December 16, 2004

December 16, 2004 | Commentary on Asia

'Wholesale' disaster for Taiwan's DPP

Chen Hsiu-ching, one of the successful Kuomintang (KMT) candidates for Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, representing Changhwa county or, more precisely, Lu-kang township, is a pleasant woman of considerable means. On November 29, with the election 12 days away, Madame Chen was at work at her opulent campaign office in downtown Lu-kang, decked out as an altar to the goddess Ma-Tzu. She explained to this correspondent that local politics are not about ideology or grand national policies, even less are they about partisan loyalty. In fact, Madame Chen supports the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) agenda of a new constitution and "national identity" - within reason. The key, she said, is "constituent service". Her husband, a former politician himself until he was enmeshed in a financial scandal, was her de facto campaign manager. His record in the Legislative Yuan also was supportive of the DPP agenda. He too said that Madame Chen's "constituent service" would be the key factor in attracting "at least 40,000 votes", the number needed to guarantee one of the 10 seats allotted to Changhwa in the national legislature, the Yuan.

In the run-up to elections, the roads all up and down rural Changhwa county were festooned with campaign flags of the 19 candidates and city boulevards were vibrant with magnificent billboards proclaiming the talents of the parliamentary hopefuls. Despite Madame Chen's devotion to "constituent services", this correspondent's money was on Chou Ching-yu, the DPP's most popular politician and wife of Examination Yuan president Yao Chia-wen, himself a former political prisoner and one of the true heroes of Taiwan's democratization. The DPP's grassroots campaign stations were modest, but seemed well manned, their volunteers ancient but committed. Madame Chou is well loved in the county, and all polls showed her to be a top vote-getter. As such, she was under much pressure to campaign for the four other DPP candidates on the 19-name ballot. To get all five DPP candidates elected, one out of three of Madame Chou's supporters would have to cast their single vote for one of the other nominees - spreading out the votes is key to party victories in Taiwan's odd "multi-seat, single vote" district system. If Madame Chou were to get too many votes, she would win, but the other DPP candidates would not make the cut. They too calculated that at least 35,000 votes were needed for a seat (Madame Chen's 40,000 seemed to be a conservative number).

Back in Taipei, the pollsters were unanimous. The DPP was on a roll. The party would sweep the south, and make significant gains in the "blue" north (a reference to the area traditionally dominated by the pan-blue opposition, so called after the color of the KMT emblem). The DPP's nominees in Taipei city were attractive, young, cosmopolitan. The only contrarian analysis this correspondent heard came from the American Institute in Taiwan, the United States' "proto-embassy" in Taipei. "The KMT is remarkably well organized in the south," one US official confided. "A lot of it is under the radar."

Fast-forward to election day, last Saturday. In DPP headquarters, a chat with a top campaign strategist yielded the following poll data: more than 600 valid responses to more than 3,000 phone calls, indicating an even larger DPP victory across the island than previously estimated. According to this later poll, the pan-greens (after the color of the DPP emblem) stood to gain at least 114 seats out of a total 225, an absolute majority for the DPP for the first time in history.

But down at street level, a group of American scholars were interviewing Bi-khim Hsiao, the US-educated (Oberlin College, Ohio) DPP legislator who chaired the party's international-affairs department. She was running for the first time as a district candidate (not on the party's proportional slate). A young, tireless politician in her own right, she appeared exhausted on Saturday morning - in contrast to her own startling sky-blue campaign billboards showing a strikingly pretty "Ivory Soap" model with twinkling eyes and a perfect smile and wearing a sporty baseball jersey. "For the past two weeks, things have been cool," she fretted. Despite her massive popularity among younger voters, which placed her at the top of the DPP candidate slate, she worried that she might lose. The previous day's newspapers carried DPP campaign ads urging Taipei's DPP supporters to pei-piao or "coordinate their votes". Hsiao's admirers were asked to vote for other candidates instead, based upon their identification-card serial numbers. Her worries, she said, were justified by the experience of the KMT's most popular politician in the 2001 elections, Ding Shou-chung, who lost. The vast majority of his supporters all assumed he had enough votes and voted for weaker KMT candidates instead.

This time, Ding wasn't taking chances. There would be no pei-piao this time around. All his supporters, he insisted, should darn well vote for him.

It seems as though they did. On Saturday evening, this correspondent's delegation, a group of eight American and Australian scholars invited to observe the elections by the non-partisan Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, sat at the campaign headquarters of the second-most-popular KMT candidate, John Chang (son of the late president Chiang Ching-kuo and, of course, grandson of Chiang Kai-shek - don't be surprised by the difference in the spelling of the surname, John is the natural son of Chiang Ching-kuo but took his mother's name at birth). When the final returns were in, John Chang smiled broadly and announced he was the second-highest vote-getter in Taipei. The highest? "Ding Shou-chung," John announced. Both John and Ding had garnered enough votes to elect another two KMT candidates, but neither was taking any chances. First dibs for a seat in the next legislature in 2008, which under a pending constitutional amendment will cut the number of seats in half, go to those KMT candidates with the highest votes.

As for Hsiao, she came in seventh. That placed her high enough to grab a seat in the Legislative Yuan, but put her behind three much weaker DPP names, all of whom obviously benefited from sympathetic pei-piao, coordinated votes, to the north of Taipei.

'Wholesale' politics end in disaster
Chou Ching-yu, the DPP's most popular politician in Changhwa county, was not so fortunate. There was no pei-piao in Changhwa. But back in November, there was no need, she explained. "Each DPP family decides who should vote for which candidate, so there is a natural pei-piao." The natural pei-piao was a disaster, however. Without a formal apportioning of votes, tens of thousands of Madame Chou's supporters all assumed she had enough support and cast their ballots for the weaker candidates - paradoxically, the weakest DPP candidate in Changhwa got the most votes.

On Saturday night, when the firecracker smoke had cleared away and the television shows had announced the final tallies, the DPP's "wholesale" politics proved to be a disaster. Such politics relied on mass public relations, celebrity appearances by President Chen Shui-bian, Vice President Annette Lu and former president Lee Teng-hui stumping across the island for weeks on end, speechifying about issues they thought would mobilize their base.

The polls all showed this was effective. Telephone interviews seemed to show that issues of "national identity" and "a new constitution" were popular. But neither was popular enough actually to get people to vote. In fact, as one DPP analyst said to me the day after the balloting, the "shallow green" voters who are okay with "independence" and all that, but who didn't make it their life's work, had become uncomfortable with the shrillness of the rhetoric. The shrillness seemed to increase as the pollsters reinforced the idea that "independence" and "national identity" were popular. The decibel level of the campaign - on both the DPP green and KMT blue sides of the debate - was deafening to the "shallow greens", those not passionately committed. On Saturday, they just stayed home.

Of course, Madame Chen, the KMT candidate in Lu-kang, won handily. More than 45,000 voters gave her their undying support. She didn't pei-piao. She offered "constituent service". It would be too crass to say that "constituent service" amounted to a red packet with a crisp NT$1,000 (US$32) note in it. Forty-five thousand votes at NT$1,000 each is about US$1.3 million; no problem for a prominent business family like Madame Chen's, but it would be wrong. So let's just say Madame Chen knows how to take care of her constituents. Her husband's constituent services were not simple day-before-the-election affairs, but serious, continual cultivations of constituent support in Lu-kang.

The source from the American Institute in Taiwan had it right. The KMT was well organized "under the radar" in southern Taiwan. Madame Chen's retail politics saved the day for the KMT.

But it might not save the party's leadership. Retail politics means that local KMT politicians of considerable personal wealth are no longer beholden to the party, and now have the leverage to vote however they want. One very senior KMT officer told my delegation that it would be best for the present KMT leadership to retire and let the younger men and women rise. Indeed, John Chang himself said "the leadership should retire" and, staring at the wide-eyed disbelief of his American visitors, added: "Everything I say is on the record." We scribbled it down obligingly.

The next morning, another Taiwanese politician sullenly observed to me: "There are now four colors in the Legislative Yuan: green, blue, black and gold" - black-gold being Taiwanese slang for underworld crime and a reference to corrupt businessmen.

As is the case with every other democratic experience, and America's is no exception, it takes a while to iron out the kinks. Taiwan's infant democracy, only 18 years since the first real opposition party was formed and only eight years since its first free presidential election, has gotten off to a promising start.

John J Tkacik Jr is a resident fellow in Asian Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He is a retired officer in the US Foreign Service who served in Taipei, Beijing, Hong Kong and Guangzhou and was chief of the China division in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. He has been watching Taiwan politics for 30 years.

John J. Tkacik Jr. is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

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First appeared in Asia Times Online