Legislative campaigning in Kaohsiung: A view from the 7th district

Taipei and Kaohsiung are not only first and second biggest cities in Taiwan respectively divided by Tropic of Cancer that cuts Taiwan in half and making both places feel like they are located on two distant continents. These two cities also represent the geographic division of  the Taiwanese political landscape. North is blue, South is green, people say in Taiwan when they talk about the political basics. Although there is a great deal of oversimplification in that, it is to a considerable extent true that Taipei stands firmly as KMT stronghold while Kaohsiung is a safe haven for DPP. To a considerable extent, not absolutely though. In 2008, the KMT was extraordinarily successful and secured 6 mandates in Legislative Yuan (LY) elections out of 9 in the area that now constitutes Greater Kaohsiung. In 2008 presidential elections Kaohsiung County still supported DPP candidate Frank Hsieh but Kaohsiung City voted for Ma Ying-jeou.

The setting for 2012 is clear: is DPP about to reclaim Kaohsiung and how does the KMT plan to defend its gains deep inside “hostile” territory? This was my first question for representatives of both major competitors. The second addressed the influence of parallel presidential and legislative elections on campaign strategy. The third was about specific campaign issues related to Kaohsiung and the fourth question challenged both representatives to answer why should voters cast a ballot for their party.

The following text is a brief summary of both interviews. It needs to be noted positively that unexpected visit of a foreigner curious about election campaign was in both cases met with somebody willing to take questions. I can imagine completely different situation in the Czech Republic where I come from. Yet, it needs to be also said that if openness was to be measured, then the DPP scored considerably higher, with district office campaign director Gary Lin willing to take additional questions and going a little more beyond more or less official campaign proclamations.

The KMT legislative candidate in Kaohsiung 7th district is incumbent legislator Chiu Yi (邱毅), known for his close relations with the media and frequent use of legal charges against political opponents. I met and interviewed his office assistant Mr. Ching-Wei Huang and a campaign volunteer who did not reveal his identity. Chiu’s DPP challenger is Chao Tien-lin (趙天麟), former magistrate councilor with considerably lower profile (for good or bad) compared to Chiu Yi. As noted above, Mr. Gary Lin who is head of the Chao’s election office answered the questions.

How were the expectations of the candidates? I addressed this first to the KMT HQ. Mr. Huang answered that loss of any seat out of 9 available would be regarded as defeat. This appears over ambitious considering that KMT can hardly hope to repeat its gains from 2008 and that securing all seats is unlikely even for the DPP. The volunteer who assisted the interview gave me more realistic estimate of 5 mandates. How were the concurrent elections influencing campaigning for the KMT? According to Mr. Huang, the two elections are tied together in any case and rather than addressing differences in campaign strategy, he took care to highlight achievements of KMT administrations which should secure victory for KMT in both elections. This actually answered third question too. KMT achievements on a local level were reiterated and confidence expressed that the party will secure victory based on these achievements. The overall impression and conclusion is that main KMT campaigning tool in this particular district is Chiu Yi’s popularity and the playing card of achievements is employed more strongly on the central level. Mr Huang also stressed that the party put an emphasis on convincing abstainers to come to vote this time. It remains to be seen if this will be good enough to secure at least 5 seats in Greater Kaohsiung.

Interviews in the DPP office brought out some interesting points. Perhaps the most interesting one came up with the questions on the combination of presidential and legislative elections and their influence on campaign strategy. Mr. Lin pointed out that one of the visible effects are campaign posters/billboards where LY candidates are together with Tsai Ing-wen. Lin referred to her rising popularity which may help to boost popularity for less known DPP candidates for the LY. This may have implication for KMT, yet, in opposite manner. KMT candidates may prefer not to link their campaign with Ma Ying-jeou’s reelection bid due to his low approval ratings. KMT candidates may simply feel that linking their candidacy to presidential election is striping them off advantages of a locally built support base. Indeed, it has strong logic in South and during my visit of Kaohsiung I saw only a small number of posters where local candidates were pictured together with Ma. Observations from Taipei seem to be similar so far. One can see considerably more posters where Tsai is together with a local LY candidate.

When talking about how the DPP is going to get their voters back, apart from naming alleged KMT mismanagement (those in social policy area are the most important), Gary Lin mentioned that DPP will appeal to voters to return from Taipei where many people from Kaohsiung work to come to their hometowns in Kaohsiung area and elsewhere. On a local level, one of the central issues of Chao’s campaign (and DPP’s in general) is to make Kaohsiung a greener (environmentally speaking) city which may have an appeal in a city known for its industrial pollution. What are the DPP’s expectations? According to Lin, the party is quite confident in securing 7 seats, while the remaining 2 are considered undecided (including the 7th district). At this point, NCCU’s Exchange of Future Events for Kaohsiung shows that the DPP is closer to reaching its goal when predicting that 6 seats will go to DPP and remaining 3 are still undecided. It also gives nearly 67% to Tsai Ing-wen and only 37% to Ma Ying-jeou. Thus, it seems that Kaohsiung after 4 year-long intermezzo is set to become green again.

Michal Thim is currently enrolled in the International Master‘s Program in Asia-Pacific Studies at National Chengchi University in Taipei and research fellow at the Prague-based foreign policy think tank, Association for International Affairs. This report is based on interviews conducted by Michal at the election headquarters of the DPP and KMT in Kaohsiung’s 7th election district for Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan on December 5, 2011. The views expressed in this article by party officials are their personal opinions which do not necessarily correspond with the official position of the respective political party. Michal  wishes to thank Mr. Richard Lin for his invaluable assistance. A large range of associated images are available here.