Written by Ben Goren and Li Ying-hsuan.
A common theme running through many articles, including my own, about the forthcoming elections in Taiwan, and Taipei in particular, has been the sheer ineptitude of Sean Lien’s campaign for Mayor of Taipei. This is perfectly understandable in light of the fact that Lien’s campaign has delivered priceless material for netizens and analysts alike on an almost daily basis. If you are a Lien or KMT supporter, this election has been an excruciating ordeal of badly managed public appearances, campaign managers running wild, and a day to day cut and paste strategy for appealing to whatever cohort of the electorate the campaign team have identified as needing attention next. To make matters worse the media have not been as cooperative in their treatment of Lien as they were in their coverage of both Hau and Ma’s campaigns for the same office.
On the internet, Lien is more a meme than a substantive candidate – almost everything he says and does has been lampooned so exhaustively that by now it seems a safer strategy for his team to have him stay at home for the last week of the campaign. By the time the votes have been counted on November 29th, Lien may well have earned the dubious distinction of being the first party princeling to be defeated by Taiwan’s fledgling digital democracy. Such is the despondency and sense of impending defeat in the Lien camp that some of Lien’s supporters have been filmed reacting violently to anyone they suspect of being a protestor. Such are the vagaries of Taiwanese elections however that it is still very much possible that Lien may well wake up as Taipei Mayor on November 30th.
Whilst a lot has been written about Lien, relatively less has media time and space has focused on Ko Wen-jer and his campaign. Where Lien has been a literally huge natural target lumbering towards an assumed victory, Ko has been a shapeshifter quietly building a broad tent coalition of pan-green and light pan-blue voters. Where Lien has wrapped himself in the R.O.C flag, Ko has paid his respects but has kept his distance. Where Lien’s team have spoken of a Ko Mayor in apocryphal terms, Ko has given little indication that he would implement any major or radical policies from any point in the political spectrum.
Where the Lien team made sure everyone who attended his final campaign parade sported a small ROC flag, Ko’s team handed out multi-coloured flags and made his event as inclusive as possible. For the duration of his campaign, Ko has been the ‘everyday man’ candidate, in stark contrast to Lien’s failed attempts to paint himself in the same way. If Ko wins, many analysts will no doubt scratch their heads and wonder how he managed to convince the DPP to support him at the same time as get deep pan-blue academic and media personality Yao Li-ming (姚立明)to be his campaign manager. “How”, they might ask, “did Ko overcome the overwhelming demographic advantage of the KMT in Taipei?”
The easy answer here of course is to focus on Lien. Although a large number of post-election articles will likely say that Lien lost the election rather than Ko winning it, a more difficult approach would involve asking how Ko won. The answer to that question involves understanding Ko the person. It is our contention that Ko’s appeal lies not in his campaign platform or promises but in his character and method, of which there are three main elements – non-partisanship, dignity, and morality.
Ko’s approach to building voter trust has been to welcome anyone to support him regardless of their prior or current political allegiances. Having Yao on the team has been critical to making this strategy credible and effective. How Yao came to be on Ko’s team is a story in itself. Originally Ko requested Yao to join his team as a consultant and manager on numerous occasions and was respectfully rebuffed by Yao who said he would be happy to make supportive noises on Ko’s behalf on TV but initially refused any extended or formal involvement. Ko persisted and argued that although Yao was blue and he was green, if they could work together it would promote reconciliation of the political divide in Taiwan politics and serve as an example to the wider society. Ko’s ultimately won Yao’s support when he eschewed the divisions of the past in favour of building a genuine cross-partisan alliance for the future. For Yao and many pan-blue voters, this signalled that they could vote for Ko without voting for Taiwanese nationalism.
Although Ko’s campaign has been supported by the DPP, his refusal to run under the party’s banner, and his independent financing of his run for Mayor, has reinforced the image of a man beholden to none. But this is where the story gets a little more complicated. Ko’s history of affiliation with the DPP and pan-green political groups is well noted, as is his family’s story of suffering during the White Terror of the KMT dictatorship. Yet, Ko himself is very much a product of his generation. Born in 1959, Ko rose through academia and medical school to become a doctor at Taiwan’s prestigious NTU Hospital just as Taiwan’s democratisation began to pick up momentum. Like many of his peers, Ko was raised and taught in an environment of censorship and strict limits on non-government sanctioned political activities.
If Ko knew about the victims of White Terror he learnt it from his family and not in school. Yet, for all his awareness of the atrocities committed in the recent past, Ko appears not to have much personal emotional investment in negative legacies of White Terror period. His family’s pain is personal to him but seeking a wider accountability of the people who committed crimes during that period is not a priority for him, nor an influence upon his election platform. One example here is illustrative. Ko declared that if he got elected, he would bring his father to the 2-28 Memorial Park to allow him to cry out for as long as necessary in order to achieve some sense of closure. After that, Ko would leave the past behind. And leaving the past behind is exactly what many light-pan blue voters wish to do, angered as they often are by what they see as an ideological pan-green camp determined to wreck social discord and political conflict upon the nation. Ko’s statement was masterful in the respect that it attracted his opponent’s supporters for its supposed pragmatism as well as demonstrating his filial piety, something very much appreciated by Taiwanese and in line with the country’s Confucian values.
For some deep pan-green supporters however, this was another demonstration of Ko as ‘the best KMT candidate ever’. The positive of Ko’s willingness, in their eyes, to allow his father to heal from the wounds of the past is negated by his refusal to confront or discuss the need for a wider transitional justice and policy of decolonisation. Ko’s refusal to engage with this subject is not out of a dislike for the topic, or even concern about its potentially divisive impact, but rather because the term ‘transitional justice’, like ‘misogyny’, is simply not in Ko’s ‘database’. Since these concepts are also not widely understood amongst the public in Taiwan, Ko has a natural affinity with voters who don’t see themselves as personally very political or interested in politics. What these voters can relate to however is Ko’s story of working from the bottom up to achieve great success by virtue of his own sweat and toil – in stark contrast to the origin story of his opponent Sean Lien.
Despite his lack of interest in the roots of the partisan divide in Taiwanese politics, and his declaration of his intention to break down the cold tall wall of pan-blue and pan-green division, it appears Ko has done enough to convince not just the DPP and the vast majority of its supporters in Taipei to back his campaign, but also a large segment of young voters, many of whom who were actively involved in, or passively supportive of, the rising tide of youth-led protests. For the students and citizens who occupied the Legislative Yuan in March or assembled en masse to protest about abuse in the military or the dangers of nuclear power, Ko’s politically neutral and inclusive campaign rhetoric has been far more attractive than Lien’s promises of practical and pragmatic leadership.
Ko’s speech at his final campaign parade not only illustrated that he sees himself as ‘the social movement candidate’ but it also hit all the right notes as far as empathising with young families struggling under the burden of impossibly high house prices and the government’s shambolic roll out of the 12 year education policy. It seems it is not Ko’s policies, such as his vague concepts of civic participation, that are winning him votes but his ability to speak plainly and honestly to voters about the issues they care about. Where Lien has had a credibility issue whenever he has tried to talk about the experiences of the common voter, Ko is able to speak from the heart and carry the crowd with him, since his occupational background speaks volumes for his capacity to relate to and protect those in his care or who work alongside him.
Furthermore, despite Ko seeking to leave partisanship behind, he is still willing to unabashedly display his national pride in being Taiwanese when necessary. This was no more clearly demonstrated than during his debate with Lien when he was asked a hostile question about his loyalty to the R.O.C. Ko’s response was devastating – his bottom line has always been a defence of the R.O.C because he was running for Mayor of Taipei as the capital of the country, but he wondered about the patriotism of those people who professed to love the R.O.C but who wouldn’t dare to stand up in its defence in the presence of China’s President Xi Jingping. Given that the man across the stage had made a point of promoting his handshake with the President, Ko’s riposte left him looking less like a patriot and more like an opportunist at best, and a worst a traitor.
Ko’s defence of Taiwan’s dignity as a nation in its own right and separate from China aligns very closely to the younger generations of Taiwanese who were raised during the Chen Shui-bian presidencies and who overwhelmingly regard Taiwan not just as their home but as their country, regardless of its official title and flag. For them China is a foreign country and their current government just another group of corrupt and hypocritical plutocrats seeking to enrich themselves from forcing Taiwan to sue for peace.
This brings us to the third and final plank of Ko’s appeal – morality. As a high-ranking doctor and professor, Ko fills an occupational niche that is given a great deal of respect in Taiwanese society. Worryingly for Lien, whilst Blue voters are willing to accept protégées but only if they work their way up the party hierarchy, Lien has had everything handed to him and has done no public service. The result is that even pro-KMT voters have no sense in the grapevine of his abilities since Lien has only ever swum in higher circles and never worked street politics at the borough or ward level. In contrast Ko has fought in the trenches and can personally cite a long career of public service in assisting the most vulnerable people in society. Additionally, Ko’s colleagues have attested to his strong and unwavering moral principles and demand for justice, regardless of pressure from above, thereby earning him their respect and loyalty. When Ko talks about battling corruption, the public are more inclined to believe he will carry through on his promises than his rival, whose party for many in Taiwan is synonymous with embezzlement, gangsterism, elitism, and autocracy.
To conclude, although it could be argued that Ko lacks strategy and is very clearly not a political operator in the manner of his opponent, his careful and consistent positioning of his campaign and his refusal to be drawn ‘off-topic’ has allowed him to focus on and promote the three core pillars of his appeal and, despite a lack of substance in his policy platform, he has still managed to create and maintain a broad tent appeal against all expectations. If he wins it will not only be because he’s not Sean Lien, or because Lien lost the election, but because he is in many ways someone voters can relate to who’s carrying a message that appeals to a weary electorate, at a time when trust in the KMT-run Central Government is at an all time low. It would be easy to reduce Ko to a populist running against a princeling but this would be to ignore how Ko’s personality and charisma has allowed him to speak softly but carry a large stick, in a manner that many Taiwanese can admire and relate to.
An analogy here might help to explain Ko’s appeal – Ko is the quietly opinionated but caring uncle who invites the whole family to a special holiday meal, and makes sure everyone has had their fill, whilst Lien is the rich nephew who arrives on New Years Day, eats the best moon cakes, pays minimal respect to his wider family, and then announces he has somewhere to go because he is important and they should be grateful he visited at all. Perhaps this year voters in Taipei are looking for Heaven to be a little closer and the Emperor a littler further away. It may be that Ko is one of the rare breed of Taiwanese first time politicians who can make the electorate feel they can bypass the inevitability of Taiwan’s political duopoly and the Big Schism that divides most politics here, and get someone into office who will make a genuine difference. Interestingly, as far as Taipei goes, the last Mayor to appeal in such a way was Chen Shui-bian, whose record of transforming the city still remains woefully underappreciated and misunderstood. Whether Ko will genuinely transform City Hall and Taipei or even Taiwanese politics if he is elected is however yet to be seen. It may be that getting into office was the easiest of the tasks he ends up facing over the next four years as Mayor but first he has to win and, a week out from election day and with the final published polls seemingly in his favour, perhaps this election campaign is now one for Ko to win or lose.
Ben Goren owns Letters from Taiwan. Li Ying-hsuan is a former Wild Strawberry, a candidate for Taipei City Council, and editor of Youth Activist Magazine. Ying-hsuan is currently completing graduate studies in Human Rights at Soochow University.