The KMT's Must-Win Contests in Taiwan’s Upcoming Local Elections

The KMT's Must-Win Contests in Taiwan’s Upcoming Local Elections
Credit: Reuters/TPG

What you need to know

The KMT must hold New Taipei and retake Taichung to maintain a high profile, and the Taichung race is already becoming bloody.

In Taiwan’s upcoming local elections in November of this year, the key races to watch are the mayoral elections for the “big six” special municipalities. The most powerful executive positions outside the central government (similar in stature to the governors of the biggest U.S. states), the holders of these offices are high profile and top contenders for a potential future presidential run, especially the mayor of the capital, Taipei, which has been the proving ground for three of the four most recent presidents.

For the Kuomintang (KMT), the pressure is intense. In the 2014 local elections, the KMT lost three of four of the “big six” they had dominated for years and barely held New Taipei City, the only one they managed to keep, in a landslide victory for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). A similar blowout awaited the KMT in the 2016 national elections. The party lost the presidency in a landslide and surrendered control of the legislature for the first time. Politically, the KMT is in deep trouble. The KMT no longer has a large stable of popular politicians on the national stage as the old guard has been swept away, and the party desperately needs this election to both prove that they are viable and to elevate locally popular politicians onto the national stage to galvanize a new generation of leaders.

AP_17140568129861 吳敦義
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
Wu Den-yih, KMT chairman, center, gestures with supporters as he declares victory in the KMT chairman election in Taipei, Taiwan, Saturday, May 20, 2017.

Traditionally, the KMT party chair is the standard bearer and presumptive party candidate for president, but the current chairman, former Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), is not widely popular. The party has also recently lost the vast fortune it amassed during their years of one-party rule in the martial law era as part of a push for transitional justice by the new DPP government, which has also been working systematically to remove many of the institutional advantages the KMT has built over the the years, notably through the Ill-gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee, formed in 2016.

As things stand now – and of course much can change between now and November – the KMT appears to only be strongly competitive in two of the “big six.” In the south, Kaohsiung and Tainan are so staunchly pro-DPP that the DPP could run day-old salad for mayor and still likely win. Hence nothing short of a major disaster will give the KMT the slightest hope in the deep south. In Taipei City, historically the greatest prize, the KMT is struggling with unexceptional candidates currently polling at over 20 percent behind incumbent mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), a political independent who might receive DPP backing, as was the case in the 2014 election.

In Taoyuan City, the situation for the KMT may be even more dire than in Taipei. The DPP incumbent and surprise victor in 2014, Cheng Wen-tsan (鄭文燦), has turned out to be surprisingly popular and is a rising star. The KMT has just nominated candidate Apollo Chen (陳學聖), who trailed by 40 percent and 29 percent in polls taken last year. He barely beat out two other candidates in the KMT primary. A disgruntled primary candidate is contesting the results, bringing the prospect of disunity to the party ranks.

In the south, Kaohsiung and Tainan are so staunchly pro-DPP that the DPP could run day-old salad for mayor and still likely win.

Thus, barring a major disaster or scandal in those four races (which may yet happen), the KMT is left with New Taipei City and Taichung City. In New Taipei City, which is Taiwan’s most populous constituency (but not as politically significant as Taipei City), the KMT’s prospects look good in spite of only winning by a tiny margin in the last election. With the KMT incumbent being term-limited out, the party has backed Vice Mayor (once acting mayor) Hou You-yi (侯友宜). Hou, an ex-top police official, is considered a very strong candidate in spite of rumors of past connections to gangsters (in an era when it was common) and his involvement in the 1988 raid on free speech and Taiwan independence icon Nylon Deng (鄭南榕) which ended with Deng self-immolating in defiance of the then one-party KMT state.

Photo credit: 侯友宜臉書
Former policeman Hou You-yi is popular despite a lack of experience as a top-level politician.

The DPP has yet to nominate a candidate in this race, making any predictions difficult, but it is looking increasingly likely that the party will choose Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), a previous successful holder of the position from 1997-2004 (when it was still Taipei County) and ex-Premier. The DPP claims that its internal polling has Su neck-and-neck with Hou. Su, however, is quite old and somewhat of a stale choice, and it may be hard for him to win over the supporters of the party’s candidate in the last election, Yu Shyi-kun (游錫堃), who barely lost last time around.

While voters in New Taipei may be looking for a change after two decades of KMT rule, choosing an old face in Su seems an odd choice. Hou may even come across as a fresher face than Su, being younger and not the incumbent. Another possible indication that Hou will be competitive is his native Taiwanese roots – he has been approached in the past by the DPP to run for office for their party – which may make him more acceptable with traditional DPP supporters. With no public polling so far, and the race not yet underway while the DPP makes its final decision on a candidate, this contest is still very hard to read.

While uncertainty hangs over the New Taipei race, the situation in Taiwan’s second-largest city Taichung is already a red-hot battle zone, with polls showing the DPP incumbent Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) holding on to a lead in the very low single digits. However, both Lin and his KMT opponent, lawmaker Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕), were slammed with embarrassing news since the last poll came out. The Taichung race is shaping up to be quite a show.

Photo Credit: 林佳龍FB專頁
Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung, right, holds a threadbare lead in the polls.

Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung first became known as a student activist during the pivotal Wild Lily movement in 1990 calling for free elections. From a rural Yunlin family, he attended Yale University and married a daughter of a prominent wealthy business family. He rose through the ranks of the DPP and was eventually elected to the legislature from a Taichung district. In 2014, he won a resounding victory in the mayoral race. In spite of some successes, however, his administration’s public support has been lackluster, dropping to last of the “big six” mayors in one major poll, and 16th out of 22 local government heads overall. Approval ratings for Lin and his administration are regularly reasonable, but not stellar.

Despite the huge margin of victory in the 2014 election he has barely been able to maintain a slight lead in the polls. However, since the last poll came out, the embarrassing Hoffman Consulting fiasco occurred. The mayor signed an NT$110 million (US$3.77 million) MOU to much public fanfare with the representative of the firm for a major offshore mining project. While unlikely to be the scam that the press portrayed it as (no money changed hands), when the media found out that this company was a one-man show they had a field day (I suspect Hoffman was hoping to broker a deal with a mining firm and take a cut). This played into the widespread perception of Lin being a weak administrator, and indeed the lack of due diligence displayed was shocking. As long as no other cases like this occur, most will likely forget about it by election time, but the lingering perception could cost him votes. Lin will need to display competence in the meantime, and with the upcoming International Floral Exposition coming up in his backyard, he has a chance to shine if it launches without a hitch.

Photo Credit:江啟臣臉書粉絲專頁
Lu Shiow-yen's experience as a TV journalist lends her a natural affinity for the cameras.

KMT challenger Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕) caught the public’s eye initially as a TV news journalist. Born in Keelung to a family who came over with the KMT from China in 1949, she married a Taichung City councilor and has been a popular six-term legislator representing a Taichung district. Widely viewed as a strong candidate, she narrowly won the KMT primary by 0.6 percent against another widely popular legislator. Unlike in Taoyuan, however, her opponent did not dispute her victory and immediately pledged his strong support. Indications are that the KMT locally, including the local patronage and political factions, are united behind her. Photogenic and with an almost preternatural ability to know which cameras to focus on at exactly the right time when facing the press, she’s a force to be reckoned with.

Lu has been hitting the mayor hard over the issues of rising city expenditures and debt, and most effectively over “the” hot political issue of air pollution. The air pollution strategy is a clever one. On the one hand she can portray the mayor as not having fixed the problem to those who don’t know much about the issue, and to those who understand that the biggest sources are controlled by the national government, she can tar him with the brush of being of the same party as the president, whose administration has undermined Lin at almost every point when he tried to tackle the issue.

This brought her to within 1 percent of Lin in the last poll – but then she, too, got hit with embarrassing news. A local press outlet did an expose on her showing that over half of all the campaign funds in her previous elections went through firms owned by her own family. She shot back that all of that was properly and legally reported, and she is in a political family, but it feeds into a perception of the KMT being corrupt. Like Lin with the Hoffman Consulting case, it is unlikely that most voters will remember the details by November, as long as nothing else comes out. As with Lin, the residual bad taste may still cost her at the polls.

Lin will continue to campaign on his more notable successes and his clean image, and Lu will continue to pound away at him on pollution and debt, but as things stand this race could come down to which candidate makes the most missteps. In the vast bureaucracy of the government there is always the potential that Lin could be blamed for some mistake or disaster. Likewise there could be things in the KMT's closet that could be wheeled out to haunt Lu. Both candidates will need to be on their very best behavior, because this race could swing either way on a dime. A third party candidate could also throw a wrench into the mix, but that appears unlikely at this time.

If the KMT takes both New Taipei and Taichung, that would be a much-needed boost. If both races are run well and the leaders remain popular, public faith and trust in the party could be restored. New stars could then be groomed to provide a next generation of presidential contenders.

If the KMT loses seats both it will be disastrous for the party. They will have no major local governments to showcase candidates, and they will be reduced to having only a handful of legislators, small local leaders, and whomever they can bring in from academia or the business world to represent them going into the 2020 national elections. That would be a weak pool with limited potential for future growth. Expect the KMT to fight these two races tooth and nail.

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Editor: David Green