Every day seems to bring worse and worse news for Mayor Hao. If before I was shocked that I could see a reasonable path leading him to defeat, now I am finding it increasingly difficult to imagine a path to victory.
On Sept 2, I wrote that he could win the race by rallying the party faithful. All he needed to do was to turn the race from a contest of personalities into one of parties. I suggested that one effective way to do that would be to go negative. I think Hao’s campaign might go negative, but I don’t know that it will work very well any more.
Everything changed a day or two after that post, when accusations that the city was wasting too much money on flowers turned into allegations that corruption was involved. Hao tried to deal with this by firing the official in charge of the Xinsheng elevated expressway project, for which the flowers in question were purchased. Yesterday, Hao basically admitted that the responsibility for those decisions went higher up by allowing his vice-mayor and two of his other top advisors to resign. In fact, the DPP city councilors have argued that the mayor himself is required to approve purchasing decisions as large as this one.
In August, we were getting a picture of Hao as a mildly ineffective mayor. Sure, he made some questionable decisions on how to allocate money and several of his policy initiatives seemed to suffer from sloppy execution, but mildly ineffective politicians in districts with favorable partisan balances get re-elected all the time. Now we have a much different and far more corrosive image. There are two possibilities. Hao could be corrupt, and he is cynically trying to place the blame for these scandals on his underlings. Alternatively, Hao could be incompetent, unable to control his underlings or too blind to see what they are doing. Either of these images could be deadly.
The polls are reflecting these troubles. I saw references in media stories to KMT internal polls that indicated Su was leading, and now we have a published poll from TVBS (Sept. 8) that shows Su leading 45-42. (On Aug. 25, TVBS had Hao leading 45-42.) Maybe more stunning are the changes in Hao’s image. Whereas previous polls had shown that more people like Hao than disliked him by roughly a 40-32 margin, the new poll showed 34% liking Hao and 35% disliking him. Likewise, his satisfaction/dissatisfaction numbers went from 37/45 to 34/52. These are small changes, but given that Su has already consolidated all the easy votes (ie: all the voters who usually lean to or are willing to consider the DPP), it seems that he now is making headway into the harder votes.
I’m trying hard to imagine how Hao can right the ship. I don’t think negative campaigning will work well any more. Now Hao’s own image is so damaged that negative ads might simply backfire. Hao still needs to turn the election into a contest of parties. However, I think he has to repair his own image a bit first, so that voters who are inclined to vote for the KMT will feel ok about voting for him.
Therein lies the problem. There are two big things that will happen between now and election day. First, the Flora Expo will open. Lots of things could still go wrong. We could see traffic jams, leaky roofs, dirty restrooms, small crowds, poor staffing, sick flowers, and so on. But let’s imagine that everything goes well. Imagine there are larger than expected crowds, everything is organized impeccably, and everyone is entranced by the beauty of the flowers. Even in this scenario, many people will think that it should have been possible to do this shindig for a lot less money and wonder about kickbacks. In other words, no matter how well the actual Expo goes, I’m afraid Hao won’t get much credit because the well is already poisoned.
The other big event has a similar problem. Hao will open a new MRT line. We haven’t heard about cost overruns, accidents, or construction delays on the Xinzhuang/Luzhou line, much less corruption. The problem is that another MRT line, the Wenhu line, has been plagued by all sorts of problems in the past few years. In other words, even if voters change their focus from flowers to MRT lines, Hao still might not benefit very much.
I can’t think of any other potential game-changing events on the schedule. On one of the talk shows the other night, Sisy Chen was trying to argue that voters simply aren’t giving Hao enough credit for other things that he is doing, and she listed several examples. I think she is taking the right tack in trying to repair Hao’s image, but she just didn’t have much to work with. Most of the things she was talking about are in the early stages of planning or construction or are simply very low profile. Moreover, while she was trying to argue that Hao has done a good job, the media was reporting that Hao had been forced to fire his closest advisors, and the other blue-leaning talk shows were debating whether Hao should step aside and whether his woes would drag down Zhu Lilun in Xinbei City.
The only recent good news for Hao comes out of Su’s camp. In a recent court case, eight current and former legislators were accused of accepting bribes from the Chinese Medical Association to push for a change in the law. The case dated to 1996, when Su was in the legislature. Su was not one of the eight on trial, but there were some documents connecting him to this case. However, the story seems not to have had legs; I haven’t seen any mention of Su and this scandal since the first news cycle.
This election is not over by any means. Taipei is still a blue-leaning city, and there are still two months to go. I expect the KMT to make a big push to rally around Hao. The rallies in the nights before the election will likely see emotional appeals, arguing that Su’s election would be a disaster and talking about all the wonderful things that Hao has done. Hao could still win. However, he, not Su, is now the one with the uphill fight.