A Fifth of Column: A few comments on the 2020 Taiwan Election

The dominant narrative of Tsai’s comeback makes great copy but it is the wrong framing.

We all know the story. A popular challenger comes out of nowhere to challenge the President, who is down in the polls. The KMT candidate, persistently down in the polls, takes action to suppress and distort embarrassing poll data, which is showing that he might lose. In the end, despite starting down in the polls, seemingly headed for defeat early in the election, the President wins comfortably.

Yeah, that election of 2012 was something else.

Ma was doing well in the polls when Tsai, who had never been elected to public office, stepped in the ring to face him in 2012. His low polling, consistent since the first September of his Administration, has disappeared from subsequent narratives. Han Kuo-yu instructing his followers to fake their poll responses as his numbers tanked had its precursor in Ma allegedly pressuring Global Views/TISR to stop political polling after they consistently showed Tsai even with or ahead of the President. In the end Ma won by 6 points.

Candidates attacking polling is not new. In 2004 the Chen Administration fought an exit poll conducted by the then-China owned TVBS TV station by instructing its supporters not to answer the poll (Han Kuo-yu was not the first to attempt that tactic). TVBS announced its results before some of the voting stations closed, in what appeared to be a blatant attempt to influence the election outcome — broadcasting the early, skewed results showing Lien-Soong winning by six, and withholding later revised results showing the two camps neck-and-neck. The lack of credible polling is a distressing problem faced by Taiwan politics observers.

What happened this election was the classic Presidential life cycle, which I laid out in a Taiwan News column nearly four years ago:

At first happy with the possibility of change, light blue and light green middle of the road voters will gradually ooze into the dissatisfied camp as the pace change slows for the particular issues they are interested in, while iron minorities in the Blue and Green camps stake out positions on either side. It will come as no surprise to this writer if Tsai ends up with 20-30% satisfaction ratings at the end of the first term, essentially the proportion of Green voters who will always be satisfied with Tsai, yet gets re-elected and her party with her.

As the election nears, the two sets of identities sort themselves out, voters return to their candidate because there is no one else, and the election is decided largely on voter mobilization and attracting independent voters. The idea that Tsai won a resounding victory after being down in the polls makes a great narrative, but victories after being down in the polls are a structural feature of Taiwan’s elections. Though polls in those days were not reliable, this pattern of high popularity initially, followed by poor polling, followed by re-election, held in 2004 with Chen. It held again with Ma in 2012.

This election was over early. The polls showed it: as soon as the public became aware that Han was a far-right ROC ideologue whose views on identity and China were wildly at odds with the Taiwan mainstream, the public began to sour on him. This was entirely predictable: back in the KMT primary in May, which featured a phone poll, DPP supporters were urging each other to support Han if they were called, because he was so obviously a poor candidate whom Tsai would crush.

By late April polls were already showing Han in slow decline — before the KMT primary. By June, when Han was being mocked by high school students on stage with him as he was presenting awards to them, for running for president when he should be mayoring in Kaohsiung, it was clear that the “Han wave” had peaked. Hong Kong had little to do with it. The protests in that city started only in June, and long before then memes mocking Han were already circulating. By the end of July a few brave KMTers were asking Han to quit drinking for the duration of the campaign, while Hou You-yi, the popular KMT mayor of New Taipei City, was publicly abusing Han for running away from Kaohsiung. Han was clearly widely disliked in the KMT as well. With or without Hong Kong, Han Kuo-yu was DOA.

In truth, questions about sobriety should not be directed solely at Han. For the KMT, each election at the national level is about re-affirming its status as the colonial ruling party of Taiwan, which they refer to in code as “saving the ROC” (…from the pro-democracy side). As a result of this commitment, beginning with the 2000 election, in every election the KMT has nominated a hard-right ROC ideologue, with the exception of the unprepossessing Eric Chu in 2016. In 2008 and 2012 Ma Ying-jeou, aided and abetted by the local and international media, successfully concealed just how far out of the mainstream he was by articulating a position that the mainstream could live with. Yet Ma himself said that his politics were the same as Hung Hsiu-chu’s, the wildly fringe ideologue the KMT was forced to replace in 2016. Han was no different from her, simply more affable, while Lien Chan, the party’s standard-bearer in 2000 and 2004, was probably the least popular major politician in Taiwan. Whatever they are drinking in KMT headquarters, let’s hope they have a liberal supply of it.

Further, lest the reader imagine that Terry Gou (Guo Tai-ming), the former chief of Foxconn, would have done better than Han, recall that he had exactly the same mainlander hard-right pro-China ideology that Han had, and additional baggage from being a big businessman with close ties to the CCP, among other things. Han did an absolutely titanic job of not only uniting the pro-Blue vote, retrieving almost all the votes that went to James Soong in 2016, but somehow getting an additional 700K votes over any previous KMT candidate. Tsai’s victory was so large it obscured Han’s numbers. It is hard to see Gou achieving that level of success.

The KMT remains a presence in Taiwan politics. Hopefully that will be a good thing, keeping the DPP honest and in the center. Now if only one of the small parties to the left of the DPP would step up….

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