Campaigns are all about setting the agenda, framing the debate, getting media spotlight and keeping up momentum. Campaigns start with competing messages. The key to winning any race is to come up with an affirmative message that keeps you ahead of your opponent. It is the inability to understand this simple, straightforward point that causes more losses in elections than any other factor.
The recent political crossfire between the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) over the issue of holding a referendum to "join"or "return" to the UN underscores the fact that the former has outperformed the latter in terms of creating campaign issues and controlling electoral rhythm.
KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has upheld the strategy of "It's the economy, stupid" as his main agenda ever since he unveiled his campaign. Ma has attempted to break the political myth that the issues of ethnicity and independence versus unification would be put aside in the presidential election. He believes that the economy should be the focal point, as well as the "Achilles heel" of the DPP government.
However, Ma's camp also recognizes the fact that it must take advantage of the growing sense of a Taiwanese identity to mitigate the DPP's manipulation of the "China card."
Therefore, in addition to pushing for the opening of the direct links, Ma has followed the DPP's steps by echoing the referendum agenda with an aim to assimilating the ruling party's platform.
In articulating the affirmative message of a campaign, comparisons between the parties' positions on the issue may be necessary.
If the comparisons are just thin disguises for negatives, voters will catch on quickly. If the comparisons of the positions are accurate and reflect the real opinions of the candidates, they may work. But a comparison ad will work best if the affirmative message strikes home.
Ma's decision to passively play the "referendum card" appears to be a mere political tactic to avoid being marginalized by the media. Hence, the KMT insisted on holding its own rallies on Sept. 15 and Oct. 14 simply for the sake of balancing media coverage.
The Taipei City Government's last-minute change of attitude on permitting the DPP's UN torch relay showed that Ma's camp was trapped in a dilemma: To what extent should the KMT keep the UN and referendum campaign going without overwhelming its core "economy" agenda?
The more the KMT boycotts every move made by the DPP, the more united green-camp supporters get. And most importantly, Ma's own campaign based largely on his personality would be sidelined by the DPP's more dramatic agenda.
For example, KMT legislators joined forces to criticize the DPP government's alleged misuse of the public budget for the UN referendum campaign.
The Cabinet rebutted that it was money well spent because it was part of the government's policy to join the UN.
Ironically, Ma and his KMT recognized the UN issue as one of the key issues in the presidential election and the opposition cannot be absent on the debate. The KMT therefore came up with the alternative scenario of "holding a referendum to return to the UN" under the name "Republic of China" or any practical title.
But so far, Ma's camp has failed to come up with a concrete solution to push for Taiwan's international participation -- let alone protest against China's attempts to isolate or humiliate Taiwan in the world arena.
Ma's refusal to accept the invitation to a debate on the UN issue by DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh further shows that the KMT candidate is not a strong defender of Taiwan's sovereignty and national interests.
The KMT has been dragged into the UN and referendum campaign by the DPP. Unless it demonstrates more sincerity and a stronger determination to talk about it, Ma's campaign of the "economy is everything" will fail.
Liu Kuan-teh is a Taipei-based political commentator.
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