Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party suffered an unprecedented defeat in local elections on November 29, winning just six of the 22 municipalities and counties, while the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) scored 13 for its side. The KMT also lost its long-time stronghold in the capital, Taipei City, by a remarkably large margin to Ko Wen-je, a DPP-backed independent who has practiced as a surgeon for more than two decades at National Taiwan University Hospital (NTUH).
Although the international media has tended to focus on the growing concerns among voters about Taiwan’s over-reliance on China’s market, Ko Wen-je’s convincing win can be attributed primarily to other factors. Ko’s bipartisan and youth strategy, his social media campaign and advertising, coupled with the poor campaign performance of the KMT’s candidate and the low approval rating of President Ma Ying-jeou all contributed to Ko’s historical victory.
Ko’s KMT opponent Sean Lien, son of former Vice President Lien Chan, hit the campaign trail with confidence. When Lien won the KMT’s primary against the current legislator Ting Shou-chung in mid-April, surveys from Taiwanese media TVBS, Apple Daily, and United Daily News had Lien leading Ko by 4 to 8 percentage-points. However, when the DPP in mid-June decided to ally with Ko without nominating its own candidate, the surveys suddenly showed Ko with an approximately 10 percentage-point lead over Lien. After that, Ko consistently led in the polls and Lien never got the chance to make up the gap. Ko eventually won 57.16 percent of the vote (853,983) against Lien’s 40.82 percent (609,932).
Ko’s bipartisan campaign team clearly maintained their candidate’s lead over the past five months. Running as an independent without a formal affiliation with the DPP, Ko had more space to reach out across the political spectrum. Yao Li-ming, a former KMT and Pan-Blue New Party member, joined Ko’s campaign as a chief of staff. Yao’s participation represented Ko’s willingness to work on a bipartisan basis, appealing to many independent voters weary of the political labels of KMT or DPP.
In contrast, Lien’s choice of his campaign chief was controversial KMT legislator Tsai Cheng-yuan. Since the Sunflower Movement in March, Tsai has been a target for student activists, mainly due to his unpopular legislative performance and the rhetoric he directed at the student movement. Tsai was also unpopular with KMT supporters, especially when he focused on attacking his opponent instead of elaborating on Lien’s policy visions. As a result, many young and independent voters began to drift away from the KMT. After the election, Ko revealed that he felt blessed when he knew Lien had appointed Tsai as his chief of staff.
Besides recruiting politicians across the aisle, Ko initiated a youth recruitment project in May to attract young talent from different backgrounds to join his team. A number of campaign staff positions were opened to the public, including speaker, secretary, event planner, and cyber communicator. This innovative recruiting approach went beyond political party boundaries, building a more competitive team that could bridge the difference between Ko and the younger generation.
Social Media – Taiwan’s New Campaign Battleground
One key area where the youth contributed the most was social media. Just as social media savvy has helped Barack Obama win elections in the U.S., Facebook and YouTube both played significant roles in Ko’s campaign. According to an article published by Taiwanese magazine Business Weekly, Ko established a five-member team to manage the campaigns social media presence. Utilizing big data analysis and providing Ko with Facebook post recommendations, the team maximized the online exposure of Ko’s policy vision, slogans, and campaign events. It also helped Ko deal with his opponent’s allegations that he misused a shared account established by Ko for the NTUH’s Surgical Intensive Care Unit.
Ko’s team also produced a number of high-quality videos on YouTube, many of which went viral with positive reviews. Budget constraints meant that Ko could only turn one YouTube video into a television advertisement; instead he mainly used Facebook and his website to advertise the YouTube videos. Immediately before the election, Ko’s Facebook page had more than 550,000 fans, while Lien had only around 210,000. Although a large fan base doesn’t necessarily translate into votes, social media provides candidates an influential platform to advertise their ideas and mobilize their supporters – especially the youth.
Losing the Younger Vote
Although he is 12 years younger than Ko (56), Lien did not benefit from his comparative youth among young voters. Instead, his campaign strategy mostly followed the KMT traditional guidelines: Rely on local KMT network leaders such as township chiefs and Taipei city councilors to mobilize supporters, and seek support from large unions and associations that have close ties with the KMT. The KMT Youth League is institutionalized, but its leaders were not as effective as the DPP’s or Ko’s campaign team. This hidebound culture meant that Lien’s campaign events had few young citizens showing support for the KMT candidate.
Also unhelpful was the old faction of the KMT. Lien’s dad Lien Chan, and former Premier Hau Pei-tsun, father of the current Taipei City Mayor Hau Lung-pin, stumped for Sean Lien. However, these two venerable politicians publicly labeled Ko and his family as “descendants of the Japanese emperor’s loyal subjects” right before the election. The rhetoric enraged many Taiwanese voters, producing a severe public backlash.
An ineffective campaign advertising strategy was another problem for Lien. His team relied on traditional media channels such as television and printed advertisements, with often awkward messaging. For instance, his television advertisement “If you were rich, what would you do?” was severely criticized by viewers across the country. In this advertisement, several young people were sharing their thoughts on what they would do if they were rich, or if they were Sean Lien. Most said that they would enjoy their lives in a luxurious way, implying that Lien was entering the race to sacrifice his easy life for the sake of serving the public. The September advertisement backfired because it was seen as reinforcing perceptions of Lien as a privileged princeling. Subsequently, a poll from TVBS showed that among 20-29 year old voters, the 41 percent of likely voters supporting him in August had plummeted to 19 percent in September.
Critical Juncture for the KMT
The political climate was and is noticeably favoring the DPP and independents. Ma’s extremely low popularity amid repeated tainted food oil scandals in Taiwan has damaged the KMT brand. The elections result reflected the general dissatisfaction with Ma’s administration, and concerns about food security, wage stagnation, the widening gap between rich and poor, the growing influence of Beijing, and 12-year compulsory education system.
In Taipei, Ko won every one of 12 administrative districts, including the traditional KMT strongholds of Daan, Wenshan and Xinyi. Premier Jiang Yi-Huah stepped down immediately after the KMT’s drubbing, followed by Ma’s resignation as KMT Chairman on December 3. Former Vice Premier Mao Chi-kuo took over as premier on December 8. The decisive win by Ko and the DPP has taught a KMT a hard lesson: It needs to re-examine its policy, nominate better candidates, and find a more effective way to communicate with the younger generation.
In pursuit of a better democratic system, voters need to continue to pay attention to public affairs and hold their elected politicians accountable. Meanwhile, Taiwanese citizens should be proud that the elections went fairly smoothly, and that no major incidents happened right before the election this year.
Bao-chiun Jing is a Taipei-based liaison officer at Learning Across Borders. He is an alumnus of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) with concentrations in China Studies and Southeast Asia Studies.