VOTE 2016: What Impact Will Soong Have on the Election?The veteran’s entry in the race could foreshadow the KMT’s nightmare scenario of 2000 — a KMT candidate falling to third place on election night
People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) stated in July that he was considering another presidential run, citing that both the KMT and DPP had been “hijacked by fundamentalists”. Meanwhile, Soong’s party announced five district candidates for the next year’s legislative election. Last week, Soong officially entered the race.
Although Soong also ran in 2012, the particular dynamics of the lead-up to 2016 do give him hope for a stronger showing. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) nomination of Hung Hsiu-Chu (洪秀柱), viewed as an extremist by many within her own party, could lead light blues to consider other alternatives, and at this point Soong would be the alternative with the most name recognition and credibility as a presidential candidate. This contrasts considerably with the 2012 election, where, despite the declining popularity of incumbent Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), support within the KMT remained rather strong. Soong may also appeal to those uncomfortable or unwilling to vote for a female candidate, an aspect that has been largely ignored so far.
That said, several factors do not bode well for a Soong candidacy. Political scientists frequently cite Duverger’s Law as a reason why presidential systems using only one round of voting tend to be dominated by two large parties. In short, the winner-take-all nature of the system and the role of strategic voting among the populace punish smaller parties. Soong and his supporters are also well aware of another potential consequence of entering the race: splitting the blue vote and resulting in the least preferred outcome among their supporters, a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) victory. After all, Soong’s split from the KMT in 2000 and his independent candidacy directly lead to Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) victory. Put within the current context of the run-up to the 2016 election — a KMT candidate viewed as extreme in Hung and another presidential bid by a pan-blue elder in Soong — would likely lower the threshold for a Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) victory. This exact concern is not only voiced by pan-blue voters, but by Chinese officials, as seen by Zhang Zhijun (張志軍), head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office.
Soong may also have other motives in mind besides winning the presidency. Soong’s earlier signaling of a potential entry may have intended to push the KMT to quietly replace Hung before her official nomination or otherwise placate him, such as being added to the ticket as a vice presidential candidate. This is also realistically the last chance for Soong, who turned 73 this year, to run for the presidency. Now officially in the race, Soong may be more interested in cultivating the protest vote within the pan-blues, which could help revitalize the PFP as a viable alternative to the KMT nationally. However, this requires moving what remains essentially a personality-driven party to one with clearer policy distinctions from the KMT. Nor is it likely that a revitalized PFP will fundamentally change the results of 2016’s legislative elections.
Consistent with Duverger’s Law, voters are less likely to vote for candidates who previously underperformed. For example, Soong’s poor showing in the 2006 Taipei city mayoral election (4.14%) and 2012 presidential election (2.77%) would be expected to limit support for any presidential bid in 2016. However, if traditional KMT supporters are in fact defecting from a perceived weak candidate then early polls showing Soong in second place are not unexpected. His early polling numbers may even lead to greater defections from the KMT. This potentially foreshadows the KMT’s nightmare scenario reminiscent of 2000: A KMT candidate falling to third place on election night. Such a scenario, while not a fatal blow to the party, would likely necessitate long overdue intraparty reforms. Soong’s entry should also encourage the DPP and Tsai in particular not to overestimate support based on early election polls or to assume that anti-KMT sentiment will translate into DPP support.
Timothy S. Rich is an assistant professor in political science at Western Kentucky University. His main research focuses on the impact of electoral reforms in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan compared to similar legislative systems (e.g. Germany, New Zealand). His broader research interests include electoral politics, domestic and international politics of East Asia, and qualitative and quantitative methods.