Frank Hsieh’s campaign genius, starting with the 2010 Taichung mayoral election campaign
After the Mayoral and city council election on 27th November, many have noticed and commented on the impressive performance by Su Jia-chyuan (e.g. Michael Turton and Nathan Batto) in the Taichung race, battling from polling 30% behind incumbent Jason Hu to losing by 3% of the votes. This was the closest the DPP ever got in mayoral election in Taichung. What has not been mentioned much was who turned Su’s campaign around. The answer is Frank Hsieh (謝長廷).
Before Hsieh put his weight behind Su’s campaign, Su had managed to close the gap between himself and Hu to about 13% by making frequent visits to all the boroughs and villages. However, he was struggling to get much further. In late September, Hsieh, as DPP Chairperson of the Campaign Committee for the election, moved to Taichung and formally took over the campaign strategies. (There should have been prior meetings before this point to kick-start the process). From then on, Su’s campaign became much more creative and certainly more visible to the press and to the public. Because Hu had been in office for nine years, Hsieh emphasised the need for Taichung to ‘change’ and started a series of press conferences/events called the ‘Discovery’ series (探索台中) to publicly question Hu’s actions (or lack thereof) in office over the past nine years. This series contains 16 ‘episodes’, examining what Hu campaign promises had broken and when Hu had been vague or untruthful. There was an illustration of how Hu usually responded to difficult questions by saying ‘I don’t know‘, ‘I will not respond to this‘, ‘Ask my campaign office’ or ‘It’s very strange that anyone would ask the mayor about this‘. This cast doubt in a lot of people’s minds as to how involved and hardworking he really was as the mayor. Apart from those press conferences, Hsieh also held approximately 45 public events for Su, leaving Su a free hand to continue meeting with the local residents in Taichung.
This was not the only campaign Hsieh successfully ran, and every win he achieved or helped others achieve has been an important political milestone for Taiwan and for the DPP.
The 1994 Taipei City mayoral election
Hsieh immediately withdrew from the primary and started serving as Chen Shui-bian’s campaign chief for the Taipei mayoral election after the first stage of the primary (i.e. party committee member votes). Before the primary, he decided that he would only proceed into the second stage (i.e. party member votes) if he won over 5% in the committee votes because Chen had received more media attention as a whistle blowing legislator and therefore might appeal more to party members and the public. However, the New Tide faction shifted their support to Chen the last minute in the first stage, which resulted in Hsieh winning less than 5% in the first stage. This hardly seemed fair to Hsieh because he had done more ground work (e.g. visiting places and meeting residents to see what they need and what the city needs) than Chen. Chen’s strategies were more to do with getting media attention and gunning for faction support within the party. Hsieh might not have lost in the second stage or could carry on out of spite but ultimately decided to withdraw to save the party time and resources so that the DPP would have a better chance of winning. As soon as he started, he put all the support behind Chen and incorporated his people into the team. He did not hold back or secretly sabotage Chen’s campaign. This is remembered by many as ‘the Chang-Bian collaboration’. Many remember Hsieh as being really decent and sporting and see him as someone who embodies such spirit. Whenever someone in the DPP takes their defeat badly, supporters often urge them to ‘be Frank Hsieh’.
As Nathan Batto commented on his blog:
‘The 1994 Taipei City mayoral campaign is important not just because it brought about a change in political power and gave the DPP its first real chance to control resources, it also defined the New Party and brought about a realignment in the voting patterns of the capital city that persisted through the 1995 LY and 1996 NA elections.‘
There were also other significant points. That was the first major DPP campaign that placed emphasis on hope for the future rather than the traditional victim perspective. The campaign slogan was ‘Happiness, Hope, Chen Shui-bian’ and the highlight was Hsieh’s ‘Daily Question’ (每日一問) to Jaw Shaw-kong, the New Party candidate. As it was a three way race (i.e. DPP, KMT and the New Party) and Jaw seemed the strongest of the three to begin with, Hsieh’s sharp and highly publicised questioning to Jaw quickly put Jaw in the defensive. This left Chen more time and energy to focus on the KMT candidate and sitting mayor, Huang Ta-chou (AKA Thomas Huang).
Some believe that even though Hsieh worked hard and was sincere, the campaign was actually dominated by Chen’s most trusted aides rather than Hsieh. However, even if that was the case, years later, most Taiwanese may have now forgotten about other aspects of the campaign but still talk about Hsieh’s ‘Daily Question’. It’s a bit like that most tennis fans remember McEnroe winning that classic tiebreak in the Wimbledon final but don’t necessarily remember that Borg actually won that final.
The 1998 Kaohsiung City mayoral election
Hsieh has been one of the very few politicians willing to run in the most difficult (if not impossible) areas even when there is no apparent political upside. The 1998 Kaohsiung mayoral election was a classic example. Most people now remember Hsiao Bi-khim running for the Hualien chief recently. The difference is that Hsiao stepped up after the party started the search and no one else came forward whereas Hsieh, without prompting or much encouragement, took the initiative and ran with it.
At the time Hsieh announced his decision in 1996, he had encountered two major setbacks; one being the Taipei City mayoral election primary and the other being the 1996 presidential election as the vice-presidential candidate. Not many people in the DPP thought this was a good idea because Kaohsiung was dominated by the KMT and Hsieh had to take on a sitting KMT Mayor (Wu Den-yih). Because he resigned as a legislator to show his resolve for the 1996 presidential election, he was practically out of the political stage when losing the election. Most of his aides had taken other positions as a result. But he still went to Kaohsiung with a couple of assistants and started from scratch. At the time, the number of people he knew in Kaohsiung was less than 50.
A fatal blow came later that year when Taipei City Councillor, Chu Mei-feng, accused Sung Chi-li (the leader of a local religious group who claimed to have supernatural powers) of fraud in a press conference. As Hsieh was a legal consultant to the group, Chu implied that Hsieh was responsible in some way. Hsieh was later alleged to have received improper donations from this religious group for the 1996 campaign and his wife was also accused of fraud. The blue-friendly media went to town with this case and ridiculed Hsieh and his wife for being superstitious and dishonest. Years later, Sung has been found not guilty and those witnesses who implicated Hsieh and his wife have been convicted of perjury after it was found that the whole thing was orchestrated to destroy Hsieh. Hsieh also sued Chu for defamation and won. However, Hsieh’s reputation was tarnished and life was upside down when it first happened. During a TV interview, his wife, in tears, said that she was willing to end their marriage to save his career. He immediately replied that he would rather give up his political career than leave her. In fact, he represented his wife in the court as her legal counsel for the charge brought against her.
Most people were convinced that this was the end of his political career. The press did not show much interest in him and very few people in the DPP showed any support. In fact, most people were trying to stay as far away from Hsieh as possible. He still worked hard for his campaign and took a rather hands-on approach. A young student blogged about some anecdotes. She was a high school student when she got to know Hsieh’s assistants after they borrowed a venue in her school for a public event. She would often drop by their office for a chat afterwards. She commented that Hsieh not only listened to what the local residents had to say like a new neighbour but took them seriously. She said that she was amazed when she heard that Hsieh actually spent a couple of days going on buses in Kaohsiung himself (no entourage, no press following) just to see how bad the public transport was after she complained about it to him.
His career was only turned around by chance after he responded to the demand to see him in person from the serial killer holding a South African military attaché’s family hostage in Taipei in 1997. Even though the killer was known to be volatile (not the calm and calculating type) and was clearly agitated at the time, Hsieh went in without a bulletproof vest to earn his trust and diffused this highly dangerous situation. As the killer had been on the run for a long time, breaking and entering, raping, and killing at the same time, Hsieh persuaded him to release the hostages and surrender without doing more harm, bringing an end to the terror for everyone who worried every night about when the killer might pop up. (See ‘Hostage in Taipei: A True Story of Forgiveness and Hope‘ written by McGill Alexander, the military attaché.) After this, many saw Hsieh as being brave and reassessed their views about him. The public was gradually won over and he defeated Wu in that election.
As he proved himself to be a good mayor for Kaohsiung, he got re-elected in 2002. His vision for Kaohsiung was to play up its strength by highlighting it as a city of the ocean and he actively applied the idea of urban aesthetics when renovating the city.
The 2000 and the 2004 presidential elections
Hsien’s impossible win in 1998 saved the DPP from being set back years as Chen Shui-bian lost in seeking his second term as the Taipei mayor. His good work in Kaohsiung paid off in many respects. Speaking of elections only, when Chen was running for President in 2000 and 2004, Hsieh successfully coordinated campaign efforts and resources in southern cities and counties so that the votes won in the south were enough to balance out those lost in the north and helped Chen get elected.
He was probably under more pressure from within the party than the outside, especially during the 2004 presidential election. As it was a head-to-head election and the DPP had more support in the south, his strategy was to stay low-key to the mainstream media but actively hold a lot of talks and forums locally so that the opponent could not easily see/work out what they were up to while the local residents were engaged. He was concerned that if it got ‘overheated’, the voters would be polarised and middle voters would be driven away from the DPP. However, many people in the DPP did not understand his concern and strategy and started accusing him of holding back. Someone went as far as predicting that Chen would lose by 30,000 votes in Kaohsiung city. Hsieh remained calm and simply told them to trust him. It was not until 20th March 2004, the election day, that those who doubted or accused him were convinced. Under his direction, Chen won by over 700,000 votes in the south. In Kaohsiung city alone, Chen won by over 100,000 votes. This was the first time in history that the green camp won by over 500,000 votes in the south.
The 2001 parliamentary election
Hsieh was the DPP leader between 2000 and 2002. He managed to bring all the factions together and worked with the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) rather than competing with them. At the time, Hsieh moved the DPP towards the middle and the TSU went for the ‘dark green’. He was careful and wise in the nomination process and with Chen being the president and giving support, it was the first time the DPP had more seats (n=87) than other parties in history. If the TSU seats were also considered (n=13), the pan-green coalition reached its peak then.
The 2006 Taipei and Kaohsiung City mayoral elections
After Chen had been panned a lot in the media and his family were implicated in corruption cases, it was a very difficult time for the DPP in 2006. No one popular enough in the DPP wanted to run for Taipei mayor because the DPP had no chance. After Hsieh was pushed out as the premier in 2005, it was clear that his successor, Su Tseng-chang had Chen’s support for the 2008 presidential race. All of sudden, someone in the DPP came up with the ‘bright idea’ of asking Hsieh to run for Taipei mayor. It was practically persuading him to commit political suicide, as the loss would take him out of quite possibly any future race and a win would lock him in Taipei for 4 years at least, leaving him no chance for the 2008 presidential election. Hsieh was initially reluctant because he had been Kaohsiung mayor for two terms but then agreed after supporters expressed their worry about the DPP’s future if no heavyweight came forward. So while the other heavyweights were ducking for cover, Hsieh stepped up. For many, it made little sense when those who had never been a mayor for a major city could have had a go.
Due to the polarisation of the society, he emphasised the need for everyone to ‘reconcile and coexist’ (和解共生) in 2005, which he later elaborated as ‘mutualism’. Before the 2006 campaign, the Red Shirt Army protested for weeks, demanding former President Chen to step down. The country was almost torn apart and there was a clear blue/green divide. There was a high level of mistrust. He therefore highlighted ‘Love and Trust’ as the theme as he felt that those needed to be rebuilt in order to stabilise the society.
His own campaign in Taipei got more attention than expected and he was also helping all the DPP city councillor candidates. He had a vision for the city – bidding for the 2020 Olympics and came up with a detailed plan to reinvent the city. The KMT had a lot of resources tied up in Taipei as a result of Hsieh’s good campaign. He successfully prevented the KMT from pouring everything into Kaohsiung City, and at the same time, he campaigned for Chen Chu and mobilised his people to in the south to put all the support behind her. He was in effect carrying both campaigns. The result was that Chen Chu won; he lost but managed to win 41% of the votes, which was surprisingly good under the circumstances. The DPP only got 36% in the 2002 election. In addition, all the candidates he campaigned for got elected as councillors and against expectation, the number of DPP seats actually went up. These results saved the DPP from falling apart then. The respect he gained for those good results and the appreciation of his sacrifice (i.e. taking one for the party when no one else would) turned into real support for him in the primary for the 2008 presidential election. Against the odds and against Chen’s wishes, Hsieh won the primary and got nominated.
What makes him great?
Hsieh’s campaign abilities rested on several personal characteristics and factors. One was his creativity. His strategies often surprise people and are refreshing. The opponent usually doesn’t know what to expect from him one minute to the next. This may also have something to do with his abilities to naturally interact with young people and learn from them. He seems the least ‘set in his ways’ compared to other politicians.
He has this rare confidence and willingness to challenge the most difficult, if not impossible, tasks. It seems that a part of him is adventurous or courageous while the other part being measured and realistic. Another quality is his ‘nonzero’ mindset, demonstrated in the way he chose to work with rather than antagonise the TSU. This approach maximised the influence of the pan-green coalition. He is also one of the few who would put their full support behind someone who seems rather unlikely to win. He was the most proactive in lending support to the 2010 Taichung mayoral candidate and those who did not receive a lot of party support in the 2009 3-in-1 election.
The more fundamental element in his success is always thinking the long term and beyond election success. If one compares what he has done in Kaohsiung to what Chen Shui-bian/Su Tseng-chang left for Taipei City/County, one can see that Hsieh left a lasting effect on the culture and turned Kaohsiung from a definite ‘blue’ area in 1998 to the most solid ‘green’ base now whereas Chen and Su, while creating a lot of visible changes, did not manage to penetrate the existing culture among the residents and cause significant changes in their political views/values. Such a difference, again, I believe is derived from Hsieh’s more profound philosophy, which I hope to post about in the near future.
Now, some of you may want to ask why he didn’t do so well in the 2008 presidential election. Well, I’ll talk about this in the future. I am aware that I promised the same a year ago but haven’t delivered. I haven’t forgotten but I haven’t really had the time to deal with the complexity of this question nor have I found the right time. Let’s leave it for the moment. I’ll come back with a short bio of Hsieh and his philosophy first.
‘A Youngster from the Blacksmith Street: The Story of Frank Hsieh (打鐵街少年: 謝長廷的故事)’ written by Kuo Chiung Li, published in 2005.
‘Seeking Success in Adversity (逆中求勝)‘ written by Kuo Chiung Li, published in 2007.
(Many thanks to Jay who shared his views and observations and to Tim Maddog for his editing.)