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The battle for Taichung is on

DPP has nominated Tsai Chi-chang to challenge Taichung incumbent Mayor Lu Shiow-yen, does he have a chance?

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The battle for Taichung is on

Taichung Mayor Lu Shiow-yen supporting 2021 Earth Hour

(CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — On the evening of November 24, 2018, the citizens of Taiwan’s second-largest city were stunned as Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕) of the Kuomintang (KMT) beat incumbent Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in a landslide. Polling had suggested Lin had the edge, and even in polls showing a Lu lead, most people polled believed Lin would come out on top.

As the on-the-scene reporter for ICRT, it quickly became apparent to me that there was a huge enthusiasm gap between the two camps.

Lin's camp was a sad scene with only a handful of stragglers bothering to show up. They sat singly in a sea of bright plastic stools, slumped forward with their elbows on their knees. Their little campaign flags drooped dejectedly toward the ground. There was nothing to celebrate.

Lu’s headquarters was buzzing with excitement. The site was overflowing with people spilling into the street and climbing atop power boxes or any other vantage point they could get.

The crowd was pumped and full of exuberance as win after win came in for the KMT across the country, and went absolutely crazy when Lu herself was named the winner. Stoked by the “Han wave” of passionate supporters of out-of-the-blue Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), with whom Lu had campaigned closely, the newly energized pan-blue base came out in droves.

In Taichung and neighboring Changhua, the DPP’s fabled “one-term curse” came true once again. Not one DPP mayor or county commissioner from either place managed to win re-election, unlike the KMT, which usually does.

Central Taiwan was once so dominated by local factions of KMT political patronage, with their gangster allies and larger-than-life figures sent from KMT party headquarters, that DPP supporters dubbed it a “desert of democracy.” With the factional pals on the wane and KMT HQ now having less to offer and the DPP having made solid inroads, the region is today a critical battleground and bellwether: So goes central Taiwan, so goes the nation.

Lu got off to a rough start as mayor, with many mocking her inauguration gift to participants: 10,000 vials of air from the mountain town of Guguan to demonstrate her resolve to battle air pollution. Early polling showed her administration’s unfavorability ratings higher than her favorability, and she regularly ranked near the bottom in popularity among city and county leaders.

Early on she behaved much as she had as a legislator for so many years, attacking and blaming the Tsai administration at every turn. Over time, however, she matured and began to take on a more constructive tone suitable for a mayor.

On one topic, however, “Mama Mayor” (as pro-KMT dubbed her) has retained a combative tone: Fighting state-owned Taipower (and the central government that backs it) over air pollution from the Taichung Power Plant. Although the battles have been largely unsuccessful, her efforts have been generally popular, and underscored an image of fighting for the people of the city.

By August of last year, according to My-Formosa, the Taichung public’s confidence in her had risen from a meager 44.2% in June of 2019 to 81.8%, nearly doubling in just two years. That turned out to be her high point.

From October of 2021 to this January a lot happened politically in Taichung. In October, a KMT-supported recall campaign ousted Taiwan Statebuilding Party’s (TSP) Chen Po-wei (陳柏惟, aka “3Q”) from his Taichung 2 legislative seat. This set off a race between a KMT black faction candidate from the powerful Yen clan, Yen Kuan-heng (顏寬恆), and a DPP candidate.

Traditionally fearful of taking on the powerful black faction Yen clan, headed by Yen Ching-piao (顏清標) who has been jailed for weapons charges among other things, the press this time around went on the attack. It was as if a dam had broken, and every few days new allegations of corruption and fraud were leveled against the family.

This had a knock-on effect on Lu. Though not a factional politician herself, her close ties to the factions and the faction members in her administration abruptly came under intense scrutiny.

Allegations surfaced of her administration dragging their heels when it came to prosecuting the Yen family for owning illegal structures and re-routing the proposed MRT Blue Line to benefit Yen family land property values. It also emerged that Lu and her husband used city projects to bolster the value of property they privately owned.

All of these allegations were vehemently denied by Lu and her administration, and nothing has stuck legally–but instances like the slow movement on tearing down the Yen clan illegal structure left a bad impression. As the Taichung 2 by-election drew near, Lu seemed to distance herself from Yen and campaigned only tepidly for him.

Yen lost, and it is rumored that the powerful clan will not be lifting a finger to help her this election. If true, she could lose thousands of votes along the coast.

None of this means she will lose this year’s election, but her steady upward momentum in the polls was halted, and has since held steady in three straight polls at about 12 points lower. That’s still a respectable 69.4%, but the press has served notice they can do damage to her campaign and probably will be doing more as the election draws closer.

The irony is that Lu herself initially made a name for herself as a TV reporter.

On April 27, the DPP nominated Taichung lawmaker and deputy speaker Tsai Chi-chang (蔡其昌) as their candidate for Taichung mayor, skipping a primary in spite of two declared challengers. Lu has not formally been nominated by the KMT, but with no challengers and the advantage of incumbency, most are working on the assumption her nomination will be a formality.

Tsai is a party man, New Tide faction member, and general team player–all of which contributed to his becoming deputy speaker. He is not a particular favorite of the press: He never says anything dramatic or strays from the party line.

He is generally liked and uncontroversial, like Matsu and baseball–both of which he is incidentally strongly associated with. He represents the Dajia area, famed for the Matsu pilgrimage, and is the head of Taiwan’s professional baseball league, which traditionally goes to a political worthy.

Tsai is still largely unknown and voters have not made up their minds about him, but that will change as the campaign progresses.

According to a Cnews poll, Lu’s satisfaction rating is 61%, with 16.2% dissatisfied and 22.8% with no opinion. Tsai, by contrast, only has 37.4% satisfied and 11% dissatisfied ratings among Taichungers.

The key number in his case is the whopping 51.6% who have not made up their minds about Tsai. That gives him wide leeway to improve.

A big potential for growth is also seen in the candidate support category, with the well-known Lu garnering 41.4% and the unknown Tsai with only 27%. Again, the key number is the 31.5% who remain undecided.

In terms of party support, the poll showed 28.5% support Tsai’s DPP, 14.2% support Lu’s KMT and 10.3% support the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). The New Power Party (NPP) got 4.9% support and the TSP garnered 2.5%.

A strong majority of KMT supporters unsurprisingly back Lu, but majorities of TPP and NPP supporters do as well. Though a majority of DPP supporters back Tsai, the strongest majority for Tsai came from the TSP, which may be due to the fact that Tsai served as something of a mentor and friend to the TSP’s Chen Po-wei.

The math suggests that Lu has the advantage, but that the race will tighten as Tsai’s campaign gets underway in earnest. Another factor that would likely take votes away from Lu is that the TPP is considering former Taichung vice mayor and current Taipei vice mayor Tsai Ping-kun (蔡炳坤) as their party’s nominee.

As for what to watch for, aside from unexpected events, are if the TPP does run a candidate, if the press goes after Lu with the intensity they went after the Yen clan and her relationship to it, and how effective a communicator the currently bland Tsai is able to make himself.

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.