When it comes to Taiwan's upcoming presidential election, the candidate-centered campaign is often the focal point. But ironically it seems not be the case this time -- especially with respect to the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Recent efforts made by DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) to walk out of President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) shadow and wage his own campaign against Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) have illustrated an essential need for Hsieh's camp to reorientate the focus of the election.
The most salient point in case was Hsieh's recent proposal to further open cross-strait trade. He suggested a wider opening to global capital, including investment from China; an amnesty to facilitate the return of capital previously remitted out of the country via underground or illegal channels; a lowering of taxes on inherited property and gifts to below 10 percent to encourage the wealthy to keep their money in Taiwan; and an increase to the 40 percent ceiling on investment in China on a case-by-case basis.
It appeared that Hsieh's new ideas contradicted Chen's -- namely, the policy of "proactive management and effective opening." Chen immediate reiterated his position that the 40 percent cap will not be charged during the reminder of his term.
Although Hsieh and Chen dismissed speculation that they were at odds over cross-strait economic policies and stuck to the consensus of letting Chen handle state affairs and Hsieh handle campaign strategies, Hsieh has no doubt ignited a political fire storm by trying to distinguish himself from Chen.
Particularly when Hsieh said: "Although there are things that [Chen] hasn't done -- or hasn't done quite right -- I will do them [right] and this is the reason for electing a new president. I believe he will accept my proposals."
This comment displayed the DPP candidate's determination to establish his own policies.
To a large extent, Hsieh successfully distracted the media from issues such as Chen's promotion of a referendum for UN membership using the name "Taiwan," growing public dissatisfaction with rising food and oil prices and the unification or independence debate.
Ma has continued to use the "economy card," calling for direct links and wider trade between Taiwan and China.
Hsieh's strategy is to marginalize his differences with Ma.
Since Ma has criticized the DPP government for focusing more on national identity issues than on the economy, what Hsieh has tried to do is strike a balance between Ma and Chen by promoting the idea that improving the economy and safeguarding national identity must go hand in hand.
Since Hsieh's campaign has been overshadowed by Chen's political maneuvering on sovereignty and referendum issues, not to mention Chen's appointment as the DPP chairman, Hsieh can regain the political spotlight by presenting a somewhat different attitude toward Chen's existing policies.
Bold initiatives may attract more median voters, but they also invite internal risks in terms of how to coordinate with the president and the Executive Yuan on key policies.
With only four months to the election, Hsieh desperately needs to create his own campaign strategy by re-framing the debate, rebuilding his image and resetting his agenda. Hsieh may not necessarily have to disassociate himself from Chen, but he will have to clearly tell the voters why he can do a better job than the previous DPP president.