Conventional wisdom holds that voters hate negative campaigns. However, the negatives often work better than any other type of advertisement, so candidates keep using them, because winning is the ultimate goal.
Regretfully, such tactics tend to overpower rational discussions on policy and are deconstructive to the maturation of democracy.
Negative campaigning has a long history in the nation’s elections. In the past, the emphasis on the independence-unification dichotomy constituted one of the elements for political parties to sabotage their opponents.
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has long accused the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of pushing for de jure independence, while the DPP has often portrayed the KMT as a crony association of so-called “black gold” politics.
In recent elections, negative advertisements have played a role in deciding the results. The upcoming nine-in-one elections will be no exception.
Take the Taipei mayoral election for example. The KMT, through its legislators, has launched a series of attacks on independent candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), accusing him of money-laundering and corruption in relation to National Taiwan University Hospital bank accounts.
Ko formerly led the hospital’s Extra-Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation division.
The Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office has questioned Ko’s assistant. The timing and efficiency of this questioning was sensitive given Ko has been leading KMT Taipei mayoral candidate Sean Lien (連勝文) for months. And the KMT cannot afford to lose the mayoral seat in the capital.
The accusations started with KMT Legislator Lo Shu-lei (羅淑蕾) about a month ago. Lo accused Ko of violating the Tax Collection Act (稅捐稽徵法) and using an MG149 account for money-laundering purposes. So far, Lo has not been able to provide concrete evidence.
Ironically, after nearly a month-long negative news cycle, support for Ko and Lien remains unchanged, according to various polls. Ko is leading Lien by a comfortably double-digit number. The polls show that Lien did not score political points from the negative campaign. However, if the KMT extends its judicial influence to affect Ko’s camp, it might have a negative influence on the independent candidate’s popularity.
It is understandable why Lien’s camp resorts to such negative tactics, which have included advertisements against Ko. Throughout the history of mayoral elections in Taipei, the KMT has typically enjoyed a lead of at least 10 percent over opposition candidates. Nevertheless, due to the poor governance of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration and Lien’s own unpopularity, the KMT candidate has been trailing Ko for months.
So far, nearly 40 percent of voters are undecided or refuse to identify their vote preference. That explains Lien’s relatively low support rate. Lien’s team needs a new strategy to appeal to pan-blue voters in the remaining two months of campaigning.
Since Ko does not represent the main opposition party, the most effective way to sabotage Ko’s popularity is to play the “corruption” card, rather than focus on a pan-blue versus pan-green dichotomy, which should reduce the chances of support for Ko from pan-blue or independent voters.
The same campaign tactic used by the KMT in the Greater Kaohsiung mayoral election aims at lowering Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu’s (陳菊) popularity. Chen was summoned last week by the Kaohsiung District Prosecutors’ Office regarding the gas pipeline explosions in the city on July 31 and Aug. 1.
The efficiency of the investigation branch has triggered debate over whether the KMT was behind the summons. Is it coincidental that the KMT’s candidate in Kaohsiung has also been falling behind his opponent?
However, the KMT’s negative campaigning might work against the party.
First, as voters gradually show their dislike over slander and defamation in elections, especially in metropolitan areas, candidates have alternated in their control of the political battlefield through both positive and negative campaigns.
Furthermore, any attacks on a candidate’s personality and family is less effective if there is no concrete evidence.
That means a last-minute false accusation against an opponent does not necessarily translate into electoral support — as has worked in past elections.
Third, more independent voters understand that a spot on one’s record or a blemish on a politician’s character is not necessarily a reflection on other aspects of a candidate’s personality.
Similarly, “middle voters” are much more wary of negative information about a candidate’s position on certain issues. The vast amount of information available on television and on the Internet each day has made them more savvy in assessing attacks against a politician’s voting record.
Finally, negative advertisements are sometimes used as a tactical tool to gain an advantage.
However, most of the time, this practice only works once there is a solution to the problem facing the candidate that can be solved by using positive advertisements.
It is time to stop nasty politics and negative campaigns. The voters expect more debate on policy.
Liu Shih-chung is president of the Taipei-based Taiwan Brain Trust.
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