Very “un-DPP” Ko Wen-je charts his own course

With 45 days left before the 9-in-in elections on November 29, KMT candidate for Taipei mayor Sean Lien continues to lag behind non-aligned candidate Ko Wen-je by 10 to 13 points in the latest polls of registered voters. Lien’s failure to narrow the gap has some poll-watchers speculating whether the KMT’s lock on the mayor’s office in Taipei might be in jeopardy. Others are wondering how long Ko can maintain his lead if he continues to proclaim his independence from any political party.

Various opinion polls show overwhelming support for Ko among people aged 40 or younger. The latest Taiwan Indicators Survey Research poll released Wednesday showed that in the 20-29 year group Ko outpolled Lien by 47.7% to 13.4%, while in the 30-39 years group the result was 47.1% for Ko and 16.6% for Lien. Ko also fares well among college graduates with a lead of 41.5% to 18.4% over Lien. These results put the lie to pundit Chao Shao-kang’s quip that Green Camp supporters are mostly "one high and two lows” (high age, low education and low income.)

One person familiar with polls in Taiwan points out that generally speaking about 70% of people in agricultural areas are willing to state their preferences in polls while in urban areas up to 80% may be willing to express their opinions. In addition, the design and wording of poll can also affect certain levels. The source adds that if Ko can continue to maintain a lead of 10 percent or more for the next couple of weeks into November, it may be very difficult for Sean Lien to make up the difference – even given a shocker such as the gunshots which grazed Chen Shui-bian and Annette Lu in 2004 or the wound Lien sustained several years ago during a KMT campaign rally.

Ko stresses that he wants to win the election as the candidate of an opposition alliance, saying that if he is elected he will not join the DPP. Observers note that he spent a considerable time before opting to take on Yao Li-ming as the head of his campaign team. In his other personnel decisions, however, he has seemingly kept a deliberate distance from the DPP, and his whole campaign style and language are decidedly "non-DPP” in their orientation." As one DPP legislator has privately joked, Ko Wen-je's speeches are "a long way from [those of] Pasuya Yao."

Ko’s aides have been diligent in researching key areas, for instance by inviting focus groups made up of various cross-sections of society including pan-Blues, working women, housewives, counter girls and young voters. They have found that most people seem very receptive to Ko Wen-je and his remarks. At the same time, they feel he should be able to assume the role of "Mayor" of the city and not simply say what he thinks people want to hear.

Reporters who have interviewed the two candidates say that Sean Lien tends to submit to two or three questions before his staff begin saying "Thank you, thank you," signaling the end of the interview. And while the media obviously would prefer for candidates themselves to field questions, Sean Lien often blurts a curt, "Questions on other issues will be answered by our spokesperson." Interviewers often come away with audio files lasting only a minute or two.

With Ko Wen-je, however, the media ops generally last at least 5 or 6 minutes and often stretch to 11 or 12 minutes, and this goes on four or five times a day sometimes. One time Ko was returning from a campaign function when his group ran into some print reporters. He leaned over to chat and respond to their questions, telling aides anxious to steer him to the next function, "Come on, it’s wild card time.” This has happened at least 3 or 4 times, says one reporter.

To some extent these differences may stem from the differences in their campaigns. Sean Lien’s primary battle with Ting Shou-chung lasted just over two months. But Ko’s election campaign started last September and played out until June, with a field that included Wellington Koo, Annette Lu, Hsu Tien-tsai and Pasuya Yao. That was a full nine months, plenty of time for Ko and his camp to understand the need for media manipulation and see issues lying ahead in the campaign.

Ko’s handling of the KMT’s MG149 offensive proved masterful in parrying what could have been a devastating blow. Instead of scurrying to cover up details of the account at NTU Hospital, Ko released the tax records of himself and his wife for the past 20 years. He knew that the general public may not understand the intricacies of MG149 and accounting principles, but they know what tax withholding and reporting statements are, and like Ko they draw a salary and pay their taxes.

The latest polls show Ko outpacing Sean Lien by more than 30% at 46% for Ko to 13% to Lien. Moreover, adding the total figures for both candidates tots up to 80%, leaving 20% undecided at present.

Thus the key factor in the race becomes not how many undecideds will eventually vote for Lien on election day, but rather how many 20-40 year olds the Ko camp will be able to roust out the front door and vote. In other words, will it be like it was on March 30 when 500,000 people massed on Ketagalan Road at the height of the Sunflower Student movement, or will it be a case of "thousands promised to come, but only one showed up"?