In the legislative by-election on Jan. 26 in Greater Taichung’s second electoral district, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate Yen Kuan-hen (顏寬恆) won by a margin of less than 1 percent.
This result will have little impact on the balance of power in the legislature. However, it was seen as a midterm test for President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration, a measure of gains and losses in momentum between Ma’s pan-blue camp and the pan-green camp and a defensive battle for survival between the area’s local factions.
It can also be seen as an initial skirmish in the buildup to next year’s seven-in-one local elections, and could have some influence over the presidential election scheduled for 2016.
For these reasons, a lot of attention has been paid to the Greater Taichung by-election and its result.
There are more than 275,000 registered voters in Greater Taichung’s second electoral district, which includes the Dadu (大肚), Wurih (烏日), Longjing (龍井), Shalu (沙鹿) and Wufeng (霧峰) administrative districts of the former Taichung county, plus the two boroughs of Dali District (大里).
Although these districts are on the outskirts of a big city, they retain rural characteristics.
Many newcomers have moved into the area in recent years, forming a sizable proportion of its population, but they are not necessarily registered in the district, meaning they are not eligible to vote there.
A consequence of this is that traditional local factions are still an important factor in elections, as are the “vote captains” who mobilize people to vote, and networks of families and friends.
In the previous two legislative elections, Non-Partisan Solidarity Union candidate Yen Ching-piao (顏清標) won easily, gaining the highest vote in all six administrative districts with nearly 60 percent, because the KMT granted his request not to field a party candidate.
Last year, in the presidential election, Ma made a clean sweep in this electoral district –– It has been a pan blue stronghold and not an area where the pan-green camp has enjoyed an advantage.
Campaigning for this by-election was a typical army versus air force battle, in which the two sides adopted quite different strategies.
As in past elections, local mobilization by the pan-blue forces relied principally on local factions, with local party offices only playing a supporting role. The KMT’s party symbol was not to be found anywhere in its candidate’s election literature.
The pan-blue candidate did his utmost to avoid partisan conflict in his campaign material, preferring to play the moderation card, the sympathy card, the service card, the local card and the fairness card. The two big local factions, known as the Red Faction and the Black Faction, presented a more or less united front.
While nearly every senior KMT figure turned up to support the campaign, the commander-in-chief — party chairman Ma — stayed out of the fray.
On the pan-green side, top Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leaders turned out in full force to stump for their candidate, Chen Shi-kai (陳世凱).
This was the first major battle for DPP Chairman Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) since taking up the post, and he was especially keen to chalk up a success.
The DPP followed its previous pattern of raising the stakes by striving to create the image of a duel between the two rival parties, and even using it as a test run for a campaign to recall Ma.
With regard to the Yen clan, the DPP only touched on the issue by talking in moderate terms about “aspirations” and “electing someone who can be a good model for our children.”
With the top leaders from both sides joining the battle, the candidates themselves seemed to be relegated to supporting roles.
Yen Kuan-hen beat Chen by a mere 1,138 votes, and only by virtue of his home territory advantage in Shalu and Longjing districts. It is true that this close result had something to do with the Ma administration’s poor performance, but the DPP’s successful strategy and the waning power of local factions to mobilize voters were also important factors.
Although the DPP did not win the by-election, it was a glorious defeat and shows that the party has the potential to win future Greater Taichung elections.
The KMT candidate won the by-election, but by a very narrow margin, so the party has nothing to celebrate. Such a narrow victory is unlikely to improve the party’s morale and Ma will not gain any points from it.
Following recent setbacks for the KMT in Nantou and Changhua counties, it is now seeing ever-narrower majorities in Greater Taichung. This not only casts a heavy cloud on the party’s prospects for next year’s local elections, but also sounds an alarm over its strategic ambition in central Taiwan in the 2016 presidential contest.
Wang Yeh-lih is a professor of political science at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Julian Clegg