When it comes to the mayoral elections, Taipei is well-known for having more pan-blue, pro-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) supporters than pan-green Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) backers.
In recent mayoral elections, the only victory by the DPP was for former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in 1994, which was a result of a split within the pan-blue camp. Chen enjoyed more than 70 percent approval as mayor, but regrettably lost to then-KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in 1998.
Since then, the KMT has won consecutive mayoral elections in Taipei for 16 years.
In theory, Taipei voters should be more independent and personality-centered. In reality, history shows that most Taipei voters are conservative, partisan-driven and crave stability. That explains why former DPP candidates have mostly downplayed partisan disputes and portrayed their campaigns as a debate on governing capability, rather than highlight the blue-green or unification-independence dichotomies.
On the other hand, KMT candidates have often played the ethnic card and framed their DPP competitors as pro-Taiwanese independence. In the last mayoral election, incumbent mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) outpaced then-DPP candidate Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) due to the shooting incident involving Sean Lien (連勝文), the son of former vice president Lien Chan (連戰). Su was well-known as a capable political leader when serving as governor of Pingtung County and what was then Taipei County.
Nevertheless, after more than a decade of political wrestling between the pan-blue and pan-green camps, Taipei voters are craving new leaders with bold and realistic agendas, coupled with the skill to communicate and persuade. Most importantly, most Taipei voters expect a mayor who can deliver on campaign promises and refrain from using partisan divisions to distract from poor governance.
The uniqueness of the electoral structure in Taipei is undergoing a potential transformation in the upcoming campaign.
For the first time in recent elections, the main competitors in the Taipei mayoral election are people who do not have government experience. The KMT nominated Sean Lien, former chairman of EasyCard Corp and a member of the KMT’s Central Standing Committee, to compete with independent candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), a National Taiwan University Hospital physician supported by the DPP.
Ko has been a wild card in the campaign ever since he built momentum as an independent candidate. A non-traditional, action-oriented darling of the media, Ko has built up a totally new image for Taipei voters to consider.
To overcome such a unique electoral barrier and to minimize partisanship, Ko has introduced a new approach to establish a “major-league opposition” by unifying all opposition forces and voters who are fed up with the KMT’s governance. Ko has successfully made the first breakthrough by teaming up with the DPP.
Moreover, Ko has been steadily leading Lien by double-digit percentage points in almost every public poll so far.
Despite his fresh image, what else explains the “Ko phenomenon?” The poor governance of the Ma administration has given the opposition camp a chance to expand its influence among middle-of-the-road voters and even “light-blue” supporters. Inviting Yao Li-min (姚立明) of the right-wing New Party to be his campaign chief of staff, after securing his endorsement from the DPP, further deepened Ko’s image of bipartisanship. Most importantly, Ko’s camp has successfully framed the campaign as “the poor vs the rich” because Lien is seen as the “princeling” of the KMT and heir to the Lien family’s wealth.
Finally, Lien lacks campaign experience and charisma, and his team has performed poorly so far.
Having said that, Ko faces challenges. First, most blue-camp voters are reluctant to reveal their support for Lien largely because they would feel ashamed to identify with the KMT. Once the KMT plays the “emergent card,” they will automatically return to the camp. Since Lien was shot in the last mayoral election during a campaign event, his camp might play the sympathy card at the last minute.
Second, the KMT is the richest political party in the world. It will come up with overwhelming campaign ads in the near future which Ko’s campaign will find difficult to match.
Third, Ko’s campaign team lacks effective coordination with the DPP.
Ko can make history in Taipei. He just needs a chance to prove it.
Liu Shih-chung is president of the Taipei-based Taiwan Brain Trust.
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