The 2018 Taiwan Local Elections: “but already it was impossible to say which was which”

Written by Michael A. Turton.

In the local media and among election observers, the story of this election has been the meteoric rise of Han Guo-yu, the KMT candidate for mayor of Kaohsiung. His sudden leap into the spotlight shows how Taiwan’s deepest structural political problem is not its imperfect democracy, but its imperfect post-coloniality.

All over Taiwan the complaint is the same: the DPP is not acting as the reformist party of the post-colonial future but as a sort of less effective KMT, copying many of the authoritarian party’s flawed political policies at the local level and thus, recapitulating its colonial errors and alienation of local populations. There is a deep anger at the DPP among even longtime supporters over the DPP’s performance, with the word “incompetence” constantly bandied about.

The DPP crisis in Kaohsiung can be traced in part to its complacent revival of KMT political behaviour. The party candidate there, Chen Chi-mai, is utterly lacking in charisma and was expected to be carried to victory on the shoulders of captive voters, colonial style. The city council is apparently following the familiar pattern of jumping in bed with local land developers that marked decades of KMT rule in Kaohsiung, as this News Lens piece recounts. This represents a failure of the Party centre to ensure that local politicians behave, and casts doubt on Chen Chu’s tenure in that city. Worse, it suggests that she was removed from Kaohsiung to prevent all this from landing on her. Instead, Chen Chi-mai is eating the stink she left behind.

Han Guo-yu’s strange success in Kaohsiung is easily explained as a combination of this DPP incompetence and complacency, and shrewd political choices by KMT Chairman Wu Den-yi, whose political acumen helped keep the KMT together when former Chairman and President Ma Ying-jeou was doing vast damage to it. Han has been a legislator, city councillor, and farm association official, and comes out of Yunlin politics where his father-in-law was a legislator. Like Hou You-yi in New Taipei City, he has a “colourful” history. He once assaulted Chen Shui-bian in the company of well-known pro-China gangsters. He is a mainlander, has cultivated a reputation as a straight talker, and is good friends with Ko Wen-je, the mayor of Taipei. This variegated background suggests that Han has excellent political skills, and the kind of connections he needs to overcome his mainlander background, which should be a strong liability in the South. His lack of connection to the city has not hurt him seriously because it enables him to position himself as an outsider with no connection to the local political follies. Yet, it should not be forgotten that while the former Kaohsiung county might be reliably Green, the city factions have historically been pro-KMT. Former Speaker of the Legislature Wang Jin-pyng, once the unofficial leader of the Taiwanese KMT, is from Kaohsiung, after all. Han Guo-yu is exactly the kind of candidate who can mobilize these currently disaffected groups. The Blue media’s hyping of Han has also been a strong factor in his success.

Will Han win? Voters often use election polls to signal anger, but when they get in the voting booth, they find themselves unable to follow through. Recall that James Soong polled well as a spoiler in 2012, between 6-12%, but in the end got less than 3% of votes cast on election day. Han’s popularity is one portion media illusion plus one helping of Deep Green anger, prepared in a cauldron of DPP complacency. It may well simply vaporize on election day, especially with the DPP hauling out its big guns for a last-minute blitz in Kaohsiung.

Shaping voter responses in this election is the generation gap. Younger Taiwanese, coming of age amidst growing income equality, brutal labour conditions, and stagnant wages, are the first post-independence generation. Equally important, they are first generation since the end of World War II not to come of age in a robustly growing economy. They already consider Taiwan independent and the battles of the Formosa Incident generation of older Deep Greens a history whose relevance recedes with each passing year. President Tsai straddles this divide but lacks the charisma and political skills to bridge it – instead she leaves the young cold while angering the older Deep Greens for her seeming lack of pure devotion to the sacred independence cause. I work in a university outside Taipei, where my students are united in enthusiasm for current mayor Ko Wen-je, but often express confusion about who to vote for elsewhere. They are the future, and they are unhappy with both major political parties. Perhaps the DPP can recapture them, but not with its current slate of candidates.

In Taichung, DPP Mayor Lin Chia-long blundered about his first 18 months, trashing long-established relationships between the city government and local businesses. Despite billing his city as the event city, event organizers there have complained vocally to this writer about the city government’s ineptitude and rigid, contradictory rules, as well as Lin’s apparent desire to stamp his name on everything, whether his doing or not. Taichung is now the nation’s second most populated municipality, and its mayor may well be seen as a potential presidential contender, especially since current mayor Ko of Taipei does not belong to either party. Lin may thus have one eye on a Presidential run in 2024 or 2028.

Nevertheless, despite early problems, Lin has recovered somewhat. Though he lacks former Mayor Jason Hu’s grandiose yet appealing vision and excellent political skills, he is starting to do the small things well, like local reforestation projects, and paving roads and fixing streetlights in the former Taichung county area, which a local political reporter observed to this writer. More importantly, the DPP’s showers of cash down to local factions via the Forward Looking Infrastructure program have caused many local politicians to switch sides. Buying the local factions via patronage cash is a standard KMT tactic. In Taichung, a large bloc of the local precinct and neighbourhood captains all came over to the DPP, and several local agricultural cooperative associations, key vote mobilizers, either declared neutrality between the major parties or came out for the DPP. Lin’s election chances are helped by the fact that the city growth is sucking people out of the hinterland to the south, which is Green, and by the fact that the KMT candidate, Lu Shiow-yen, is a lackluster mainlander. The KMT has also put pressure on the Lin Administration over Taichung’s horrible pollution situation, which means that it is betting all the marbles on the weather leaving pollution over the city in the run-up to the election. And that local voters do not realize that the pollution situation is the result of years of KMT complacency on environmental issues.

In the blinding glare of the municipal elections, quiet struggles go on elsewhere. In Changhua County, a critical industrial area with the largest population outside the major cities, splits in the DPP have given the KMT a shot at retaking the local government. In Keelung the DPP appears to be set to retain its rule of what had long-been a KMT fief. Also unreported in the big-city focus is the massive resource drain of the gay marriage referendum mess. Many local governments simply cannot cope with the demand for election workers to manage the referendums.

Strip away the election hype, though, and what do we see? The KMT has given us mainlander candidates in every major city except New Taipei City, where the candidate is a Taiwanese machine politician with apparent shady mob connections, also a standard KMT type. None of these KMT candidates represents new political ideas or new political blood – only Johnny Jiang in Taichung represented that, and he was forced by the KMT to let the mainlander Lu take the candidacy. He is running her campaign, which suggests rewards in the future for Jiang. Instead, it remains the same KMT, still run as a colonial party-state jobs program for well-connected mainlander elites and their children, who elbow aside potential Taiwanese candidates. Whatever temporary gains the KMT makes from this election will likely be washed away in four years, since these are bog-standard mainlander candidates who give no particular reason to imagine they will be different from the other mainlander politicians who have governed local cities before. Sadly, it is one of the many ironies of this election that neither the DPP nor the KMT have decisively shown they are different from the old KMT.

Michael Turton writes on Taiwan politics and culture from his home in Taichung, Taiwan. He tweets @michaelturton. Image credit: CC by Studio Incendo/Flickr.

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