ANALYSIS: Mayoral Races to Watch as KMT Eyes National Return

ANALYSIS: Mayoral Races to Watch as KMT Eyes National Return
Credit: Reuters / TPG
Why you need to know

Apart from Kaohsiung, Taipei, New Taipei and Taichung are the contests to watch for signs of KMT life.

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In the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was devastated in successive overwhelming waves of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) landslide victories. In 2014, they lost all but one of the key “big six” metropolises and most of the nation’s counties, and in 2016 they were decimated in the national Legislative Yuan and lost the presidency by a large margin. The devastation was so complete the party was left without a single politician with national popularity with the general public, and very few popular with the KMT base.

At the beginning of this election cycle the KMT remained largely demoralized. They had some bright spots in some locally popular politicians who might eventually evolve into nationally recognized figures, but overall the party looked most likely to make modest gains with some morale-boosting wins in key battlegrounds on the back of dissatisfaction with the DPP administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), and certain local issues.

That may have changed with the arrival of the so-called “Han wave” of KMT Kaohsiung mayoral challenger Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜). The Kaohsiung race is really the one to watch, and is covered in detail in the sister article to this piece, which you can read here.

This article will also focus on the three other most hotly contested races. Though Tainan isn’t covered, there is an outside chance the three-way race could produce an upset, though it would be a long shot. Taoyuan is considered to be safe for the DPP in this cycle under a highly popular incumbent facing a lackluster KMT challenger.

The Taipei race: The ‘pox on all your houses’ voters versus the tribal base

Many prominent and highly insightful political analysts predict that the KMT base in the traditionally strongly KMT capital will ultimately come around and support their, by all accounts, uncharismatic and lackluster candidate, Ting Shou-chung (丁守中). They will be aided by the DPP’s base voters peeling off from independent incumbent Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) – in spite of their candidate Pasuya Yao (姚文智) also being widely considered lackluster – tipping Ko’s support into the minority and handing the election to Ting. Historically their case is strong, and indeed the trends towards the end of the polling period, which closes 10 days prior to voting day under electoral law, seemed to suggest they will be proven correct.

選戰倒數衝選情 柯文哲車隊掃街催票
Photo Credit:中央社
Late polls indicate Mayor Ko faces a tough challenge in hanging on to office.

My analysis, however, is that Ko should not be so easily written off. In this long analysis written in May I suggested that Ko, like the other two, actually does have a tribal base of his own, which I termed “pox on both your houses” voters. There is a widespread sense of frustration amongst many that the mainstream dual political parties are not serving their interests, are dishonest, and are a disappointment, among other commonly held complaints.

Moreover, much of this election will be around local issues, regardless of how much Pasuya Yao would like it to be about national identity. There are many voters who are are tired of Ko’s frequent gaffes, his apparent sexism, and who have specific policy problems with the incumbent. Many, especially partisan tribal voters but also some in the center, have concerns about his views on Taiwan identity issues or his perceived closeness to either pan-Green DPP or pan-Blue KMT camps.

Some strongly dislike Ko’s attempts at diplomacy independent from the national government when it comes to China. There are some however, especially younger voters, who appreciate his bluntness and willingness to admit mistakes, his energetic and practical focus on problems, and his non-partisan nature. Many also think he has a strong record to run on, and that he has been creative and capable in his approach. To a certain degree, all of the concerns and all the praise have some truth to them, so it will be up to each voter to weigh how much each element means to them.

Taipei Summary: This election will be a showdown between the traditional tribal party voters and “pox on all your houses” independents, plus Taipei voters’ assessment of Ko’s record and their own priorities. Many if not most analysts are predicting a Ting victory, but my analysis is that Ko has the edge but Ting will provide a strong challenge.

The Taichung race: The original battleground

At the beginning of this election cycle everyone expected the Taichung race to be the one to watch, and aside from the fireworks down in Kaohsiung it remains so. Taichung has traditionally leaned toward the KMT, so much so there is talk of a “one term curse” due to the fact no DPP candidate has survived more than one term.

In both 2014 and 2016, Taichung swung strongly toward the DPP along with the rest of the country. For many analysts, this begged the question if the traditional boundary between the largely pan-Blue KMT supporting north and pan-Green supporting south had moved from the traditional central Taiwan divide of the Zhuoshui River, which bisects Changhua County and Yunlin County, to the Daan River separating Taichung from Miaoli. The races in both Taichung and Changhua (the largest administration outside of the “big six”) have appeared to be tight and contentious from the beginning.

濁水溪_Zhuoshui_River_-_panoramio
Credit: Wikipedia
The Zhuoshui River, traditionally the boundary between the KMT-supporting north and the DPP-leaning south in Taiwan.

Both parties have described central Taiwan as the “decisive” battlefield and have poured considerable resources and energy into the Taichung and Changhua races. The DPP clearly hopes that they have flipped the traditionally KMT central Taiwan more solidly and permanently in their direction, and even are pouring resources into the small and still KMT controlled Nantou County. If the DPP hold central Taiwan, symbolically they’ve held the line – unless Kaohsiung falls of course. If the KMT wins the day, however, that will symbolically suggest they’re back in traditional territory and can use the win to consolidate in advance of the 2020 presidential election.

Neither of the parties candidates are either great, or terrible. Both are mildly charismatic, but suffer from a certain aloofness, and both are so intensely self-controlled that their efforts to come across as relatable feel hollow. Incumbent DPP Mayor Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) has widely been viewed as a decent, but not great mayor. However, he has recently been given a big boost that could lay to rest previous widespread doubts about his strength and competence as an administrator: The immensely successful launch of the Flora Expo. This major international event held the potential to either showcase Taichung as a model to the world, or become something of a parochial joke. The launch has been successful to a degree that surprised even many Lin supporters. Some other positive winds have been at the mayor’s back as well, including the city replacing Kaohsiung as the country’s second largest during his term, and his high profile outrage after the city was denied the right to host the 2019 East Asian Youth Games.

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Credit: Taichung World Flora Expo
Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung (seated, center right) inspects one of the sites of the Taichung Flora Expo ahead of its opening in Waipu.

Lin’s bearing in the final stretch exudes confidence, running a positive campaign and shifting some of his focus towards winning a majority in the city council.

Challenger and ex-lawmaker Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕) of the KMT has been running a largely negative campaign targeting the mayor over his record, traffic, increased city debt, and pollution. Lu was instrumental in securing a referendum calling for a national drop annually of 1 percent or higher in coal burning at power plants. While maintaining a decent level of support, much of what she has campaigned on has backfired or failed to land as intended. A typical example is her first campaign video, which prominently featured potholes on a major thoroughfare Wenxin Road. That was a mistake – her campaign should have known Wenxin Road was already undergoing renovations with an announced completion date in September. The deadline was met, and the incumbent mayor ended up looking better as a result.

九合一選舉進入倒數第8天,國民黨台中市長候選人盧秀燕(左3)16日安排車隊前往豐原、后里掃街拜票。(盧秀燕競選總部提供)
Photo Credit:中央社
Lu Shiow-yen campaigns in Taichung.

In recent weeks, Lu has continued her pollution attacks on the mayor, even though pollution in the city has dropped noticeably during Lin’s tenure. However, a pollution spike on voting day would be a big boost for Lu. She has also been trying to cash in on the “Han wave,” and along with New Taipei City candidate Hou You-yi (侯友宜) presents a new, vibrant, and united KMT front of popular candidates. Han’s appearances at rallies with Lu, however, haven’t generated anything like the excitement seen in Kaohsiung. In a show of confidence and/or resolve, she resigned her legislative seat only days before the election.

Taichung Summary: What originally appeared an evenly balanced race appears to have shifted towards a Lin victory – but watch the air pollution on voting day, and for a potential “Han wave” of voters materializing at the last minute. Either or both could produce an upset.

New Taipei City: Will the KMT hold their bastion?

New Taipei was the only one of the “big six” the KMT held onto in the 2014 elections, and even then only barely as the DPP challenger unexpectedly came within a hair’s breadth of winning. With incumbent Eric Chu (朱立倫) term limited out, the DPP might have expected an easy contest, but the KMT picked a surprisingly strong and popular candidate in Hou You-yi (侯友宜).


Until the “Han wave,” Hou was by far the most popular KMT politician. An ex-cop and native Taiwanese who has been courted by both the DPP and the KMT in the past, Hou rose to become Director-General of the National Police Agency. He has been in charge of many high-profile cases, including the shooting of ex-President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮). Solidly masculine, and with an air of discipline and competence, he also has the experience having served as vice mayor and acting mayor in Chu’s stead.

侯友宜_2018選舉
Photo Credit: 中央社
KMT New Taipei mayoral candidate Hou You-yi will face a litmus test of enduring party support.

The biggest potential flaw, however, was his role in the storming of legendary free speech activist Nylon Deng (鄭南榕)’s apartment during the one party state era that ended with Deng’s self immolation and martyrdom. That disadvantage however, may have been overcome when it was revealed that one of the top officials in the DPP administration’s transitional justice commission tried to use the commission to come up with dirt to discredit Hou, a scandal leaked by an employee shocked at the abuse of power. Hou has been campaigning with Han Kuo-yu, but openly feels he doesn’t need any help from the “Han wave.” Instead, he’s lending his support to show party unity and to help candidates like Lu Shiow-yen in Taichung.

The DPP picked ex-premier and previous Taipei County Commissioner – essentially the job now being contested after a name change – Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌). This was a somewhat controversial choice, as the candidate last time had done such a great job of nearly pulling off an upset, and choosing someone who previously held the position from 1997 to 2004 is an unusual step backwards. However, Su is charismatic, a party heavyweight, an excellent campaigner and many look back on his terms as county commissioner with fondness. It remains to be seen if people want to look backwards in order to choose their future.

New Taipei Summary: The KMT has the advantage with a strong candidate in Hou running in generally KMT-leaning territory, but the near upset in the last election should give the KMT pause after having been in power in New Taipei for so long.

Read Next: Out of the Blue: Who Is Han Kuo-yu and Can He Win Kaohsiung?

Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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