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Feb 5, 2008

The Hsieh campaign

I was holding out hopes that after the legislative elections were over, A-bian would take a back seat and let DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh run his campaign on his own terms. Implicit was an understanding that Hsieh would be running a very different, laregely positive campaign focusing on policy and the future. I feel that to date, this has not been the case.

Since taking over the spotlight, the Hsieh campaign has used their airtime to focus laregely on three issues: Ma's past and potentially present holding of a green card, Ma's wife's sale of stocks in violation of a promise by Ma that his family wouldn't be buying or selling stock, supposedly just before it took a dive, and finally, as the Taipei Times puts it, a claim "that Ma accepted NT$500,000 from Taipei City's Association of Architects in 1998 when Ma was city mayor and a renovation code was amended in 2001 in favor of architects."

The Ma camp reacted to the green card issue poorly by displaying only limited photocopies of some documents; the accusations of stock price manipulation were fairly well deflected in my view, and Ma's wife is likely to sue the Hsieh camp; and similar accusations of bribes involving city government decisions during Hsieh's time in Kaohsiung abound, so I see no particular advantage in mentioning them.

The strategy was to demonstrate Ma's lack of honesty, but I don't think any of these issues will influence voters. In my view, Ma's image as "Mister Clean" or as a politician above the fray was already badly enough damaged. His supporters now just considered an effective administrator. There was not a need for more negative campaigning. And the strategy would have worked better in reverse anyway: start by laying out a platter of reasons to vote for Hsieh and then dump a slew of accusations on the market immediately before the campaign is over, leaving less time for the Ma camp to absorb the hit and an overall positive impression of Hsieh's platform.

I'm not suggesting Hsieh has presented an empty plate. His campaign consistantly makes policy announcements and has an economic plan that is more or less identical to Ma's -- tax cuts, greater social spending and special interest group spending (farmers, fishermen, the elderly, the poor in health, etc), closer economic ties with China. But take a look at the policy announcement area of his website. Notice how many headlines are more focused on Ma and the KMT than on Hsieh's own ideas. What's he thinking?

Frankly, I'm not only puzzled but flustered by this campaign strategy. Hsieh has proven himself capable of running a substantial, policy driven campaign as he did when running for Taipei mayor. It's how he got around 40% of the vote. The election is about a month and a half away. In my view, Hsieh was walking into the election with a more or less clean slate. Why has he used it to scrawl attacks on Ma instead of painting a picture for a better future?


Raj said...

Why has he used it to scrawl attacks on Ma instead of painting a picture for a better future?

Probably because he's tainted by the fact the DPP have been in power for the last two terms but can't convince the electorate it has done much with that time. Ma is presenting himself as the candidate of change and is free to rail on everything the DPP has supposedly done/failed to do, whereas Hsieh is trying to say he will change things (i.e. new policies) without saying why they need to change (i.e. Chen wasn't a good president). Trying to have your cake and eat it is a bad idea. In the voters' eyes he either has to criticise a lot of things Chen and the last two administrations have done so he can credibly say he will produce "change", or admit he doesn't disagree with those actions and is essentially an "establishment figure". It might not be fair on Hsieh but those are the rules he has to play with.

And before anyone starts whinging about how the media is in a conspiracy to make people think everything is bad, look at how the Labour Party won such a big majority in 1997 despite the fact things were getting much better. Sometimes people just want a change - Hsieh either doesn't want to or can't explain how he will be different from Chen.

And before anyone complains about the "evil" KMT holding up bills in the legislative, voters don't care - they always blame the executive, in any democracy.

Raj said...

Personally I think that if the election where tomorrow Hsieh would lose. It isn't inevitable Ma will win, but Hsieh's problem is that his policies are not that much different from his opponent's. If you are from the ruling party you need to be able to show how you are different if the current administration is not popular. As Chen isn't seen well, rightly or wrongly, Hsieh has little to play on apart from Ma's activities/personality. If Ma is the candidate for change, why go for Hsieh given he is from the DPP and might produce more of the "same"?

I still stand by my comments that the DPP may need to lose the presidency to reform itself. If it self-destructs just because it loses power then it would never govern Taiwan properly. If the KMT try to gerrymander the system in its favour, it would have done that anyway.

chinaphil said...

I agree that Hsieh's tactics seem pretty poor at the moment - though I did think that the drip-feed of Ma "scandals" was nicely timed. I'm not convinced by your call for a positive campaign, though.
The 2004 US presidential campaign left an enormous impression on me: Kerry was killed because his biggest strength (his war heroism) was attacked and neutralized. Hsieh (and the DPP in general) have already been "swiftboated". The DPP image has always been that of the clean outsiders, free of the taint of power and institutional corruption. That's gone now, because of a massive KMT campaign of which Chui Yi is the most obvious symbol.
Hsieh needs to swiftboat Ma back by attacking his record on the economy. It doesn't matter if this is true or reasonable. He just needs to generate noise suggesting that Ma couldn't organize a piss-up in a brewery. Those kind of accusations are almost impossible to deny. I've got figures, you've got figures - even if the public could understand them, they'll be unrecognizable once the media's chewed them up and spat them out. The object is to get Ma to make statements saying, "No, I'm really great at running the economic side. I'm not incompetent."
This is obviously dirty politics, perhaps not the way you want Taiwan to go, but needs must when the Devil drives.

阿牛 said...

I like your thinking, Chinaphil. Perhaps the best thing Hsieh can do is dripfeed these accusations and have a solid performance in the debate.