Like many people, I was a bit surprised at the Taipei City mayoral election results. I wasn’t terribly surprised that Hau won, but I was surprised by the margin of victory. A couple of days before the election, Mrs. Garlic and I kicked around the question of what results we would have found surprising. In the Taipei race, I thought I would be surprised if Hau won by more than 10% or lost by more than 2%. The national swing toward the DPP that I expected did, in fact, materialize. And remember, 44% is a very good result for the DPP in Taipei City. However, I expected more. The KMT had an incumbent with a shaky to lousy record, depending on your viewpoint, and the DPP was running a proven administrator. With a national swing toward the DPP, it looked like the perfect storm. I fully expected Su to set a new benchmark for the DPP in Taipei City.
So what happened? While the popular explanation is the shooting incident, I have my doubts about how much influence that had. (I have backed off my original stance that it most likely had zero influence. Enough people have told me that it changed their own behavior now that I have to believe that it mattered a little. However, I doubt that it was sufficient to sway either Taichung or Xinbei, and it almost certainly couldn’t have been enough to produce Hau’s big victory.) I think it is more likely that partisanship simply asserted itself. I have a couple of ideas in mind.
First, I think that after months of polling showing Su close or even leading and the disastrous march/carnival/parade the weekend before the election, no pan-blue supporter could delude themselves into thinking that Hau would win easily. In short, they all sensed danger and eventually came out to vote. Anyway angry or disillusioned blue voters would have had to think twice before “sending a message” or trying to give Hau a black eye. Sending a message is one thing; causing him to lose is another.
Second, while Su spent the whole campaign in his pink shirt talking about good government and non-ideological local issues, he is after all a former premier, prospective presidential candidate, and one of the most senior leaders of the DPP. You simply can’t ignore the political ramifications of a Su victory. With months to mull over this (instead of only a few days as in Taichung), pan-blue voters might have decided to stick with their party.
Many green supporters were disappointed that the Taipei City electorate would choose a lackluster blue candidate over an effective green one. As one complained to me, how can you talk about democracy when voters mindlessly vote their party and don’t pay any attention to the incumbent’s performance in office? Doesn’t democracy demand that voters punish bad politicians by voting them out of office?
Well, yes. But also, not necessarily.
Most of us support one party or another for good reason: that party fights for things we want. Put it this way, would you rather have a candidate who tries to do things that you like but does them badly, or a candidate who tries to do things that you don’t like and does them well?
Now it happens that, given the overriding dominance of the unification-independence (UI) cleavage, there isn’t a whole lot of disagreement about specific city policies. We all want smoother traffic, better schools, less corruption and so on. So you could argue that the previous question is irrelevant in the context of Taipei City. However, the person sitting it the mayor’s chair eventually does matter for the UI cleavage as well. A DPP mayor would help DPP candidates for the presidency and the legislature. A DPP mayor would divert city contracts to firms friendly to the DPP, and some of that money might find its way back into other campaigns. And think about all the young political talent that has come through the Kaohsiung City government over the past 12 years. A DPP mayor with a mini-cabinet would be an important cultivator of political talent. (Perhaps I should say “could” be. Ma and Hau haven’t taken much advantage of this opportunity.) President Ma might also take the election as a signal that his policy of faster integration with China should be curtailed. In short, putting a DPP politician in the mayor’s chair would probably help the DPP nationally. If I am a pan-blue voter, I have to think carefully about whether that price is too high to pay for voting out an incumbent with a lackluster performance.
E.E. Schattschneider, a former president of the American Political Science Association and an important theorist of democracy, once wrote that democracy is unfathomable save in terms of political parties. I think this represents the mainstream opinion of political science, especially those of us who study democratization and new democracies. So if this election was a triumph of partisanship above everything else, that is probably a good thing.