Let me make a not-so risky prediction: The next mayor of Kaohsiung will be whomever the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nominates, a process that should be wrapped up by March 10th.

Here are the final four:

  • Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁), 53, is a DPP legislator representing the 3rd City District. A former doctor from Keelung, Chen is currently the party's spokesperson and has been a lawmaker since 1996. He served as acting Kaohsiung mayor for just under nine months in 2007. Chen has strong DPP credentials and the reported support of several influential blue-collar labor associations.
Chen Chi-mai
  • Kuan Bi-ling (管碧玲), 61, is a DPP legislator who has represented several different City Districts. A lawmaker since 2005, she's won the last three races she's entered. The daughter of a Hakka father and Taiwanese mother, Kuan reportedly scored 98 percent on a Hakka language test conducted by the Hakka Affairs Council. Kuan rose through the ranks under the administration of former Kaohsiung mayor Frank Hsieh (謝長廷). Kuan is seen by some as a more "orthodox" DPP candidate.
Kuan Bi-ling
  • Chao Tien-lin (趙天麟), 44, is a DPP legislator representing the 7th City District. Chao defeated the once-famous Kaohsiung Kuomintang (KMT) lawmaker Chiu Yi (邱毅) in 2012 by a 45 to 53 percent margin and went on to boost that number to 60 percent in his 2016 re-election win. In an interesting aside, while Chao's image does appear on billboards alongside aspiring city council members, he is the only candidate to reject using large signs and billboards after several workers (whom he knew personally) died in an accident on Feb. 19, 2017 as they were affixing one such billboard to the top of a building. Chao says he will never again use massive scaffold-mounted signs, and hopes to start a trend.
Chao Tien-lin
  • Lin Tai-hua (林岱樺), 45, is a DPP legislator representing the 4th City District, which comprises areas from the former Kaohsiung County including Renwu, Niaosong, Daliao and Linyuan. Lin has been critical of the nomination process and argues that the other three candidates have failed to put forward plans for balancing wealth and infrastructure disparities between the urban and rural parts of the city.
Lin Tai-hua

Predicting a win for the DPP in Kaohsiung is hardly brave. As of 2016, all nine legislative seats for Kaohsiung were held by DPP members. The iconic Chen Chu (陳菊) – whose cartoon image, even in silhouette, is immediately recognizable by most city residents – has come to the end of a 12-year run as Kaohsiung mayor and polls as the city's most popular mayor ever. Chen, a former Taiwan democracy activist who spent six years behind bars in the 1980s, won her first term in 2006 with just 49.41 percent of the vote. Fast forward to 2010 and Chen won with almost 53 percent. In her final race in 2014, she won the support of over 68 percent of Kaohsiung voters.

Landline primaries

With numbers like this, I visited the DPP's headquarters on Kaohsiung's Jhonghua First Road to ask Director Huang Yen-yu (黃彥毓) a frank question or two: "How can your party ensure the nomination process – which has been criticized – is free and fair? Considering the last few landslides for the DPP, is Kaohsiung under the equivalent of one-party rule?"

Huang, who takes pride in having won election to his post as head of the DPP's Kaohsiung Bureau, is in his early 40s. His eyes brightened with each of my questions. He replied, "perhaps we do need to do a better job explaining the nomination process as many wonder about backroom deals or the like. But the truth is, the nomination process is as democratic and transparent as we believe we can make it at this time — and let me explain why."

After reforms in recent years, the DPP nomination process is the same across Taiwan, noted Huang.

"We hire three independent polling companies to call landlines across the city. Those willing to speak to the pollster are asked to list their preferred candidate – if a non-DPP member wants to weigh in, that's fine ... as if our candidate becomes mayor, he or she represents all of Kaohsiung's people, not just DPP members. Finally, when the data from the three polling companies is collected, the DPP aspirant with the highest score is the candidate – pure and simple," Huang explained.

I had more questions.

The News Lens: "Why only landlines? I don't even have one!"

Huang Yen-yu: "How else can we ensure the person on the phone is actually in Kaohsiung?"

TNL: "Couldn't there be a computer vote or some other way?"

HYY: "We're always trying to improve, but so far – considering hacking and other issues – we think this is the fairest system."

TNL: "How is this fair to younger voters? How many young people actually pick up a landline?"'

HYY: "How many young people actually bother to vote on election day? Too few, unfortunately. We are trying to inspire more youth participation, but it's tough. Some candidates specifically tell their supporters to 'make sure Mom and Dad (or the grandparents) know who you support and make sure they tell the pollsters!'"

TNL: "With complete domination in the legislature and a now, 20-year-long hold on the top job at City Hall, are non-DPP member residents of Kaohsiung doomed to non-representation?"

HYY: "No. That's what the city council is for ... and you'll note that the council is not dominated by the DPP, but rather has a pretty good balance in my view."

I brought up Fongshan as an example. Fongshan (鳳山區) is Kaohsiung’s most populous district with over 400,000 residents. For centuries it was a city; in fact it’s among the oldest settled areas in greater Kaohsiung. Fongshan City became Fongshan (Fengshan) District in 2010. Before the city-county merger, Fongshan had an elected mayor and for the KMT – Fongshan was a reasonably reliable “blue” spot, mostly due to many ROC military family residents.

Huang got into the nitty-gritty of districts and city council seats, agreeing that in Fengshan, demographics did once favor the blue camp (as was the case until very recently in Zuoying District). But, things are changing as older people pass on. The younger folk of Greater Kaohsiung do seem to lean green, but there are still a good number of KMT supporters in Fengshan, Zuoying and across Kaohsiung. If the elected city council has even a decent non-green contingent, Huang argued, the mayor cannot force through policies and democratic rule will prevail, despite the DPP's commanding hold on most other elected offices.

Currently, the Kaohsiung City Council comprises 66 elected members and the DPP announced on Feb. 22 that they would be fielding 37 candidates for the Council this year, meaning that even if all of them win, the body would still not be overwhelmingly green. We'll have to wait until November to see how many KMT or blue-leaning candidates win council seats. Whether that number will have enough clout to authentically represent the political will of non-DPP supporters is another question.Huang is optimistic the balance will be maintained; others are not so sure.

The race and the future

As the nomination process for the next mayor of Kaohsiung continued in the weeks after I spoke with DPP local chief Huang, at least one of his predictions appeared to come true. Huang had said the perceived "preferred candidate" of Mayor Chen Chu, Liu Shih-fang (劉世芳), had as good a chance as the rest of the-then five DPP legislators vying to make the final cut ... and in January 2018, Liu withdrew from the race, citing party unity. The many reasons Liu quit are too detailed to mention, but if nothing else, her exit seemed to confirm Huang's contention that a nod from Chen Chu wasn't enough to seal the deal.

Liu Shi-fang

With weeks to go, the nomination will now go to one of the other four: Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁), Lin Tai-hua (林岱樺), Kuan Bi-ling (管碧玲) or Chao Tien-lin (趙天麟).

Chen Chi-mai appears to lead opinion polls, and has a certain name recognition advantage. Lin represents more sparsely-populated areas and could end up as vice-something, but her chances of winning the mayoral nomination this year appear slim. Kuan is an established political player, but talking heads say voters could be looking for a younger, fresher face. Chao, the youngest of the four, contends a "CEO-style" approach to governing Taiwan's biggest southern city would lead Kaohsiung into a new era.

Chen Chi-mai has done a good job keeping quiet and non-controversial over the last year or so. The only tiny hiccup was in October 2017, when his father, Chen Che-nan (陳哲男), a former top aide to ex-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), reminded the public of past scandals when he was paroled after serving three years of a seven-year term for bribery and influence peddling. The release of the senior Chen has so far had a negligible effect on the race for City Hall, which isn't a surprise, considering that the former president and parolee himself Chen Shui-bian lives in Kaohsiung and is viewed by many here as, if not innocent, then "less-than-guilty."

After 20 solid years of DPP leadership beginning with the election of Frank Hsieh in 1998, Kaohsiung is firmly green. It's not hard to see, however, how taking a loyal voting base for granted could backfire.

All four of the candidates stress plans for fixing the economy, and rightfully so.

Beautifying the city, cleaning up the Love River, building parks, burying rail lines, MRT lines, constructing massive music centers, unveiling waterfront developments and other positive changes since the mid to late 1990s have all been welcome improvements, but low salaries, high unemployment, an aging and declining population in addition to unacceptable pollution levels are threatening to push Kaohsiung even further down the list of Taiwan's top cities. Quality of life – including economic quality of life – is seen by most as the next required step in the city's triangle of fulfillment, but many of those who live here will tell you the city is badly stagnating.

Can the next DPP mayor demonstrate they are capable of more than cosmetic transformations?

When the next DPP mayor wins in November, he or she and the party may find they are no longer able to fall back on being "anti-KMT" or even "the party that cleaned stuff up." Over the next four years, the next DPP mayor will need to bring real progress to the lives and bankbooks of the people of Kaohsiung – which is going to be a much harder job than winning either the nomination or the election.

Read next: Pingtung City is Dying, Why Not Give it to Kaohsiung?

Editor: Morley J Weston