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After 24 years, could Chen Shih-chung win back Taipei for the DPP?

Only time DPP won Taipei was in 1994, but Chen is neck-and-neck in mayoral race

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After 24 years, could Chen Shih-chung win back Taipei for the DPP?

Chen Shih-chung campaign image

For an overview of the race, "An extremely tight, tense Taipei mayoral race" click here. For a look at Chiang Wan-an, "Can Chiang Wan-an win back Taipei for KMT?" click here.

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — During the early stages of the pandemic, while accolades from around the world rolled in for Taiwan’s effective response, then health minister and head of the Central Epidemic Command Center Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) was a superstar. People carefully folded together cartoon cutouts of him, downloaded LINE stickers featuring Chen, meme-ifed him, dressed their kids up like him for Halloween, and even some people tried to make money off his visage by selling merch.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has only won the Taipei mayorship once, and that way back in 1994 when former President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) clinched it. Knowing that three of the four of Taiwan’s directly elected presidents have used Taipei mayor as a launch pad to the top, the DPP would desperately love to win the city back again.

The rise of the superstar dentist

Chen, originally a dentist by training, has been involved in DPP politics for years and is known for bringing 200 dentists into the party while he was chair of the Taiwan Dental Association when Chen Shui-bian was elected president. He was even on the DPP party list of legislative candidates in 2004, though too far down on the list to have had much chance of becoming a lawmaker.

As a reward for his loyalty to the party, he was given posts in government, eventually rising to the normally relatively low-profile health minister position. Normally, that is, until a pandemic hits.

Though he has never campaigned for office before, and is an unlikely politician, this combination of events led to the DPP’s Ing Faction pushing him forward as a candidate for Taipei mayor. He initially played coy, but eventually gave in and became the party’s nominee.

Perhaps knowing that Taiwan has a penchant for electing people in the medical profession, such as the current mayor of Taipei and the current and previous vice presidents, perhaps he thought it was time for the dentist community to represent. For whatever reason, he left his technocratic world for politics.

Chen is in a tight race

That, unsurprisingly, caused his personal popularity to drop to the level of a mere mortal, but he’s so far held his own. Most non-partisan polling shows him neck-and-neck with the other two frontrunners, Chiang Wan-an (蔣萬安) of the Kuomintang (KMT) and independent Vivian Huang (黃珊珊).

The latest My-Formosa poll (whose numbers I’ll be using in this article, unless otherwise stated) shows Chiang in the lead, Huang second and Chen pulling up the rear. However, all three are within 1.8% of each other and well within the 3% margin of error, so they are all effectively tied.

Like the other two candidates (there are actually 12 in the race, but none of the others gets more than 0.3% in polling so far), Chen has some strengths and weaknesses as a candidate.

He is the least charismatic of the three, lacking Chiang’s good looks and the professional politician Huang’s ease on the campaign trail. One problem is he apparently is unable to smile.

The professional campaign shot used with this article is about as close as he gets to a smile. Try searching Google images. You’ll see what I mean.

He’s also stiff and awkward on the campaign trail. The 68-year-old is also not very adept at connecting with younger voters, even when he tries, such as his awkward response at a gay bar to a patron attempting to give him a friendly kiss.

This is hurting his campaign. When the KMT candidate is outpolling Chen in the normally DPP-friendly 20-29 demographic, it’s clear there is a problem.

The only demographic where he leads is the 40-49 bracket, though his support is more even across demographics than his two competitors. His personal favorability also lags his competitors by just over 10 points.

Chen is a tough fighter

He has, however, rather surprisingly shown he can hold his own in the daily political attack-counterattack game. Daily headlines show him and his campaign fully capable of political knife-fighting, and his tart comments often strike blood.

He is also disciplined for the most part. The only notable mistake his campaign has made directly so far is a creepy video showing him peering over a toilet stall, though he quickly apologized and took that segment out.

He himself has made one mistake, and that was getting too close to the famous, but highly controversial radio and television political commentator Clara Chou (周玉蔻). Chou, who strongly supports Chen, went on the attack in a misguided attempt to “help” him.

Clara Chou drags down Chen

Chou has a history of making explosive allegations, sometimes true and sometimes not, that make her a magnet for controversy and lawsuits. In a previous column I wrote this noting that the DPP has to be careful when it comes to handling the KMT’s nominee: “On the one hand, mobilizing deep green supporters who hate the Chiangs is critical to voter turnout, but on the other hand they have to be careful not to come across as too mean or ugly toward Chiang, who did not even know who he was descended from growing up, and obviously his lineage is not his fault.”

This is exactly the trap that Chou fell into, partially dragging Chen down with her. She took two lines of attack, on the one hand she questioned whether Chiang really was descended from Chiang Ching-kuo and Chiang Kai-shek, and on the other, she alleged that Chiang’s father had had an affair with a former beauty queen.

She also demanded Chiang prove his lineage by taking a DNA test. This was exactly the “mean and ugly” I predicted would backfire on the DPP.

She lost one of her shows, took a big fine and saw her favorability drop to 8.4%. But the damage to the Chen campaign was done.

The KMT had a field day, saying a vote for Chen was the same as voting for Chou. Pan-blue outlet TVBS held a poll on that, and found 26% of people in Taipei agreed with that statement.

Chen has tried to distance himself from Chou, and it may be forgotten by election day. He’ll have to be extra careful in how he handles Chiang going forward, however.

Experience matters

He still has some strengths though. He is well-organized and widely viewed as competent.

In the health ministry, he has experience running a large bureaucracy, and many think he did quite well. There is one problem though. His opponent Vivian Huang was also the Taipei vice mayor, and many think her experience is more directly relevant to Taipei.

As the race now stands, as I pointed out in a previous column, strategic “dump-save” voting is not going to happen as long as the race is so close. That is probably good for Chen, because the poll showed that if his campaign starts to falter, many of his voters will switch to Huang to hold off Chiang.

This leaves the remaining 10.5% of undecided voters. The problem Chen has here is that those voters are no doubt very well aware of him, and if they have not settled on him by now, will they ever?

He’s going to have to be creative in reaching those voters to both be able to underscore his widely respected competence, while also communicating he has a better vision for their city that voters will find meaningful. So far, his policies appear practical for the most part and he helpfully provides detailed PDF files.

He has some creative proposals, but one has backfired somewhat already, which is to install high-tech toilet seats into all public toilets. That was widely mocked, and seems logistically problematic and expensive, but some voters may like the idea.

Chen still could win this, but he’s going to have to work extra hard on his outreach to get those undecided to come around. He’s probably going to have to work harder than his opponents, as he’s already the most well known quantity in the race.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw) and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce. Follow him on Twitter: @donovan_smith.