Archive for the ‘public opinion’ Category

Pension reform

June 30, 2017

As I start this post, the legislature has just passed the third reading of the civil servants pension bill. It now moves onto the bill for teachers, and the legislature has yet to take up the bill for military pensions. Nonetheless, now that the rules for civil servants have been rewritten, the others should follow along those basic lines. There is a lot of cleanup work still left for the legislature, but the basic fights have already been waged.

We all have a basic understanding that the current system needed some adjustment. There was too much money going out and too little coming in, and the system was going to go bankrupt in fairly short order. Even President Ma recognized the need for reform. (He quickly aborted his nascent reform in the face of a backlash from public servants, who constitute one of the KMT’s most important voting blocs.) The retirement benefits were simply too generous. Civil servants could often retire in their early fifties and collect monthly stipends nearly equal to their full salaries. Since benefits were based on their last month’s salary (ie: the highest they had collected in their entire career), that meant that the state was often paying people more in their retirement than it had while they were working AND their retirements might be as long as their working careers had been. This system may have been defensible when the GDP was growing by double digits every year, the birth rate was high, and civil servants earned a relatively low base salary. However, those conditions haven’t described Taiwan for two or three decades. Things had to change.

Pension reform was one of the three or four most important goals for Tsai Ing-wen’s first term; arguably it is the single most important domestic reform item on her agenda. Tsai has taken a lot of criticism over the past year. People who didn’t vote for her (predictably) think she is doing a terrible job, and they point to things like China’s more antagonistic stance toward Taiwan and the resulting drop in group tourism from China. They are also furious about the effort to nationalize the KMT’s ill-gotten party assets, which they see as a witch hunt (the “green terror”). Many people who did vote for Tsai are also somewhat disillusioned. Her support for marriage equality has been less than strident, her cabinet is full of old men (many of whom have ties to previous discredited administrations), some of the government’s economic policies have been presented and implemented clumsily (labor standards law, infrastructure package), the economy isn’t growing at 8% a year, transitional justice hasn’t been achieved yet, and the world isn’t perfect yet. Against this background, achieving pension reform should be a shining star on Tsai’s report card.

In fact, I’d argue that pension reform has almost perfectly embodied Tsai Ing-wen’s vision of consensus democracy. There were a lot of people who wanted the DPP to present their ideal bill and ram it through the legislature. After all, what is a majority for? Instead, Tsai took the process slowly and deliberately. Tsai’s cabinet included Minister Without Portfolio Lee Wan-yi, whose sole job was to oversee pension reform. The government held a national forum on pension reform, and Lee’s committee held several other hearings. These hearings were somewhat contentious and the opposition did not always participate in good faith. Still, most of the important political arguments were presented, and the committee was able to filter through them. One of Tsai’s stated goals at the outset was not to treat public servants as an enemy. As she put it, they were to be seen as partners in the reform rather than objects to be reformed. The Executive Yuan committee ultimately came out with a fairly moderate bill. At about the same time, the Examination Yuan came out with its own bill. The Examination Yuan members have fixed terms, and over half of them are still left over from the Ma era. As might be expected, the Examination Yuan bill was even more modest than the Executive Yuan bill. Transition periods were stretched out over more years and various formulas were adjusted to be somewhat more favorable to public servants. However, the two bills were surprisingly similar. By the time the Examination Yuan was ready to propose its bill it had become clear that some sort of reform was unavoidable, so the Examination Yuan proposed a substantive reform bill. During the first half of 2017, anti-reform forces were trying to arouse public opinion against Tsai. Various veterans, civil servants, and teachers groups held rallies, but these were generally not well attended. Surveys showed that public opinion was solidly in favor of reform, and this did not soften as a result of anti-reform activism. If anything, public opinion solidified in favor of a more aggressive reform. By the time the bills got to the legislature, the anti-reform movement was largely played out. In the legislature, the pro-reform forces took their turn trying to pass a more aggressive bill. Both the DPP and NPP caucuses demanded changes to various formulae and transition periods. They succeeded in some of these demands, and the law that eventually passed was somewhat more aggressive than the Executive Yuan bill. Nonetheless, Tsai stepped in to ensure that the most radical demands would not be adopted.

By the end of the process, the KMT found itself in a quandary. Public servants constitute a core constituency, and the KMT wanted to speak for them. However, public opinion was clearly against them, and the DPP caucus showed no signs of wavering. As the saying goes, there are two ways to resist in the legislature: civil and military (文、武). The “military” method involves physically occupying the speaker’s podium and disrupting the normal parliamentary procedures. The “civil” method involves using dilatory tactics such as introducing hundreds of amendments to stretch out proceedings as long as possible. In general, if you are sure of your position and your support in society, you go for the military option. If you are on shaky ground, the civil option is the best you can do. For months, I expected we were heading for a “military” showdown. However, the KMT will eventually crumbled. The KMT could not agree on an alternative bill, so the caucus was reduced to supporting various bills proposed by individual members. Instead of occupying the podium or offering hundreds of amendments, the KMT opted for a very weak battle plan. They would have several people speak on every clause, thus taking several days to pass the bills. The DPP was relatively happy to oblige, so the legislature has been engaged in marathon sessions all week. (A minor but telling point: When the DPP made a motion to extend yesterday’s meeting until midnight, it passed unanimously. If the KMT were really trying to resist, it would have opposed lengthening the meeting.) I’ve been sick this week, so I watched a fair amount of these debates on the LY channel. The KMT offered two main arguments against the reform. On the one hand, they suggested that the reform unfairly cut civil servants’ pensions too much. On the other hand, since the pension fund is forecast to go bankrupt in about 2049 (as opposed to in about 5-10 years under the current system), this reform doesn’t really solve the financial problem so there is no point in doing it. Note that those two positions are contradictory. If you want a reform that will be permanently sustainable, you are going to have to cut pensions even more.

In the end, Taiwan got a pension reform that both sides were a bit unhappy with, which is probably a pretty good indicator that it is a moderate compromise. Public discussion was allowed to percolate until some arguments were discredited and others emerged as superior. Opposition was marginalized, with the street protesters painting themselves into an ever smaller box. Instead of forming the vanguard of a public movement against reform, the anti-reformers demonstrated themselves to be merely selfishly interested in defending a system that unfairly privileged them. As they got smaller, their appeals got cruder and further discredited their moral position. (Example: a sign referring to President Tsai’s genitalia is not a smart way to make the case that civil servants are being unfairly discriminated against.)

If you had asked President Tsai after her inauguration when she expected to pass pension reform, I suspect she would have replied that it would take about a year. In fact, it has taken just over a year. One year to study the problem, hold public discussions, allow protesters to make their case, for supporters to reaffirm their insistence on this reform, and to pass a new law. Don’t expect the media to come out with glowing editorials praising President Tsai’s leadership. Democracy is messy, and we have been watching a messy and aggravating process unfold for nearly a year. Moreover, we ended up with something of a compromise, and no one loves a compromise. Nonetheless, I suspect this is exactly how President Tsai thinks democracy should work.

Relax. The Sky Isn’t Falling.

September 5, 2016

I haven’t weighed in on the current state of affairs in Taiwan in recent months since I have been busy with my regular job and since not all that much significant has happened. However, it seems that the rest of the world has a very different view of things than I do.

(I’m writing this on an airplane without access to the internet, so you’ll have to excuse my lack of concrete numbers. If you need some polling numbers, I suggest checking the TISR website.)

I keep reading that President Tsai’s and Premier Lin’s approval ratings are sinking fast. Communications in the new government do not flow smoothly. The new administration has taken some shockingly conservative positions, bungled several appointments, and is basically on the verge of becoming a failed administration.

Hey, relax! The world I see looks very little like that. Sure, Tsai’s new administration is going through some growing pains as it learns how to wield power. There have been a few missteps, but let’s keep a sense of perspective. These have been minor bumps rather than major failures that might define her first term. I think the biggest problem is that many deep green true believers are suffering from wildly unrealistic expectations. Did they really expect transitional justice to occur, economic transformation to be completed, KMT party assets to be recovered, the judicial system to be thoroughly reformed, and cross-straits relations to be fundamentally reset to Taiwan’s ideal position in just one hundred days? Maybe we should wait a couple of years before making our preliminary judgements.

Also, maybe DPP supporters might want to enjoy the victories when they occur. The party assets bill is a good example of unwarranted hand-wringing. So the process was marked by stops and starts, with compromises, delays, and a fair amount of screaming from both sides. So what? That’s how the process works in democratic politics. The important thing is that the bill was eventually passed, not whether the government was sufficiently sincere, enthusiastic, or inflexible during the process. To roughly paraphrase a friend, recovering ill-gotten KMT assets has been a core DPP goal since before there even was a DPP. And now they have won! They have completely won! But do they stop to enjoy the moment or give any credit to their leadership for this achievement? Not at all. They are too busy criticizing the slight imperfections to enjoy the larger victory. The DPP is the establishment now! It needs to learn how to accept and enjoy winning. It needs to stop thinking like idealist, perfectionist activists and start thinking like pragmatists.


Tsai took a lot of heat from the true believers over the international court’s decision on the South China Seas. They seemed infuriated that she had not taken the opportunity to renounce ROC claims to the nine-dash line, the various islands, or whatever. Personally, I couldn’t care less about all those islands way out in the ocean far away from Taiwan, but I thought her “conservative” stance showed considerable restraint. In a sense, this was showing that her promise to respect the “constitutional order” has real meaning. It doesn’t only constrain her from doing things that ardent Chinese nationalists want (ie: unification with no reference to public opinion), it also constrains her from doing things that many ardent Taiwanese nationalists want (ie: renouncing all commitments made and positions taken by the KMT regime). I don’t know whether Beijing was taking note, but they should have been. That this sort of message could be sent using “disposable” assets made it all the better. Taiwan actually has security interests in the Daioyutai and Pengjiayu Islands, so it might need to be more careful in how it treats those territories.


On public opinion, everyone is clearly overreacting. Tsai and Lin’s aggregate approval ratings have declined a bit from their initial levels. However, those initial approval ratings in the 70s were always unrealistic. Those were classic honeymoon numbers. Once normal partisan politics kicked in, a certain number of those people who have never liked the DPP were inevitably going to discover that she was doing DPP-type things. It’s not as if her current numbers are terrible. An approval rating of somewhere around 50%, give or take 5%, is a perfectly workable number. By all appearances, she is mostly holding her coalition together. It looks to me as though the green voters who are dissatisfied are mostly the deep green ideologues who sure as hell won’t be defecting to the blue camp. Moreover, there is another number that isn’t getting near the attention of the satisfaction ratings but is far more important. Party ID is trending in favor of the DPP. During the first three years of Ma’s second term, the KMT hemorrhaged support while this DPP gained identifiers and eventually passed the KMT. By the end of 2014, this trend had played out, and party ID was fairly stable between the December 2014 mayoral elections and the 2016 presidential election. However, in the past six months, the lines have started moving again, with the DPP stretching its party ID advantage over the KMT to unprecedented levels. At the beginning of the year, the DPP usually had a 5-10% edge; now that edge is around 20% in most polls. This is hardly a sign of a presidency in collapse.


So, hey, try something different. Just chill. Taiwan was in ultra-politicized/crisis mode almost constantly between September 2013 and January 2016. Try to enjoy a few months, maybe even a couple of years, of more normal, relatively boring politics. Go take a bike ride or hike a mountain or something. Just stop panicking.

A quick word on the last polls

January 5, 2016

The polling blackout starts tomorrow, so legally no one can publish or publicize poll results. It’s unclear whether that affects bloggers like me. If I were based in the USA, I’d gleefully ignore the law. However, I live and work in Taiwan, so maybe I should obey the law. I consider it more of a silly inconvenience rather than a violation of my fundamental rights, so it isn’t exactly bowing to tyranny to stop talking publicly about polls for a few days.

Anyway, several polls have been published in the last few days, and these polls seem to go in different directions. Some show that Tsai has dropped five points or so, others show Soong picking up significant support and being almost even with Chu, still others show very little fundamental change from the last two months, and the KMT poll is all alone in showing Chu trailing Tsai by less than 10%. In general, I am somewhat trusting of media polls and pretty skeptical of polls released by candidates  or parties. This year, especially as we have gotten later in the campaign, more and more polls have set off my bullshit alarm. Lots of them have seemed to be very politically useful for a specific candidate. We’re getting these sorts of polls in legislative races too, though polls for individual legislative districts and party list votes are intrinsically more volatile just because the question isn’t always as clear. (One poll showed the NPP getting nearly 10% of district legislative votes. Remember, they only have four credible district candidates. Even if those four all won overwhelming victories, the NPP wouldn’t get anywhere near 10% of the national vote. I think some respondents were thinking of the party list vote.)

What’s my interpretation? I think the debates probably gave a tiny bump to Soong and a tiny nudge downward to Chu and Tsai. However, I suspect any effect from the debates will recede as the debates fade into memory. Over the last 11 days, I suspect public opinion will revert to the longer-term equilibrium unless something new happens to upset it. So I still see this as roughly a 45-30 green-blue split in polls, which translates into roughly a 57-42 split in votes. However, the division of the blue votes between Chu and Soong is still a little unstable. (You may have noticed that Chu has spent almost as much time and energy trying to shore up his deep blue support as going after Tsai.)  In addition, turnout will probably be higher on the optimistic green side than on the relatively demoralized blue side. This is roughly how I’ve seen the election developing for at least a month now. In short, I’m not paying too much attention to the final polls, other than to make sure I don’t see anything credible that signals that something fundamental has changed. Thus far, I haven’t seen that type of thing.

KMT party ID

December 14, 2015

If you want to understand why the 2016 election won’t look anything like the the 2012 election (or any other election in the past two decades) but you only have time to look at one indicator, you should look at trends in KMT party identification. It’s easy to get lost in the little details (and I indulge in little digressions all the time), but I always try to remind myself to keep one eye firmly on the big picture.

Read more in my piece for the China Policy Institute blog.

Poll of polls

September 15, 2015

As loyal readers know, I’ve been a bit out of the loop for a while. It seems as if the only really important thing to have happened in the last couple of weeks was China’s military parade and the accompanying kerfuffle in Taiwan over whether it was appropriate for various people to attend. What kind of effect might that have?

In the USA, Real Clear Politics and (starring Nate Silver) frequently publish polls of polls. That is, they take all the recent polls and average them together. I thought I’d try doing this. I got my raw data from the wonderful volunteers who edit the Wikipedia page on the 2016 presidential election. Please note that I am including all the polls from Wikipedia without making any judgment about their accuracy. Each poll was weighted according to its recency, with a half-life of 7 days. That is, on the day it was finished, it got a weight of 1.00; on the 7th day, it got a weight of .500; on the 14th day it had a weight of .25, and so on. I dropped data when the weight dropped below .05, which happened on the 31st day. It only took me about 3 hours to figure out how to do this, so don’t expect this chart to be a daily feature on my blog. Anyway, here is what the 2016 presidential race has looked like over the past three months.

prez poll of polls 20160915

This chart smooths things out quite a bit, but the basic outlines are quite clear. Hung passed the KMT’s polling primary on June 13, right at the beginning of this time series. That was her high point, and it may have been artificially high. Recall that some green supporters strategically expressed support for her in order to ensure that the KMT nominated a weak candidates. Hung was duly nominated on July 19, but her support had already started eroding. By this chart, she has been steadily drifting downward for three months, and while the pace of her decline has slowed, she is still going in the wrong direction. Soong announced his candidacy on August 6, and he immediately opened up a clear gap between himself and Hung. However, in the past two weeks Soong has also been trending downwards, and he doesn’t seem to be very far ahead of Hung at this point. In the past few days, three polls have shown Tsai Ing-wen opening up a bigger lead. At this point, Tsai is further ahead than she has been at any point since mid-June. In fact, biggest competition is from “don’t know,” which is well ahead of both Soong and Hung. It hasn’t been a good summer for the blue side of the spectrum.

Declining KMT Party ID

June 28, 2015

I’ve spent most of the past week digging through mountains of data from the Taiwan Election and Democratization Surveys (TEDS) trying to put together a paper proposal for a conference later this year. As a side effect, I have lots of stuff to share on my blog.


After last year’s elections, I lamented that we would never be able to completely figure out what happened in the two most important elections, New Taipei and Taoyuan, since TEDS was doing the big post-election face-to-face surveys in Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung. Happily, I was wrong. In addition to the major surveys (which will be released in the next few weeks), TEDS also did pre-election telephone surveys in New Taipei, Taoyuan, Yilan, and Yunlin. Even better, TEDS has conducted national surveys quarterly since September 2012. As a result, there is a lot of stuff to dig through, and I might be able to come up with a more complete answer for why the KMT lost Taoyuan and barely won New Taipei.


Blue supporters are mostly ignoring last year’s elections. They don’t matter. They were local, not national elections. People just wanted to express dissatisfaction with President Ma, but they’ll come back to the KMT in national elections when it really matters. The KMT had lousy candidates. Whatever the reason, I keep talking to KMT true believers who think the KMT is in good shape for next year’s elections. They aren’t convinced that Hung Hsiu-chu can’t beat Tsai Ing-wen, to say nothing of the possibility that the KMT will lose the legislature.

Those objections are a little correct, but they are mostly wrong. Local elections are a bit different, but mayoral elections still run largely along party lines. The bigger the city or county, the more nationalized the election is. Hualien and Hsinchu County had weird, local things happen, but that type of thing is a lot less likely in a direct municipality. Sean Lien was a historically awful candidate in Taipei City, and he managed to single-handedly lose that race. However, the KMT candidates in Taoyuan and New Taipei were both more highly rated than their DPP opponents. Candidate quality can’t explain the poor KMT performance in those races.

Then there is party ID, which is what I’m really going to write about today. To put it bluntly, the KMT has suffered a massive decline in its party ID over the last four years, and party ID is one of the most important variables in all of political science. You can see this decline in data from TISR and the Election Study Center, NCCU, pictured below. From the late 1990s until 2012, party ID was fairly stable. The blue camp, mostly the KMT, had a consistent lead of about 5-10 points over the green camp, mostly the DPP. Not coincidentally, the blue camp consistently had about a 10% edge in most elections. In hindsight, the 2012 election might be both the most “typical” election result and also the last election of that party system.

PartyID (2)

A quick review. Party identification has two classic conceptualizations. The social psychologists of the Michigan School thought of party ID as a group identity. Someone would identify themselves as a Democrat in the same way they would identify themselves as a Catholic, a German, a Red Sox fan, or a union member. All of those identities define who the person is, so Democratic identifiers usually vote for Democratic candidates because they are both part of the same meaningful group. A person who ceases to identify as a Democrat is telling you something very substantive and meaningful about how he or she has changed. The other way to conceptualize party ID is as a running tally. This idea has its roots in the rational choice school of thought that comes out of microeconomics. According to this school, every time something happens, a voter updates his or her current opinion of the party. If something negative happens, the voter’s opinion is lowered. This running tally is then a summary of how the voter currently sees the party, and it is a good information shortcut to use in the voting decision. In Taiwan, party ID is usually operationalized as asking the voter, among parties A, B, C, D, and E, which party do you support more? A long list of studies over the past twenty-five years have shown that party ID is a powerful indicator of vote choice in Taiwan, just as in the rest of the world.

Here is the TEDS party ID data for the past four years.

kmt party ID 1

The first data point is from rolling telephone surveys in the five weeks before the 2012 election. The second data point is from the post-election face-to-face survey, which was mostly conducted during the month after the election. The remaining data points are the quarterly telephone surveys. The surveys before and after the 2012 had large samples (n~5000, 2000), which the quarterly surveys had about 1000 interviews each. In some of the following graphs in which the data are cut into several categories, the quarterly data will jump around a bit more, reflecting the larger sampling error. The DPP held steady at around 25% through most of the period, but it has been above 30% in the two most recent quarters. Of course, the December 2014 data are critical, since they were taken right after the election. The KMT data is more dramatic. KMT party ID had a spike up from its normal 35% or so right before and after the 2012 election. By the time the quarterly data start in Sept 2009, this spike is completely gone. The KMT continues to bleed support, with a noticeable plunge in Dec 2014. Comparing the two elections, the KMT crashed from 43% in late 2011 to 23% in late 2014.

What’s amazing to me about this plunge is how it happens in nearly every sub-population. Maybe you think young people are abandoning the KMT. They are, but not any faster than old people. (I ran a binary logistic regression model on this for the Sept 2009 to Dec 2014 period, and the slopes of the individual lines are not statistically different from the slope of the overall line.)

kmt party ID 2

Education isn’t the answer. All these lines go downward at just about the same rate. (Region and gender don’t show any differences either, but I’ll spare you those charts.)

kmt party ID 3

Occupation is not quite uniform. KMT support among government employees (the blue line) declines at a slightly steeper slope. The red line for students is just about at the average until the June 2014 survey, when it plunges dramatically. It is as if a generation of students were radicalized or something! Statistically speaking, my model showed that the slope of the student’s line was more negative than that for the government employees. However, since students are a small group, their coefficient was not statistically significant.

kmt party ID 4

There is a clear trend in ethnic background. Support for the KMT declined much less rapidly among Hakkas than among Mainlanders or Min-nan respondents. (I wish the sample sizes were large enough to analyze Aborigines, since there are hints of massive changes from the electoral returns.)

kmt party ID 5

There is one more demographic variable that I find intriguing. I recoded all the townships into four categories. The first is the “urban core.” This includes all the prosperous parts of the major cities. The second is the “urban sprawl.” This includes the decaying downtown sections as well as the new growth overflow suburbs. Most of New Taipei and Taoyuan are in this second category. If money were no object, almost everyone would choose to live in the posh first category rather than the (comparatively) low-rent second category. The third category includes rural Min-nan townships. This category is dominated by the stretch of townships in the rural south from Changhua to Pingtung. The fourth category is much smaller and includes all the other rural townships. This group is dominated by predominantly Hakka townships, though it also includes a large number of (sparely populated) Aboriginal townships. There lines are different, especially if you limit the sample to the period from Sept 2012 to Dec 2014, as my model did. Support for the KMT among people in the rural diverse townships did not decline much at all. This is similar to the trend among Hakkas that we saw above, but it is even stronger here. It is possible that preferences among rural Hakkas have been more stable than those among urban Hakkas (though I haven’t tested that idea). The bad news for the KMT is that their best group is by far the smallest. The largest category is group 2, the urban sprawl. In this group, support for the KMT plunged the fastest. It’s hard to see in this picture, but the difference is statistically significant. TEDS telephone surveys don’t ask respondents for income information since that is too sensitive to do on the phone, but an obvious interpretation is that poorer urbanites are abandoning the KMT ship faster. This might be evidence of the emerging class cleavage.

kmt party ID 6

The variations among subgroups are interesting, but the main takeaway point from this post is the main trend. Those big, black lines in the middle of each graph are moving relentlessly downward. The KMT can tell itself that this doesn’t matter. All those newly undecided voters will come back to the KMT when national power is at stake. That’s what the DPP told itself in 2007. That didn’t work out so well for the DPP, and the dip in DPP party ID in Chen’s second term was much smaller than the dip in KMT party ID during Ma’s second term. Whether people are no longer expressing a group identity with the KMT or their running tallies no longer put the KMT in a favorable position, this drop in KMT party ID is almost certainly the main cause of the KMT’s 2014 debacle (outside of Taipei). Unless things turn around in a big way, it is also almost certain to have a major impact six months from now.