Conflicting emotions as Kaohsiung comes to terms with a future under Han Kuo-yu

Following the KMT stalwart's successful attempt to reinvent himself as a populist, Kaohsiung must now live with the consequences

David Spencer

David Spencer

KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) -- As the results of Saturday’s local elections began to be announced, Kaohsiung, a city which became a symbolic battle ground during this hugely polarized election cycle, bore witness to two extreme emotions.

At the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) headquarters on WuFu Road, there was a mixture of shock, disbelief, and despair. After their Mayoral candidate, Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁) took to the stage erected outside and, against a plain black background and conceded defeat to the KMTs Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), many people drifted quickly away.

Others stayed to console each other and watch on TV as their party leader, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), accepted responsibility for the defeat and resigned. In just a few hours, their world had turned upside down. After 20 years in City Hall, beginning on December 25th, Kaohsiung will no longer be a DPP city.

(Image Credit: David Spencer)

Many younger supporters had never experienced a lost local election before and they weren’t enjoying it. They were disconsolate and even the KMT supporters who were provocatively letting off fireworks nearby couldn’t rouse them.

Many DPP supporters in Kaohsiung had been convinced that they would win again. They believed the people of Kaohsiung would vote for the party that has, over the past twenty years developed Kaohsiung from a grimy city of heavy industry into a modern urban metropolis.

They believed the people of Kaohsiung would see through the rhetoric, hollow promises, and fake news that had characterized Han Kuo-yu’s campaign. It was only once the results were in, that it finally dawned on them this might not be the case.

Barely five minutes away by scooter, at the Kaohsiung headquarters of the KMT, the mood was very different. While DPP supporters were heading home, Kaohsiung’s newly-recruited KMT fanbase was jubilant and staying out to celebrate their candidate's win.

Firecrackers were going off, air-horns were sounding, flags were flying, and as the big screen on the wall of the KMT office flashed up the results, a wave of cheers rose again and again. There was one word on everybody’s lips: Change.

(Image Credit: David Spencer)

While Han support was largely built among Kaohsiung’s elderly population, his message also resonated with some younger voters, especially those too young to understand exactly what it is that the KMT represents, and those who are easily swayed by populist messages shared through social media. Some have also expressed concern that, among Han's supporters, a number are connected to Taiwan's world of organized crime.

Han Kuo-yu has promised these people change. He promises to make Kaohsiung richer. He promises to make Kaohsiung younger. He promise to increase the city’s population from 2.7 million to 5 million people.

No-one, including Han himself, seems to know exactly how he will do this. Nevertheless, this election shows that most people in Kaohsiung believe he will. They now have four years to find out if he can, and to decide if voting for change for the sake of change was really a good idea.

Identifying the cause of the DPP defeat in Kaohsiung

For the DPP, there will now be a period of wound-licking and attempts to figure out what went wrong in Kaohsiung, and indeed across most of Taiwan. With many candidates defeated at the ballot box and the resignation of their party leader, the party looks set for every bit as much change as the people of Kaohsiung.

In trying to pick apart how they managed to lose their southern stronghold, it is crucial that the DPP looks inwards beyond simply pointing the finger of blame elsewhere.

The issue of Chinese-generated fake news in this election has been well-reported and undoubtedly had an impact on election results in Kaohsiung and elsewhere. Steps need to be taken to address this issue in future elections.

How much Chinese funding made it into the hands of KMT candidates like Han Kuo-yu will also need further investigation, but the sheer volume of posters and online materials his campaign produced suggests they had far more resources than previous KMT candidates in Kaohsiung have enjoyed.

Internal failings

The DPP must also accept that their downfall in Kaohsiung is as much a result of their own failings as any external factors.

In Chen Chu (陳菊), the DPP boasted a hugely popular and charismatic Kaohsiung Mayor who came to symbolize the city and was able to attract voters from all demographics. The decision for her to step down mid-term and join Tsai’s team in Taipei, after expressly stating she would serve a full term in the last local elections, was not well-received by many in the southern city. In hindsight, it is a decision the party probably regrets.

Her replacement, Chen Chi-mai was, in many ways, the antithesis of her. He was a gray, besuited career politician, lacking in any real charm or charisma, who failed to capture the imagination of the electorate.

No matter how often he took his tie off and tried to look relaxed, he never quite managed that man-of-the-people persona that Han Kuo-yu, who is every bit as much a career politician as him, seemed to pull off so effortlessly.

Chen also made some schoolboy errors. While he did run on a plausible policy platform, he failed abjectly to communicate these ideas to the electorate. In the election debates and most media appearances, he focused all his attention on criticizing Han, both as a person and for his political platform.

In doing so, he played right into the KMT's hands. Throughout the campaign, the narrative was always about Han Kuo-yu, which was exactly what they wanted. By failing to communicate a credible alternative, Chen only succeeded in pushing more voters over to his opponent.

He also suffered a backlash against his party’s policies on a national level, with pension reform hurting him the most. Kaohsiung has a high volume of public sector workers and older people. Many of these had seen their pensions cut and they were out for revenge.

The DPP will argue that these reforms were fiscally necessary. However, this message was also not communicated well enough, and the reform's implementation was hasty and ignored the material impact it would have on ordinary people. In these elections, the DPP have suffered the consequences.

Democracy continues to flourish

While Chinese fake news and interference may have had some influence on the outcome of the elections, they certainly haven’t succeeded in undermining Taiwan’s commitment to democracy.

Across Kaohsiung and the whole of Taiwan, people queued for hours to exercise their democratic right to vote. Turnout was high nationwide which illustrates that, whether you like the results or not, democracy is still alive and kicking in Taiwan.

(Image Credit: David Spencer)

Among the very mixed emotions at the headquarters of the two respective parties in Kaohsiung, there was also one common sight to be seen. The people of Kaohsiung.

There were people sitting and talking, people smoking, people setting up street food and merchandise stalls to try to make a few NT$ for themselves, people laughing and crying, holding babies, and helping the elderly.

The people in Kaohsiung were determined to have their say in these elections. Therefore, these images also serve as a reminder that, while their city may be about to face considerable political upheaval, for most people, life will continue as usual.