Quick Take: Is Han’s hardcore support base beginning to crumble?

Frozen Garlic, in his most recent post on checking out two Han Kuo-yu rallies, had this to say (be sure to read the entire piece here, it’s worth the read):

“On the drive home I kept asking myself whether I should take these disappointing crowds seriously. I think it does matter. Han’s rise has been based in no small part on his ability to mobilize enormous numbers of supporters through the sheer force of his personal charisma. Suddenly, the power of his charisma seems to be eroding. We know his polling numbers are awful, but we never had any doubt about his most fervent supporters. Now, I wonder if even they are losing faith.”

I’ve been wondering the same thing.  For a long time it has been clear that he has had a solid, passionate support base that was willing to stick with him through all the gaffes, unusual (and often impractical) policy proposals and his checkered past (including negligent homicide involving a traffic accident).  Those were remote, in the past and in some cases part of his charm–shooting from the hip, speaking his mind, challenging the status quo…and all that.  They loved his combination of extreme optimism (we’ll all get rich!), his positivity, his nostalgic appeals to the “glory days” of the economic boom, his fun sing-along rallies and his well-learned Taiwanese mannerisms.  Even as the polls slid and he lost his commanding lead and the broader public turned away from him, his loyal supporters packed out his rallies as always, filling them with joy and spectacle. They were his people.  Some described themselves as his army.

Several things have changed that may be starting to erode that previously solid base.  First, he’s gone negative.  Starting at his formal campaign launch, he’s started swearing on stage.  He’s been at times angry, defiant and negative in a way he never was before. While for some of his core supporters that may help get their back up, for others it is exactly what he was not in the mayoral race last year that brought him to prominence.

Second, he hasn’t done much as mayor of Kaohsiung, and only months after taking office he has taken an extended vacation to campaign for president.  This isn’t a good look for a man who was elected on claims to represent the people.  His core supporters may buy his argument that he discovered once taking office that he could do much more for Kaohsiung as president, but some no doubt were disappointed.

Third, his carefully constructed image as a man-of-the people is coming unravelled.  It has become public he and his wife have had many expensive properties, in one case with serious questions of using his political influence to secure a loan (against company policy) from Taiwan Fertilizer Co.  They’ve even procured an apartment in (expensive) Vancouver for their daughter. Then there were meetings he had with both the central government and the Yunlin County government about his in-laws gravel business when he was a legislator in the 1990s, with suspicions raised he used his influence to secure government cases for their business, and other allegations that this business engaged in illegal gravel mining.  It didn’t help that his wife, Lee Chia-fen, was recently photographed with a designer handbag worth nearly NT$150,000.  Many of his supporters may shrug this all off, after all they aspire to be able to have the kind of money and influence their hero has successfully accumulated.  Other supporters, however, may be disappointed and feel lied to–he isn’t really like them at all.

Fourth, he recently came out in support of marriage equality.  Much of his hardcore base overlaps with the socially conservative and Christian movements that spearheaded the get-out-the-vote drive in last year’s local election landslide for Han and the KMT, and their show of strength in the referendums held.  Many of his supporters may write it off as simply pandering to the youth, and his wife has already said he’s reexamine the issue–so he’s really against it, right?  For some however, this may sow doubt on what is for them a red line issue.

Finally, he’s increasingly resorting to conspiracy theories to explain his woes.  He’s claimed the Tsai administration has put a GPS tracker on his car, insisted that the press is being manipulated by the DPP and that the pollsters are essentially out to get him.  He sounds paranoid, and now he’s crossed the line by directly involving his followers in his conspiracy theory: First asking his followers to lie to pollsters and say they didn’t support him, then he went further and asked them to lie to pollsters saying they supported Tsai.  The polls have shown the number saying they support him has dropped, but Tsai’s support has stayed the same.  It may be that his supporters can’t bring themselves to say they support Tsai, so they’ve moved into the “don’t know/won’t say” category.  Or they’ve genuinely started moving away from him.

Any one of the above may be enough to shake the faith of some of his strong supporters, but in combination it may spell a loss of faith for some.  A loss of faith for ardent supporters, however, would be a big step–they’ve invested themselves emotionally, personally and often financially, and have tied their self image and some of their relationships around his campaign.  They’ve told their friends and family of their faith in him often in the face of significant opposition, and stepping away would be a big admission of failure and loss of face.  However, if key people in their social networks break with Han, it could cause major ripple effects, causing groups of people to leave en masse.

Start watching for key influential people breaking with Han, and if they do–what their explanations are.  If the explanations are influential on their own, and provide some cover (real or imagined) for followers to have a good explanation for why they were wrong to support him before, they could spread fast, causing a widespread collapse.  If key people don’t break with Han in significant numbers, it will likely mean his core “army” is largely holding.

Image of Mayor Han Kuo-yu with supporters courtesy of Han’s Facebook page, posted Oct. 10

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