From the perspective of the KMT, the Taipei mayoral race is currently a disaster. Let’s recount the situation. The KMT has an incumbent (that’s supposed to be an advantage!) running for re-election in a district that the KMT/pan-Blue side has never lost when it is not divided. By all accounts, the DPP faces a hard ceiling at about 45%. Here is some election history:
*Lien + Soong
The only close race there is 1998. Chen Shuibian was running for re-election after a transformative first term as mayor. It’s hard to overstate just how good his performance was. He still didn’t win. Granted, the KMT nominated its own start that year in Ma Yingjeou, but 1998 has always been seen as the upper limit for the DPP.
A base of around 40% would not be an insurmountable obstacle in other areas. In February, the DPP won a by-election in Hsinchu County starting from a much smaller base. However the electorate in Taipei is much more politicized and polarized than anywhere else in Taiwan. Party identification is stronger here, and candidates’ personal qualities matter a lot less. Everything runs much more according to party lines here. This makes elections a lot easier to understand, since you simply aren’t likely to get wild swings. If the underlying electorate of Taipei City is basically a 55-40 split, it’s extremely difficult to envision that turning into a 49-51 result in any particular election.
However, at this point, we have to start imagining that such a result is, in fact, not only possible but increasingly probable. Most polls still show Mayor Hao with a tiny lead, but he is getting hammered in the media every day. If nothing changes, he is going to lose.
What’s going on? Right now the election is all about Mayor Hao. Every day brings new criticism for something he is not doing well. It might be the condition of roads, public exercise centers that cause headaches for neighbors, rising property prices, his comical efforts to get people to lower their air conditioners to 26C, the Xinsheng Elevated Expressway, and, above all, the Flora Expo. He just can’t seem to get credit for doing anything right. Today’s news had a story about how his inner circle only has three people – he even gets criticized for the way he gets advice! So right now, when voters think about the election, a large number are thinking in terms of what a lousy job Hao is doing. In other words, this is fast becoming a nonpartisan election about good governance.
Where is Su in all this? He’s barely a factor. He says a few non-controversial things, sighs, and says he wishes Hao could do a better job. Then he flies off to Singapore or Los Angeles. Ok, that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration, but Su’s strategy thus far has been to stay out of the way. When your opponent is drowning himself, why get involved? (Note: Su should get a bit of credit for this restraint. Not all politicians can resist the lure to do something.)
What does Hao need to do to turn this around? He needs to reorient this election as a choice between the KMT and DPP. He needs to remind the electorate that the alternative to him is a DPP politician with clear presidential aspirations. They can’t escape the partisan implications that this race has, so they need to vote for the party they like best. In Taipei, that ensures a KMT victory.
Hao needs to go negative.
He should stop talking about flowers and start talking about Su’s presidential dream. He should label Su as a Taiwan independence extremist. He should start calling him Su Shuibian. Attack his record as Taipei County Executive and Premier. Revive the attack that Su spent wildly with a bit of sensationalism added. If he spent NT600million a month every month he was in office, call him Su Liuyi (Su 600m). Challenge him to a debate in English and ridicule his (perceived) lack of cosmopolitanism. Lampoon his lousy ideas about the environment. And then, I’d advise Hao to roll out the slander. Comb through Su’s records in office and find something that either is or could be made to look suspicious. Get the attack dogs of the blue media to start frothing. Force Su to respond and call you a liar. Turn this campaign into a nasty slushball fight. Make sure that by the end of the campaign, voters have lost all sense of what is and what isn’t factual, so that all they have to go on is party label. If both candidates are rats, all voters can do is vote for the rat from the better party.
Maybe you worry that this type of strategy would ruin Hao’s reputation, that even if he won, he would destroy himself in the process. To this I answer, would it be better to lose? One term mayors who lose in spite of overwhelmingly favorable partisan electorates don’t enjoy good reputations. Historians, journalists, and the average person have to explain the loss somehow, and the only good answer is that the mayor did a lousy, lousy job. If Hao loses, all people will remember is ineptitude and corruption. (Case in point: How is Huang Dazhou 黃大洲 remembered?) If Hao wins, the discourse will say he wasn’t great in office, but he wasn’t enough of a disaster to lose the election. Moreover, he will have four more years to try to build a new, better reputation.
If you, dear reader, are repulsed by my advice, fear not. There doesn’t seem to be any chance that Hao will follow my suggested course. (I am not, after all, one of the three people who has his ear.) In fact, Hao seems to be taking the exact opposite tack. In the past week, he has stated a couple of times that the election is no longer important, the important thing is to have a successful Flora Expo. In other words, he is going to continue to focus on governance instead of politics. This means that the media will continue to focus on his performance in office. Moreover, by stating his priorities thusly, it seems Hao is tacitly admitting that his performance so far hasn’t been great. In other words, he is asking you to judge him on the basis of credentials that even he admits are not very appealing.
Meanwhile, Su stands by as the alternative, quite content for voters to think of him in the context of his long-established reputation as a good administrator rather than as the next DPP presidential candidate.
(Splash of cold water: Hao is still leading in the polls. Maybe I am over-reacting. His strategy might still win. I’m sure mine would.)