The Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) presidential campaign team was a bit confused at first about how to position and promote DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who has been described as an “unorthodox” politician by many.
It would be difficult for the party’s traditional supporters, particularly those in rural areas, to relate to the cool and collected intellectual, who boasts little political experience and cannot even speak fluent Taiwanese, most team members thought.
It turned out that Tsai’s multifaceted identity and character became a campaign team’s dream as Tsai’s popularity has soared in the past few months.
Photo: Li Jung-ping, Taipei Times
As the first female presidential candidate in Taiwan history, the DPP campaign made “Taiwan’s first female president” the main slogan of the second phase of the campaign, following the “Taiwan NEXT” slogan in the initial stage, and it became an immediate hit with supporters.
At every rally, speakers highlighted that there have been more than 60 female leaders in the world, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Icelandic Prime Minister Johanna Sigureardottir, which shows democratic development in those countries.
Meanwhile, Tsai also listed former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher as a role model.
“The slogan is in line with the DPP’s long-time advocacy of gender equality, and our opponents cannot copy that,” Tsai’s campaign spokesperson Hsu Chia-ching (徐佳青) said, referring to the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) alleged plagiarism of Tsai’s platform during the campaign.
Tsai also made a distinction between men and women to supporters, saying that women usually stress harmony and communication more and are more perseverant and less confrontational.
The 55-year-old’s background has enabled her to reach out to voters of different regions, ethnicities and languages.
Born in Pingtung County and spending most of her adult life in Taipei, Tsai has a Hakka father and a Taiwanese mother, and her grandmother is a Paiwan Aborigine.
People in southern Taiwan, the DPP’s stronghold, accepted her as one of their own as they did with former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), giving Tsai a massive welcome during her recent 11-day 500km campaign trip on the west coast.
In campaign stops at Aboriginal townships, she said she always pride herself on her Aboriginal ancestry and pledged to apologize to Aborigines for the country’s past discrimination and misconduct if she is elected in January.
While Aborigines represent only about 2 percent of the total population, former Taitung County commissioner Chen Chien-nian (陳建年), an Aborigine, said recently that DPP Aboriginal representatives had noticed a shift in the political leanings of their tribes and “the tide is turning.”
Voters in Hakka constituencies in Miaoli, Hsinchu and Taoyuan, which traditionally favored the KMT, seemed to be able to relate to Tsai, shouting “Hakka girl for president” as she spoke during her visit.
Hakkas, which make up 18.1 percent of the nation’s 23 million nationals, or 4.2 million people, are the second-largest ethnic group in Taiwan behind the Hoklo people.
Tsai’s support rate among female Hakka voters appears to have increased a lot, said Yiong Cong-ziin (楊長鎮), a DPP legislative candidate in Miaoli.
The DPP is hoping that it will make progress in securing votes from women, Hakkas and Aborigines — all the DPP’s weak areas in past elections.
However, it was more than Tsai’s personal background that boosted her popularity. Her unique character also played a major role.
When some supporters and media expressed doubt over Tsai’s ability to run an effective campaign due to her differences — from her inability to speak fluent Taiwanese and Hakka and her soft-spokenness to her moderate approach — with past DPP candidates, Wu Nai-ren (吳乃仁), Tsai’s campaign manager, seemed at ease.
The DPP is running a completely different campaign this time, based on Tsai’s uniqueness and characteristics, he said.
Unlike Chen Shui-bian and other DPP heavyweights, Tsai does not try to excite the crowds with loud speeches or radical initiatives.
“She does not try to put a smile on your face or make you emotional with her speech. She likes to make you think about what she says. And she appears to be able to calm people down,” Chen Chun-lin (陳俊麟), director of DPP’s poll center, said on the sidelines of a recent rally.
Chen described Tsai as having a “wider combat radius” than Chen Shui-bian, saying that “voters either love or hate Chen, but even if they dislike Tsai, they don’t hate her.”
The subtle difference could make a lot of difference at the ballot box, he said.
The DPP chairperson has always been moderate in the way she speaks and treats people; and more importantly in her China policy, DPP spokesperson Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁) said.
“She does not like negative campaigning or waging wars of words with her opponents. She pays attention to every detail and is very pragmatic,” he said.
The approach and her “urban, intellectual feel” is why Tsai is able to appeal to the swing voters, who stress stability over anything else, and why he supported Tsai and agreed to join her team, he added.
Tsai may not be a seasoned politician, but she was not “inexperienced,” Chen Chi-mai said, because Tsai served as Taiwan’s representative in WTO negotiations in the early 2000s and as chairperson of the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan’s top China policymaking body.
“This expertise on the economy and China policy is one of Tsai’s best assets and we believe that will convince voters she is going to be an outstanding leader for this country,” he said.
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