Politics & Law

Incumbency, scandal, and the China factor

25 August, 2022

Looking ahead to the November municipal elections, both the KMT and DPP have the advantage of incumbency in certain races. Taipei looks to be competitive, but the DPP may struggle in Taoyuan. With the memory of China's military drills still fresh, will party affiliation trump individual candidate appeal this time?

By Brian Hioe

Election season is upon us again in Taiwan, with both major parties having now finalised their slates of candidates for elections that will take place in three months. Nine-in-one elections are set for 26 November and will involve voting for mayors and city councillors.

The final candidates to be announced were largely expected to run, such as incumbent Kuomintang (KMT) mayors Hou You-yi (of New Taipei City) and Lu Shiow-yen (of Taichung City), who will be running for re-election. But the fact that the finalising of the slate of candidates took place so close to the election date perhaps suggests that party affiliation will probably matter the most for this election, more than the choice of individual candidates.

In particular, the KMT will be hoping for a repeat performance of its 2018 electoral successes. 2018 was the only year since 2014 that the KMT did well in elections, with voters deciding to punish the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for slow economic growth, lack of job opportunities, low salaries, and other grievances that were primarily financial in nature. Likewise, the KMT was able to successfully leverage on the national referendum, to link referendums on issues ranging from gay marriage to nuclear power to voting for their choice of elected representatives, with referendum benchmarks having been lowered by the DPP in 2017.

Since then, referendums have not necessarily had to take place on election days, following further changes to the Referendum Act made by the DPP to prevent a similar outcome from happening again. This year, the referendum and election will be held simultaneously again, as in 2018, but the only question being voted on is whether to lower the voting age to 18 or not. This issue is one that has bipartisan support, seeing as Taiwan has one of the world's highest voting ages, even if lowering the voting age is likely to help the pan-Green camp and hurt the pan-Blue camp. But the issue is not one that the pan-Blue camp can leverage on to attack the pan-Green camp or vice-versa.

Yet one notes that local elections have historically favoured the KMT. Even decades after Taiwan's democratization, the KMT has had many more years in power than the DPP, and so has more deeply-rooted clientelist networks at the local level, often in rural areas. And so it is not impossible that the KMT will do better than expected – the power of the party is hardly broken at the grassroots level.

The DPP will be seeking to hold onto traditional pan-Blue areas that it was able to grab onto in past areas. Taoyuan and Keelung are particular cases in point, seeing as both have traditionally voted KMT, but were held by DPP mayors Cheng Wen-tsan and Lin Yu-chang for the past eight years. The KMT has had hopes to make inroads into southern Taiwan ever since the unexpected election victory of Han Kuo-yu in Kaohsiung 2018, with Han later becoming the KMT's presidential candidate in the 2020 elections.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen if the KMT will accomplish this, and whether DPP gains from the past eight years will be reversed. The DPP originally sought to run Hsinchu mayor Lin Chih-chien to replace Cheng, whose successes holding onto Taoyuan led Cheng to be touted, along with current vice president William Lai, as a potential presidential candidate for the DPP in 2024.

But Lin faced controversy as a result of a plagiarism scandal, eventually withdrawing as the DPP candidate. He has been replaced by DPP legislator Cheng Yun-peng, who was a possibility for running in Taoyuan, to begin with, but demurred on the issue for too long, leading to Lin's candidacy. Lin's chances were further hurt by a controversy over a stadium project that he oversaw as Hsinchu mayor.

It is to be seen if the Lin plagiarism controversy affects the DPP's chances in Taoyuan or elsewhere. The KMT is likely to use the controversy to try and attack the moral stature of the DPP as a whole, rather than just confining the controversy to the Taoyuan race. Ironically, the scandal is similar to how the KMT's candidate in the Kaohsiung by-election to replace Han Kuo-yu after he was recalled in June 2020, Jane Lee, was found to have plagiarized 96% of her thesis. This is particularly the case given that Lin and Lee were fielded by their parties as part of bids to hold onto gains in the other party's traditional territory, but Lee did not withdraw from the election, which she was unlikely to win from the beginning, while Lin did.

Yet the KMT is going into the election with a weak hand. The December 2021 referendum, which took place on the same day as a recall vote facing independent pan-Green legislator Freddy Lim and a by-election to fill the seat formerly occupied by pan-Green legislator Chen Po-wei of the Taiwan Statebuilding Party, served to indicate what the strength of the pan-Green camp was one year ago.

That recall, by-election, and referendum vote ultimately came down to voting based on party identity more than other factors, with the DPP coasting off of its record leading the fight against Covid-19. The results were an overwhelming loss for the KMT and a DPP win, with Lim retaining his legislative seat, Lin Ching-yi of the DPP winning the by-election, and the KMT's referendum proposals being voted down across the board in favour of the DPP's positions, apart from the referendum that did not meet the necessary threshold to be binding.

In this sense, the election would otherwise be the DPP's to lose. But some KMT politicians will prove stiff competition for the DPP.

Races for the major cities in northern Taiwan are probably the most watched at present. The race between former Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung of the DPP and legislator Chiang Wan-an of the KMT looks to be a tight one. Though Chen actually served as a DPP party list candidate for the legislature in the 2000s, there was speculation for months as to whether he would be running or not before Chen formally announced that he would be running as the DPP's candidate. While Chen's relatively late entrance into the race puts him at a disadvantage, another uncertain factor is that the Taiwan People's Party (TPP) is backing former deputy mayor Huang Shan-shan (although Huang is officially running as an independent). Huang may split the vote with the pan-Blue camp, resulting in a DPP win, although it is also possible that the light Blue” TPP may take some votes away from the pan-Green camp.

As was mentioned, the DPP's electoral chances in Taoyuan have been hurt by the plagiarism scandal that faced Lin Chih-chien. One notes that his opponent, former premier Simon Chang, comes across as relatively weak, seemingly having failed to take advantage of the scandal that brought down Lin in order to boost his own image. However, the DPP also seems to be split in Taoyuan, making the DPP's chances uncertain, with legislator Cheng Bo-ching considering running against Cheng.

The KMT also faced internal divides when it came to its choice of Taoyuan candidate, with Taipei city councillor Lo Chih-chiang originally hoping to run, but being refused permission to run by party chair Eric Chu, and Han Kuo-yu himself floating the possibility of running before it was announced that Chang, his former vice presidential candidate in his 2020 run, would be the KMT's candidate. These divisions may still sting for Taoyuan KMT members, weakening the party's overall mobilisation capacity. That being said, Chang still has the advantage of Taoyuan being traditionally pan-Blue territory, and the DPP has been pushed into a weak position from one of relative strength.

Otherwise, many incumbents are expected to hold onto their seats. Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chi-mai of the DPP is not likely to be ousted by former legislator Ko Chih-en of the KMT, nor is Hsieh Lung-chieh of the KMT likely to oust incumbent Tainan mayor Huang Wei-che of the DPP. Although Taichung mayor Lu Shiow-yen of the KMT has become increasingly embattled in past years and Taichung swung pan-Green from 2014 to 2018 under Lin Chia-lung, it would still be an upset if she were to be defeated by deputy legislative speaker Tsai Chi-chang. Presidential Office spokesperson Kolas Yotaka is running for Hualien County magistrate (equivalent to mayor) on behalf of the DPP, but has low odds of ousting Hsu Chen-wei of the KMT, seeing as Hsu and her husband Fu Kun-chi have long dominated Hualien politics.

At the same time, the largest uncertain factor in the elections may be the China factor”. Namely, it is possible that the Chinese Communist Party has handed the next set of elections to the DPP with its recent live-fire drills, in response to a recent visit to Taiwan by US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. The live-fire drills took place closer to Taiwan than they did during the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1995-1996.

Polling from the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, which usually slants pan-Green, found that 52.9% of the public supported the visit and 78% were not afraid of the drills. Nevertheless, the response from the public to Chinese threats in recent years has, more often than not, been to throw their support behind the DPP. This includes after a 2019 speech by Chinese president Xi Jinping in which he vowed that force was still on the table for unification with Taiwan and after the 2019 Hong Kong protests. The Hong Kong protests served as a way to repackage long-standing anxieties about cross-strait relations and made the DPP refocus the election as about party identity and cross-strait issues, avoiding criticisms of it on domestic policies, or even avoiding having to debate domestic policy with the KMT.

So too then after the recent drills. The KMT has not helped its own odds of success, with vice chair Andrew Hsia departing for a trip to China immediately after the drills, creating controversy for the party. Younger politicians in the KMT took a stance against the trip, realizing this would damage the party's electoral chances in elections by associating the party too strongly with China. The party claimed that the trip was only a fact-finding mission for Hsia to meet with Taiwanese living in China, but it was later announced that Hsia would, in fact, be meeting with Liu Jieyi of China's Taiwan Affairs Office.

In this sense, apart from the fact that China may have unexpectedly thrown it under the bus with its actions, the KMT has not helped itself either. And with party chair Eric Chu trying to turn the image of the party around to seem less pro-China through visiting the US as part of a much-publicized trip and publicly mourning assassinated Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, this may actually accentuate splits in the party between lighter Blues and deeper Blues that have become increasingly pronounced in past years, creating difficulties for the party in mobilizing traditional networks.

In this sense, a winning strategy for the DPP would be to try and repeat its 2020 strategy, framing the elections as a referendum on how Taiwanese feel about China – a referendum which the KMT only stands to lose. It remains to be seen if this takes place.

Brian Hioe is a Taiwanese American writer, translator, and the founding editor of New Bloom

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