The Taichung by-election that took place over the weekend resulted in a defeat for the KMT, with Yen Kuan-heng’s loss to Lin Ching-yi of the DPP by close to 8,000 votes. The outcome was particularly embarrassing for the blue camp, as Yen’s family has long presided over Taichung politics.

Yen’s defeat took place after a successful recall against Chen Po-wei of the Taiwan Statebuilding Party. Yet Yen came under scrutiny on several counts before the election. For the most part, this centered on illegal construction by Yen on public land, as part of the mansion that Yen lives in.

Yen may not have helped matters by refusing to allow police to inspect the property. The scandal has also put Taichung mayor Lu Shiow-yen of the KMT in an awkward position, because with media scrutiny on Yen, she was virtually compelled to order Taichung police to investigate. Lu otherwise would have been able to endorse Yen, as a fellow KMT member in the same constituency.

But controversy regarding Yen also took a turn for the bizarre several times. There were some allegations of vote buying directed at the Yen family. Some questions were raised regarding cabbage gifts to voters from the Yen campaign, with speculation on whether money was hidden inside of the cabbages.

Cabbages were also handed out at a campaign rally in Taipei to recall legislator Freddy Lim, headlined by pan-Blue media personality Jaw Shaw-kong. The cabbages were displayed prominently on the stage, and lines formed at the cabbage tables well before the event ended.

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Photo Credit: CNA

DPP Legislator Tsai Shih-ying (second from left) and Keelung city councilor Chen Yi (right) distribute cabbages to constituents outside of Chen’s office, March 14, 2021. The cabbages, according to the government Central News Agency, were gone within an hour.

Similarly, the Yen campaign faced scrutiny over lavish buffets that it put on, with critics portraying this as a form of bribe. At least this is kind of criticism that those drawn to a gangsteresque, master of the arts of “black gold” image can revel in. Unfortunately for Yen, he has also been mocked for actions including attending a children’s event while wearing a tiger costume backwards.

It is common in Taiwanese election culture for candidates to make small gifts of packets of tissues, plastic fans, and bottles of water to voters. But more expensive gifts are illegal and considered vote buying.

This is a sensitive issue in Taiwan. During the authoritarian era, Taiwan saw widespread vote buying by the KMT. Legal stipulations forbidding more expensive gifts are aimed at stamping out such practices, even though vote buying continues to take place. It’s just not as widespread as before.

Even so, the irony is that the political culture surrounding vote buying is not as easy to stamp out. So it is then that politicians try to win over constituents by providing free services. Most commonly, this is legal counseling from candidates with backgrounds as lawyers, though there are other forms of services, depending on the background of a candidate. Many candidates for office—or politicians who successfully win office—have mandated office hours in which they provide free legal advice to constituents.

Otherwise, politicians will “run red and white invitations” (跑紅白帖), referring to attending festivals, public events, and even personal events such as the weddings of constituents, so as to give face by virtue of association with a public figure, even if in reality both parties are strangers to each other.

Though this is not illegal, this could arguably be considered a form of vote buying, as well. Even appearing at children’s events in costume can be understood as a way of politically signaling that a politician will provide services to the public—in this case, entertaining children for an afternoon.

Notably, younger progressive politicians that entered politics in the wake of the 2014 Sunflower Movement sought to break from what they saw as a political culture built on clientelism and kickbacks, rather than robust debates about policy. Such politicians, like Freddy Lim and Kaohsiung city councilor Huang Jie, have established a reputation for spurning the usual “running red and white invitations” and have tried to focus on policy over constituent services.

This has not always worked out the most well for younger politicians, seeing as they primarily ran in areas historically controlled by the KMT, and have weaker local networks than the KMT. On the one hand, providing services like legal counseling, being physically present for community events, and attending to matters like making sure the local retirees get their pension checks are all critically important for any politician. It’s hard to imagine one winning without doing so. On the other hand, the KMT has a history of blurring the boundaries between community service and vote buying.

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Photo Credit: CNA

Yen Kuan-heng (second from left) in a tiger costume at a family event in Taichung, January 2, 2022.

Nor does the KMT have much compunction about running candidates with criminal records. Apart from the Yen family, another example would be Fu Kun-chi in Hualien, who the KMT has made moves to try and bring back into the party despite his long jail stints on charges of corruption.

Ethical issues seem to extend to younger, fresher faces within the party. Though less serious, in 2020, the KMT’s candidate for the Kaohsiung mayoral election, Jane Lee, came under fire for plagiarizing her master’s thesis. After this was discovered by the media, the KMT did not pull Lee out of the race. And the DPP has its own problems with gang connections as well.

There is pushback from younger, progressive politicians against politicians who come from political dynasties, or “second-generation politicians.” Part of why Chen Po-wei’s victory in Taichung was seen as hopeful for many was because he had no background in politics and no family links to anyone that did, yet he was able to win office in Taichung. Though the DPP has a number of second-generation politicians, it has more often sought to test them through elections than the KMT.

By contrast, the KMT has been mocked for continuously fielding inept candidates from prominent families. Though Yen may be the most recent example, the run by KMT’s 2014 Taipei mayoral candidate, Sean Lien, was so uninspiring that Lien continues to be widely mocked on social media years later even having done little politically since then.

In many ways, the by-election was the chickens coming back to roost for the Yen family. Corruption is seen as deeply-rooted in Taichung politics, due to the presence of gangsters, and Yen Ching-piao is widely understood to be a gangster. Yen Ching-piao has faced weapons possession and even attempted murder charges in the past, and the junior Yen succeeded his father in 2013 after the senior Yen’s arrest on corruption charges.

It is a broader question as to whether Lin Ching-yi’s election victory in Taichung represents a decided shift in terms of Taiwanese political culture, however, whether in Taichung and beyond. This may be too soon to see—in the meantime, don’t be surprised if you find cabbages at the next political rally you come across.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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