This year’s local elections are on the horizon, and Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) will be term-limited. The (Taipei-based) political writers, (Taipei-based) prognosticators, (Taipei-based) pollsters and (Taipei-based) television talk shows are flooding the (Taipei-based) media with discussions on who will be the candidates for mayor of… Kaohsiung.
Of course they aren’t. They are — as usual — obsessing on the Taipei mayoral race because their world ends where the Taipei MRT don’t run, if that far. Though no parties has formally nominated a candidate, the assumption is that Wayne Chiang Wan-an (蔣萬安) will represent the Kuomintang (KMT) and Huang Shan-shan (黃珊珊) the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) — but the Celestial Kingdom-based media are in a full feeding frenzy as they speculate who will represent the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Since Taipei media dominates the national landscape with Taipeiscope VisionTM, it isn’t surprising that three of the four directly elected presidents used their positions as Taipei mayor as their jump-off point, and two of the three previously directly elected mayors went on to the presidency. Poor former Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) must be crying in his imported baijiu.
This means that, whether those of us outside of Taipei like it or not, whoever becomes Taipei mayor is going to be foisted upon us as a national figure and will likely be of major importance to Taiwan’s future (Hau was Waterloo’ed in Keelung, and a disastrous KMT chair race all but exiled to Taiping Island politically). So who will be the DPP’s standard-bearer in Taipei?
Media and pollsters have all been focused on two potential candidates: Minister of Health and Welfare and concurrently head of the Central Epidemic Command Center Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), and Taichung Mayor and former Transportation Minster and Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍). There does remain a possibility that the party could choose someone else, perhaps as a compromise to cool factional tensions, but no third candidate has attracted much press attention.
Chen is being cryptic on whether he plans to run or not, perhaps for his own amusement at watching the press go into conniptions at his every utterance on the subject. In response to former Vice President Annette Lu Hsiu-lien (呂秀蓮) commenting that he should resign if he intends to run, he responded: “if I am able to run, I will definitely resign” (只要我能選，就一定辭職).
Then he went on to make more contradictory comments. He even seemed to nod in affirmation as if he were running — but his mouth was sending mixed signals. Confused? Everyone is, including the local media.
In spite of the appearance of Chen being a technocratic choice for his multiple positions, he is in fact very much a political appointee. Originally a dentist by training, he has been involved in DPP politics for years and is known for bringing in 200 dentists into the party while he was chair of the Taiwan Dental Association when Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was elected president. He was even on the DPP party list of legislative candidates in 2004, though too far down on the list to actually have had much chance of becoming a lawmaker.
Since the pandemic hit, Chen has been the public face of the administration’s efforts to battle the coronavirus. Though he has his detractors, most of the public credits him with making Taiwan one of world’s best at handling the pandemic.
Chen as a candidate is a mixed bag: In his favor is the widespread trust he has earned among the public, a reputation for dedication and hard work, and no scandals or skeletons in his past that have come to light. Taiwan also has a particular penchant for electing people from the medical profession, including the current and previous vice presidents, the current mayor of Taipei, and even the winner of the Taichung legislative by-election earlier this year.
On the other hand, he is as charismatic and warm as a tray of dentist’s tools. He speaks in a droning monotone and, in spite of being a member of our species, there appears to be no photographic evidence of a capacity for a warm smile (Try Googling “陳時中.” The best that comes up are some self-satisfied half-smiles).
Lin Chia-lung, by contrast, is all grins. He is warm, enthusiastic, likable, and engaging, if at times coming across as a bit lacking in substance. But like Chen, Lin hasn’t given a clear answer on whether he intends to run, vaguely punting the question back to the party decision-making process.
Like Chen, he’s a mixed bag as a potential candidate. His engagement in politics started as a student activist in the 1980s, showing considerable courage against authoritarianism. His charismatic ability to motivate people has been evident ever since.
On the other hand, he has a serious problem with trains — specifically disasters and death related to them. Early in his term as mayor, a collapse during the construction of the MRT line left four dead, and the most recent train disaster last April left 51 dead, which led to his resignation as transport minister.
How much responsibility was his in either of those cases is debatable, but he would be hit hard with it during any political campaign he may want to undertake. He also doesn’t have a great record at the ballot box, having failed to win re-election as mayor after one term (opinion polling at the time suggested most Taichung residents assumed he would win re-election, but the 2018 “Han wave” swept him out).
He also remains a potential candidate for Taichung mayor. When he lost in 2018, he pledged to keep his residence registered there and established a non-profit foundation in the city.
In terms of polling, both trail presumptive KMT candidate Wayne Chiang, with Chen trailing by 6% in a three-way matchup and Lin by 11%, according to the latest ETtoday poll. Reportedly, however, they are evenly matched in internal DPP polling.
Another complicating factor is internal DPP politics. Chen apparently has the support of President Tsai Ing-wen's "Ying Faction" (英系) in the party, while Lin has the backing of the Taiwan Normal Country Promotion Association (TNCPA, 正國會). Yet the biggest faction, New Tide (新潮流系), may prefer Chen to take on Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) in the New Taipei mayoral race.
During Tsai Ing-wen’s reign as DPP chair, she has done a remarkable job at keeping the factions fairly quiet by carefully apportioning positions to keep their relative power in balance, but with her presidency and presumably her time as party chair heading towards a lame duck period, the factions appear to be jockeying once again for supremacy in the post-Tsai era. How much this will factor into the choice of candidate is hard to say, but the TNCPA in particular has recently been growing more aggressive in their moves against the Ying Faction.
Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw), and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce.