Posts Tagged ‘Flora Expo’

Hao’s travails

September 14, 2010

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.

Flowers, part 2

August 31, 2010

A commenter on a post about the Flora Expo on Michael Turton’s blog pointed out that the decision to host the Expo and the date were determined way back in the Ma administration, not in the Hao administration.  (Thanks M)  So I searched a bit on the Taipei City government website, and, lo and behold, there are news releases in early 2006 listing November 2010 as the date the exhibition would open.  I had not known this.  And the wheels in my head started turning…

I wondered why in the world Hao would schedule such a high-risk event to open right before the election.  In fact, he didn’t do any such thing.  Ma did it to him.  Why would Ma do such a thing?

Ma was certainly aware of the timing, but I doubt he would have worried about it so much.  After all, he wasn’t going to be running for re-election during the Expo.  Hao would be (and by early 2006, he could be reasonably sure that Hao would be the next mayor), but that was Hao’s problem.  Anyway, the KMT candidate should be able to win in Taipei City, right?

Maybe this was just good public policy.  For one thing, Taiwan doesn’t host many international events, so this could be one way to raise Taiwan’s international profile.  Well, I guess no one is against raising Taiwan’s international profile, but I am skeptical about whether this (or the World Games in Kaohsiung or the Deaf Olympics etc.) will have much impact.  Can you tell me who the last country to host the International Flora Expo (or the World Games etc) was?  What about all the tourism money that this will bring in.  Again, I’m skeptical.  Even in really high profile international events such as the Olympics or the World Cup, most of the tickets are sold to citizens of the host country, not international tourists.  Are you aware of many groups of international flower lovers who have circled these dates on their calendars and are planning to make a special trip to Taiwan to see all the flowers?  I’m not.  I could be wrong on this, but I’m guessing that the overwhelming majority of tickets will be bought by ROC nationals.  Well, what about the cultural aspect to this?  Isn’t it nice that the city government is holding a flower festival?  Who hates flowers?[1] This will be nice for the residents of Taipei City.  I don’t disagree on this, though this seems like an awful lot of money for a flower festival aimed primarily at city residents.  If that were the purpose, they could do this much more frugally.

On the other hand, there is one group that has to be thrilled with the city’s decision to host the Flora Expo.  This group is the Taiwan flower industry.  Taiwan’s flower industry is quite large, and is the world leader in orchids.   In fact, flowers are one of Taiwan’s more important export agricultural products.  For a few months, Taiwan will be the center of the world’s flower industry, and Taiwanese growers will be able to show off their wares and make valuable business contacts.  The domestic boost in flower popularity should also be a boon to the industry.  And of course they will sell lots of merchandise to the Flora Expo itself.  There’s just one thing: not much of the flower industry is based in Taipei.  To my knowledge, the center of the Taiwanese flower industry is in southern Changhua County.  Why in the world would the Ma city government want to spend enormous amounts of money to curry favor with an industry based in central Taiwan?

Asking the question that way makes the answer obvious: to the extent that the decision to hold the Flora Expo was politically motivated, the goal was the 2008 (and perhaps 2012) presidential election, not the 2010 Taipei City mayoral election.  Central Taiwan is the great battleground that decides presidential elections.  Southern Changhua, in particular, is currently the place where the map turns from green to blue.[2] More generally, Ma needed to shore up his credentials with agricultural Taiwan.  In 2006, no one doubted that Ma could speak to urban sophisticates.  It was less clear that he would be able to get through to farmers.  Currying favor with the flower industry was a very smart move.  It may continue to pay dividends in 2012.

By the way, this doesn’t get Hao off the hook for the problems the Flora Expo is currently experiencing.  If the decision to hold the Expo in November had already been taken, the decisions to (a) fund it so generously, (b) treat it as his administration’s showpiece achievement, and (c) to award contracts in particular ways are entirely Hao’s.

[1] Uh, Frozen Garlic isn’t crazy about flowers.

[2] Yes, I know that geography doesn’t matter in presidential elections.  Votes count the same whether they are cast in Jinmen or Tainan.  Still, this can be a useful way of thinking about how to build a winning coalition.


August 31, 2010

Back at the beginning of the year, when the mayoral races were just starting to develop, I thought that Hao Longbin 郝龍斌 was very likely to win another term as Taipei Mayor.  Even though his term in office has been unremarkable, the electorate of Taipei City is sufficiently Blue that, as long as the Blue vote isn’t split, the KMT candidate should always win.  Even though Su Chenchang 蘇貞昌 is a formidable opponent, the hill he would be trying to climb was just too steep.  Realistically, I could only see two scenarios that would end in Hao’s defeat: a major scandal or a disastrous International Flora Expo.  Here we are in August with the race too close to call, and Hao’s worst nightmare seems to be unfolding.

Over the last few weeks, the DPP city councilors have unleashed a barrage of attacks on Hao, and most of these have dealt with the Flora Expo.   They charge that the city government is spending exorbitant amounts on advertising.  It is neglecting normal government functions and diverting all resources to the Expo.  The Expo buildings are flawed; the roofs leak whenever it rains.  The souvenir contracts went to Chinese companies.   Most damningly, the city government is paying too much for the flowers.[1] This last problem, the DPP councilors say, is due to either corruption or incompetence.  Either way, it doesn’t reflect well on Hao.  The city government’s defense hasn’t been very helpful.  One spokesperson said that they would provide a full report on flower purchases within two months.  Great, by that time, you won’t be able to remove the stain of corruption with mere facts.

[edit: For a more detailed summary of the Flora Expo woes, see here.  Be sure to note the budget numbers presented in the comments.]

Why is the Flora Expo so important?[2] It is important because the Hao administration has made it the showcase event for Hao’s first term.  The city has spent copious amounts of money, invested lots of time and energy, and played up the importance of such an international event.  They also scheduled it to open right before the election, almost guaranteeing that voters would be thinking about the Flora Expo when they went to vote.  From my vantage point as an elections analyst, this is irresponsible high-stakes poker.   If you don’t have the Expo, you win.  If you have the Expo and everything goes well, you win.  If something goes horribly wrong, suddenly you can lose an unloseable election.  Well, maybe they had other considerations for scheduling it this way.  Maybe Hao really likes flowers.

To be honest, these were not the problems that I thought might derail Hao’s campaign.  Back when I was trying to come with a scenario in which Hao might lose, I envisioned facilities not being completed on time and the anticipated stampede of international visitors failing to materialize.  Purchasing scandals might be even worse.

The next three months will be critical for Hao’s image.  He needs to develop some sort of convincing defense, or he could (gulp!) lose this election.

[1] City councilors have also charged that there were improprieties in the purchase of flowers for the Xinsheng Elevated Expressway.  The city government responded that this case was completely unrelated to the Flora Expo.  Sorry, the linkage of flowers is too strong to ignore.  Most people will just remember “flowers” and “corruption” together.

[2] The only other potential policy failure I could think of with such devastating repercussions was the MRT line not opening as planned.  However, I have had no hints that anything is going awry with that.