Archive for the ‘2018 mayor’ Category

How have I never noticed this before?

September 21, 2018

I haven’t written anything for this blog in several months, so it is a little intimidating to try to start anew. After so much time away, I should probably be sitting on something really profound, something that will clarify or transform how you understand the upcoming election.


So instead, I’m going to write about something very trivial. This is something a stumbled upon a few days ago. Now that I’ve discovered it, I can’t believe I didn’t already know it. But again, in the big picture, it isn’t all that important.


In the 2016 presidential election, Taitung County had a turnout rate of 55.1%. This was somewhat lower than the national turnout rate (66.2%), which isn’t all that surprising. For people whose household registration is in Taitung but live elsewhere, getting back home is a considerable chore. You can’t just take the high speed rail, after all. For most people, a one-way trip is going to burn the greater part of a day. Travel is even more burdensome for people who don’t live near a major transportation hub. So it isn’t surprising that the turnout in Orchid Island, perhaps the hardest place to reach, was only 34.7%.

So far, there’s nothing unexpected. But humor me. For fun, let’s go observe the same pattern in 2014. Turnout in the county magistrate election (67.8%) was considerably higher than in the subsequent presidential election, which perhaps surprisingly, is almost exactly the same as the national turnout that day (67.6%). However, in Orchid Island the turnout was of course much lower, a mere 63.8%. Uh, hold on, that’s not very much lower. Something interesting is happening there.

I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t notice this pattern by looking at Orchid Island. I noticed it looking at county assembly elections in Pingtung. Pingtung has a whopping 16 county assembly districts, but 38 of the 55 seats are elected in the first four districts. I tend to focus my attention where the action is, so I usually don’t pay much attention to the other 12 districts, most of which are for indigenous voters. However, a few days ago I was looking at the last eight district, for mountain indigenous voters, and the turnout rates jumped out at me. Look at turnout in the following townships: 三地門 88.0%, 瑪家 86.7%, 泰武 88.9%, 來義 82.5%, 春日 87.2%, 獅子 85.7%, 牡丹 78.7%, 霧台 92.5%. You can go around the rest of the country and find the same pattern. Turnout in every mountain indigenous township is sky high, but only for local elections. In national elections, turnout is usually somewhat below average.

What’s going on? It’s not enough to say this is effective mobilization. Candidates all over Taiwan do their best to mobilize voters in every election, but turnout rates of 80% are extremely rare everywhere else. What these communities have that the rest of Taiwan lacks is, well, community (or what we call “social capital” in the academic literature). In these communities, everyone knows everyone, and they can use their social ties to make demands on one another. If your matriarch orders you to vote, you darn well better vote. If you don’t, word will definitely get back to her, and you are in for some stern looks. Likewise, if your neighbor (and everyone is a neighbor) is running, he will certainly ask you for your vote and will know if you didn’t vote. And if you don’t live in the village, your friends and family do, and they will reach out to you. It isn’t just negative penalties; working with your friends for a common goal is fun, even if you don’t really care about politics. These sorts of social sanctions simply aren’t available in the rest of Taiwan. Moreover, indigenous villages are bounded communities, and electing the town mayor is akin to electing a tribal leader. It’s a really big deal. (As to that 92.5% turnout in 霧台. I have a friend from Wutai. Wutai is populated by Rukai, a small tribe extremely active in trying to maintain its culture and identity, even in the face of having to abandon one its physical villages. Wutai’s social capital is through the roof.)

Interestingly, this local election mobilization effect doesn’t seem to work quite as well for plains indigenous voters. This might be because this group, which is overwhelmingly Amis, is larger and therefore not quite as socially cohesive as the mountain indigenous tribes. Or maybe it is that Amis tend to live in towns that are majority Han, so that the mayoral candidates are not usually one of their own. They get a bump, but it isn’t as large. Likewise, turnout is much lower for mountain indigenous voters who are registered in Han-majority townships. These voters might not be a bit more distant from the social networks, and they might not even be from the same tribe as the majority of the electorate. However, you can see the same effect in one specific Han society. Liuchiu Township in Pingtung is a small island with a clear identity somewhat differentiated from the more general Taiwanese identity. Turnout in the 2016 presidential election was 44.9%, but in the 2014 local election it was 78.7%. Social capital is powerful!

If you need more convincing for this social capital thesis, here’s one more little bit of evidence. I compared the turnout in 2009 for indigenous county assembly seats in Taitung with the turnout in the 2012 presidential election. After controlling for the overall different turnout levels, the turnouts in the local election were higher: 海端 +9.4%, 延平 +14.7%, 達人 +17.9%, 蘭嶼 +13.0%. However, there was one exception: 金峰 -7.5%. What?? It’s actually not hard to figure out. In Jinfeng that year, both the county assembly and town mayor elections were uncontested. With only one candidate who is sure to win, there is no need to activate those social capital networks. Sure, the county magistrate candidates tried to mobilize voters, but they can’t tap into the power of the social networks nearly as effectively. Grandma might mutter under her breath for weeks if you don’t vote for Second Cousin’s Wife, but she probably won’t take it personally if you are too busy to vote for #3 on the billboard (what’s his name again?).


I started this post by saying that this topic is trivial, and it is if you care primarily about who will win the city mayor and county magistrate elections. The number of indigenous voters is miniscule compared to the number of Han voters, so even a 20% bump in turnout for indigenous voters barely makes a ripple in the overall results. For example, there isn’t much chance that spectacular turnout among the 1800 or so indigenous voters in Wulai will be decisive in the New Taipei race. That result will be decided by the 3.2 million Han voters. In a different partisan balance, it might matter in Pingtung, where the astronomical turnout among the 40,000 mountain indigenous voters produces nearly 5000 extra votes (beyond presidential levels of turnout). However, Pingtung hasn’t had a close magistrate election since 1993, when Su Tseng-chang was beaten by 12000 votes. (I wonder whatever became of that guy…)

The only place where this local election mobilization bonus might impact the outcome this year is in Taitung. Some back of the envelope math suggests that the added turnout from local elections might be worth an extra 2000 votes from the 14000 mountain indigenous voters. I didn’t try to figure out how much the smaller bump from the 44000 plains indigenous voters might be, but let’s imagine that it is roughly also about 2000 votes.

We all know from years and years of experience that indigenous voters have tended to support the KMT over the DPP, so those extra 4000 votes are good news for the KMT. However, what none of us know is just how overwhelmingly indigenous voters support the KMT. If the KMT wins by a 95%-5% margin, then 4000 extra votes implies a net gain of 3600 votes for the KMT. Fantastic! If the KMT gets 80%, then they reap a net gain of 2400 votes. Still pretty good, though less likely to be decisive. If the KMT only wins 60%-40%, the net gain of 800 votes probably isn’t enough to matter at all. The thing is, you don’t know which of those scenarios is closest to reality. Your guess is as good as mine. (Out of curiosity, does anyone want to hazard a guess?) No one has ever put calculated a rigorous estimate of how indigenous voters vote in presidential elections, much less mayoral elections, so we just don’t know the answer.

Of course, that last sentence isn’t entirely true. It just so happens that I am working producing an estimate for indigenous votes. I’m just starting to put together results, so I don’t have a definitive answer just yet. However, I do have some interesting results from Taitung that I might write about if I ever get around to writing another Frozen Garlic post…

Han is, um, unique

May 23, 2018

The KMT has nominated Han Kuo-yu to run for Kaohsiung mayor, and I want to say a few words about him. This is a near hopeless race for the KMT, so Han is highly unlikely to win. Chen Chi-mai is almost certain to win, and he is a talented and promising politician who will join Lai, Lin, and Cheng vying for the 2024 presidential nomination. So this is not an post about the horse race; it is about how Han is not a normal KMT candidate.

The KMT has been doing terribly in the south for several years, but it can’t afford to write off the entire region. If it wants to be competitive in future presidential races, it has to figure out some sort of appeal for southern voters. What it has now just isn’t working. The KMT could have nominated a standard KMT candidate and tried the same script again; instead it nominated Han who promises to try a new strategy.

Han came up in Zhonghe politics, up in New Taipei City. He served three terms in the legislature (1992-2001), though he was pretty anonymous. He drew strength from the KMT’s Huang Fu-hsing military system, and he was a pretty standard military-sponsored politician. Like a couple other Huang Fu-hsing representatives (eg: Shih Tai-sheng), Han also is reported as having extensive ties to organized crime gangs. (Gee, that was a strangely constructed sentence!)

Han mostly disappeared from the public eye for about 15 years. Then, a couple years ago, he emerged as head of the Taipei City farmers association, where he was allied with former Yunlin county magistrate Chang Jung-wei (who other people have also suggested might just perhaps be deeply enmeshed in criminal networks).

And then last year, Han ran for KMT chair. He didn’t win; he only got 5.8% of the votes. However, his discourse was interesting and very different from all the other candidates. I watched all the debates on youtube, and this is what I wrote about Han:


Five of the candidates sounded rather similar. Han sounded completely different. During both debates, Han didn’t talk about things like the 1992 Consensus, KMT party assets, or other partisan topics. Instead, he talked about the difficulties of everyday life for lower income and less educated people. Good jobs are scarce, drug use is common, things are too expensive, and life is generally hard. Notably, he did not blame all of these woes solely on President Tsai and the DPP. He was complaining about the effects of President Ma’s policies just as much. His discourse was limited to expressing the pain felt by the lower class. He did not bother to offer any solutions, not even Trump-esque claims that everything could be easily fixed if only someone really wanted to. This was a campaign aimed at the people who know the system is rigged against them and will continue to be rigged against them. It was also aimed at young men, especially the types who might drive a truck or join a gang. This may not have been the best strategy for a KMT party chair race, since I would wager that KMT members are less likely than the general population to be young, unemployed, financially struggling, or to feel that the system is rigged against them. Nevertheless, Han didn’t do terribly. I wonder how many candidates will pick up this campaign strategy for the city and county councilor elections next year.


There are two names that I really don’t want to drop into this post, but I can’t think of any better way to make the point. The first is Donald Trump. Han is pushing an angry, populist message aimed at young and middle-aged men with low education levels and who want blue collar jobs. There are, of course, lots of aspects of Trump’s discourse that are missing (eg: immigration, attacks on the media, anti-trade), but the target audience is similar.

The second name—well maybe I’ll just let you guess. Unlike the standard-issue KMT-allied (alleged) organized crime boss (think Chang Jung-wei, Lo Fu-chu, Yen Ching-piao, Lin Ming-yi, …), Han is not merely allied with Chinese nationalism for convenience or patronage benefits. Coming from the Huang Fu-hsing system, Chinese nationalism is a core principal for Han. This makes him a different type of gangster. I am suggesting that the KMT might be interested in seeing how Han’s discourse plays out, but I suspect the PRC is also watching this very closely. If Han does well, they might be even more aggressive in sponsoring crime gangs in Taiwan politics.


I don’t know if Han’s message will work. I suspect it will not. If it doesn’t, he doesn’t have the deep organizational networks to overcome the lack of a compelling message. It’s entirely possible that more conventional KMT city council candidates will panic and encourage a more standard politician to run an independent mayoral campaign, worrying that their voters will not want to turn out to vote for a mayoral candidate like Han. However, if Han somehow manages to break into the low 40s, KMT presidential and legislative candidates (in green districts) in 2020 might decide to copy his populist approach. It’s worth keeping an eye on.

(Would it have been wrong to title this post “Han Solo” just for the extra clicks?)

DPP divorces Ko

May 17, 2018

I’ve been too busy to blog much. I’m way overscheduled for most of the rest of the year, so this probably won’t be a great year for Frozen Garlic. Sorry. I’ve been thinking about this post for about two weeks, and, unlike most of the things I think about these days, I finally found some time to sit down and bang it out.


The DPP has finally made a decision about the Taipei mayoral race. It will not cooperate with Ko Wen-je this time and will instead nominate its own candidate. This decision to split with Ko has been building for a long time.

Four years ago, the DPP was desperate to win what seemed an impossible race in Taipei. They didn’t have a strong candidate of their own, and they (and their new young allies from the Sunflower Movement) absolutely detested the KMT nominee, Sean Lien. Ko Wen-je emerged seemingly from nowhere as a viable candidate who was generally sympathetic to DPP ideals, and yet he was different enough to pull a few votes from the KMT base. The DPP yielded to him, and he eventually won with a seemingly unfathomable 57% of the votes. Ko was lauded in the media as an electoral juggernaut, but let’s not forget that he was running against a terrible KMT candidate. Ko was probably never as popular as he was made out to be. As mayor, Ko governed as an independent. He appointed people from both sides to his mini-cabinet, and he pointedly mostly stayed home during the 2016 election. He did not go out of his way to reinforce ties with the DPP.

That would have been fine. Mayors are not really expected by the national parties to do specific things. As long as they are competent and don’t get into any major scandals, the parties are pretty much ok with anything else. The decisions to pay down Taipei debt, stop the Taipei Dome project, tear down lots of overpasses, and not build very much are not at issue.

What really damaged Ko was his trip to China when he famously uttered that people on both sides all belong to the same family 兩岸一家親. With that statement, he crossed a line for many DPP supporters. Ko later “explained” that he worried about the possibility that China would cause problems for the upcoming University Games, so he was willing to say whatever was necessary to “get through it” 過關. China is famous for asking Taiwanese to go one step further, and Ko is not the first person to fall into this trap. Eric Chu did the same thing right after taking office as KMT chair in early 2015. Ko, like Chu, was guilty of thinking that he was simply playing word games, and that he could be cleverer than everyone else. The problem is that you can’t win that game. You can’t say one thing to one audience and another thing to another audience. On this topic, everyone is always watching, and everyone sees and hears everything you do and say. Moreover, everyone understands the little nuances of the words, and when there is ambiguity, unfortunately China’s superior international presence and influence allows it to clarify the ambiguity as it sees fit for the rest of the world. Ko might have thought he was cleverly walking a thin line without falling over by plausibly meaning that the two sides are distant relatives from the same family, thus implying no need for unification. However, it could also mean that the two sides are close family. Ko might have satisfied China (which certainly chose to hear the latter interpretation), but DPP supporters back home also heard Ko’s ambiguity and wondered why they had put him in office.

There is only one way to play the word games with China, and that is not to play them. You have to carefully settle on a formula that says exactly what you want to say and then stick doggedly to that formula. You simply cannot “go a little further” in order to make a few PRC officials at a banquet happier; any deviations from the formula have to be carefully planned and vetted. Cleverness is not an advantage; you have to stick to the script. Ko may think he is the smartest person in the room, but that lack of humility is exactly why he messed up.

Let’s also be cynical about Ko’s motives. He probably wasn’t just worried about the University Games. After freezing out the Tsai government and with the impotence of the KMT, the PRC was actively looking for a new partner in Taiwan. Ko was exploring whether he might fit into that role. His ambiguous statement about the nature of Taiwan was a message to China that he might be someone they could work with if they wanted to bypass Tsai. Likewise, China’s appeal for him to go a little further was a probe to see if he might be their conduit. In this sense, Ko was not merely building amiable ties between the Taipei and Shanghai city governments; he was actively undermining the Tsai government’s ability to demand that the PRC deal with Taiwan’s national government.


At the beginning of this year, the DPP still had not decided whether to cooperate with Ko again. From the outside, it certainly looks to me as if President Tsai was the strongest voice in favor of cooperation. In January, she lobbed a softball to Ko, publicly asking him to “reassure” everyone that he shared “Taiwan values”. All Ko had to do was state in some vague way that he believed the 23 million people of Taiwan had the right to determine their own future, that Taiwanese are close family and China is distant family, that he subscribed to Tsai’s formula of respecting the ROC constitution, or something of that nature. Instead, he publicly wondered what Tsai meant by “Taiwan values.” This was not the answer Tsai and the DPP were looking for.

DPP legislator Yao Wen-chih 姚文智 wants to run for mayor, so he has been leading the calls for the DPP to nominate its own candidate. He has held several demonstrations, each one seemingly larger than the previous one. Notably, almost all of the DPP city council candidates have joined him. They have developed two powerful (and plausible) rationales for nominating their own candidate. First, city councilors fear that, because DPP loyalists are so disgusted with Ko’s China discourse, they will not come out to vote. They argue they need a strong mayoral candidate to drive up turnout so that they can also win their races. One might doubt this argument, but the DPP city council candidates have almost all voted with their feet. They have almost unanimously gone on record against Ko. Second, they have argued that Ko is going to run for the presidency in 2020, whether or not they cooperate with him in the mayoral race. According to this reasoning, it is better to split with him now rather than build him up even stronger. Amazingly, as this consensus within the DPP built and built over the past four months, Ko did almost nothing. It was as if he was oblivious to what was happening. A couple weeks ago, the DPP national party made one last effort, suggesting that internal polls showed that DPP supporters were split on whether to support Ko. However, while casual DPP supporters may still be amenable to Ko, the loyalists are not. Over the last few weeks, faction after faction has come out in favor of nominating their own candidate.

Ko did finally seem to awaken last week, he belatedly made an “apology” for his statement in China. However, he did not disavow the statement that both sides belong to one family. Rather, he said that he was sorry if anyone had been upset by his statement. You know, “Sorry, not sorry.” Then he made his excuse about just trying to successfully hold the University Games and claimed he had said things in the moment without really thinking about them. To me, it was a fairly pathetic show. Ko’s apology probably made people angrier. Moreover, he was suggesting he a) thought holding some stupid games were more important than cross-straits relations, and b) was basically incompetent at diplomacy. Also, he finally announced that he would support Tsai in her 2020 re-election bid for the presidency. This might have had some impact if he had said it in January, but now it is far too late. After several months of distancing himself from the DPP, his denial of presidential ambitions at the moment the DPP was making a final decision on whether to nominate its own mayoral candidate rang a bit hollow. It is certainly plausible to look at events and conclude that Ko was keeping his options open and might eventually turn on the DPP.


Aside: This whole process is a case study in President Tsai’s leadership style. Tsai believes strongly in consensus. She has her own preferences, but she does not generally try to impose them on the rest of the party. Instead, she prefers to slowly let a consensus build, and then she will lead the party in that consensus position. We have seen this on pensions and marriage equality, and now the same thing is playing out with the mayoral nomination. If Ko was counting on her to insist that the party yield, he hasn’t been paying much attention.


I’d like to think briefly about an article written by DPP city councilor Liang Wen-chieh 梁文傑. Liang argues that Ko won in 2014 because voters despised Lien’s actions as a comprador, but that Ko in office has followed exactly that path. As with all good political attacks, this takes events and stretches them a bit. I don’t think Ko’s feelers toward China constitute Lien-level comprador activities, but he was plausibly taking the first steps in that direction. The significance of this article isn’t so much that it is incisive analysis; rather, this is more important as a blueprint for how the DPP will attack Ko over then next few months (or years, if he runs for president). They will pain him as a political speculator ready to sell out Taiwan’s interests for the sake of his own political career. It looks like a pretty good line of attack to me.


I’ve consistently underestimated Ko Wen-je over the past five years. I may be doing so again, but this looks like the beginning of the end for him to me. I expect the DPP to start attacking him, and these attacks will take their toll on his popularity. Right now the DPP is in third place in the race, but if they can knock Ko down to third place, strategic voting will eviscerate him. Right now, my guess is that he will end up between 10% and 15%, far behind the KMT and DPP candidates.

I can still see a second act for Ko if he, in fact, does hold presidential ambitions. I’ve been saying almost since he was elected that there is a political vacuum waiting for him to step into. James Soong is old and ripe to be replaced. With the DPP now repudiating Ko, it is certainly plausible that he will slide over into that space in the political spectrum, perhaps taking over the PFP or perhaps leading a new force centered on current PFP supporters. If the KMT does not figure out how to revitalize itself, Ko could eventually displace the KMT as the main political force opposing the DPP. We are a long way from that happening, but it is a bit more plausible today than it was at the beginning of the year. If it does happen, we might look back on the One Family discourse as a foundational strategic move launching Ko into national politics rather than as a monumental blunder that cost him the mayorship.



On polling primaries

March 8, 2018

The KMT and DPP have now finished their first round of polling primaries. It seems to me that the polling primary might not be around very much longer. But before I get to that, let me start this post with some quick comments about the DPP results of the past couple days.

We have been headed for factional wars in Kaohsiung, Tainan, and Chiayi for a few years now, but it turned out that the full-blown battle only materialized in Chiayi. Chen Ming-wen’s 陳明文 side has won that battle, so he and his friends will control the county government for the next four years. This will make a full two decades in power for him since he switched sides in 2002. To recap, during the 1990s Chiayi County was reliably KMT, with the DPP never really coming close to victory. Even in the 1997 DPP tidal wave, Chiayi stayed blue. Chen himself was the second most important politician in the Lin Faction, which was clearly the second faction in the KMT. The dominant Huang faction won the intra-party struggles, and then the KMT won the inter-party struggles. Two things changed this. First, the dominant Lin faction politician, legislator Tseng Chen-nung 曾振農 (famed as king of rattan chairs涼椅王), faded away. I can’t remember clearly, but I think he had some legal and financial problems and eventually went to exile in Cambodia where he died in the early 2000s. Chen Ming-wen thus assumed leadership of the faction. Second, Chen read the changing political environment, and showing considerable political skill convinced nearly his entire to switch sides. Inside the DPP, Chen’s faction was the dominant force, and the newly strengthened DPP easily beat the KMT. Chen served as county magistrate for two terms and then turned the county over to his ally (and Tseng Chen-nung’s widow) Helen Chang 張花冠. During her two terms she apparently decided to try to take over leadership of the faction, and so here we are today. The Chen and Chang factions went head to head in the primary, and Chen’s candidate Weng Chang-liang 翁章梁 won a narrow but clear victory 43-35. I really only know three things about Weng: 1) He is in Chen’s faction, 2) He comes from the Wild Lily student movement, and 3) He has three surnames 翁、章、梁.

The Kaohsiung primary momentarily turned nasty about a month ago, when mayor Chen Chu 陳菊 released her book and rehashed some of the unpleasantness of her 2006 campaign. It turned out to be a terrible strategy, and her favored candidate Liu Shi-fang 劉世芳 ended up withdrawing from the race. This left the field wide open for Chen Chi-mai 陳其邁, who was probably always going to win anyway. However, without Liu (and with mayor Chen staying neutral), Chen Chi-mai lapped the field, getting more support than the other three candidates combined. This large win makes it highly unlikely that anyone from the green side will challenge him in the general election. Unless something really strange happens, Chen is a shoe-in to win in Octobler.

Chen Chi-mai’s smashing victory in the Kaoshiung primary is important for another reason. Chen has a good head on his shoulders and plenty of ambition. He probably slots into third place in the future DPP presidential candidate sweepstakes, just behind Premier William Lai 賴清德 and Taichung mayor Lin Chia-lung 林佳龍. I think he jumps ahead of other contestants, such as VP Chen Chien-jen 陳建仁, Taoyuan mayor Cheng Wen-tsan 鄭文燦, Chen Chu, and people not currently in the DPP such as Huang Kuo-chang 黃國昌 and Ko Wen-je 柯文哲. I have a very high opinion of Chen Chi-mai, and I expect his national profile to soar over the next few years.

The contest in Tainan was also a blowout, with Huang Wei-che 黃偉哲 clearly beating Chen Ting-fei 陳亭妃 and the rest of the field. Tainan can be a launching pad to the presidency (see Lai, William), but I don’t have such a high opinion of Huang. Thus far in his career, he has been better at going on talk shows than actually doing politics. But there is absolutely no chance that the KMT will win Tainan, so Huang will get a chance to prove himself and make me eat my words.


I don’t really want to write about the specific races. I want to write about the future of the polling primary. I think this institution might be on its last legs.

Nominations are always challenging. Parties want to nominate a (1) candidate who will win the race and is (2) ideologically consistent with the party’s mainstream values. They further want to do this in some sort of process that (3) gives the party some degree of control over who they nominate, and (4) convinces the other aspirants not to challenge the decision in the general election. These various goals usually conflict with each other. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when elections were becoming more and more competitive, both parties struggled with nominations. The KMT tried decentralizing its process, but it ended up with candidates the party leaders didn’t like. It also found that candidates who were highly rated by the local party office weren’t always great candidates, such as the 1989 Taipei County magistrate debacle in which all the local factions rebelled against the bookish and clueless Lee Hsi-kun 李錫錕. (Somehow, Lee has re-emerged after all these years to launch an internet-fueled campaign for Taipei mayor. The world is weird.)

The early KMT “primaries” were generally advisory and non-binding. The DPP tried holding binding votes among party members. This resulted in widespread accusations of mindless factional vote trading, cultivating phantom party members, and outright vote-buying. When the DPP tried giving more weight to elite party members’ preferences, the factionalism only intensified.

This clearly didn’t work. The DPP tried moving toward an American-style public primary in the 1996 presidential nomination. However, in the USA, the primary elections are run by the state. The Taiwan government was not interested in helping the DPP run its primary election. Instead, the DPP launched a touring roadshow. They set up a stage, just like a political rally, and the two finalists debated each other (saying the same things every night). After (ok, during) the debate, the audience could go to the side tent and vote by casting a special commemorative coin into a custom-made vending machine. It was a disaster. The machines broke repeatedly, there were rumors of repeat voters and other forms of cheating, turnout was much lower than the DPP had hoped for, and the DPP fundamentalists ended up nominating Peng Ming-min 彭明敏, one of the worst candidates in Taiwan’s electoral history. (He could barely be bothered with unimportant things like, you know, policy.) The DPP was never going to win in 1996, but it was clear that in a more winnable race this nomination process might torpedo their chances.

Telephone polls were the answer. At first, parties used a mixture of party member voting and telephone polls. However, the polls were seen as a more authentic gauge of support in the electorate. A candidate who lost the party vote but won the telephone poll was not going to withdraw in favor of a candidate who had won the party vote but lost the telephone poll. Moreover, as long as there was some component of party voting, there was a danger of vote buying. The death knell for party voting came prior to the 2008 election, when the electoral law was revised extending the penalties for vote buying to primary elections. The parties (especially the DPP) were terrified that their nominees would be indicted for vote buying BEFORE the election. Since 2008, the parties have resolved all of their nomination disputes by polling primaries. They don’t always need the polling primary; sometimes they can negotiate a nominee acceptable to everyone. However, the polling primary is always the default final solution.

Telephone polls were particularly useful because they convinced losers to accept losing. When they work properly, polls give each candidate a fair chance to demonstrate their support. It is hard to argue that you are actually the more deserving nominee when a telephone poll with a representative sample says the opposite. Polls are also hard to manipulate, especially in comparison to other alternatives such as voting by party members. Because each resident with a telephone is potentially a polling respondent, it is inefficient to buy votes or intimidate voters.

To top it off, polling is pretty cheap, so parties can easily afford to hire multiple companies and do large samples.

So what is the problem? I think that polls are losing their authoritativeness. For one thing, there are rumors that innovative politicians are finally learning how to manipulate polls. We hear again and again that politicians are buying thousands of telephone lines to increase the chances that pollsters will call them. I have doubts about this. Wouldn’t Chunghua Telecom notice a person registering 1000 new numbers at one address and flag that transaction? Who would staff all those telephones? Besides, you need a lot more than a thousand extra numbers to move the needle in, for example, Kaoshiung, which has over 2 million residents. Nonetheless, rumors of manipulation are an important ingredient.

The second ingredient is real. There is a growing crisis in polling caused by the rise of mobile phones. For decades, pollsters have assumed that a representative sample of household landlines was effectively a representative sample of the entire population. Every house had a phone, so a sample of phone numbers covered everyone. This was never actually true, but it was close enough. No longer. Now we don’t quite know how construct a representative sample. It is clear that you cannot rely simply on landlines. However, there is no theoretically rigorous algorithm to combine landlines, cell phones, and internet surveys. That 3% margin of error (which is calculated solely by sample size) you see reported in every newspaper story was always something of a lie, because a sample of landlines was never actually a true random sample. Now it is even more meaningless.

Note that I did not say that pollsters are intentionally manipulating the results. Professional pollsters don’t do that, especially for something like a party primary. The protocols are set up to allow observers from each candidate to make sure that no manipulation occurs during the interview process.

Many candidates don’t know what they are looking at; the speakers of the Keelung and Chiayi councils are not exactly members of the numerati. They might really think they have somehow been cheated because, for instance, the polling company refused to call the list of telephone numbers they brought in. Other candidates, such as Chou Hsi-wei 周錫偉 in New Taipei, probably do understand the basics of polling but cynically proclaim doubts that the results were manipulated to explain away their losses. The problem is that when these sorts of accusations are made (as they always are), the experts no longer fight back with a unified front. We no longer have absolute confidence in our own results. Rather than a solid wall of rejection from the experts, the complainers now have little cracks to exploit. Polls simply don’t have the authority that they did ten or twenty years ago.

Without this aura of authority, polling primaries will probably start to fail at one of their most basic tasks: convincing losers to accept defeat. That means that parties will need a new mechanism. I suspect the next thing they will try might be an American-style publicly run primary election. However, that will require significant legal changes, so it is still some distance in the future.

Wayne says no

January 21, 2018

Wayne Chiang 蔣萬安 has announced that he will not run for Taipei mayor. You might think that it would be no big deal for a person who has been in politics for all of two years and has never publicly declared his intention to run to clarify that he is, in fact, not running. You would be wrong. To give you an idea of how important some people see this, here is the front page of today’s China Times.

Wayne Chiang is, as all you fine readers are doubtless already aware, the son of former Foreign Minister John Chiang, grandson of former president Chiang Ching-kuo, and great-grandson of the generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. There are family politicians, and then there are political royalty. So when Wayne* announced he was entering the political world in 2015, he was immediately a media star. It’s not just that he is young and reasonably good looking, moderately charismatic, and a scion of the imperial household, it’s also that he is all of those things at a time when the KMT is facing an acute shortage of leaders. One of the most devastating legacies of the Ma presidency is that Ma did not cultivate a large cohort of potential successors. They have old warhorses like Wu Den-yi, politically damaged figures like Eric Chu, Hau Lung-pin, and Yi-huah Chiang, and not much else. They are desperate for a savior, and many people have projected all their hopes and dreams on Wayne. He’s the Lion King; his name is Wayne, but lots of people look at him and see Simba.

[*I would normally refer to Wayne Chiang by his last name. However, in order to avoid confusion with the other members of his family, I’m going to call him “Wayne.” This is purely for clarity and is not meant as a sign of either disrespect or familiarity.]

I’m in the early stages of a project on family politics, and I’m still working out how to think normatively about politicians who inherit their power bases. On the one hand, family politicians still have to win elections. The voters have to confer power on them through a democratic process. It would be strange to disqualify a group of citizens from democratic politics simply because their parents held power. On the other hand, the children of politicians are far more likely than other citizens to become elected politicians in their own right. This is true of every profession, but the advantage in politics is greater than in almost every other profession. To quote Dal Bo, Dal Bo, and Snyder, “power begets power.” In a democracy, the notion of hereditary political power is disconcerting. (This is especially true in the modern world, in which Picketty reminds us that the returns to capital are returning to historical norms so that people who have money are the people best positioned to continue to have money. If democratic politics also perpetuates wealth and power and cannot counterbalance the concentration of wealth, what hope do we normal people have for an equitable or just society?) I think it is safe to say that most people’s actual behavior suggests that the former discourse is the dominant one. People might occasionally complain about politicians from political families, but voters generally seem quite happy to vote for them. It certainly doesn’t seem that family politicians pay any electoral penalty (though I haven’t produced any systematic evidence on that yet).

Wayne is a fairly popular politician who seems to enjoy the benefits of coming from a prominent family without paying much penalty for that advantage. He won his seat almost entirely on the strength of his family name. That is, if he had merely been a 37 year old American-educated lawyer, he would not have been able to defeat the KMT incumbent legislator in the party primary. In campaign events, he made sure to remind voters of his heritage, even though everyone was already quite aware of it. If you only know one thing about him, it’s going to be his family pedigree. The hardcore KMT supporters see him and think of the glory days of the ROC, when the prestige of the Chiang dynasty was unchallenged. What’s more interesting and a bit surprising to me is the extent to which the rest of the electorate does not seem to hold that past against him. It isn’t as though he has renounced or questioned his family’s record (even to the extent that some other members of the fourth Chiang generation have). He has shown zero signs of anything other than fully embracing the Chiang legacy, but somehow he hasn’t been painted as a reactionary, extremist, or ultra-nationalist. Quite the contrary, his support of marriage equality and his opposition to parts of the DPP’s revisions of the Labor Standards Law have allowed him to present himself as forward-looking and progressive. Small wonder that many in the KMT wanted him to run for mayor!

If Wayne did run, I think he would have a reasonably good chance of winning. In the 2016 election, Taipei was almost a tossup between the blue and green camps. Before that, however, Taipei reliably produced sizeable blue majority. None of us really know whether the 2014-2016 electoral lines were ephemeral or will prove durable, though most in the KMT seem to believe that 2018-2020 won’t be as bad as the 2014-2016 for them. If that’s the case, a KMT nominee should be favored to win back Taipei City. Longtime readers of this blog will know that I wasn’t that impressed with Ko Wen-je in the 2014 election. I still think the 2014 result was more due to Sean Lien being a historically horrible candidate than to Ko Wen-je being a particularly good one. I don’t think Ko has done much in office to build an imposing political coalition. He has alienated a lot of DPP supporters who voted for him last time. He has not been terrible, but I suspect that his support is much more fragile than it appears at first glance. Wayne might have a 50-50 shot (or slightly better) in a one-on-one race with Ko. If the DPP ran its own candidate, Wayne would become a clear favorite.

If Wayne is the KMT’s best candidate and he has a reasonably good chance to win, why isn’t he running? There are two good reasons. First, he probably realizes that he is still a political novice and isn’t ready to step onto the big stage. My first instinct was that he should wait another four years to get a more solid political foundation before making his move. However, the more I thought about it, the less I believed that. Opportunities are precious, and you have to seize them when you have them. Inexperienced people can and do learn on the fly. It’s not as if people judge mayors harshly. Unlike the president or premier, mayors get the benefit of the doubt, and you have to do a pretty bad job as mayor to get bad press. Moreover, the upside is tremendous. The mayor of Taipei is almost automatically on the short list for the presidency. If Wayne steps up to the big stage at this early age, he will be a potential president for the next two or three decades. Wayne might already have a higher probability than anyone else in the KMT of winning the presidency at some point in the future; if he becomes the mayor, he will be far ahead of everyone else.

Second, and I suspect this is the real reason, Wayne might worry that he won’t be able to control his family and their cronies in the KMT. Keeping Dad at arm’s length is an underappreciated problem for all young dynastic politicians, and it might be especially acute in Wayne’s case. Wayne knows he is still a political novice, so he will have to rely heavily on other people’s expertise to run the city government. There will be lots of people eager to volunteer, and most of them will have their own agenda. Remember what Alex Tsai did after losing the mayoral primary in 2014? He jumped into Sean Lien’s campaign team and tried to hijack it with his own schemes (like privatizing and selling off the airport land). If he couldn’t be mayor himself, having an inept figurehead like Sean Lien to manipulate would be just fine. He would have happily monetized and sold off Taipei city property to his friends while letting Lien take all the blame. Of course, Sean Lien’s father may have intervened to prevent that, since he presumably had his own ideas about how to milk the cow. Wayne’s father is not as venal as Sean’s father, but there are plenty of people in the KMT who would love to put Wayne in office and serve as the shadow regent. Wayne needs time to build up his political foundations. He needs to learn how to exercise power, cultivate talented people loyal to him, and build up the capacity to fend off the hordes of eager leeches. In short, Wayne might win the election, but he could very well see his promising political career destroyed in a corruption scandal. If he runs for mayor in 2018, I think Wayne is at least as likely to spend 2025 or 2029 in jail as in the presidential office.

Perhaps you think I’m overestimating the potential for corruption. Consider Ko Wen-je’s record in office. No, I’m not suggesting Ko has been corrupt. Quite the opposite. Ko ran as a progressive, but I don’t think he has an especially progressive record. He hasn’t gotten involved in the debate on marriage equality (unlike Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu). He hasn’t done much for working conditions. He has built some public housing, but so has Eric Chu, who no one thinks is particularly progressive. He promised direct democracy, but his ivoting project really hasn’t gone anywhere. Putting aside his attempts at carving out an independent China policy, Ko has done two things. First, he has torn down lots of bridges and overpasses. Most politicians want to build things (to put their names on). Ko has done the opposite, tearing down lots of those unsightly and mostly unused things. The city streets now looks more open and spacious. The most spectacular example was the overpass in front of the north gate. Now that that ugly thing is gone, we have a restored view of the north gate. Ko’s demolition has reminded Taipei of its history and given it a new public symbol. Excellent! Second, Ko has paid off a lot of Taipei’s debt. Demolition is cheap, and he hasn’t launched any major spending projects. Most of the current MRT construction is out in New Taipei. Taipei’s revenue streams aren’t as egregiously high now as they were 20 or 30 years ago, but Taipei still takes in more than its fair share of revenue. Ko has taken the surplus and paid down the debt. Taipei’s debt has fallen from 160 billion to 100 billion in the last four years. Don’t expect future generations to thank Ko, because there is no chance that they will enjoy his frugality. The prime beneficiary will the next mayor, who will have as much money as he wants to launch spectacular new initiatives. Want to build a trophy building downtown? No problem. How about a dozen new exercise facilities? Fantastic. Will fifty new day-care centers help spur a higher birth rate? Give it a shot. Or perhaps you just want to line the pockets of your cronies with expensive and useless “cultural and creative” festivals. Bam! There is a golden goose sitting there just waiting to be plucked. A wise politician could use that to both make Taipei a better place and advance his or her career. A clumsy and greedy politician could end up jailed and disgraced. If Ko wins another term and continues to pay down the debt, that golden goose will still be waiting for a more mature Wayne (and a less energetic father four more years removed from power) to harvest.


One more thing. Let’s not assume that Wayne is definitely not running for mayor this year. I think he was probably sincere in announcing his intention not to run, but it might not be that easy. The rest of the KMT isn’t going to just give up their dream without a fight. We’ll almost certainly see a movement to draft him, especially if Ko continues to lead all other potential KMT candidates in the polls.

Twenty years ago, President Lee tried to neuter the KMT heartthrob, Ma Ying-jeou. Lee replaced Ma as Justice Minister and gave Ma a meaningless position as Minister Without Porfolio. After a few months, Ma resigned his cabinet position, famously asking “what am I fighting for” 為何而戰? Ma announced he was retiring from politics and took a full-time teaching job at the NCCU Department of Law. Supporters repeatedly implored Ma to run for Taipei mayor in 1998, as he seemed to be the only person with a chance to defeat the popular incumbent, Chen Shui-bian. Again and again, Ma refused. At one point, he answered in exasperation that he had said he wasn’t running a hundred times, and he had given the NCCU president his personal word that he wasn’t merely using the university as a launching pad for the next stage of his career. But under extreme pressure, Ma did eventually decide to run, and it was the right political decision. He beat Chen, positioned himself to eventually take over the KMT, won two terms as president, and was able to attempt to fundamentally alter Taiwan’s path. Don’t be surprised if Wayne hears a lot about his duty and unique opportunity for his party and country over the next few weeks and ultimately comes to the same decision as Ma did.