but he is actually polling quite well there compared to the KMT’s past performance. However, northern Taiwan, with nearly half the population, is a disaster. The problem for the KMT is that, unless Han outperforms his polls by a stupendous amount, the swing legislative districts are not likely to be in the south. The DPP should have enough of an advantage there that it can absorb a bit more Han popularity with no effect on the legislative races. However, the north is full of close races, most of which tipped in the DPP’s direction last time. These numbers suggest that it will be very hard for the KMT to win many of those back. Many races in central Taiwan were close four years ago, and this is the only region in which these geographical shifts might help the KMT. Unfortunately for the KMT, there are 30 seats between Hsinchu City and Keelung City in the north, compared to only 14 in central Taiwan.

One key to Tsai’s resurgence is that her approval rating has improved immensely since last year. For the first three years of her presidency, her approval rating experience a long, sad, steady slide. By last year’s local elections, according to many polls, her approval rating was near a paltry 20%. That is not a good way to go to the voters to ask for renewed support, and her party was flogged severely. However, over the course of 2019, Tsai’s approval rating has recovered dramatically. From being over 40% underwater, Tsai now has a net positive approval rating in most polls. This chart is Formosa’s tracking poll, which they have compiled over her entire presidency. I don’t know exactly what the numbers in Nov 2018 — not only the election but also her worst month in this chart — were, but the numbers for Dec 2018 — which was nearly as bad — were 21.5% approve and 67.3% disapprove. Ouch.

Tsai’s political resurgence was not merely a personal triumph. She, her party, and the entire green side of the political spectrum have risen together. Look at trends in party identification. Party ID is measured by a question asking respondents which party they generally support. Party ID has a very close relationship with vote choice, and it is considered one of the most important variables in voting research. The Formosa polls break down Party ID by individual party and also aggregate those results into blue and green camps. In practice, very few people identify with small parties, so blue party ID is almost all KMT party ID and green party ID is almost all DPP party ID. (Voters may support smaller parties, but they are less likely to have a strong, enduring psychological attachment to a particular small party, many of which are relatively new and unknown.) This chart shows blue and green party ID over the past year. There is a gradual increase in the green camp’s popularity from February to November, when it suddenly shoots up considerably. The blue camp’s popularity showed a gradual decline over the entire year. As a result, the green camp went from facing a 7.7% deficit in party ID to enjoying a 17.4% advantage.

Another way to look at this is by breaking the electorate down into different types of groups, based on how they think about the two big parties. The Formosa polls put people into nine different categories, three who prefer the KMT to the DPP, three who prefer the DPP to the KMT, and three who are neutral. You can arrange the KMT and DPP categories spatially, from left to right. However, the three neutral categories don’t have a specific spatial ordering. Some people have positive feelings toward both parties, some people have negative feelings toward both parties, and some people are uninformed and can’t make judgments about either party. These three groups behave in quite different ways. (I described these nine groups in more detail in an earlier post.)

If you look at the distribution of these nine groups over the past year, you can see that the three pro-DPP categories make up a bigger and bigger part of the electorate while the three blue categories have shrunk. If you take the average of the first three surveys (Feb-Apr), 36.3% of the electorate was blue while only 26.4% was green. In the last three surveys, only 27.3% was blue, while a whopping 42.1% were classified as green. A 9.9% disadvantage for the green side early in the year had transformed into a 14.8% advantage late in the year.

We naturally expect the DPP candidate to do well in the pro-DPP groups and poorly in the pro-KMT groups. That is exactly what happened. Tsai only did markedly better in one group, the neutral voters who like both parties equally. With all the other groups, she won roughly the same percentages both early and late in the year. Her gains came almost entirely from expanding the pro-DPP groups rather than by becoming more personally popular.

Han is a different story. He lost some support because his party declined in popularity. However, his slide can’t simply be blamed on the KMT’s collective brand. Compared to his early 2019 polls, Han became significantly less popular within each group. That is, he won less support among die-hard KMT supporters, KMT leaners, people who liked both parties equally, people who dislike both parties equally, and all stripes of pro-DPP voters. He bears a heavy personal responsibility for his failure in the polls.

Since I know you are curious, Soong gets a little bit of support from all nine groups. His best group, not surprisingly, is voters who don’t like either big party. They might like Soong and the PFP, or they might just be casting protest votes against the two big parties. It is worth noting that Soong doesn’t do nearly as well in this category as Ko Wen-je did. Back in the spring and summer, when many people thought Ko was running, he would usually get 50% or more in this category.


Well, that’s it folks. No more polling until Jan 12. Enjoy all the groundless speculation about underground gambling odds.

Populism and Han Kuo-yu

December 27, 2019

How are we to understand Han Kuo-yu? How did he rise from nowhere last year to become one of the central figures of Taiwan’s politics? And how has his popularity fallen so dramatically over the course of this year?

I have been asked versions of this question repeatedly over the past 16 months, and I have never been able to give a comprehensive answer. I could explain pieces of the puzzle, but there were always important parts that didn’t make sense to me. I think I finally have a fuller explanation to offer.

Han Kuo-yu is a populist. His rise to prominence was based on the success of this populist appeal, and his decline from that peak is a result of events and opponents eroding the power of that populist message. Populism is the frame through which to understand almost everything about the Han Kuo-yu phenomenon of the past year and a half.


What is populism?


Saying Han is a populist isn’t very helpful if we don’t know what populism is. Unfortunately, the word populism is used both in public discussion and in the academic literature to refer to a frightening variety of phenomena. At a recent workshop I attended on populism, the papers cited literature that used the term to mean:

  • Anti-establishment (referring to party leaders)
  • Anti-establishment (referring to social and economic elites)
  • Charismatic mobilization
  • Direct communication with followers
  • Anti-pluralism
  • Pushes unrealistic but popular economic redistribution
  • Anti-immigrant
  • Anti-minority
  • Claims to represent the general will
  • A style of relationship between a leader and followers characterized by sincerity
  • A focus on unification or independence (in Taiwan)
  • an “all-people’s” cabinet (referring to President Chen’s first cabinet)

A term that means so many things is nearly useless. What we need is a better theoretical definition. Good definitions cut away all the extraneous ideas. Effectively, they tell you, “Don’t pay any attention to all that other stuff. Focus on this. This is the crucial feature, and everything else either flows from this part or it wasn’t important in the first place.” Fortunately, dear reader, someone has given us a better definition. At that recent workshop, Jans-Werner Mueller, a political theorist at Princeton, gave the keynote speech, and his talk was enormously clarifying for me. The definition of populism that I provide in this post is taken almost directly from Mueller’s talk and his 2016 book. Unfortunately, I can’t provide a link to online versions of either of these, but here is an article he published in 2015 presenting the same conception of populism.

Populism is a way of framing political competition as a moral question. Populists champion the real people, who they see as morally pure and homogenous. Not all the legal citizens are part of the real people, and the populist insists that he alone defines who constitutes the real people. Since the real people are homogenous, there is a clear will of the people. The populist insists that he alone can identify and represent the will of the people. The morally pure will of the people is impeded by a corrupt elite, who are not part of the real people, and the corrupt elite is sometimes allied with a parasitic underclass, who are also not part of the real people. Anyone who challenges the legitimacy of the populist’s definition of the real people or of the popular will is making a moral challenge. This moral challenge is almost always answered in moral terms, by labeling the challenger as corrupt.

Within all those critical ideas, the single most important concept is that of the real people. Not everyone who is a legal citizen is part of the real people. Only some people are part of the real people, and they are the only ones who matter. Who are not part of the real people? As I understand it, populists always point to a corrupt elite that betrays the real people. The leftist version of populism most commonly found in Latin America thus sees the corrupt elite as conspiring with the USA to steal the people’s wealth. The rightist version of populism currently running through the USA and Europe sees the corrupt elite as allied with a parasitic underclass. Trump, Farage, Haider, and Grillo do not see (most) minorities and immigrants as part of the real people. Ultimately, the real people are defined exclusively by the populist himself. Since the populist can say who is part of the real people, he can also define what the real people want. This rests on the assumption that the real people are homogenous. They may not currently be unified, because the corrupt elite is constantly trying to divide them. The populist’s task is thus to unify the real people. As a homogenous bloc, the real people all want the same thing, if only someone will come along and identify that vision for them.

Conceived this way, populism is anti-pluralistic. In a pluralist view, society is composed of many different individuals and groups with different values, different interests, and different goals. There is no such thing as a concrete, identifiable will of the people, since the people do not exist as a singular entity. Policies are not inherently morally legitimate, so citizens are free to oppose them without fear of being accused of betraying the society. Competing policies have to be judged by their empirical results, so pluralism encourages policy debates in which different sides present evidence to demonstrate that a given policy has had or will have a particular desired effect. Populists view these decisions in moral terms. It is not necessary to argue about specific policies, since it is obvious that the government should just do the things that will help the (real) people. All other policy proposals must be motivated by corrupt intentions.

[Note: Not all leftists who want more redistribution or rightists who want less immigration are populists. The critical point is the existence of a homogenous real people in the politician’s rhetoric. For example, Bernie Sanders talks about the 99%, but this is statistically defined rather than notionally defined. He is quite aware that many people in that 99% do not and never will share his values and goals. He is trying to build a coalition from a diverse society that will agree on a (yet to be negotiated) common set of policies rather than to activate an already existing homogenous block of real people who already want those things. Bernie Sanders may want redistribution, he may be charismatic, he may have devoted followers, and he may be anti-establishment, but none of those (superficial) things make him a populist.]


Han Kuo-yu’s populist rhetoric


“Our country is sick. Our Taiwan is wounded. What happened? Why did the leading country of the four little Asian dragons, after President CCK passed away and left us the Hsinchu Science Park and the Ten Major Construction Projects – how did our country become this way? Our industriousness, our kindheartedness, our diligence, our simple goodness? The rest of the world looks at Taiwan and sees fraudsters and drugs. How do we explain this? … There are now three living ex-presidents, President Lee, President Chen, and President Ma. You were president for over twenty years. What industry did you leave behind for Taiwan? The only industry Taiwan has is in the Hsinchu Science Park!”

–Han, Apr 28, 2017, KMT party chair election policy forum


Han Kuo-yu entered the national political fray in 2017 by running for KMT party chair. He was a relative unknown, a former relatively undistinguished legislator who had been out of national politics for fifteen years. At the first policy forum, Han presented himself in clear populist terms. After talking about how prosperous and hopeful the ROC had been when he was young in the 1980s, he talked about how it had stagnated over the past thirty years. The quote above lays down the gauntlet in distinctly moral terms. The people are morally pure, but the country has been corrupted. Presidents Lee, Chen, and Ma have not worked to help the people. That is, the people have been betrayed by the elite. Han implies that moral leaders standing on the people’s side would have created several additional vibrant economic sectors, since that was obviously what Taiwan’s people need.

Han pointedly did not exclude Ma from his list of corrupt elites. The KMT also had a cabal of corrupt elites who have betrayed the people. The people’s interests are not, in Han’s discourse, equal to the KMT’s interests. In fact, Han later states that, as chair, if any DPP mayor did a good job, he would not nominate a KMT candidate to contest the seat and would instead let the good mayor have another term. Here, Han is establishing that he, not the KMT as a collective, will decide who is part of the real people.


When he entered the Kaohsiung mayoral race, Han usually told a similar story. Once upon a time, Kaohsiung had been prosperous and vibrant. Kaohsiung had the highest proportion of Mercedes in all of Taiwan, and a bowl of particularly extravagant eel-larvae soup sold for tens of thousands of NT. Kaohsiung had abundant resources hard-working, honest people. Kaohsiung should rightfully be the most prosperous place in Taiwan. However, now many people had to move north for economic reasons, and the city was choking under heavy public debt. The honest people of Kaohsiung, out of gratitude for their contributions to democratization, had given the DPP power for 20 years in Kaohsiung City and 32 years in Kaohsiung County, and the DPP had done nothing for them in return.

Han did not usually directly accuse the DPP government of corruption. On the stump, he sometimes referred to Kaohsiung as a sleeping giant, implying that the DPP governments had simply neglected the people’s needs rather than actively undercutting them. However, corruption was a constant undercurrent in the wider political discourse. By the end of the campaign, there was a constant stream of people murmuring about all the corruption cases that must have piled up during the twenty years of DPP government in Kaohsiung.

According to Han, the good people of Kaohsiung just wanted better daily lives 過好日子. He often stated that Taipei could have all the politics; Kaohsiung just wanted to focus on economics. The prescription was fairly simple: the government should help the people sell their goods to the rest of the world, and Kaohsiung would naturally become a magnet for people everywhere else. Goods go out, people come in 貨出去,人進來. Han even turned his unfamiliarity with Kaohsiung into an advantage. As an outsider, Han did not have intricate local knowledge. No matter. Han packaged himself as a CEO mayor, who would put good people in place and allow them to do what needed to be done. The specific policies were not important; what was important was having leadership dedicated to helping the people (instead of themselves).

How did the DPP react to Han’s message of working for the people? With dirty tricks and mudslinging! In Han’s rhetoric, the DPP campaign was not based on ideas at all. Rather, in order to continue to enjoy their power, they used underhanded and crooked methods to try to delegitimize him. He wanted a clean campaign, but his opponents only knew how to use dirty tricks.



In this year’s presidential election, Han’s populist rhetoric has been even clearer. He tells the same basic story. Everything was once good, but now it is bad. However, this year his attack on the DPP government is much sharper. Instead of merely insinuating corruption or neglect, he explicitly accuses the Tsai government of corruptly betraying the people.

Here is Han at a rally in Hsinchu County on Dec 7. “The DPP government doesn’t care about the people at all. It’s true. A small cabal of people – among 23 million people, there is a small cabal of people leading the DPP – is full of corruption and rot. They feast and feast. The factions divide the spoils among themselves. When the factions finish dividing the spoils, their underlings divide up their share, and then their underlings take a cut. As long as you are a DPP elite, it doesn’t matter what birth status or background you have, as long as you are one of their people. It doesn’t matter if you have murdered someone, committed arson, or embezzled money, it doesn’t matter. They’ll give you a powerful position all the same. They set these people free on us to engage in corruption, to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Taiwanese people. Now, after three and a half years, all of Taiwan is sick.

The Han campaign’s focus on the Yang Hui-ju楊蕙如  case fills an important hole in this narrative. The corrupt DPP elite systematically divert government resources toward perpetuating their power. In this case, the KMT charges that the DPP used government resources to fund internet soldiers to attack their political enemies online. Here is a concrete case of how the corrupt DPP elite are stealing the people’s money and using it for their own purposes. No wonder Taiwan is stagnating!

This year, Han has also expanded on his notion of the real people. He has given them a label, shumin (庶民, commoners). In his mayoral campaign, Han often expressed his belonging to this group by talking about how he only needed a bottle of water and a bowl of braised pork on rice (一瓶礦泉水,一碗滷肉飯). Perhaps more importantly, he defined them with another memorable phrase, “Never forget that the world is full of people living bitter lives” (莫忘世上苦人多). The shumin are the people who live, or worry about living, bitter lives. In 2018 and 2019, lots of people can identify with the notion of bitterness, including people angry at the new labor laws, civil servants who have seen their pensions cut, people relying on Chinese tourists, people who think their electricity bill is too high, people who want to drink bubble tea with a disposable straw, people who don’t want to replace their old (polluting) scooter, people who have to breathe dirty air, and people who just think that things should be better. It is worth emphasizing that a lot of people who worry about bitterness, such as retired civil servants, are not poor or marginalized. Even more pointedly, some people worry about the bitterness of being cut off from government patronage flows. The DPP reforms (and rumored future reforms) of the irrigation associations and farmers associations, along with the huge Forward-Looking Infrastructure Package threatened to reroute government patronage projects from one set of people to an entirely different set of people. Being thrown off the gravy train would indeed be bitter. This definition of shumin as people who suffer or fear bitterness feeds back into his notion that that what the shumin want is simply to have better daily lives.

Han has talked about his love for the ROC quite a lot in this year’s presidential campaign than during last year’s mayoral campaign. However, even last year, Han’s most passionate supporters were decked out from head to toe in ROC flag imagery; ROC nationalism has always been a core element of his appeal. How did he communicate this without explicitly talking about it? I think the most powerful message comes from his nostalgia of the CCK era, which he interprets as an era of peace, harmony, stability, and prosperity (as opposed to the contentious era of authoritarian suppression and a frothy bubble economy that others might see). In that era, the virtuous leader implemented good policies for the people that he loved, and the people enjoyed good daily lives. There was only one permissible will of the people – the one prescribed by the regime in which everyone loved the ROC – so nostalgic people like Han could remember that era as having a homogenous, singular general will. This golden era is especially seductive to mainlanders, who enjoyed a privileged status, which was even better since they did not have to acknowledge their privilege. During the CCK era, people were able to concentrate on getting rich, and they did not have to worry about politics. Everything started to go downhill once the Lee Teng-hui presidency started. The population began questioning the ROC, respect for the former privileged classes diminished, the economy slowed down, the newspapers started reporting stories about corruption, and the formerly unified society became divided into perpetually fighting political parties. No wonder people who love the old ROC, the one that existed prior to democratization, flock to Han.

Han has, of course, embraced KMT positions on how to manage relations with China. He is a strong supporter of the 1992 Consensus. However, he comes at it from a slightly different angle than President Ma. Han’s imperative is to do what is best for the shumin so that they can have better daily lives. If what the country needs is to open more markets so that people can sell their goods to the world, he will do whatever it takes to make that happen. China is an important market, so naturally he will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that Taiwanese businesses have access to that market. In every election, Taiwan always has a few candidates promising to put ideology aside and focus exclusively on economics. What they almost always mean is that they will accept One China, but they don’t want to talk about that with the public. Han is close to this. He will tell you that he wants the 1992 Consensus, but he doesn’t want to talk about the political implications of this decision. In his rhetoric, it is simply a tool to maintain peace and open markets.


Unsuccessful and successful attacks on Han’s populism


During last year’s mayoral election, Chen Chi-mai, the DPP candidate, chose to largely eschew negative personal attacks on Han. Since Chen was an overwhelming favorite to win the election in deep green Kaohsiung, he might have assumed that he could rely on a positive message to consolidate the green side and not worry at all about what Han was doing.

Chen’s main attack on Han was policy-based. Chen charged that Han didn’t know enough about the details of Kaohsiung politics to be an effective mayor. This attack played right into Han’s populist rhetoric.

In the first mayoral debate, Chen tried to expose Han’s unfamiliarity by asking him how he would renovate two fishing harbors. Han replied that he didn’t need to know those details, just as he didn’t need to know how many fire hydrants there were in the city. As the mayor, he could simply direct a bureaucrat to devise an appropriate plan to renovate the fishing harbors.

Populists don’t feel any need to struggle with the details of plans. Let me use an anecdote from Hungary, where Viktor Orban refused to participate in a policy debate, explaining,

“No policy-specific debates are needed now, the alternatives in front of us are obvious […] I am sure you have seen what happens when a tree falls over a road and many people gather around it. Here you always have two kinds of people. Those who have great ideas how to remove the tree, and share with others their wonderful theories, and give advice. Others simply realize that the best is to start pulling the tree from the road…. [W]e need to understand that for rebuilding the economy it is not theories that are needed but rather thirty robust lads who start working to implement what we all know needs to be done.” (quoted in Mueller 2016, 26).

Han likewise wasn’t interested in policy debates. He would simply order bureaucrats to start doing the obvious things necessary for revitalizing the fishing harbors.

Near the end of the election, KMT chair Wu Den-yi insulted former Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu, likening her to a “fat sow.” The DPP collectively recoiled in indignation and spent several days defending her honor against this insult. Han even admitted that Wu had stepped over a line. However, bringing Chen Chu into the center of the election was probably advantageous for Han. After all, he was effectively running against her. Far from being a popular incumbent and an asset to Chen Chi-mai’s campaign, Han had recast Chen Chu as a corrupt, ambitious politician who had first neglected the people and then abandoned them as soon as possible in order to take a better position in the central government. She was the personification of the corrupt elite holding back the morally pure people. Unless the Chen Chi-mai team could first undo that reimagination of Chen Chu, it probably didn’t help them to have her squarely in the public eye in the days right before voting.

Chen Chi-mai tried to introduce sovereignty questions into the campaign. Since the Kaohsiung electorate is historically more green than blue, it made sense to try to pull the campaign back to traditional battle lines. Chen thus complained that all of Han’s schemes to strengthen the economy were based on tapping into the China market. This line of attack doesn’t seem to have had much effect, probably because Han was running for a position in local government. As mayor, he simply did not pose much of a threat to national sovereignty since the (DPP) national government would still set the limits for what was and was not permissible. While he openly supported the 1992 Consensus, ECFA, and Free Trade Zones, he wouldn’t be able to unilaterally implement any of those. His promise was merely to go as far as possible within those limits, something that other local governments around Taiwan were already doing. Sovereignty might have altered the outcome, but Chen never found an effective way to introduce it into the election.


After seeming so bulletproof last year, why has Han seemed so vulnerable this year? I see three big answers.

First, sovereignty has been effectively introduced into the equation. This was probably inevitable, since how Taiwan relates to China is almost always the biggest and most important question facing Taiwan. If anything, we should marvel at how Han was so effective at keeping this question on the sideline last year. Xi Jinping’s bluster and the protests in Hong Kong have thrust China to the center of political discourse, and this has pulled the lines of partisan battle back toward established patterns (which now favor the DPP). If it hadn’t been Hong Kong, it almost certainly would have been something else. Regardless, Han’s populist wave has crashed against the solid rocks of Taiwan’s robust party politics.

Han aided this process with a couple of own-goals. First, in a trip to Hong Kong in March, he unexpectedly visited the Hong Kong Liaison Office, the unit in charge of overseeing One Country, Two Systems for Beijing in Hong Kong. Second, when the anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong began, he refused to criticize the government, first saying he hadn’t paid any attention and then saying that he hoped stability could be restored. Both of these actions were highly controversial, and they probably cost him quite a bit of support. From a populist perspective, both actions were defensible. Han had defined the real people as only caring about their daily lives. That is, in his conception, shumin don’t care much about political questions such as sovereignty, human rights, or democracy. He was, as promised, doing whatever was necessary to keep the China market open. However, shumin are not actually a monolithic, homogenous block with a single general will. Different people have different values and want different things. Some of his erstwhile supporters cared quite a bit about sovereignty, human rights, and democracy. When those values came into conflict with supporting Han, many of his erstwhile supporters decided that they no longer wanted to be part of Han’s shumin.

Second, Han has not performed well as mayor; he has not taken good care of the shumin. Han came into office with the populist promise that he would do the things necessary to help the people. It hasn’t gone well. Han has been accused of laziness and ineptitude. He is said to sleep until noon and enjoy drinking a bit too much. He has also had a few high-profile failures, particularly in dealing with the Dengue fever outbreak. The accusation wasn’t merely that Dengue fever had hit Kaohsiung, but, more importantly, that Han had failed to act energetically to control it. The city asked for extra budget from the central government to do things like spraying and draining standing water, and the premier responded that the city had not yet even finished using the normal budget for these things. In contrast to Han’s poor record, President Tsai has had a year full of policy triumphs. She has secured a purchase of F-16 fighter jets, the economy is growing faster, swine flu has been kept out of Taiwan, spending on social welfare programs is up, taxes are down, the budget is balanced, infrastructure is being built, and new energy sources are coming on line. At the recent presidential policy forum, after talking about all her achievements, Tsai could tell Han that she was the one who was actually doing things to help shumin, while Han was merely “consuming” them (ie: paying lip service to them and cynically using them for his own purposes).

Third, the DPP has successfully attacked Han as being a fake shumin. Populists don’t always have to be like normal people. Donald Trump’s supporters do not mind that he is a billionaire and they are not. As long as he speaks and works for them, it does not matter that he is decidedly not like them. However, Han has always presented himself as actually being a shumin. His “bottle of mineral water” embodies his normality. At a recent rally, I heard the slogan 庶民選總統,總統選庶民 (shumin choose a president; for president, choose a shumin). He is not merely like them; he is actually one of them.

The DPP has attacked Han’s shumin credentials in two ways. First, they relentlessly attacked Han for breaking his promise to serve a full term as mayor in Kaohsiung. Remember, Han pointed to Chen Chu’s departure from Kaohsiung as evidence of her corruption. She cared more about power than people, so she cynically abandoned the people to pursue more power. She was obviously part of the corrupt cabal and not part of the shumin. This helps to explain why so many former Han supporters felt so betrayed when he agreed to seek the KMT’s nomination for president. He was doing the very thing that he had identified as proof of corruption.

In early November, Han came under an even more direct attack. Reporters uncovered his history of real estate transactions and found that he had bought and sold luxury housing in Taipei. There was an insinuation that he had used political influence to secure financing for the deal. His opponents questioned whether a property speculator who depended on political connections was really a shumin or whether he was actually merely an ordinary corrupt politician.




Han Kuo-yu’s meteoric career over the past year and a half makes much more sense if we view it through the framework of populism. Han frames politics as a moral choice between himself, the representative of the shumin, and a corrupt elite who control the DPP and sap the country of its vitality. This framework focuses our attention on crucial points, such as his rhetoric around corruption and his seemingly cavalier attitude toward public policy, while instructing us to ignore other aspects that may seem central but are actually secondary, such as his attacks on Filipina workers. It also helps explain why some attack against him have been effective while others have failed miserably.

There are still lots of questions to be answered. Perhaps most pertinently, since populist rhetoric is always present, why did it suddenly start to work in 2018? Why didn’t it work in 1994 or 2009? If you know the answer, the entire world wants to know. By clearly defining what populism is, at least we have a more tractable question.

If Han loses the presidential election, we probably should not take that as proof that populism is unsustainable in Taiwan. Taiwan’s robust party system, constructed on top of a single, dominant, enduring political cleavage, has worked against populism in this case. However, we should not be overconfident that a populist couldn’t take over the DPP and ride its structural advantages to electoral victory. It isn’t hard to imagine a DPP populist constructing “the real people” as everyone who believes in Taiwan nationalism and moving to systematically marginalize everyone else. The best defense against populism is not to merely defeat one populist one time. Rather, fighting populism requires a renewed commitment to pluralism, insisting that it is perfectly normal and legitimate that different people have different values and different goals, that people who disagree with you are not necessarily corrupt or immoral.

Campaign Trail: KMT event in Xizhi

December 25, 2019

On Sunday evening, Mrs. Garlic and I went to a KMT rally in downtown Xizhi, which is part of New Taipei 12th District. Technically, my residence is in the next city over, so New Taipei 12 is not my home district. But actually, it is. We do most of our shopping in Xizhi, and we live close enough to this event that we could have walked there. For once, I was on home turf.

New Taipei 12 is really two separate territories. There is Xizhi, and there is everything else. Xizhi, which has about 70% of the voters, is an extension of Taipei City. Xizhi has grown rapidly over the past thirty years, and it has transformed from a discreet small town into the easternmost edge of the Taipei metropolis. The boundary between the two jurisdictions is almost invisible, so many people who technically live in Xizhi actually do most of their noodle-eating in the Nangang or Neihu districts of Taipei City. Almost all of Xizhi’s voters live in dense urban neighborhoods, and, while people are more likely to know their neighbors here than in Taipei, the social networks are not as thick as in more rural areas. The other 30% of New Taipei 12 is, by Taiwan standards, quite rural. There are six townships with fairly small core areas of only a few thousand people each. Politically, relationships matter a lot. Voters in these small towns will split their tickets if they know you personally, so establishing good relations with organizations such as the farmers associations is crucial.

Prior to 2016, New Taipei 12 was blue territory. The incumbent was KMT princeling Lee Ching-hua 李慶華, whose father, Lee Huan 李煥, was one of CCK’s closest proteges and a former premier. The younger Lee was elected in 1992, so by 2016 he was trying to win his ninth term in the legislature. Lee had started out as a KMT member, but he joined the New Party when it was founded in 1993 and was re-elected twice under that label. He had originally been elected in the southern half of Taipei City, but to make room for new people he agreed to relocate to Taipei County, where he concentrated on the military communities of Zhonghe. After the 2000 presidential election, he shifted his allegiance to the PFP and continued to mine the Zhonghe mainlander vote bank through the 2001 and 2004 elections. After electoral reform, he searched his heart and discovered that his true ideals were consistent with the KMT’s, so he returned back to his original party. He wanted to run for the Zhonghe seat, but he lost the KMT nomination for Taipei County 8 to the KMT local faction candidate Chang Ching-chung. As a compromise, the KMT arranged for Lee to take over the Taipei County 12 seat, centered on Xizhi. Under the old system, the areas that became New Taipei 12 had been in Lee’s old district, which covered a third of Taipei County. However, he had always spent most of his energy on Zhonghe. Suddenly, this staunch unification supporter and champion of mainlander interests found himself in an overwhelmingly Taiwanese district with a large rural population. It wasn’t an easy fit. In 2008, Ma Ying-jeou racked up 62.5% of the vote in the district, but Lee Ching-hua could only manage 52.0%. Likewise, in 2012 Ma collected 55.0%, but Lee squeaked by in a three-way race with a meagre 42.1%. There were plenty of blue votes, but Lee was consistently unable to soak them all up.

In 2016, the DPP designated New Taipei 12 as a “difficult” district. The 2012 candidate, city councilor Shen Fa-hui 沈發惠, wanted the DPP nomination, but Tsai Ing-wen eventually prevailed upon him to withdraw so that they could yield the district to Huang Kuo-chang 黃國昌 and thus cement their alliance with the newly established New Power Party. Huang defeated Lee (51.5-43.7%) in the general election, with both sides soaking up almost all of their camp’s presidential votes (53.1-46.9%). With historical perspective, Huang’s victory isn’t as impressive as many contemporary observers thought. Huang basically fought a very weak KMT candidate to a draw but was able to ride Tsai’s coattails to victory.

In that 2016 election, one of the minor candidates was from the Faith and Hope League, whose main demand was to stop the legalization of same-sex marriage. He didn’t get that many votes, just under 5,000, but his presence might have signaled the coming troubles for Huang. As the leader of the NPP, Huang did not bother doing a lot of constituency service. Sensing vulnerability and seeking to make a statement against the leader of the marriage equality movement, local anti-marriage activists put together a successful recall petition drive and forced Huang to face a recall vote. The turnout was not high enough to remove Huang from office, but significantly more people voted against him than for him.

It was never clear whether the 2016 alliance between the DPP and NPP would extend to the 2020 election. In the legislature, the NPP continually struggled with the question of how closely it wanted to work with the DPP and whether it should try to establish a separate identity or even announce a willingness to work with other parties. Huang Kuo-chang favored maximizing the NPP’s bargaining power by positioning the NPP as an unaligned party that could negotiate with any party willing to give it a better deal. Back in New Taipei 12, this position understandably caused a rift with the DPP. If the NPP wasn’t going to be a reliable partner, there was no need for the DPP to return the favor. Even though Huang was still publicly running for re-election, Shen Fa-hui announced that he would seek the DPP nomination. Shen even gave up his city council seat in order to concentrate on the legislative race. For the first half of 2019, both Shen and Huang were angling to represent the green side on the ballot, with no guarantee that one would yield. In late June, however, Shen announced he was abandoning his bid. The dominant media explanation was that forces inside the DPP – probably a reference to President Tsai – wanted to yield the seat to Huang again. However, even though the DPP decided it would cooperate with Huang, Huang wasn’t sure he wanted to cooperate with the DPP. In late August, Huang announce he would not seek re-election, and instead the NPP would be represented by Lai Chia-lun 賴嘉倫, who ran his Xizhi constituency service office. Some people speculate that Huang had decided he wanted to run for Taipei mayor, perhaps in alliance with Ko Wen-je. Perhaps he simply decided that he wasn’t going to win re-election. Either way, Huang’s announcement threw the green side of the race wide open. The DPP did not consider Lai Chia-lun to be a viable candidate, so it announced it would nominate its own person.

It was not until mid-September that the DPP drafted Lai Pin-yu 賴品妤, a 27 year-old former Sunflower leader. Lai’s father, Lai Chin-lin 賴勁麟, was a DPP legislator from 1998 to 2004. A member of the New Tide faction, he claimed to represent labor interests. Like Lee Ching-hua, he technically represented Xizhi. However, even more than Lee, the elder Lai ignored Xizhi votes. His support was almost entirely in the urban Zhonghe, Yonghe, and Xindian areas. If the DPP thought that Lai Pin-yu could simply reactivate her father’s dormant network in Xizhi, they were making a big mistake. Her father never had a network in Xizhi, so Lai Pin-yu would have to start from scratch.

Over on the blue side, the process was more orderly. After the 2018 triumph, New Taipei 12 was seen as an almost certain pickup. The only question was which KMT figure would win the seat. Three people registered for the KMT primary, a local lawyer and two candidates from Taipei. Of the three, Lee Yung-ping 李永萍 had by far the most impressive resume, having served as legislator and Taipei City deputy mayor. The local lawyer was supported by the local factions, and usually local candidates beat famous outsiders in polling primaries. You might think that, after putting up with the outsider Lee Ching-hua for over a decade, the local politicians might be desperate to grab control of this seat. However, for some reason, the local forces did not prevail. Lee Yung-ping won the May polling primary. The early resolution and the chaos over on the green side did give Lee one big advantage. While she may be an outsider, she has had a six-month head start over Lai Pin-yu in making local connections. Lee has been talking to local people since March or April, while Lai didn’t start until September. That head start might prove decisive, especially in appealing to the rural areas of the district.

One big question has nagged at me for the past several months. Why are the candidates so terrible? There are four perfectly competent former and current city councilors who have deep roots and high popularity in this district. Any one of those two KMT and two DPP politicians could have easily won their party’s nomination, and any one of them would have been favored to win this general election against the current field of candidates. Why did they all refuse to run? It’s almost as if the KMT, DPP, and NPP are actively trying to lose this district. Every time one of them shoots itself in the foot, the other compete to choose an even less appealing candidate.

At any rate, there are four candidates in the race. The KMT and DPP candidates will compete to win the race, while the number of votes siphoned away by the NPP and Stabilizing Force Party might swing the balance between the top two. Lee Yung-ping is stressing her experience and qualifications, while Lai Pin-yu stresses her youth and idealism. Lee says that Lai is too inexperience, while Lai retorts that Lee has extensive experience at doing the wrong things. Realistically, Lai’s only hope is to be dragged along to victory by Tsai Ing-wen. Lee, unlike some other KMT candidates, is not trying to distance herself from Han, which might be an unwise choice, given her advantage in candidate quality and in building relationships in the district. It should be a close race. If I had to bet, I might give Lee a small advantage.


This brings us to Sunday night’s rally. The rally was held in a big athletic field, surrounded by a running track. This was a fantastic event with a big crowd.

Because it was in such an open area it was fairly easy to see the entire crowd all at once. This makes gauging the size of the crowd quite a bit simpler. Moreover, the stools were laid out in a simple block, so you could cut the crowd in half or into quarters and estimate how many people were in smaller areas, an even easier task. The organizers had laid down mats to protect the grass and then put stools in that area. The stools were almost totally occupied, and I estimate they had seats for about 8,000 people. However, there were also people standing on the grassy periphery of the seating area, and there were people in the grandstand as well. By the end of the event, Mrs. Garlic and I agreed that 10,000 was a pretty good estimate, give or take a thousand people. Once again, let me say: 10,000 people is a LOT of people! This was a huge crowd. And if one gages by the number of stools they prepared, it was larger than they expected.

The crowd was somewhat different from other Han crowds I’ve seen this year. It wasn’t quite as raucous, there weren’t as many vendors selling ROC and Han paraphernalia, and the people weren’t wearing quite so many ROC flag shirts, hats, and other clothing. This should be seen as good news for Han. At some other events, I got the impression that a significant proportion of the crowd were serial rally attendees (like me). I know I’ve seen a few people more than once. However, I think the dedicated Han fans were probably all in Kaohsiung this weekend. The crowd at the Xizhi rally seemed much more local and much less cultish. In other words, this crowd had far more normal people and far fewer of the Church of Han choir. Again, that is a good sign for Han; he is once again showing an ability to reach out beyond his core supporters to a slightly wider audience.


It has been several days since the rally, and things are running together in my mind. Rather than discuss each speaker individually, I’m just going to make a couple of points about the event as a whole.

The speakers mentioned the crowd size several times. One early speaker proclaimed there were 30,000 people. The emcee must not have been paying attention, because soon after he congratulated the crowd on exceeding 10,000. Toward the end of the event, they decided on 20,000 as the number and repeated that several times. They also told us several times that this was now the largest political rally in Xizhi’s history. At the end of the event, just after Han finished speaking, someone repeated the 20,000 number, and then, within 30 seconds, someone else proclaimed that the crowd had reached 30,000. The speakers also talked quite a bit about the crowd sizes at the Kaohsiung marches, assuring the audience that the 350,000 people claimed by the Han side was an accurate number while the 500,000 claimed by the other side was a complete falsehood.

Now that the Han camp has proclaimed polls are meaningless, crowd sizes are particularly important to them. This is now the main way they publicly measure their popularity. As long as the crowds are large, they can reassure their supporters that Han is still competitive. If the crowds become too small, they risk seeing morale drop and turnout suffer.

However, there is a deeper meaning to the Han obsession with crowd size. These crowds are the concrete representation of what Han calls “ordinary people” (庶民, shumin). Han’s entire appeal is framed around these ordinary people, so it is vital that they continue to manifest their support for him. Without that support, he is delegitimized. For exactly the same reason that Donald Trump repeatedly insists his crowds are overflowing, Han needs us to believe that his crowds are massive. Fortunately for Han, his crowds are still very large, even if they aren’t quite as massive as he claims.


After the rally, I asked Mrs. Garlic what the KMT’s main points were. She succinctly and brilliantly summed up their entire discourse in a few bullet points:

  • Everything used to be good, but now it is bad. People now lead bitter lives.
  • The government is working for the DPP, not the people.
    • The DPP spends its energy doling out the spoils of office
    • The DPP corruptly abuses its power to further its own interests
  • Governing is simple. Just do the right things to help the people.


Everything the speakers at the rally fit neatly into that framework. They talked about how terrible the economy is, and how the DPP government makes up fake numbers to make it look better. They talked about how the ROC used to be widely respected around southeast Asia (everyone loved Teresa Teng’s music!) but now is looked down upon (new Thai tourist visa requirements). They continually hammered the idea that the DPP relies on distributing the spoils of office (酬庸政治), such as “bribing” Lin Fei-fan to join the party by making him deputy secretary general. They talked at length about the Yang Hui-ju case, which they see as an example of using government money to hire internet bullies to suppress their opponents. To them, this is clear-cut corruption. And finally, Han personally delivers the final point, explicitly saying that government is not complicated, you just do things for the people. Sometimes he likens government officials to Chinese gods, since all of them, from the Jade Emperor to the humblest local earth god, benevolently look after the humans in their realm.


In my next post, I hope to unpack Han’s discourse and entire appeal at length. Spoiler: It’s populism. Populism is the prism that brings the entire last year and a half into focus. It took me a year and a half to understand this, including three weeks staring blankly after being told exactly where to look and what to look for. It has been populism all along. So let me stop here and start working on that post, which I hope will be much more enlightening than this one.


Campaign Trail: Freddy Lim rally on Ketagalan Blvd.

December 24, 2019

On Saturday evening, I went to Freddy Lim’s rally on Ketagalan Boulevard, right in front of the presidential building. This was one of the most unique political rallies I have ever attended. I had just come from a very ordinary DPP rally, and the transition from that utterly conventional event to this very unconventional one was jarring, to say the least.

As I’m sure you all know, Freddy Lim, who became famous as a rock star and a human rights activist, was elected to the legislature four years ago in the Taipei City fifth district. In that race, he defeated longtime KMT legislator Lin Yu-fang. Think of an old-time, conservative, stern, orthodox, intellectual KMT politician, and the picture you have in your mind is pretty much Lin Yu-fang. He has a PhD in political science from University of Virginia and taught at Tamkang University and some military schools. In 1995, he ran for and won a seat to the legislature representing the New Party. The New Party self-destructed with a nasty civil war, and he lost his re-election bid in 1998. After the 2000 presidential election, Lin joined James Soong’s brand new People First Party, and he won legislative races in 2001 and 2004 under the PFP banner. After the electoral reform passed in 2005, Lin saw the writing on the wall and, along with most PFP legislators, defected to the KMT. He won two more terms for the KMT, pretty easily defeating the DPP nominees in Taipei 5.

Taipei 5 covers Wanhua and most of Zhongzheng Districts. These two are very different places. Wanhua is the oldest part of Taipei City. When the KMT came to Taiwan after the war, it brought large numbers of people from China. These mainlanders were settled disproportionately in whatever “empty” space they could find in the cities. In Taipei, that meant there were lots of communities of mainlanders everywhere except for the already densely populated areas along the Danshui River, modern Wanhua and Datong Districts. Later, these older areas of the city became the crucible of the Tangwai movement and, when Henry Kao Yu-shu ran for mayor against the KMT in the 1960s, they were his strongest areas. During the 1980s and 1990s, Wanhua and Datong were the only places that the DPP could expect to win half the seats in city council races; the KMT dominated everywhere else. However, Wanhua drifted noticeably blue during the Chen and Ma years. As real estate boomed, new people moved in, and Wanhua become more like the rest of Taipei. The DPP could still hope to break even in Wanhua, but it was no longer able to run up big surpluses. Since the DPP faced huge vote deficits in Zhongzheng, Taipei 5 became a reliably blue district. Zhongzheng is a very different place from Wanhua. The northern half has been the center of government for Taiwan since the Qing era. Lots of elite bureaucrats – ie: staunch KMT supporters – settled in this area after the war. Most of the southern part of Zhongzheng is also in Taipei 5, and this area also had plenty of mainlander communities, though they were not quite as elite. Over the past 70 years, as real estate prices went up, most parts of Zhongzheng became quite expensive, so the people who moved in tended to be on the wealthy and highly educated side.

In 2016, the fledgling New Power Party announced that Freddy Lim would represent it in Taipei 5. The DPP designated Taipei 5 as a “difficult district,” and eventually decided to support Lim rather than nominating its own candidate. The race pitted the very square Lin against the long-hair death metal rocker Lim. The incumbent seemed bewildered by the challenger, never seeming able to believe that the voters would actually take such a person seriously. Lim’s supporters on social media delighted in making fun of the KMT’s inability to comprehend the changing world around them. Lin must have felt humiliated on election night, when the rock star beat him by about 6,000 votes.

Many NPP supporters took this result and the two other NPP wins as evidence of NPP popularity. After all, they had won in “difficult districts” where the DPP had previously been unable to even come close. In fact, “difficult district” label was misguided. The label was based on whether the DPP legislative candidate had been able to get 42.5% in the 2012 election, so many districts were labeled as “difficult” because the previous DPP candidate had been weak rather than because the underlying partisan balance was unfavorable to the DPP. (For example, Taichung 3, which was eventually won by the NPP’s Hung Tzu-yung, was actually one of the DPP’s strongest areas in Taichung, if one looked at the presidential results.) 42.5% was also far too low a threshold. Since Tsai won 45.6% in the 2012 presidential election, a district less than 5% below the DPP’s national average could be labeled as “difficult.” If they were going to win the legislature, they would need to contest most of these districts and win some of them. In fact, Tsai won 56.1% in the 2016 election, and she ended up winning a majority in several of the “difficult” districts. That is, there were enough green votes in these districts; all the legislative candidate had to do was soak up all the DPP presidential voters. They did not have to reach over to the other side of the political divide. Taipei 5 was one of these. Tsai won 53.4%, or about 8,000 more votes than Chu and Soong combined. Far from being an electoral standout, Freddy actually underperformed a tiny bit.

I have recounted this electoral history in detail because the 2020 race is a rematch of the 2016 race. Lin Yu-fang is trying to retake his old seat. The only difference is that Freddy Lim has dropped out of the NPP and is running as an independent this time. This difference is superficial. Like last time, Freddy is effectively the DPP candidate, and his task is to soak up Tsai presidential voters. Freddy is the incumbent this time, but incumbency (probably) matters less in Taipei than in the rest of Taiwan. Taipei voters don’t expect the same level of intensive constituency service, and the more fluid nature of Taipei’s population (with people constantly moving in and out and fewer people knowing their neighbors) makes it harder for incumbents to build up networks based on favors. The biggest effect of incumbency might be that voters will not automatically dismiss Freddy as unqualified this time. He has proven to be a quite serious and respectable legislator. Still, just as with the 2016 race, this race will turn on the presidential outcome. If Tsai doesn’t break 50% in this district, Freddy will probably not win re-election. At this point, I’d probably bet on Freddy, but neither side should be very confident.


So much for the district and the race; let’s get to the event. The crowd was huge, though of course not nearly as cartoonishly large as the organizers claimed (and the media obediently parroted). A quick google search shows that the most common number thrown about was 50,000. Let me assure you, there were nowhere near 50,000 people there. I had just come from an event in which I could count heads, and I had a pretty good picture fresh in my mind of what 10,000 people look like. The venue for Freddy’s event was not all that large. By the standard of political events, Ketagalan Boulevard is fairly narrow. Unlike past events, the sidewalks were blocked off so people could only be in the street. Both sides were lined with tents and temporary toilets, making it even narrower. There was also a huge structure dividing the smaller front area from the larger back area. (People in the front half had to go through a security screen because President Tsai was coming.) Most people were standing rather than sitting on stools, and standing crowds are denser than sitting crowds. This crowd was pretty dense. I wormed my way halfway through the back part before I gave up and watched the event from there. I estimate there were about 12,000 people, though I’d believe any number between 10,000 and 15,000. It seems silly to have to say this, but since I know some readers will dispute my number I will. 12,000 people is a fantastic crowd. They completely filled the space that they set out to fill, and it was jammed to the gills. There were a LOT of people there.

I had just come from a traditional event, and I was one of the youngest people in that crowd. At Freddy’s event, I was one of the oldest. I spent a lot of the rally thinking about this age gap. The Sunflower generation confuses me and people my age. It’s not that they are apolitical; they are more politicized than any generation of youth since at least the Wild Lily era – and probably even more than that generation. However, they do not engage politics in the same ways as older citizens. They don’t do traditional rallies (They don’t seem to enjoy the Frozen Garlic cheer, but they do seem to think that sitting quietly on the ground is very powerful.), they aren’t closely attached to political parties, they don’t get their information from traditional media or political talk shows, and they care about different things (same-sex marriage!). They share a nearly universal identity of being Taiwanese and not Chinese, so, unlike older voters, very few of them consider the KMT a palatable option. However, also unlike older voters, they don’t think that requires them to vote for the DPP. The KMT has been totally unable to connect with them; the DPP has only done a bit better. Packed tightly in a thick crowd of people younger than me, I wondered what motivated these people to come out to this particular event? What was Freddy doing to unlock this grand puzzle of Taiwan politics? Progressive political ideals are certainly part of the answer, but I also wonder if this generation consciously wants to practice politics in different ways than their parents and grandparents. The current society isn’t providing the same economic opportunities that their parents enjoyed, so maybe they feel the need to do things differently. At any rate, this event was theirs in the same way the rally I had just come from was for their parents and grandparents.

I guess I have skipped one obvious attraction. The rally was actually a hybrid political rally / rock concert. I arrived after Fire EX finished performing. After them, four legislative candidates – Freddy’s squad, if you will – spoke. After them, Freddy’s band, Chthonic, performed for about an hour. After quickly changing costumes from death metal singer to serious politician, Freddy gave a speech. Finally, President Tsai spoke. I don’t think the young audience showed up just because there was a rock concert. While Chthonic played, I was curious to see how the crowd responded to the music. Maybe the hard-core fans all went up front, but back where I was, only about 5% of the audience seemed to be visibly getting into it. Some other people seemed satisfied to be there, though most were, like myself, politely waiting for it to be over. Some of the songs had political themes, and the crowd enthusiastically responded to that part. I think the overwhelming majority of the crowd was there for the politics, not the music.


Let me interrupt this post for a tangent on Chthonic’s music. This was the first time I had heard them, and they were fascinating. I wouldn’t call them good, musical, enjoyable, or even listenable, but they were definitely interesting. Chthonic plays death metal. I don’t mean heavy metal; compared to Chthonic, Metallica and Iron Maiden are for sissies. The drums, bass, and guitar are all laying down intense and heavy tracks, but none of them fit together in any conventional sense. It’s very discordant. You know how the lead singer for ACDC basically screams all his lyrics? Compared to Freddy, he sounds like an opera singer. How does Freddy “sing?” Imagine a lion roaring, but then scale that down to a smaller cat. Freddy sings like a lynx scowls. I honestly don’t know how he can do that for hours at a time; after a few minutes of listening, I wanted a throat lozenge.

Who cares whether I like them? Even I don’t care. After all, I’m not a music critic. What I found interesting was more the existence of this music rather than the music itself. To explain that, let me back up thirty years.

I first came to Taiwan in the summer of 1989, and one of the things I learned from listening to the radio, sitting in taxis, and from going with friends to KTVs was that Taiwanese listened to either sappy saxophone, accordion, and keyboard instrumental music or saccharine pop music. They loved Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Richard Marx, Air Supply, and a whole host of Taiwanese and Hong Kong pop stars who sang what Americans call Adult Contemporary. As an American teenager, something about this seemed wrong. There was something missing. It took me a while, but it finally dawned on me: there was no angry music! How could a society not have any angry music? Didn’t young people need to express their anger? Then again, all the young people seemed busy studying for university entrance exams and generally being very 乖 (guai: well behaved). There were blue collar workers and there were young thugs in the crime gangs, but even they seemed more interested in saving money than letting out some primal scream of rage against the world.

Granted, I am not the person to talk to for a comprehensive or even a cursory history of Taiwanese pop music. As a foreigner, you can’t learn everything about Taiwan, and years ago I decided that I wasn’t even going to try to keep up with pop culture. However, there were two points when I felt I could see Taiwan changing. The first was in 1994, when some friends dragged me away for a weekend in Kenting. I didn’t really know what I was getting into, so it was really an accident that I was present at the first Spring Scream festival. In later years, Spring Scream evolved into a polished event with famous stars and large crowds. In 1994, no one showered for three days, and the musicians were a bunch of nobodies, many of whom weren’t very good. They also weren’t playing the type of music we heard on the radio or in the KTVs. It was the first time I had ever heard Taiwanese people playing and enjoying real rock. Who knew that Taiwanese could tolerate something edgier than Wham! Years later, I read that first Spring Scream was a seminal moment in Taiwan’s music scene, as it was the first time many Taiwanese had met other Taiwanese with long hair and who liked loud music. The second thing happened a few years later, when I first heard Wu Bai and China Blue. Their music was the first time I had ever heard a mainstream musical act expressing, maybe not outright anger, but at least antisocial or counterculture themes. Instead of an air-brushed starlet singing about unrequited love (complete with a KTV video of a gorgeous person walking along a beach or staring forlornly into a brandy snifter), Wu Bai had a bad haircut, grimy jeans, and sang gritty songs about blue collar themes. [Unfortunately, Wu Bai later sold his soul and made a ton of money singing sappy love songs. Sigh.]

Even considering those changes, nothing prepared me for the existence of Chthonic. Chthonic is above and beyond anything I would have ever expected from Taiwan. Hell, it would startle me in America, too. This band simply could not exist if Taiwanese youth had not become far angrier and far more creative. They wear full makeup, and one of them wears a Silence of the Lambs-style mask. You can copy some of that from hair bands. However, the guy in the pig mask is something new. Freddy’s singing voice is something new. The extreme discordance of the music is new. The combination of it all with Taiwanese lyrics and themes is uniquely their own. Most surprising of all was the 5% of the audience that was absolutely jamming to their music; twenty or thirty years ago, there were no young people in Taiwan who could have understood, accepted, or embraced this type of music.

Oh, one more thing. One of their songs commemorated the great, recently deceased Taiwan historian, Su Beng. Everyone should hear a completely sincere death metal tribute to a Marxist historian and failed terrorist at least once in their lives.


Back to the political part of the rally.

I got there while Hung Tzu-yung was speaking. I can’t really remember anything specific that she said. My only impression was that she didn’t seem to make any emotional connection with the crowd, and that surprised me a little. I had expected that, after nearly four years as Freddy’s closest political ally, this young audience would know and like her. Instead, they seemed pretty indifferent to her. I’m not sure what to make of this. It probably doesn’t matter much for her re-election prospects; she will succeed or fail based on the normal considerations (the partisan balance in her district, constituency service, performance in the legislature, etc.) rather than on her street-cred with young, ultra-progressive voters. She’s probably in better shape than the three other legislative candidates on the stage that night. Still, she was the least popular of Freddy’s squad on Saturday.

The second person in Freddy’s squad was Lai Pin-yu, the Sunflower activist who is running in New Taipei 12. I went to a KMT rally in New Taipei 12 on Sunday night, so I’ll do a full write-up of that race in my next post. For now, let’s just talk about Lai Pin-yu’s outfit. She went full cosplay, decked out in a red leather Japanese cartoon cute girl and/or superhero costume. (Is Kawaii Manga Girl an appropriate look for a death metal concert??) Everyone laughed with surprise when she first appeared, but I could tell right away that people were questioning her judgment. In her speech, she railed against her opponent. Her opponent is telling voters that Lai is too young and unqualified, while Lai retorted that her opponent has lots of experience making bad choices and doing harmful things. However, Lai was basically presenting herself as a cute, immature girl, thus playing right into her opponent’s attacks. When she finished speaking, the emcee said something to the effect of, “Lai is very brave! You have to have a good figure to dare to wear something like that in public.” It struck me as the emcee trying to say something nice while thinking, “What the hell are you doing?” [Note: You should know that Lee Yan-jung, the emcee, is a young woman, so that comment didn’t sound creepy the way it would have if you are imagining the emcee as an old man.] Later, when President Tsai showed up, Lai came on stage still wearing her full costume. Tsai gave her one of those weary looks out of the side of her eyes that professors give students when they are making terrible personal choices that we can’t say anything about. Lai’s choice was cute, fun, energetic, and totally inappropriate for a person in her position. If her opponent fully exploits it, this outfit might end up costing Lai the New Taipei 12 seat.

Next up was Chen Po-wei, who is representing the Statebuilding Party in Taichung 2. This is a tough race. Taichung 2 is a bit less green than the other districts in the old Taichung County, but the partisan balance is not the primary obstacle. The problem is that the Yen family owns this seat. The current incumbent is the son, but the key figure is the father, Yen Ching-piao. Before the elder Yen entered politics in the 1990s, he had (allegedly) already established himself as the most important organized crime boss in central Taiwan. Taichung 2 is his personal turf, and other politicians are wary of challenging him. President Tsai made a joke about taking out a life insurance policy for Chen Po-wei, except it wasn’t really a joke. You need to be young, fearless, idealistic, and a little stupid to challenge the Yen family.

Chen Po-wei might just be that person. I’m more and more impressed with him every time I hear him speak. On Saturday night, got a rousing ovation from the crowd when he was introduced, far beyond anything that Hung or Lai received. Once he started, it got even better. Charisma is impossible to define, but Chen Po-wei has it. He had an instinctive feel for the audience. He was sarcastic, he sang a little, he hit a few talking points, and the crowd ate it all up. This guy oozes political talent, and I’ll be watching his career over the next few years.

Enoch Wu Yi-nung was the fourth and final member of Freddy’s squad. Wu is running against Wayne Chiang in Taipei 3, in what is unquestionably the most glamorous and most consequential legislative race this year.

If you went into the laboratory and tried to create the perfect candidate, you might create something like Wu. He’s smart (Yale degree), successful in business (lucrative job at Goldman Sachs), patriotic (quit Goldman to return to Taiwan), idealistic (took a low paying job), handsome (see picture), and has become an expert in a critical policy area (national security). And yet, Wu is somehow less than the sum of those parts. Onstage, he is painfully raw. He could barely get through two sentences without awkwardly stopping and repeating himself. He tried to do call and response with the audience, but his delivery was so confusing that the audience didn’t know what response they were supposed to give. I don’t like the way he has let the media frame his race either. Instead of framing it as a contest between someone who inherited everything and sacrificed nothing and someone who sacrificed everything to dedicate his life to Taiwan, Wu has watched passively as the media presents this race as a superficial contest between two handsome guys. During Wu’s halting and uncomfortable speech, I started to wonder if, even with his superstar resume, his future is really in electoral politics. Maybe this just isn’t what he is cut out for. If he does stay in electoral politics, he is going to need to get a lot smoother with a microphone in his hand.

I should note that back in Taipei 3, Wu might be making progress. Most pundits think that Chiang is a clear favorite to win re-election, but a new poll shows the race tied. That isn’t good news for Chiang. Chiang is the established brand who has spent the past four years doing constituency work and amassing favors. He is unlikely to win any new support at this late date. On the other hand, Wu is the new guy still introducing himself to voters. There are still lots of voters who don’t know about Wu’s fantastic resume, so Wu might still have room to expand his support. It’s just one poll, but if I were in Chiang’s camp, I’d be sweating nervously for the next couple weeks.

After Wu finished speaking, Chthonic performed for about an hour. During their last song, they were joined onstage by Yu Tien, who is chair of the DPP New Taipei branch, candidate in New Taipei 3, and also a pop star. Yu Tien’s music is about as far from Chthonic’s as you can get. He is an old-fashioned crooner, Taiwan’s version of Tony Bennett or Dean Martin. He’s always a big hit with the grandparents at traditional political rallies. Yu did not perform on this night. His job was to waste time while Freddy changed from his rock star costume to his serious politician costume. Yu didn’t really give a full speech either. Instead, he went into variety show host mode, making a series of bad jokes. Thankfully, it didn’t last too long before Freddy was ready to return.

Freddy’s speech was excellent, and the crowd was extremely involved. [This crowd halfheartedly recited the ritualistic Frozen Garlic cheers, but when Freddy and some of the other speakers engaged them in more spontaneous ways, they were as loud and energetic as any Han rally of the past two years.] Freddy was simultaneously charismatic and substantive. One thing that surprised me was the balance between progressive and sovereignty issues. He did the progressive agenda first, but he went through it fairly quickly, ticking off items that he had worked on in the legislature. It was a good list, and it painted him as a serious and effective legislator. However, he seemed to be trying to get through this list as quickly as possible, because he really wanted to talk about sovereignty. When he finally got to Hong Kong, he slowed down and started really hammering home points with the audience. Perhaps his emphasis on sovereignty reflected a need to justify his decision to leave the NPP. At any rate, my mental evaluation of Freddy ticked up another notch after Saturday night. His future political career is entirely fuzzy right now. It could be over three weeks from now, or he might still have a long and influential career ahead of him. However, I don’t think he has maxed out his potential in his current role as an ordinary backbencher in the legislature.

President Tsai showed up at the end of the event. Her speech was frivolous, reminding the crowd to vote and quizzing them on candidate numbers. I have seen her speak dozens of times, and this might be the first time that she was the least substantive person to hold a microphone. I mean that literally. Every single person who said anything, including Chthonic’s bassist, Doris, who only uttered about three sentences, said something more substantive than Tsai did. On a night that set my disoriented mind wandering in a thousand different directions, it somehow seemed appropriate that Tsai – the most serious, scholarly, wonky, thoughtful, visionary politician of this generation – would also do something totally unprecedented and speak entirely in fluff.


Lai Pin-yu torpedoes her own campaign.

Chen Po-wei dazzles the crowd.
These pictures aren’t very good. Since I couldn’t get to the front section, I had to take pictures of the video screen in the middle of the street rather than of the people on the stage.

My best picture of Enoch Wu Yi-nung is a bit out of focus, which seems fitting.

Freddy soars.

In between songs, Freddy suddenly shapeshifted and made cogent remarks about politics, melting my poor brain.

In purely technical terms, I think the drummer might be the best musician in the band.

This fellow haunts my dreams.

Taiwanese nationalism and progressive values proudly displayed at a rock concert / political rally. Freddy Lim, in a nutshell.

The whole crowd, taken by a drone and projected on the videoboard. The crowd did not extend out into the traffic circle, so it ends right at the bottom of this photo.

I like the symbolism of this picture, with the presidential building in the background. I think CKS, CCK, and all of the Japanese governor-generals would have puked at the thought of such an event in such a location. Today’s Taiwan, however, celebrates pluralism and diversity.

One more picture of Freddy in full glory.

Yu Tien gets into the spirit. He joked that he wasn’t wearing any makeup — he just has dark bags under his eyes from campaigning so hard.

The Tibetan flag. One of Freddy’s biggest cheers came when he talked about abolishing the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Council, which surprised me since I don’t usually think of that as one of anyone’s top priorities. This generation has different ideas about how to engage with peripheral PRC areas. Older Taiwan nationalists are afraid to get too involved, since asserting the right to have an opinion about Tibet or Hong Kong could be seen as an admission that Taiwan is like them and part of China’s domestic politics. These kids, in contrast, don’t hesitate to express solidarity with democratic forces in those areas.

Wait, weren’t you just?? Actually, Freddy admits, it’s hard to clean up so quickly, and he is still wearing the same pants and shoes.

President Tsai looks bewildered by Lai Pin-yu. Like Freddy, Lai has also changed into a more appropriate costume for the president’s endorsement. She was originally cosplay manga kawaii girl, and now she is cosplay manga kawaii candidate girl. Yeah, that’s much better.

In a nearby alley, a banner for Freddy’s opponent, Lin Yu-fang. It reads, “protect the children: keep a distance from cigarettes, drugs, and bullying.” Two nearby banners with similar layouts read, “foreign affairs and national defense: let an expert do it” 外交國防: 讓專業的來 and “for the ROC: win this fight” 為中華民國: 打贏這一仗