Written by Ben Goren.
As a general rule of thumb, mid-term elections are often difficult contests for incumbent parties to win, even more so when they fall mid-way through a President’s second consecutive term in office. In Taiwan, the resource-rich KMT has again found itself somewhat on the back foot in polls leading up to the so-called ‘Nine-In-One’ Municipal and Local Government elections.
Disturbingly for the KMT, whose Chairman was re-elected to the Presidency two years ago, the party is facing concerted challenges to districts and cities it has long administered, most notably the cities of Taipei, Taichung and Keelung. The race for Mayor of the capital has of course drawn the most media attention, and in turn substantial attention has been lavished on one of the weakest candidates the KMT is fielding in any of the many electoral contests. Sean Lien, son of Honorary KMT Chairman Lien Chan, has come to physically embody an institutionalised malaise in the political establishment characterized by entitlement, nepotism, privilege and plutocracy.
For most Taiwanese, inured to the questionable characteristics and practices of elected officials, there is nothing particularly new or different about Sean Lien. Certainly, there is nothing to make him any less electable than any number of politicians from dynastic families whom the public has previously voted into office. Sean Lien’s heritage should be a boon, not a problem, especially in Taipei City which has, but for two intervals, only ever known KMT Mayors. Taipei City is a KMT Helms Deep, regularly returning results on average 60-40 in its favour. Furthermore, Lien has all the requisite degrees from US universities, can converse in English and even has financial and management level experience. Although Lien is a first time electoral candidate, so is his opponent Ko Wen-je. As a KMT candidate, Lien should also have the entire weight of the party machine behind him. Given these advantages, Lien should be ten points up by now.
Except, he’s not. In fact, pretty consistently across a range of partisan polls, he’s ten points down, only two weeks out from election day.
There is still a chance that Lien can turn things around; it wouldn’t be the first “local election” in Taiwan to take a dramatic turn. If, as looks more likely as of today, Lien loses, it will largely be because he and his team ran a textbook KMT election campaign – directed to the wrong audience, at the wrong time, and in the wrong way.
Instead of understanding and then countering the success of Ko Wen-jer’s attempts to build a broad tent appeal, Lien’s team framed the contest as purely ideological, counter to waning public interest in such a narrative. Instead of criticising Ko’s policy platform, Lien’s team sent Legislators to conduct smear attacks against Ko, the public response to which only served to vindicate Ko’s claims of innocence. Instead of using the televised Mayoral Debate as a forum to demonstrate professionalism and vision, the Lien team planted two hostile questioners on the panel, earning Ko the public’s sympathy. Instead of generating smart content for online promotion, the Lien team’s digital presence of largely high production value corporate media left many netizens having little use for it except as fodder for satire. Instead of engaging with his audience as rational and intelligent people, the Lien team’s negative campaign strategy ultimately cost the respect and mobilisation of many swing voters. And finally, instead of delivering a concrete and easily understood plan for what Lien wanted to achieve as Mayor, all as part of a positive campaign focused on a mixture of policy and charisma, the Lien team appeared to assume that traditional voting cleavages would translate into sufficient votes that could be corralled to ensure victory as usual.
In an age of digital abundance where anything any candidate does or says is being actively and continually watched, recorded, and deconstructed, Lien’s campaign has been a viral hit for all the wrong reasons. One campaign video was quickly found to have been copied from a private lottery company in the US, a rumour spread online ridiculing Lien’s mother for allegedly calling someone in the media to warn them ‘not to make Sean Lien unhappy’, and Lien’s public appearances have been a series of awkward activities clearly designed to fill checkboxes in a list of ‘Things Voters Don’t Yet Like About Sean Lien”.
With Taiwan’s economy neither sinking as the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement remains unsigned nor reaping substantial economy-wide benefits from ECFA, Lien’s attempts to frame the Taipei Mayor election about cross-Strait relations also fell on a flat note with voters who struggled to see how it was even a relevant issue. Almost everything the Lien team threw at Ko either failed to hit the target or quickly became an own-goal. A running joke involved counting the time it took Lien to deny something said or done by his campaign team.
For his part, Ko Wen-je has run a smart race, the core of which centred on not being Sean Lien, and curtly and often hilariously shutting down attempts to goad him into mud slinging. Early in the race, Ko succeeded in framing Lien for his privilege and family’s wealth. It was plainly clear that where Ko had some ‘bottom-up’ credentials, Lien was a parachute candidate whose selection was mostly the result of influence from the powerful Lien family faction in the party as well as stemming from a dearth of viable candidates. Ko’s career spent serving the public as a doctor matched up favourably against Lien’s “princeling” private business experience. Ko played the underdog to Lien as the bookies’ favourite, sat back and watched the Lien team come out swinging at shadows.
The televised debate between Ko and Lien on November 7 was possibly the defining moment of the campaign. In many ways it helped explain why Lien was still trailing Ko in the polls, and illustrated a fundamental problem at the heart of the Lien campaign. By standing back and absorbing then neutralising the Lien team’s attacks, the Ko team provided the space for the public to see the true values of the Lien campaign. Although Ko did cite to exhaustion Lien’s background as if being born into a rich political family was Lien’s fault, Ko’s careful unpicking of the smears against him made it increasingly hard for the Lien camp to say anything authentic at all. In the debate, Lien’s reasonable performance was undermined by two key moments. The first was when two questioners chosen by the Lien team from non profit and civil society organisations broke debate convention and asked unscripted and transparently partisan questions to Ko and Lien. The second prompted Lien to raise the spectre of former Taipei Mayor and President Chen Shui-bian, now languishing in jail for corruption.
As I watched Ko face questioning about his “hatred” of the Republic of China and Lien try to explain how his policies would be beneficial, the smartphone of the Taiwanese voter at my side exploded in a storm of social media notifications, mostly along the lines of “OMG!”, and “Not fair”. When Ko was asked to convince the public he wasn’t guilty of fraud and graft at NTU Hospital, and Lien was asked how he could be so brave as to risk his life to serve the public, said smartphone almost melted in an tsunami of “LOL!” and, a perennial favourite where Lien’s campaign is concerned, “WTF?” It might not be the most elegant or detailed form of opinion sharing, but it is nevertheless instant feedback. Almost immediately Ko won the debate, just for being a victim to a sly trick. When the Lien camp later shrugged and said that that particular rule wasn’t discussed beforehand, it gave the public a glimpse of the dark win-at-all-costs underbelly of the party. For a candidate seeking to convince the public to trust him, letting this happen was a serious error in leadership. The public were then justified in asking, “If Lien couldn’t even lead his campaign team, and make wise decisions, how could he be trusted as Mayor?” Following this slow motion car crash, Lien had a lot of work to do just to sound plausible again, and to his credit he performed fairly adequately in the second part of the debate. Then he mentioned Chen.
In 2008, President Ma Ying-jeou won election largely on the promise of improvements in cross-Strait relations, and a large part on the back of demonising the incumbent and DPP President Chen Shui-bian. Chen was later convicted, tried, and given at least seventeen years for alleged acts of corruption. In the 2012 Presidential election, Ma returned in a debate with Tsai Ing-wen to warn of the dangers should the DPP win. Corruption would be rife, and Chen would be pardoned, Ma warned. Ma was re-elected with a clear majority. It’s certainly logical then for the Lien team to think that the Ghost of Chen could be a magical ‘get into office’ elixir. What it perhaps did not sufficiently take into account was how much public trust in the KMT has eroded during the last two years. Although many voters still distrust Chen and agree with his incarceration, it was pretty clear that he was going nowhere and that the Mayor of Taipei had no jurisdiction or power to intervene in the matter. Chen’s alleged corruption as a weapon against the DPP had also been blunted by public outrage over corruption and deadly incompetence under the KMT administration. When Lien cited Ko’s alleged links to Chen in the debate, the impression was of a campaign machine starved of imagination or vision, scraping the bottom of the barrel for the last drops of manufactured outrage.
If the post debate media polls all lining up in Ko’s favour wasn’t bad enough for Lien, even his Armani suit managed to anger some of his own party’s most loyal voters. It didn’t help when Ko then gently rebuffed Lien’s demands for a rematch, leaving him looking like a sore loser.
Which leaves us at Lien being ten points down, two weeks out. Given the shaky record of Taiwanese opinion polling, there is a chance these polls are wrong. Yet, given all of his advantages, even a Lien win by less than 5% over Ko would be disappointing and leave him entering City Hall in a position of comparative weakness, especially when measured up against the double-digit victories of the previous two KMT Mayors. At the end of the day perhaps Lien and the KMT will be happy with a simple victory, regardless of the margin. If they lose, it will be for many reasons, including the ones I’ve listed above, but above all it will be Sean Lien and his campaign director who are primarily responsible for crafting the manner of their own defeat by being so focused on the goal that they lost sight of their opponent, and the public to boot.
Ben Goren is a long-time Taipei resident and owner of the superb Letters from Taiwan blog. He will be a regular contributor throughout campaign season.