David Pendery's splenetic letter "Apportioning the blame" (Letters, Jan. 24, page 8) on the recent elections, like so many other pieces of analysis in the media, appears to consist of a melange of banal observations of Taiwan politics, inappropriate application of Western voter models and worst of all, an abundance of KMT [Chinese Nationalist Party] talking points. It lacks any real understanding of what happened on Jan 12.
Let's begin with simple numbers. In the 1998 legislative election, the total pan-blue vote exceeded 5.3 million votes. In 2001, it again exceeded 5.0 million. In 2004, 600,00 pan-blue voters stayed home and its votes plummeted to 4.5 million. This year, it once again reached over 5.0 million.
Similar figures for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) are 2.9 million, 3.4 million, 3.4 million and 3.6 million.
Looking at the numbers, three things stand out. First, the anomaly that cries out for explanation is 2004, when 600,000 pan-blue votes went AWOL. Second, apparent DPP successes in 2001 and 2004 were because of the fact that the pan-blue vote was split between the KMT and the People First Party (PFP) in both elections. Third, the numbers suggest that the real key to KMT dominance in the recent legislative polls was the simple fact that it eliminated the PFP (and the New Party) and for the first time gathered the entire pan-blue legislative vote unto itself.
These developments, coupled with winner-take-all districts that were artfully gerrymandered in favor of the KMT, explain how the KMT obtained 80 percent of the seats with just 60 percent of the vote. There is no evidence, anywhere in these numbers, that voters switched to the KMT because they were sick of the DPP's ideological positions, because the economy was bad, or because the DPP was incompetent, as Pendery (and many others) have argued. Such claims are merely evidence-free KMT talking points.
Instead, the numbers shows the structural features of legislative election voting patterns -- the DPP reached all its potential voters in the legislative elections, a figure around 3.5 million, and the KMT swallowed the entire pan-blue legislative vote -- over 5 million. Were it not for the "reformed" districts, everyone would be talking about what a typical legislative election this was -- how much it resembled 1998 and 2001.
Why was the KMT so successful? Taiwanese voters value most not policy issues but personalized service. Legislators thus constantly show up at constituent weddings and funerals, and are regularly called on by voters to handle personal problems such as car accidents or criminal charges. Politicians also finance temple festivals, and other local social events.
In Taiwan, voters chose local candidates because they were successful in presenting themselves as candidates who would provide personal service, and bring home fat wads of cash from the central government, as any study of election signage outside Taipei would attest.
Naturally, the party with the best connections at the local level -- where 90 percent of local officials are KMT -- and with the most lucre -- the KMT outspent the DPP five to one -- will win such an election. Note that in such political systems, the effect of ideology at the local level is totally nullified. Nor do Taiwan voters care about "corruption" -- which, in such particularistic politics, is more or less the result of the legislator doing what he is supposed to do.
Finally, since all such politics is ruthlessly local, the dismal performance of the KMT-dominated legislature is also no factor at the local level.
A similar system of particularistic politics, fueled by flows of cash -- both licit and illicit -- from the central government, gave the Liberal Democratic Party 38 years of single-party rule in Japan. So long as voters care more about personalized bacon than about good public policy, there is little that a smaller party can do to win local elections. Two words thus sum up this election: permanent majority.
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