Tsai must think nationally to win

By Liu Shih-chung 劉世忠

Tue, Aug 30, 2011 - Page 8

Since taking over as chairperson of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) three years ago, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has gradually transformed the once independence-driven party toward a more pragmatic and policy-oriented force. In her campaign for the DPP’s presidential nomination, Tsai also pledged to introduce the party to “generational change.” Compared with the message former DPP leaders presented to both Taiwanese and the world, the approach Tsai adopts and the philosophy she upholds have earned her a position as a unique leader.

However, to win the presidential election in less than five months, Tsai needs more than just moderation and a fresh image, she needs to inject at least four other elements into her so far low-key campaign. The first driving force is the need to establish an emotional connection with the electorate.

Mainly because of her background as a university professor, trade negotiator and government official dealing with national security and cross-strait affairs, Tsai favors a slow, prolonged, detailed decisionmaking process — as demonstrated by her approach to the unveiling of policy whitepapers.

Tsai has come up with a slogan that resonates — “Taiwan NEXT” — which could refer to the new direction in which Tsai is promising to lead Taiwanese, but she has so far lacked a series of events intended to drive home this connection. US President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 received much praise exactly because of his slogans “Change” and “Yes we can.”

The second element is passion. In the relatively short history of democratic elections in the country, the DPP has won only two national campaigns — the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections — and then only by very small margins on both occasions.

Even though then-President Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) political maneuverings undermined foreign relations, he did prove that a campaign needed a nationwide movement to create the momentum needed for victory. At present, Tsai has no plans to follow in his footsteps.

Tsai seems to have pinned all her hopes on President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration’s reputation for poor governance and misconduct and refuses to intensify the campaign by attacking Ma directly. In some ways, this might be the right direction for a gradually maturing democracy.

The question is whether Taiwanese society is mature or smart enough for such a moderate campaign to succeed. To a larger extent, Taiwanese elections are still dominated by “contentious” rhetoric and policy debates. Tsai needs to be more charismatic to avoid being marginalized or falling victim to unfavorable media coverage, late-night talk shows and her opponents’ distortions. Moreover, she should make more of her strengths, particularly the possibility of becoming the first-ever female president to attract women voters.

Without establishing an emotional connection to the electorate or a passionate campaign, two elements that have previously constituted the core of the DPP’s campaigns, it is going to be extremely difficult for Tsai to persuade voters that she can do a better job than Ma.

With the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) outnumbering the DPP in the legislature, it is even more imperative for Tsai to persuade voters that they should vote for the DPP, not because of Ma’s incompetence, but because Tsai’s leadership will put the country back on the right track.

Most public polls show Tsai head-to-head with Ma in terms of popularity for the moment. However, when one looks at answers to the question: “Who do you believe will win the presidential election?” Tsai trails Ma.

In other words, even if Tsai is able to consolidate the DPP’s support base, middle-of-the-road voters are still carefully watching what she says and does before deciding whether to vote for her.

Moreover, although many of those who voted for Ma in 2008 are disappointed with his performance, that has not yet translated into support for Tsai.

Tsai needs DPP supporters to persuade others that she is up to the job and to enhance the impression that she has a good chance of becoming president. The “expectation motive” could yet be a key element in her campaign.

The lack of sufficient emotion, passion and expectation in Tsai’s campaign to date has led to the final element of electoral competition — “confrontation.”

In this context, confrontation does not mean provocation. It refers more to the “exchange of fire” between Tsai and Ma and entails cut-throat warfare. It also encompasses minute-by-minute door-to-door visits or “living-room chats” and includes campaign ads that reach out to the rank and file, not just the elite.

Most importantly, it means that Tsai must trust her team, delegate responsibility and take advice from experts. Having long been labeled a “non-traditional DPP leader,” Tsai has certainly made a tremendous effort to turn the party into a more unified and rational force of checks and balances.

The only time Tsai was tested was in November’s special municipality elections in New Taipei City (新北市), when she failed by a relatively small margin. She has never run a national campaign before, so when it comes to such an election, Tsai needs to rely more on those in the DPP who have taken part in and know how to run a national campaign

Liu Shih-chung is a senior research fellow at the Taipei-based Taiwan Brain Trust.