Finally we arrive at the Taipei mayoral race. This has been the most dismal high profile race I have ever seen in Taiwan. It isn’t the dirtiest or nastiest; there have been lots of races with accusations of corruption, marital infidelity, organized crime ties, and outright intimidation. However, those mudbaths are generally local wars, fueled by personal animosities accumulated over many years. They are also usually played out on a small scale, far away from the bright lights of the national media. This is also not the first time we have seen negative campaigning in a high profile race. James Soong 宋楚瑜 was blasted for months with the Chung-Hsing Bills Finance scandal 興票案 in 2000, Frank Hsieh’s 謝長廷 humanity was questioned in 1998 (by actress Bai Bing-bing 白冰冰 after he dared defend her daughter’s killer in court), and lots of elections have seen accusations that one candidate would sell out or destroy the country. The difference is that there has always been a positive message to go along with the negativity. This year’s Taipei mayoral election is unique in its combination of unrelenting negativity and intense media coverage.
As usual, let’s start by reviewing the partisan landscape. Here are a few numbers to keep in mind: 43.7, 45.9, 43.5, and 43.8%. Those are the best results the DPP has ever put up in Taipei. They are, in order, the 1994 mayoral, 1998 mayoral, 2004 presidential, and 2010 mayoral elections. Historically, when the DPP has had a very strong candidate in a favorable year, they have maxed out at around 43%. In 1998 with an extremely charismatic incumbent who had just compiled an astounding record of accomplishments, they were able to push this up to almost 46%. Even in the best of times, the DPP has never been close to winning a majority in Taipei. Moreover, Taipei is more partisan than the rest of Taiwan. By this, I mean that Taipei historically sees smaller partisan swings than other places. Candidates seem to matter less, and voters stick with their parties both in good times and bad. From a partisan perspective, any candidate supported by a unified blue camp should never lose a race in Taipei.
So far, the race hasn’t played out as the previous paragraph would lead one to expect. Ko Wen-je 柯文哲 has led in just about every poll, usually by double digits. Given that Ko hasn’t turned out to be anyone’s idea of a dream candidate, the KMT must have nominated a historically lousy candidate to have squandered its overwhelming advantage in Taipei. Readers of this blog will know that I haven’t been impressed with Sean Lien 連勝文 in the past, and my evaluation of him has only changed for the worse in the past few months. Perhaps the most important reason the Lien campaign relied so heavily on mudslinging is that they don’t seem to have anything positive to sell.
Recall the Lien campaign’s first ad. A lot of young people on the street were asked what they would do if they or their father were rich. They answered this fantasy question with fantasy answers: travel the world, eat in Michelin-starred restaurants, buy designer clothes, live the playboy lifestyle, laze at home all day, buy a fast car, and definitely not work hard like Sean Lien. The thing is, that was not a fantasy question for the young Sean Lien. His father actually was rich, and he actually did most of those things. Twenty years ago, Sean Lien was a superficial bumbling playboy chasing TV starlets and living the high life. In fact, given his penchant for expensive wine, luxury housing, and fast cars, it seems he still hasn’t left all that completely in his past. Why is he reminding us of all this?
The ad also made me think of Mitt Romney and his 47% moment. In the 2012 US presidential campaign, Romney was filmed at a private event telling potential donors that 47% of Americans no longer wanted to work hard but instead wanted to simply live off the public welfare system. It was a telling moment. On the one hand, it is ridiculous on its face. Does anyone well-grounded in actual American society really believe that 47% of Americans are moochers, and, more importantly, they WANT to be moochers? On the other hand, it was stupid campaign strategy. Candidates generally tell the electorate that the people are dedicated, hard-working, and loyal. If people can’t get ahead, it is because the system is flawed, and the candidate promises to fix those flaws. Romney was instead saying that the people were the problem. They had become flawed to the point that they weren’t really even “real” Americans anymore; they had become the mooching class. Romney was repeating a theme that had been trumpeted loudly in the right-wing media. One basic question was whether he had lost touch with reality and begun to believe the spin. Alternately, maybe so many hardcore rightists had lost touch with reality and begun to believe the propaganda that Romney had to repeat it to remain credible with them. Either way, the propaganda had replaced reality as the Romney campaign’s working assumption about how the world worked.
Lien’s campaign ad was similarly based on internalized propaganda. In the past few years and especially at the height of the Sunflower movement, KMT officials have begun arguing that Taiwan’s youth are fundamentally lazy. They aren’t willing to work hard like previous generations, and they expect high paying jobs to fall into their laps. Instead of taking honest (ie: low-paying and menial) factory jobs or going to China to find a career, they are going on the streets to demand that the government simply give them a good life. Just as Romney’s 47% are barely still “real” Americans, the KMT’s youth of Taiwan are barely still “real” Taiwanese. Thus, it was quite natural for Lien’s ad to portray youth as frivolous. Of course they merely wanted to wear designer clothes, they are spoiled! Juxtaposed with their decadence, Sean Lien’s willingness to sacrifice his own comfort in order to serve the public would have to impress the general public! How inspirational!
Of course, it isn’t hard to see the flaws here. For one, back in the real world, lazy and decadent may not be the best way to characterize Taiwan’s youth. The Sunflower movement showed many of them to be highly idealistic, willing to sacrifice their own personal comfort and risk personal punishments in pursuit of a distant goal that might not directly benefit them personally, and capable of fantastic organization, research, strategy, and public relations. For another, isn’t Lien falling exactly into the pattern the discourse derides? He had a cushy youth, and now he expects to start his political career near the very top of the political ladder without bothering to put in dues as a city councilor or legislator first. Apparently, those positions are beneath him.
The ad isn’t the only indication that the Lien campaign has lost touch with reality. At a KMT party event, his father proudly proclaimed that Sean Lien had never used Lien family assets, a remark that reveals a stunning degree of shamelessness and/or cluelessness.
There was one small period in the campaign where Lien tried to shift the focus to public policy. The first funeral parlor should be moved to the outskirts of Nangang, and Minquan E. Rd. could thus be developed into Taipei’s Broadway, giving it a signature international street. This policy proposal immediately ran into a series of obstacles, many from within the KMT. People might not want to live on the site of a former funeral parlor. The area in Nankang was unsuitable, and people in Nangang don’t want a funeral parlor. This was not a very successful campaign plank. Where did this idea come from? Almost word for word, the proposal was lifted from Alex Tsai’s 蔡正元 campaign materials. Tsai had a clear vision for Taipei: he would turn it into a giant real estate development project, making lots of money for developers and commercial interests. Not surprisingly, Tsai’s venal vision never caught on with the Taipei electorate, so he dropped out of the race and endorsed Lien. Apparently, he also transplanted his development ideas into the Lien platform. Now, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to adopt policy proposals from various sources. However, the funeral parlor was the first and most prominent proposal the Lien campaign has offered. Shouldn’t the centerpiece have been an idea that Lien has been thinking about for several years rather than something he picked up off the shelf at the Tsai campaign clearance sale? To me, the lesson of this story is that Lien hasn’t done the careful preparation needed to become an effective mayor. If he knew the ins and outs of city government, he would have seen something that needed to be done. If he doesn’t have a policy agenda of his own, why does he want to be mayor? And if he only wants to defend the KMT’s political interests, will he, as mayor, simply hand off the actual governing to someone like Tsai? If so, expect four years of plundering.
With no positive policy agenda to push and vague promises of hope eliciting mostly jeers, the Lien campaign has gone all in on negativity. So far we have learned that Ko Wen-je wasn’t a very good doctor, supervised a bank account that may or may not have been a slush fund, and may be guilty of sloppy accounting on his tax returns. The first one seems implausible. The second two seem trumped up. But for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that all of the ethical attacks are true. Ko knowingly supervised an illegal account, solicited donations from corporations with which there was a conflict of interest, diverted some of the money into his own pockets, and didn’t pay taxes on some of his speaking fees. I believe some of those are mere insinuations; for example, I don’t think anyone has explicitly accused him of putting money into his pocket. However, let’s suppose Ko has done everything. Does that make him more corrupt than the Lien family? Somehow the Lien family has transformed their political power into a tremendous fortune. (Maybe I’m a bit cynical about this, but then I’m the type of person who doesn’t even believe in Santa Claus.) So Ko didn’t report income on some speaking fees. Lien Chan didn’t pay any inheritance tax. Which one is worse? Ko cynically misrepresented a bank account as something it was not. Sean Lien reported – blatantly raising a middle finger to the transparency laws – that he owns no car, no house, and no stocks. Which one is worse? Polls seem to show that the Lien smear campaign is not working. This might be because the charges against Ko seem flimsy and contrived. It also might be because they also don’t seem that serious when compared to the skeletons hiding in the Lien family closet.
As an aside, the Lien campaign seems to be following the script from the 2012 Ma campaign with the Yuchang Biologics scandal. They dig up something vaguely plausible and complicated enough for people to get lost in fuzzy details and then scream about how it is the worst ethical scandal in history. The state machinery is enlisted to give the scandal an air of believability, and the opponent’s reputation is effectively blackened. A few months after the election, the whole case is quietly dropped. King Pu-tsong 金溥聰 isn’t running Lien’s campaign, but I’ll bet a lot of the same people were heavily involved in both campaigns. If I were a DPP supporter, I would be thrilled with the KMT strategy. On the one hand, polls indicate that it isn’t working very well this year. More importantly for the DPP, this is an immunization shot for 2016. The more often the KMT uses the smear strategy, the less effective it becomes. The Ko campaign has diffused much of the attack simply by reminding the electorate of the Yuchang case. In 2016, the DPP candidate will be able to point to Yuchang and MG149 and claim that any attacks are simply the same thing all over again.
By the way, you might notice that I’m not very interested in Ko Wen-je. Just for the record, I’m quite unimpressed with him too. Regardless of who is elected, Taipei is almost certain to experience four years of bumbling government, probably with a substantial dose of scandal mixed in. However, Ko is a one-and-done candidate. He doesn’t seem destined to have any lasting impact on the political scene. Even if he wins, I can’t imagine we will still be talking about him in 2019 other than to express relief that he is gone. I am very interested by Sean Lien. As I have said many times, the Taipei mayor is on the short list for the presidency. With his family background and ties in China, we all have to pay close attention to the possibility that Sean Lien could be a presidential contender. However, being elected mayor is only the first step. You also have to perform reasonably well in office. I have seen no indications that Lien has this sort of capability. I haven’t seen sufficient strategic vision, attention to detail, hard work, grasp of broad social trends, willingness to sacrifice other personal interests for his political career, intelligence, political instincts, or personal charisma. At this point, even if he wins, I don’t see Sean Lien as a potential future president.
Believe it or not, I still think Sean Lien will win this election. I know the polls all show him trailing by large margins. I don’t think the polls are all biased or lying. I just don’t trust the people of Taipei to tell us today what they will do seven weeks from now. Remember all those numbers about the partisan structure of the electorate? I think they will eventually come back into play. The Michigan model of voting suggests that voters make their decisions based on party, issues, and candidates. Issues haven’t played much role at all in this campaign, so we are left with party and candidate factors. So far, the candidate frame has dominated. Many light blue voters, disgusted with Lien, have refused to express support for him. That’s fine for now, but they don’t actually have to decide their behavior just yet. As we get closer to election day, they will have to confront the contradiction between their negative candidate evaluations of Lien and their sympathies for the KMT. I expect a lot of people will eventually be able to rationalize a vote for Lien. Four years ago, Hau Lung-pin 郝龍斌 took a pedestrian record and poor public image into his re-election campaign. A TVBS poll in early October showed Su and Hau nearly tied, as had several previous polls. However, public opinion began to shift in mid-October, and by the end of the campaign Hau usually had a 6-10% lead. Hau eventually won 56-44%. I think we will see the same process this year. Lien is starting from way behind, so the challenge is more daunting this time. If Lien still trails by double digits a week before the election, he will probably lose. However, I suspect that we will start to see a shift toward Lien in the near future, and he will eventually eke out a narrow victory.
For this to happen, Lien will have to change the choice from a candidate-frame to a party-frame. Lien has to start reminding voters that he is blue and Ko is green. It might be too crude to simply proclaim that the campaign is a battle to preserve the ROC. However, he can talk about the race being a precursor to the 2016 election and try to start a public argument with Tsai Ing-wen, use the upcoming holidays to ostentatiously cloak himself in the national colors and symbols, talk about the importance of respecting Sun Yat-sen as the father of the country in the high school textbooks, propose increasing the number of hours junior high students spend on Chinese 國文, or something like that. These sorts of strategies would be political suicide in Kaohsiung and probably wouldn’t work in Taichung, but they could work in Taipei. Strangely, the Lien campaign seems fixated on the character question. The only way that Lien can lose this election is if voters go to the polls asking themselves whether Lien or Ko is has better character. Incredibly, that seems to be exactly the way the Lien team wants to pose the question. Eventually the Lien campaign will accidentally stumble away from that question (won’t they???), and the race will begin to turn.
My guess (and let me emphasize that this is just a guess): Lien 52, Ko 48.