For 20 years, the city of Kaohsiung has been the capital of deep-Green southern Taiwan. Ever since democratic reforms finally handed the people of Taiwan the right the choose their leaders, they have opted for Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidates.

Regardless of which party was governing the country or the status of relations with China, Kaohsiung’s commitment to the ideals and values of the DPP have not wavered. Until now.

In last Saturday’s local elections, KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) defied all odds and predictions to defeat DPP candidate Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁) in the race to be mayor. In the end, it wasn’t even close.


Credit: Reuters / Tyrone Siu

KMT mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu celebrates after winning local elections in Kaohsiung, Nov. 24, 2018.

While early results had the two neck-and-neck, by the time all the votes had been counted, Han had secured 53.87 percent of the vote to Chen’s 44.8 percent. His margin of victory was more than 150,000 votes.

It was a clear-cut and dominant victory. The people of Kaohsiung had spoken and in large numbers, they had chosen the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate over the DPP candidate for the first time since voters elected KMT incumbent mayor Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) in 1994.

So, what on earth happened to generate this seismic shift in public opinion?

There is not one single factor to which the change can be attributed. Instead, the DPP and Chen Chi-mai were hit by a perfect storm of local, domestic, and international factors. They had no answer and this, in itself, is another key reason for their loss.

At a local level, while Kaohsiung has been staunchly DPP for two decades, it has actually only had two full-time mayors in that period. From 1998 to 2005, Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) filled the role. His efforts to make tangible improvements to the city such as cleaning up Kaohsiung’s waterways and ports and building the city’s MRT network earned him much praise and popularity. But while he won two elections, both were by narrow margins.

After he was appointed Premier of Taiwan in 2005, Chen Chi-mai (yes, the same one) served as acting mayor until Chen Chu (陳菊) was elected at the end of that year. She was hugely popular, winning three elections between 2006 and 2018 and cementing Kaohsiung’s reputation as a DPP stronghold.

In her 12 years in the role, she was a charismatic mayor who came to be a symbol of the city. She was, for many, the mother of Kaohsiung. In the 2014 elections, Chen Chu won with 68 percent of the vote and secured more than 540,000 more votes than her rival.

But during that time, with the DPP widely expected to defeat the unpopular KMT government of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), she was required to assure voters that she would serve the full term as mayor. She didn’t. On April 20, 2018, she left to become Secretary-General to President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).


Credit: Reuters / Tyrone Siu

Chen Chu, the 'mother of Kaohsiung,' in the end proved impossible to replace.

That left the DPP with a problem. Firstly, there was a section of the Kaohsiung electorate angry that Chen Chu had broken her promise to serve a full term. Then, there was the challenge of replacing a hugely popular and charismatic three-term mayor just seven months before the election.

Chen Chi-mai, who won the Kaohsiung mayoral primary after the unexpected withdrawal of Chen Chu’s chosen successor Liu Shih-fang (劉世芳), was not the answer to that problem. He was a career politician, a safe pair of hands, with experience in the role, and a CV strong enough to convince the party of his merits.

But he did not have any of Chen Chu’s charisma. His appearance was bland and grey, and his communication skills were severely lacking. He did come into this election with a coherent policy agenda, but he singularly failed to communicate that to the people of Kaohsiung. No one knew what he stood for. He was just the DPP candidate, the continuity candidate, a vote to continue the status quo.

In some elections, this might not have mattered. Chen Chi-mai is no duller than many other Taiwanese politicians. But his lack of charisma began to be magnified when he was placed next to his opponent, Han Kuo-yu.

Han, the KMT candidate, was no less of a career politician than Chen. He was Member of the Legislative Yuan for Taipei County for ten years, during which he even served as KMT caucus leader. While in office, he was best known for suspected links to the Taipei gangster community and one incident in 1993 when he punched DPP legislator and future President of Taiwan Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in the legislative chamber, hospitalizing him for three days.

After leaving, he used contacts in Yunlin to get the job of general manager at the public sector body, the Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing Corporation (TAPMC). He left that job at the behest of Tsai Ing-wen, but his subsequent attempts to return to frontline politics saw him finish fourth out of six candidates in the KMT chairmanship election in 2017. He mustered just five percent of the vote.

After that vote, Han was given the role of KMT chapter director in Kaohsiung – a dead-end post for a washed-up politician, but a role which did at least mean he was almost certain to be the KMT Mayoral candidate. He was duly elected candidate and, all of a sudden, he underwent a rapid image change.

The surge of populist politicians around the world has been extremely well documented and it seems that one of those taking note was Han Kuo-yu. As the election campaign got underway, he quickly attracted media attention for his brash style, sweeping policy proclamations, and prominent gaffes. Unsurprisingly, this media attention generated public interest. With every uncosted promise and spur-of-the-moment suggestion, interest in Han snowballed. Chen Chi-mai had no response.


Credit: Voice of America / Public Domain

Chen Chi-mai, shown in this 2013 photo, could not find a response to Han's undeniable populist charisma.

Of the many supposed gaffes that Han made, the one that was thought to be the most damaging was when it was revealed that he had described Kaohsiung as “old, poor, and ugly.” One of the failed attack lines on Han’s campaign was that he was only attracting older voters and it was assumed that this comment would offend them. There was a brief dip in the polls, but many older people in Kaohsiung, who had voted DPP every time in the past, quickly forgot. Some even agreed with the sentiment.

For them, this election wasn’t about Han or Chen, or about local issues. It was about the DPP itself. This brings us to the national issues.

When the DPP won the presidency in 2016, it did so in a landslide. But its popularity has quickly declined in the polls and these elections were a litmus test of how its leadership has truly been perceived.

As with every free and democratic nation, there were some things the DPP had done that people liked and others they did not. But there was one policy priority which the DPP got badly wrong: public pension reforms.

Around four percent of the overall Taiwanese population works in the public sector, but in Kaohsiung, that figure is higher. As Kaohsiung’s population skews older than that of Taiwan’s northern metropolises, there is a higher proportion of retired public sector workers as well. It is this demographic that the pension reforms have hit hardest.

Many retired public sector workers have seen their pensions cut, some by as much as 40 percent. Any government that takes this amount of money out of people’s pockets has to expect a backlash. There is no doubt the DPP saw this coming.

Speaking back in June, President Tsai apologized to retired public sector workers, admitting that “the majority [of pensioners] will now have less money in their pockets. … To those of you who will see less income from your pensions and will be compelled to change your retirement plans and lifestyles, you have my apology on behalf of the nation.”

But when someone has worked all their life with the expectation of getting a certain pension, only to have the rug pulled out from under them, an apology is never going to be enough.

There is no doubt that pension reform was fiscally necessary. The previous KMT administration of President Ma had said it needed to be done. But the way the DPP delivered it has proved catastrophically damaging.

They removed a large chunk of many people’s income in one fell swoop, rather than phasing in any changes gradually, leaving a significant proportion of the population poorer and angry about it.

But more importantly, they failed to successfully communicate the economic necessity of these reforms. No one who understands the pensions situation that Tsai Ing-wen inherited would deny these reforms were necessary. But most people don’t. This has allowed the narrative that they were a political decision designed to punish a traditionally KMT-supporting demographic to take hold, fanned by irresponsible KMT politicians and officials.

In Kaohsiung, where many retired public sector workers were not KMT supporters, the impact of these failures has now been seen.


Credit: Reuters / Tyrone Siu

Protesters clash with police during a rally against overhaul of the military and civil service pension funds outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, April 25, 2018.

The anger among Kaohsiung’s retired population towards the DPP has also been exacerbated by the prevalence of social media. Most older people in Taiwan have access to social media. In these online worlds, they exist in a very insular environment where like-minded people share stories, often in closed-channel networks like the wildly popular LINE, that support the preconceptions that people already hold.

In part, this was a factor in the DPP’s failure to explain their pension reforms effectively. But it also created a perfect environment for the big external factor in these elections to take hold: disinformation, or to give it its more popular terminology, “fake news.”

Over the past few months, there has been a huge amount of online content, videos, commentary, and blog posts doing the rounds about the Kaohsiung election campaign.

Some, of course, contained genuine campaign material and legitimate commentary and criticism. But there was also no shortage of content which had no basis in reality whatsoever, which may have made a large impact as early as August when the DPP was heavily criticized after incomplete information was circulated about its response to floods in Taiwan’s south. There will need to be a full analysis to identify just how much of this fake news was doing the rounds and how much of an influence it had.

In the echo-chambers on social media, where many voters were sourcing all their information, at least some of these fake stories took hold. Why wouldn’t they? If a story reinforces the perceptions you already hold, why stop to question it? Instead, just forward it on to friends and family, then read the next story.

Most Taiwanese people are not very good at critically assessing information. It is not a skill which is heavily emphasized at school, and while progressive lawmakers are hoping to change this, the situation remains dire. Information is to be remembered and recited, not questioned and criticized. This mindset in the closed bubble of social media is ideal for “fake news” to take hold, and in Kaohsiung, it certainly played some sort of role.

Faced with this perfect storm of negative factors, it is actually quite easy to understand what went wrong for the DPP in Kaohsiung. The answer: Just about everything. But while some of the factors were outside of their control, there were plenty of self-inflicted wounds too.

For the party, the question is how to turn things around. There are 14 months until the next elections in Taiwan, which means the DPP does have time to try and win back some of the alienated Taiwanese electorate.

The danger is that the rise of the Han Kuo-yu model of politics could be used as a model for the KMT in two years’ time. If it is, the DPP needs to find much better ways of countering it than they did here in Kaohsiung.

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

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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