The Hakka community, an election battleground on which the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lost a tremendous amount of ground to its pan-blue rivals in the 2000 three-way presidential election, has become one of the most crucial factors in determining the party's overall electoral outlook in next year's cutthroat, two-sided presidential election.
Taiwan's 4 million Hakka residents, who live mainly in Taoyuan County, Hsinchu County, Hsinchu City and Miaoli County, have long been regarded as loyal KMT supporters. In the 2000 election, President Chen Shui-bian (
Chen won that election by a narrow margin in a three-way race with the KMT's Lien Chan (連戰) and James Soong (宋楚瑜), now the chairman of the People First Party (PFP). However, Lien and Soong have joined forces in the current campaign, which means the DPP has a hard battle to fight. It also makes the Hakka vote extremely important.
PHOTO: CHIANG YING-YING, TAIPEI TIMES
With the steady consolidation of Chen's support base in southern Taiwan, his so-called "iron-votes area," the Hakka community could give the DPP some leverage among the KMT's diehard support base of Aboriginals and Chinese mainlanders.
As only 30 percent of Hakka groups had voted for Chen in 2000, while the pan-blue candidates jointly received 65 percent of the Hakka vote, breaking the deadlock presented by the pan-blue camp's dominance remained a huge task for the DPP, with the election 90 days away.
The party has estimated that it would have to boost its support rate in the Hakka community to at least 45 percent if it wants to win the election.
PHOTO: CHIANG YING-YING, TAIPEI TIMES
Since the DPP came to power three years ago, Chen, realizing that he needed to bolster support in this community, has proposed and executed a number of Hakka-friendly initiatives, many of which his KMT predecessors had never considered, including the establishment of the first Cabinet-level Council for Hakka Affairs under a Hakka chairwoman, Yeh Chu-lan (
Recent polls have shown that the DPP has indeed managed to improve its Hakka support base during its three years of hard-working dedication to this community, but much remains to be done to break the KMT's monopoly on Hakka ballots. Yeh said a common reason why Hakka people feel estranged from the DPP is its extensive use of Hoklo, also known as Taiwanese.
Hsu Chin-jung (徐進榮), a DPP campaign manager in Miaoli County, said "Many of the elderly Hakka can only speak Hakka or Mandarin, so they won't understand what President Chen says on TV when he speaks Minnan. That creates a barrier and makes it harder for the DPP to gain the Hakka people's acceptance."
The language barrier is reinforced by the Hakka community's anxiety about losing their mother tongue and their ethnic minority status, as they have historically competed for resources with the Minnan people.
Shih Cheng-feng (
"Facing pressure and discrimination from Minnan people, the Hakka have had to stand up for themselves to protect their homelands. That led to the so-called Yimin spirits and the emergence of the Hakka identity," Shih said.
According to Hakka myths, the Yimin were brave and loyal militia members who sacrificed their lives in the 18th century to protect their homelands. The Yimin Temple, where the divinities of the militia are worshipped, has become the religious center of the Hakka community.
Due to their ethnic minority status, the Hakka people have tended to be more conservative in their political stance.
Yeh said that, for a long time, the Hakka have tended to be on good terms with the ruler of the day, and therefore the KMT's half-century grip on power in Taiwan has led to the community's strong identification with the KMT.
"The leaders in the Hakka-populated areas of Taoyuan, Hsinchu and Miaoli all have KMT backgrounds. Therefore, in the minds of Hakka people, the KMT has always been the ruling party. That's why it is hard to undermine the KMT's dominance of the Hakka vote, because the KMT, which has existed for more than 50 years, has become intertwined with the local factions," Yeh said.
Since the DPP took over as ruling party, Yeh said, it has been working to turn its "Minnan chauvinist" image around by promoting Hakka affairs.
One of the DPP's party platforms is promoting the acceptance of cultural diversities, as well as respect and care for minority groups. The DPP was the first to echo and support a social movement by Hakka people in the 1980s which demanded that the KMT authority pay attention to the promotion of the Hakka language in education.
"There has been a shift to the Hakka language, as can be seen from the president, premier and major DPP officials learning and speaking Hakka in public, or alternating between Mandarin and Hakka in their speeches," Yeh said.
Previous speculation that Yeh might be chosen as Chen's running mate in the March election was another indication of the DPP's desire to attract more Hakka people.
Taiwan Provincial Governor and former DPP Hsinchu County commissioner Lin Kwang-hua (林光華) said that if Yeh were to become Chen's running mate, the DPP could expect to receive 53 percent of the votes in the Taoyuan, Hsinchu and Miaoli areas.
Apart from setting up a Hakka TV channel and many establishments to promote Hakka culture, the DPP campaign strategies also focus on extending Hakka connection networks in response to the clannish nature of the Hakka community.
The Hakka clans, usually composed of groups of individuals related through family ties, could play a major role in bolstering DPP support. Chen and DPP campaigners have been increasing their efforts to cultivate connections with local clan leaders.
Former chairman of the Council of Agriculture, Fan Chen-tsung (
"Hakka people value the comradeship very much and there is nothing better than building that kind of friendship through a personal touch," Fan said.
Although Soong, the pan-blue camp's vice presidential candidate, had received overwhelming support from Hakka groups in the 2000 presidential election due to his reputation as provincial governor, his influence in the Hakka community is diminishing. Soong has almost lost touch with his Hakka supporters since his defeat in the previous election, Fan said.
Until now, Soong had not returned to Hsinchu County even once in the three years since the 2000 election, said Fan, also a former Hsinchu County Commissioner.
DPP Legislator Chiu Chui-chen (
"Our campaign strategy is not just about propaganda, which wouldn't be as effective as developing ties with local clans. We have worked very hard to cultivate relations with the several clans in Taoyuan, including the Huang clan, the Lu clan and the Chen clan. Many of these clan leaders have decided to switch support to the DPP this time," Chiu said.
An example of this is that the president of the Taiwan Medical Association, Wu Yung-tung (吳運東), the elder brother of KMT Vice Chairman Wu Po-hsiung (吳伯雄), the party's Hakka heavyweight, has sided with the DPP to undermine the KMT's influence in Taoyuan's clannish local structure.
Taoyuan County, the home of Vice President Annette Lu (
In response to Lu's low support rate among her fellow Taoyuan County residents in the 2000 election, Chiu, a close aide of Lu's, said: "Last time we were not prepared for the election, as Lu's nomination as the vice presidential candidate had been announced very suddenly. But this time we are much better prepared. Many of Lu's policies during her term as county commissioner have proved to be constructive and are being carried out by the KMT commissioner, Chu Li-lun (朱立倫)."
Although most of the polls still show the pan-blue alliance leading Hakka support, the DPP believes the situation is improving.
"The DPP's Hakka support is increasing. It's hard to change the Hakka support structure in the first place, but once it starts to change, it could change collectively from a village, a township, to the entire county. The DPP's pessimistic electoral prospects in the Hakka community could be reversed," Yeh said.
Hakka heavyweights have urged the party to be careful about its Hakka campaign strategies, especially when promoting its administrative performance in Hakka affairs and making clarifications about allegations from the pan-blue camp.
Presidential advisor Lee Chiao (
This incident, which took place earlier this year, had aroused anger in the Hakka community, but the government was quick to resolve the issue.
"The DPP has to be very careful about this kind of negative propaganda, which could be disastrous. I think the DPP should pay more attention to analyzing their enemies than creating fancy slogans and rhetoric," Lee said.
Provincial Governor Lin Kwan-hua agreed with Lee, saying the DPP's campaign team should respond more actively to rebut the KMT's accusations.
"The KMT thought they were the guardian of the Hakka people -- this is a very ridiculous lie," Lin said.
National Policy Advisor Liang Jung-mao (
DPP Legislator Peng Tien-fu (彭添富), a Hakka, urged the party to do more promotion of its administrative performance of Hakka affairs, which he said were not properly understood by Hakka people.
"The problem now is that, as the election nears, many Hakka people are still not very well informed about what the DPP administration has done for them. Hakka people are more conservative in nature, and therefore are not very expressive in disseminating this information. The DPP officials and campaigners need to do more in this regard," Peng said.
Hakka historian Lee Yung-chih (
Lee suggested that the party add Yeh to the DPP's top campaign decision-making body, which features the five major campaigners, known as the "five tiger generals" -- Premier Yu Shyi-kun, Taipei County Commissioner Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), DPP Secretary General Chang Chun-hsiung (張俊雄), Secretary General of the Presidential Office Chiou I-jen (邱義仁) and Kaohsiung City Mayor Frank Hsieh (謝長廷).
"If Yeh could join the top campaign decision-making mechanism, it would demonstrate the DPP's emphasis on the Hakka vote again and further consolidate Hakka support," Lee said.
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