A Quadrennial Dogfight: An Early Look at the 9-in-1 ElectionsThe battle lines are drawn, but internal divisions could result in a few surprises during the nation’s largest electoral experiment in its history
It’s election season again as the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) gear up for a quadrennial dogfight that could not only redraw the local political map for the next four years, but also set the tone for the presidential election in 2016.
The Nov. 29 nine-in-one elections, in which no less than nine elections will be held concurrently on the same day, is an unprecedented event in the nation’s history.
The positions at stake, elected every four years, are mayors of the special municipalities, county commissioners and city mayors, special municipality councilors, county and city councilors, township chiefs, township councilors, borough and village wardens, indigenous district chiefs, and indigenous district councilors.
Of the 11,130 positions up for grabs, the 22 seats for mayors and commissioners (six special municipalities and 16 cities and counties) are traditionally regarded as the barometer for success in local-level elections.
In 2010, the KMT swept 15 of those seats for an easy victory, with the DPP claiming only six and one seat going to a non-partisan candidate.
However, in terms of vote shares, the DPP beat out the ruling party, garnering 48.21 percent of the vote to the KMT’s 45.76 percent. Analysts said that President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) poor response to Typhoon Morakot in 2009, in which hundreds of people in southern Taiwan were killed, and public dissatisfaction with his governance, may have contributed to the results.
Four years later, public grievances have not gone away, with Ma’s approval rating remaining dismal and the KMT hit by a series of corruption scandals in the past two years. As those will be the last major elections before Ma completes his eight years in office in May 2016, the outcome will have little impact on his presidency. Nevertheless, the results will have significant implications at other levels.
Ma’s sorry performance and the KMT’s low satisfaction rates in the cities and counties it governs have made it very difficult for the party to campaign locally. And while Ma has always taken pride in “lowering tensions across the Taiwan Strait to the lowest in the past decades,” cross-strait relations have never played a dominant role in local elections, thus denying the KMT another tool to achieve electoral success.
The KMT’s challenge
Less-than-stellar results on Nov. 29 could propel an opposition movement within the KMT which could decide to target Ma’s chairmanship of the party.
The KMT has been increasingly concerned about a potential rerun of 1997, when the DPP scored an unprecedented victory, 12 to eight, in the mayoral and commissioner elections. The feat, later to be termed “besieging the cities from the countryside” (地方包圍中央), paved the way for the first regime change two-and-a-half years later with Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) elected president in 2000.
There was never any doubt that the KMT would be on the defensive this time. A defeat or a tie in the elections, in particular if the DPP once again garners more votes than the KMT, could bring about another regime change in 2016.
Fortunately for the KMT, however, the party has always enjoyed an advantage in local elections. First of all, with assets in the tens of billions of NT dollars, the party has all the resources it needs to run a campaign. Secondly, it remains the ruling party with administrative powers at its disposal, which can greatly benefit its ability to mobilize. Lastly, its organization at the grassroots level has always been much more sophisticated and stronger than the DPP’s.
Given all this, it is hard to imagine that the KMT could lose the seat count in the elections the way it did in 1997. For starters, the outlying island constituencies of Kinmen and Matsu are for the KMT to lose. The same goes to the four Hakka constituencies of Greater Taoyuan (soon to be upgraded to special municipality status), Hsinchu City, Hsinchu County and Miaoli County. Add the eastern constituencies of Hualien County and Taitung County, where the predominantly Aboriginal voters have historically been wary of the DPP, and the KMT has an 8-0 lead from the start.
Additionally, the mechanism of the 9-in-1 elections could work in the KMT’s favor, giving the party leverage as its solid organizational development at the grassroots could bundle multiple elections together and maximize voter support.
Because of the complexity of local elections, the party is nonetheless divided in several constituencies such as Changhua County, Hsinchu County and Nantou County, where primary losers or family members of the losers have decided to enter the race as independent candidates, threats of party discipline notwithstanding.
All things considered, the KMT arguably faces its greatest challenge in local elections since 1997.
The DPP’s goals
The KMT’s ongoing difficulties have boosted the DPP’s ambitions, even if most polls suggest that the public has yet to regain confidence in the party.
The DPP has also tried to make the Nov. 29 elections a “belated mid-term election” for the Ma administration, as there have not been any major elections since the presidential election in January 2012 (held concurrently with legislative elections amid efforts to keep elections at a minimum to save public funds and to avoid annual political mobilization and fighting).
DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) made clear the party’s goal in a press event in late July, saying that the DPP was hoping to secure nine or 10 seats in the mayoral and commissioner elections.
Tsai also hinted that Greater Taichung, where three-term Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) of the KMT has governed for 13 years, would be the “must-win” constituency for the DPP if it were to claim real victory in the elections.
Her goal seems fairly reasonable, as most public opinion polls show that the DPP should be able to win all six constituencies it currently governs — Yilan County, Yunlin County, Chiayi County, Greater Tainan, Greater Kaohsiung and Pingtung County — and has made great strides in Keelung, Greater Taichung, and Penghu County.
That would give the DPP nine seats and, with a little luck, could lead to a double-digit victory in November.
At present, the KMT dominates the administrative zones north of the Zhuoshui River, which forms the border between Yunlin County and Changhua County and has been traditionally seen as the invisible line between central and southern Taiwan, while the DPP dominates the southern parts of the country.
If the DPP succeeded in winning Greater Taichung, it would redraw the political map by pushing the frontier of its stronghold north to the Da’an River, which borders Miaoli County and Taichung. The DPP would also at least break even with the KMT in the six special municipalities.
The DPP has campaigned on its record of good governance (almost all of its six mayors and commissioners finished a the top in national polls on governance satisfaction surveys) and is trying to persuade voters that governance should be a priority before ideological issues, local ties, and social networks.
Like the KMT, the party also faces internal divisions in several constituencies. Former Hsinchu mayor Tsai Jen-chien (蔡仁堅) has insisted on entering the race in the city and former Legislator Huang Wen-ling (黃文玲) of the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), a DPP ally, maintains that she is still in the race.
Another longstanding issue continues to haunt the DPP: its failure to nominate strong candidates in “weak constituencies,” such as Kinmen, Matsu, the Hakka regions and eastern Taiwan. This has created a vicious cycle, because most politicians prefer instant success and have no interest in engaging voters in constituencies that are perceived as “hostile” to the DPP.
The battleground constituencies
With non-partisan Fu Kun-chi (傅崑萁) expected to easily win his second-term in Hualien County and both the KMT and the DPP holding on to their strongholds, the outcome of the 9-in-1 elections could be decided by the results in several key constituencies.
Those constituencies include: Greater Taichung, Changhua County, Chiayi City and, surprisingly, Taipei City, historically a KMT stronghold.
In Greater Taichung, DPP Legislator Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) has consistently been ahead of the KMT’s Hu by about 10 percentage points in most polls, mostly because of Hu’s rather unimpressive governance during his 13-year tenure. More than ever in the past, the residents of Taichung seem to be looking for a fresh start, giving Lin, who lost to Hu in the mayoral election in 2005, much-needed momentum.
How much badly the people in Taichung want change, and whether KMT headquarters will succeed in garnering enough internal political support from the party’s factions in the former Taichung county (which merged with Taichung city four years ago) will be the deciding factor.
Recent developments in Taichung are bad news for the KMT, as local factions in the former Taichung county still hold grudges against Hu, who edged his rival by only 30,000 votes or so (2.24 percent) four years ago.
However, the current lead could be deceiving for the green camp. After all, Hu is an incumbent and the region is considered pro-KMT. A local DPP politician estimates that the final margin could be less than 50,000 votes.
Changhua will probably the most interesting constituency to watch, with both the blue and green camp experiencing internal divisions. Lawmaker Wei Ming-ku (魏明谷), a DPP nominee whom some analysts have described as a “dull” and “uncharismatic,” and Huang Wen-ling of the TSU will vie for the support of green camp supporters, while Lin Tsang-min (林滄敏) of the KMT, also a lawmaker, sees competition from incumbent deputy commissioner Ko Cheng-fang (柯呈枋).
In Chiayi City, a three-way race that should have benefited the DPP is now a thing of the past after KMT member Hsiao Shu-li (蕭淑麗) dropped out, yielding a head-to-head battle between the DPP’s Twu Shiing-jer (涂醒哲) and the KMT’s Chen Yi-chen (陳以真). It is expected to be a toss-up.
Finally, there is the election in Taipei. While the capital is inevitably a must-win for the KMT and the DPP, the latter is technically out of the race, having made way for Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), a physician-turned-politician who leads a non-KMT coalition and is running as an independent.
Ko, a staunch green camp supporter in the past, has been so popular that the DPP had to devise a primary mechanism to include Ko and eventually decided not to nominate its own candidate in Taipei and to pledge support for Ko.
The “amateur” politician’s opponent will be former Taipei EasyCard Co chairman Sean Lien (連勝文), son of KMT honorary chairman Lien Chan (連戰). Seen as an early favorite, Lien has found it surprisingly difficult to secure support among young people and the middle-class due to his “princeling” background.
In Taipei, where non-KMT candidates had never defeated their KMT rivals in a head-to-head race, the real margin between the two could be narrower than public opinion polls suggest (most polls show Ko enjoying a double-digit lead), which is why Ko remains cautious.
If Ko prevails against his opponent, his win would be considered a success for the green camp and a great boost for the DPP.
Meanwhile, New Taipei City, the largest constituency with a population of 2.96 million, was expected to be a battleground region until Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫), who many assumed would be the best presidential candidate for the KMT in 2016, announced he was seeking re-election and pledged to serve out his full four-year term.
While DPP candidate Yu Shyi-kun (游錫堃) has had an impressive political career (he was the longest-serving premier during the DPP administration), no one really thinks he stands a chance against Chu. Most opinion polls seem to support that conclusion.
Chu’s pledge to serve the full four years if re-elected, however, has raised suspicions among analysts, who find it hard to imagine that the “rising star” of the KMT would pass on the best — and perhaps the only — opportunity of his career. Some politicians and pundits are of the opinion that Chu might break his promise and eventually enter the presidential race.
The other elections
The election for councilors of the special municipalities, cities, and counties could be the second most important ones. The DPP achieved satisfying results in the special municipality councilors elections in 2010, tying with the KMT with 130 seats each. It hopes to bat .500 this time and secure more seats in the city and county council level after lagging behind the KMT (289 to 128) in 2009.
Meanwhile, the green camp has put a lot of effort into encouraging young people to participate in grassroots politics by running for borough wardens, an area that has long been dominated by the KMT. Instant success might not be within reach, but the party seems to have concluded that winning youth and grassroots movements over is an important first step to take before the party can change the face of local politics.
Chris Wang is a former journalist with the Central News Agency and the Taipei Times.