Mayor Ko, the KMT and the Upcoming Elections

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Sunday July 8, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

All politics is local or so the saying goes, but for a nation like Taiwan, which has a large, hegemonic and covetous neighbor, even local elections cannot escape some international influence and flavor.

Thus, Taiwan's upcoming November nine-in-one municipal elections, promise to be a continued bellwether of the direction that Taiwanese are taking as regards national identity and how they want their lives governed.
In this, several related questions hang in the air.

First, since the recent 2014 and 2016 elections have proven disastrous for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), will that situation continue?

Next, the green tide of growing support for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has been slowly advancing from south to north. Will that continue?

Finally, the KMT has struggled in the past to find an appropriate Taiwan-centric identity. Will that challenge continue?

The answer to each of these questions is a qualified but clear yes; it is an answer that has to be seen in context, for these elections will be a bellwether, but beyond the normal expected way. They remain complicated but interesting.

Let us begin with the KMT's continued problem with a Taiwan-centric identity. Time, transparency and a reluctance to face the past continue to affect this.

Time-wise, the KMT's one-party state and martial law ended in 1987. With the introduction of multiparty system, free elections of legislators began in 1992 and of the president in 1996.

Since the voting age in elections in Taiwan is 20, those born from 1987 onward began elementary school, knowing only a free, democratic society. And every year from 2007 onwards a new batch of twenty-year old voters enters the system consciously identifying with a free, democratic Taiwan.

Thus over time, any Stockholm Syndrome effect or belief in the KMT's sole legitimacy to rule has increasingly diminished and been challenged. The Sunflower movement and voting results in 2014 demonstrated the growing culmination of this. In the 2016 elections, the DPP gained both control of the presidency and legislature.

Despite all this, the KMT still resists facing up to these questions of national identity and transparency.

While many Taiwanese see their nation as Taiwan, a significant number of KMT still try to cling to the dream that somehow through the KMT, Taiwan, the Republic of China can preserve a bogus claim to rule China.

To let go of this belief would mean the KMT old guard must also give up or share their claims to party assets.

This is not to say that the KMT is not conscious of this poor public image. In the 2016 presidential elections, the party replaced primary winner Hung Hsiu-chu with Eric Chu mid-campaign because it realized her obvious pro-China stance was not selling well. Nonetheless, there has been little other concerted effort to root such sentiments out.

As regards transparency, more and more government documents from the White Terror days are finally being made open to the public. They further point to the aforementioned KMT's sordid past and the seized state assets. KMT members—young and old—naturally wish that this would disappear, but it will not.

Recall that when East and West Germany reunited in 1990, it took only two years for the Stasi secret police records to be open to the public. People could readily access who spied on them and who betrayed them. Taiwan is far behind in such truth facing. Transparency is happening very slowly, but it will continue and that will affect voting.

How does all this play into the local elections? Take these three key cities, Taipei, New Taipei City and Taichung.

Start with Taipei, It is a traditionally blue city, but it also has a strong DPP sector as well as a developing swing vote. Even back in 1994, DPP Chen Shui-bian got elected mayor by getting 615,090 votes (43.6 %) in a three-way race that split the blue vote.

In 2014, Ko Wen-je, running for his first time and as an independent, broke a 16-year stranglehold the KMT had on Taipei's mayorship with eight years of Ma Ying-jeou and another eight years of Hau Lung-bin. Ko got a surprising 853,983 votes (57.1%) to KMT Sean Lien's 609,932 (40.8 %).

Yet, as incumbent and with no great scandals to his name, Ko is likely to lose in the November elections. Why?

The total vote in Taipei generally runs around 1.4 million votes. For independent Ko to win, even in the current three-way race, he would need a minimum of 6-700,000 votes from all sides. He will not get it.

Ko did win in 2014, but the DPP did not field a candidate and fully supported Ko. This year they have their own candidate, Pasuya Yao.

Furthermore many DPP members now see Ko as an international "traitor" to Taiwanese identity.

On the KMT side, many also do not see Ko as one of theirs. The KMT's candidate, Ting Shou-chung, is not the most scintillating candidate but he has united the pan-blue vote and he had been gracious in bowing to Sean Lien's "entitlement" claim in 2014.

In the three-way race in Taipei, the focus will be more on how much Ko can siphon off from the two main parties to add to any swing vote he has.

It will not be enough. The race will then revert to party loyalties and the remaining swing voters to determine.

Turn to Taichung. Kaohsiung and Tainan promise to remain green in the south, so will the green tide continue north? In the past, Taichung has stood as the midway point and barrier. That barrier was breached in 2014, when KMT Jason Hu lost Taichung's mayorship to DPP Lin Chia-lung.

Jason Hu is KMT old guard and while he became Taichung mayor in 2010 with 51% of the vote, his performance was not strong enough to continue. In 2014, he dropped to 42% against Lin's 57%.

This year, the KMT candidate, Lu Shiow-yen, presents a younger look for the KMT. However, she barely won the nomination and the question remains: Will she have a strong enough base and swing vote to unseat Lin. While pretending to create a new look, she must court the party old guard whose main interest is to simply regain their piece of the pie. How evident will this be?

New Taipei City represents a different determining point, but still reflects how more young people are not going to the KMT. Eric Chu was expected to cruise to victory in 2014 when he faced the DPP's Yu Shyi-kun, but he dropped from having 52.6 % in 2010 to barely winning with a scant 50.06 % in 2014.

This year, DPP Su Tseng-chang, a man with a good past record, has returned to campaign there. The voters know Su. Su's KMT opponent, Hou You-yi had polled well earlier in the race, but financial scandals involving his family's profiteering at Chinese Culture University are raising images of past KMT skeletons and corruption.

This is not to say that the DPP will sweep the elections in November, in politics, five months is a long time, long enough for a new scandal or two to rock the scene.

Nonetheless, the indications point to a DPP majority win. The DPP still commands the Taiwan-centric perspective and the KMT still bears the albatross of self-presumed entitlement from its one-party state past.

It does not offer a strong Taiwan identity and future promise to the increasing numbers of young voters.

In Taiwan, politics are local, but they reflect an international perspective. Let the games and campaigning begin.