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The primary thing about Taiwan elections

Party primary format is highly strategic, contentious, gives party leaders influence over candidate selection

The primary thing about Taiwan elections

(CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — Taiwanese love their democracy and avidly follow the drama, infighting, colorful personalities, mudslinging, and strategic political moves, while the media is full of detailed and breathless accounts from a wide range of outlets across the political spectrum.

Recently there has been a lot of speculation about how this year’s primaries are going to be held, especially on the Kuomintang (KMT) side. All that press attention is justified, different election methods could make or break candidates in key races, including in the presidential primary.

Unlike the systems used in American primaries, Taiwan’s primary methods change frequently, even within the same election for the same type of position. Because voters are not registered here by party, adopting the American system is not an option.

For party chairs, the best primary is when there is no need for one. This is often the case when there is a popular incumbent, no one bothers to challenge them.

There are also negotiated primaries, where two or more candidates declare their candidacy, but the party negotiates between them to choose one and the others voluntarily step aside. There is, of course, usually some reward for doing so, such as a guaranteed spot on the legislator list, or the backing of the nominee for the one that steps aside in a different race (such as backing for county commissioner now, the other will be backed in a run for legislator).

Then there are hand-picked, or forced nominations, where the party chair and the electoral committee simply nominate a candidate, challengers be damned. There are risks with this strategy, as the spurned challengers have ways of taking revenge or exacting a price, such as leaving the party and running as an independent or even as the candidate of another party.

Prior to last year’s 9-in-1 elections, for many electoral cycles, it was more common to have opinion poll-based primaries. Polling companies are hired by the party, usually three companies, in order to guard against bias or one of the companies being paid under the table to tamper with the results.

Candidates campaign in the run-up to those polls and actively let voters know the dates the polling will be held in hopes they will answer their phone and vote for them if they get a call from a polling firm. Then the results are tallied, and the winner announced.

Pure opinion poll primaries are in theory the best way to pick the most popular candidate with the highest chance of winning, in theory. The problem is that often the public knows very little about the candidates when those in the party leadership have a much better idea of how they will actually perform in an election race.

In some cases, those opinion poll numbers may be weighted by the party to favor certain types of candidates, such as in the last election, the KMT weighted the polls to strongly benefit younger candidates in city and county council races. This was part of KMT Chair Eric Chu’s (朱立倫) plan to invigorate the party with younger faces and blunt the image of the party as an old folk’s home.

Primaries for party positions, such as the chair, are only open to party members. However, this has been used in the past for primaries for candidates for public office as well, though fully party member primaries have not been used in a while.

Fully party-member primaries run the risk of being overly influenced by party factions. There is also the chronic risk of vote buying, which is virtually impossible in pure opinion poll primaries.

The KMT has been particularly fond of the 70/30 model, which is when the candidates for public office are chosen 70% by public opinion poll and 30% by party members. This is an attempt to get the best of both worlds and provide more value to being a party member.

Strategic thinking in choosing primary formats

Choosing what form of primary is going to be used in any given race is a highly strategic one. It also gives the party chair a lot of power. Hence all the press interest.

In the last election cycle, opinion polling primaries were the standard for city and county council races. There were some angry losing candidates who left their parties, but overall it worked as it should.

The primaries for the 22 mayors and county commissioners were where things got interesting, highlighting the strategic thinking in the battle between then-Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chair Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and KMT Chair Eric Chu.

Both parties early on went with opinion polling, with the KMT kicking things off in Nantou and the DPP in Pingtung. The KMT Nantou primary went off without a hitch.

Not so in Pingtung. It was a bitter and ugly primary. That ugliness may have been a factor in the election, the DPP candidate won by a tiny margin, and the KMT candidate is still suing for a recount.

Then, both parties switched to hand-picking candidates, and I suspect that each party did so for different reasons.

On the KMT side, Chu most likely wanted to ensure that moderate, female, and electable candidates were chosen. The KMT has a lot of deep blue politicians who like to take positions, especially on China and sovereignty issues, that are deeply unpopular with the broad voting public.

I’m pretty certain that Chu wanted his electoral slate to be full of the kind of people who would not constantly be generating headlines for saying things like “China is doing a great job handling the terrorists in Xinjiang” or pushing for CTiTV News to be allowed back on cable television. That kind of talk by even one major candidate would depress the vote for the entire slate.

Tsai’s calculation was probably that she wanted to avoid the disunity and bad press that came out of the Pingtung primary playing out nationally. A veteran of the fractious Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) presidency, and remembering well the historical image of the DPP as being the party of chaotic infighting, she most likely opted for this more cautious path to promote an image of stability.

How their strategies played out

For the most part, Chu’s strategy worked out very well. The only deeply unpopular comments coming from his party members were not running in the election, and were generally ignored by voters.

He did have to spend a lot of time putting out fires and trying to avert rebellions with his heavy-handed approach. His efforts at quelling widespread rebellion in Taoyuan were epic but ultimately successful.

However, while he was desperately trying to hold his strategy in Taoyuan, it blew up in his face in Miaoli, where a disgruntled candidate (and convicted murderer, which is why Chu did not want him) ran as an independent and won the election. Less dramatically, the same occurred in Kinmen.

Those two losses were the failures of his strategy, and cost the KMT the ability to gain in the number of races won, but for Chu it was probably well worth it. The party lost two small races, but picked up big prizes, like Taipei, Taoyuan, and Keelung.

In Tsai’s case, her strategy was a disaster. Her hand-picked candidate for Taoyuan went down in flames over several scandals, while she was ordering her party to defend him anyway, which went down like a Chinese spy balloon with voters across northern Taiwan.

The public was not having it and eventually, she replaced him with another hand-picked candidate, but that provoked another primary hopeful to bolt the party and run as an independent. That partially split the pan-green vote in Taoyuan.

Upcoming primary formats

All eyes now are on how the primaries are going to be held for the upcoming national elections for president and legislators, on the KMT side especially.

In Taipei, several potentially brutal primaries are forming, with a group of younger Taipei city councilors planning legislative runs against older candidates who feel they have earned their chops, and in one case challenging a sitting KMT lawmaker. These rebels against the established way of doing things are calling for generational change (a topic for an upcoming column) and are causing considerable upset in the party.

How will Eric Chu handle this? He has consistently called for younger blood in the party to try and revive the party’s fortunes with younger voters, but on the other hand, this will cause considerable anger among party stalwarts.

The younger candidates have called for full opinion poll primaries, whereas stalwarts are pushing for the 70/30 formula. If Chu picks one or the other method, it looks like he is picking their side.

On the other hand, if he handpicks the candidates, then he is definitely taking sides. Then he takes the risk of candidates bolting the party to run as independents, or even worse, for the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).

In the presidential race, I suspect one of the reasons that New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) has not publicly declared his presidential candidacy is because he wants Eric Chu to declare the primary format first. There is strong opposition in some quarters of the KMT to him running, especially from those who come from 49er families that fled the Chinese Civil War.

If it is a full opinion poll primary, that favors Hou, and that indicates that Chu is looking to go with Hou because he wants the best candidate for the party with the highest chance of winning. If Chu goes with 70/30, it indicates that Chu wants to make it harder for Hou, as his support is lower in the party than with the general public.

It would also indicate that Chu wants either himself or perhaps Terry Gou (郭台銘) to be the party’s candidate. Traditionally in the KMT, the party chair was automatically the party’s candidate, and in theory, Chu could try to revive that and install himself as the candidate, but it would likely cause outrage in the party.

The KMT and DPP will be announcing their primary formats in late March/early April.

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 ( and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce. Follow him on Twitter: @donovan_smith.