One More Blue Seat: No Thanks to Ma Ying-jeou
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
January 27, 2013
Summary: KMT candidate Yen Kuan-hen won a hard-fought battle in the Legislative By-Election for Taichung. His win has unexpectedly given the Blue camp an additional seat in the Legislative Yuan. It has also halted the Green Camp offensive in Chiayi and Tainan. This battle has enabled Yen Ching-piao to complete a "from father to son" turnover of the family business, and to breathe a sigh of relief. But Ma Ying-jeou and the Blue camp leadership have little cause to celebrate. They must remain vigilant and concerned.
Full text below:
KMT candidate Yen Kuan-hen won a hard-fought battle in the Legislative By-Election for Taichung. His win has unexpectedly given the Blue camp an additional seat in the Legislative Yuan. It has also halted the Green Camp offensive in Chiayi and Tainan. This battle has enabled Yen Ching-piao to complete a "from father to son" turnover of the family business, and to breathe a sigh of relief. But Ma Ying-jeou and the Blue camp leadership have little cause to celebrate. They must remain vigilant and concerned.
Yesterday the ballots were counted. The process was filled with tension. Yan Kuan-hen and his opponent Chen Shi-kai repeatedly traded places. The gap between the two never exceeded a thousand votes. Die-hard supporters held a vigil at their Shalu campaign headquarters. In the end, the came back and won by just over one thousand votes. The ballot counting process was unusually tense. What flashed through Ma Ying-jeou's mind as the process unfolded? One cannot help but wonder.
From any perspective, this was a critical election. This was essentially a local level legislative by-election. But it was elevated to the level of "a message for President Ma." On the stage, Yen and his son played out a familiar drama -- "a son does battle on behalf of his father." In the orchestra pit, the orchestra provided accompaniment, in the form of ruling vs. opposition wrangling. One aspect was particularly odd. The Green camp saw Ma Ying-jeou as its primary target. But the Yen family explicitly asked Ma to keep his distance. Therefore from start to finish, Ma never appeared at a single Yen campaign rally. The Green camp mobilized every one of its party princes., But the Blue camp mobilzed only Wang Jin-pyng, Eric Chu, and Jason Hu. Ma Ying-jeou was relegated to the role of "stealth chairman."
Recall last January's legislative elections. Yen Ching-piao received over 118,000 votes, and trounced his opponent by a margin of nearly 40,000 votes. One year later, Yen Kuan-hen won by a mere 1000 votes, and the campaign was a nail-biter. The difference was dramatic. Yen Ching-piao had no party affiliation. His political support was the result of years of local service and contacts among local religious leaders. Yet in one short month, he came under such a serious threat. The DPP's recuperative powers must never be underestimated. Consider party rivalry. Ignore for the moment such personal factors as the Yen family father and son relationship. Ignore the fact that by-election turnouts tend to be low. Voters used their ballots to express dissatisfaction with the Ma administration. The signs were obvious, and cannot be ignored. Slow economic growth and corruption scandals in the Nantou and Changhua county governments undermined the Blue camp image. The Pension Reform controversy undermined core support from veterans, civil servants, and public school teachers. Rightly or wrongly, voters used the election to settle scores.
Ma Ying-jeou's bid for reelection as KMT party chairman drew fire from his own comrades. He became an "absentee president." He is clearly becoming more and more of a lame duck. This must be handled judiciously and decisively, with an iron fist, as soon as possible. He must restore his prestige. Otherwise he will find it impossible to get anything done during the remaining three years of his term. Consider the recent by-election. Was the KMT lending its banner to Yen Kuan-hen? Or was it using the opportunity to cultivate grass roots support? If it wasn't, then the victory means little. It will merely confuse those who cast their ballots for candidates flying the Blue camp banner.
Consider the DPP. Had it won this battle, Taichung would have an equal number of Blue and Green legislative seats. The Blue vs. Green battlefront would have shifted to Taichung. Fortunately for the Blue camp, it was a "Bridge Too Far." Green camp momentum, nevertheless, was impressive. It forced people to stop and stare. The Green camp launched "hate tactics." These tactics successfully diminished Blue camp supporters' desire to vote. Green camp support has increased. By how much? That is hard to tell. Small scale local elections are susceptible to such extremist tactics. But they could provoke a backlash in larger scale elections. The DPP has often experienced such setbacks. This must be be understood. We need not harp on it.
Did the Blue camp help Yen Ching-piao during this by-election? Or did Yen Kuan-hen help the KMT win another seat? Cause and effect are deeply intertwined and difficult to discern. The important point is not that the KMT has another seat in the Legislative Yuan. The important point is that the Blue camp line of defense in Taichung City has not been breached. But the held because of Yen Ching-piao's underlying strength, not because of the KMT's mobilization.
People burdened this by-election with too many irrelevant symbols and metaphors. They include the Yen family "son doing battle on behalf of his father," Chairman Ma's absence during the campaign, and the DPP's high-profile "raging citizens" protest marches. The process may have be exciting. But the results did nothing to advance democracy or partisan politics. The good thing about this election was that Yen Kuan-hen won. But what if he had lost? The loss would have been attributed to President Ma, to his failure to win the hearts and minds of the people. No one would have concluded that the public had grown tired of Yen Ching-piao. Yen Kuan-hen won by a narrow margin. This can only be attributed to Yen Ching-piao, who worked long and hard to cultivate grass roots support. This support trumped any local level strategic impact. The candidate's reputation and background were not the issue. Cause and effect for politics on Taiwan have long been reversed. This is hardly the first time this has happened.
The Blue camp may have one more seat in the legislature. But it is hard to consider this a victory. Chairman Ma remained invisible during the election. How could he possibly have contributed to the victory?