Written by Wen-Ti Sung.

Taiwan will hold its so-called ‘nine-in-one’ mega-elections on November 29. Up for grabs are some 11,000 public offices at the municipal and township levels. The crown jewel of this electoral avalanche is the position of Taipei mayor, which pits the ruling KMT’s Sean Lien against the independent candidate Ko Wen-je, who has the backing of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). If the opinion polls are to be believed (Taiwanese polling has a somewhat chequered history), then we are set to witness a watershed election that signals a realignment of Taiwan’s electoral demography.

The significance of the Taipei mayorship can hardly be overstated. Every president in the last quarter century had previously served as mayor of the capital. The visibility and national name recognition that comes with the job is regarded by all presidential aspirants as the golden ticket to the presidential palace.

Moreover, for the DPP and KMT standard-bearers managing this campaign from the sidelines, winning/retaining the Taipei mayorship will be the big font item on their political score cards. In terms of timing, the all-important presidential election is barely over a year away, with each party’s presidential nomination process expected to kick-off almost immediately following the mayoral campaign. For Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, a DPP victory in the Taipei mayoral race would add significant legitimacy to her own putative presidential nomination bid.

The stakes are even higher for the KMT camp, which has already been deeply divided by an ongoing feud between its two principal leaders, President Ma Ying-jeou and Speaker of the Legislature Wang Jin-pyng. The sweetness of victory in Taipei would regain some measure of unity for the KMT and earn a political breather for the embattled President Ma, whose approval ratings continue to hover in the low teens. Whereas, should the unthinkable happen in Taipei – one of the KMT’s most reliable strongholds – the loss would see the KMT descending into further factional disarray and President Ma officially entering lame-duck status, right when the potentially further divisive presidential nomination process begins.

What is the likely electoral outcome? If the past is any guide, then the KMT should have little to worry about. The KMT’s support in Taipei has historically been insurmountable. Even since the opposition DPP’s founding three decades ago, it has never even once obtained a majority of the total votes in Taipei in any elections at any level, whether it be national, municipal, or local elections. Indeed, the DPP has only won the mayorship once in 1994, when Chen Shui-bian won with 43 percent of the vote thanks to competition between the KMT and New Party (an offshoot of the KMT) for the traditionally KMT vote.

Taipei’s electoral landscape seems all the more immutable when one focuses on the much more telling statistics on the absolute number of votes each party commands, rather than the more deceptive percentage of votes (when examined in percentage terms, each party’s electoral fortunes in Taipei can vary wildly from election to election due to variations in electoral turnout).

There have been 9 electoral contests at the mayoral or presidential levels in Taipei since Taiwan’s democratization. Of these, particularly remarkable are the 2012 presidential, 2010 mayoral, 2004 presidential, and 1998 mayoral elections.

These four elections meet three conditions: they are all 1) city-wide single-member district elections, 2) which featured only two viable candidates (i.e. no DPP-friendly splits in the KMT), and 3) when the DPP fielded its all-party standard-bearers (defined as candidates who were already DPP Chair at the time of the election or would soon afterwards become one). In other words, they represent the DPP’s all-time best showings and symbolize moments of its most effective ‘rock the votes’ efforts. How, then, did the DPP fare in these four elections?

The electoral results show a remarkable consistency: DPP receives approximately 690,000 votes when it enjoys the advantages of incumbency (xianren youshi, 現任優勢) at either the national or municipal level, as in 1998 and 2004; and the DPP obtained around 630,000 votes when it had no incumbency at either, as in 2010 and 2012.

If we were to examine the same electoral results not through the number of votes but through the percentage of votes, then even for the 630,000 ball park results, one would get numbers range from 39.54 percent to 43.81 percent, again due to variations in electoral turnout (the other elections not included in this analysis do not meet the three conditions outlined above, and finished with worse performances on the part of the DPP).

Source: Central Election Commission
Source: Central Election Commission

The lesson is that when the DPP’s rock-the-vote is effective, its total votes peaks at a very specific point – 690,000 when it is an incumbent or 630,000 when it is not, regardless of actual electoral turnout (so long as the turnout reaches around the 70% mark). In other words, as electoral turnout increases north of 70%, most of the new votes cast tend to be KMT votes. Given that the total votes cast in the four elections examined range from 1.4 to 1.6 million, it is clear that even at the DPP’s very best, it still doesn’t have the votes to win in Taipei.

Faced with this grim prospect, the DPP has three options. First, it could hope that KMT complacency will lead to a split, resulting in a three-way race featuring two KMT candidates and a single DPP candidate, which would allow the DPP to win with a plurality of the votes (essentially a replay of the 1994 scenario). With the successful conclusion of the KMT primaries in April, this was no longer a possibility.

Second, the DPP could hope for some ‘magic bullet’ and negative campaigning strategy to significantly depress KMT’s voter turnout while maintaining or boosting DPP’s own voter turnout, thus maintaining its own 630,000 votes, while diminishing the total votes down from the usual 1.4 million votes to the 1.2 million votes range. (It is a cliché among some Taiwanese pundits that some form of this strategy had worked to some extent in the 2004 and 2010 elections to varying effects. To this line of analysis, this author, at least, remains sceptical). This strategy, however, could hardly be counted on at the nomination stage.

Third, if the DPP could not expand its voter base, then it could endorse a third party candidate or a sympathetic independent candidate. In the ideal scenario, that candidate will retain almost all the DPP votes while still be able to appeal to additional non-DPP constituencies. This strategy, is what ultimately materialized in June, when the DPP endorsed an independent candidate, Ko Wen-je.

The latest TVBS poll conducted 6 weeks from election day had Ko leading the KMT candidate Sean Lien by a 47 to 32 percentage point margin. Polls by other institutions vary slightly but are uniform in pointing towards a statistically significant Ko lead.

On the TVBS polls, two surprising facts deserve particular attention. First, Ko holds a sizeable 51:32 lead in the 40-49 age group. This is historically a key KMT demographic – DPP usually leads in the 20-29 and 30-39 age brackets, while KMT leads the 40-49 and 50-59 age brackets; the 60 and above group is more even, though it arguably tends to swing towards the party in power.

An additional surprise is that Ko has consistently commanded around 30% support among the Waishengren voters over the last 3 months of polling. Traditionally the heartland of KMT’s constituency, the Waishengren ethnicity’s support for KMT consistently hovers around the 90% mark. Even at the historical pinnacle of DPP power – the 2004 presidential election – exit polls showed the DPP only scored 11% of the Waishengren votes.

One could conceivably attribute Ko’s surprising showing in the Waishengren demographic in two ways. First, one could argue this has very little to do with Ko but merely reflects the KMT candidate’s own implosion – as the KMT candidate Sean Lien has made numerous gaffes so far and – being the heir of a former Vice President and long-tenured KMT chairman – he remains unable to shake off his blue-blooded aristocratic image at a time of prolonged economic stagnation and growing economic inequality.

Second, alternatively, one could interpret Ko’s unprecedented strong showing among Waishengren voters as a result of him simply not carrying the DPP flag. In that case, the Ko experience may become an increasingly common strategy for DPP going forward, especially in KMT strongholds in Northern and Eastern Taiwan.

While the truth is probably some combination of these two possibilities, it is worth noting that no amount of KMT candidate’s own gaffes or unpopular ruling party establishment image had been sufficient to really change the electoral demography in the past. The last two KMT Taipei Mayor candidates before Lien were both similarly blue-blooded party heirs of former Premier and senior party executive.

To paraphrase Zbigniew Brzezinski, electoral acrobatics had not shaken the electoral architecture in the past. It is in this sense that Ko’s success in breaking traditional electoral demographics ceilings may signal a new alignment of that architecture. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Ko’s leads in the polls will translate into actual votes on election day, or if the lead is but a mirage caused by the pollsters’ house effects and low response rates (due to the KMT administration’s current low approval ratings). There also remains the variable that is the series of televised debates between the candidates starting from November 7th. But if Ko proves able to convert his leads in the polls into voting day ballots 3 weeks from now, then this election will mark a true reconfiguration and expansion of DPP’s electoral constituencies in Taiwan’s capital.

Wen-Ti Sung is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at the Australian National University and a CPI blog Emerging Scholar. Wen-Ti tweets @wentisung. Image Credit: CC by Chao-Wei Juan/Flickr.