Campaign decisions: Should Ma go all Putin?

Faced with the first competition for president between a man and a woman, both candidates’ campaign teams have interesting decisions about two of the main plays in Taiwanese elections: the macho and the cutesy.

In previous campaigns, President Ma has gone with a suave Bond-type image combined with the urban-outdoorsman. Despite looking like a man who enjoys a good manicure (nothing wrong with that), he has also been known to channel his inner-Putin; running marathons, swimming across icy lakes and I’m sure many other manly pursuits besides.

Tsai’s team have an interesting challenge in how to present a rather unusual DPP candidate. Tsai doesn’t have the same background that facilitated Chen Shui-bian’s masterful “son of Taiwan” shtick in 2000. She doesn’t have the earthy appeal of a Su Tseng-chang (whom she defeated in the DPP primary), nor the Dangwai lineage of her predecessors. And she seldom wears a windcheater (de rigeur for male candidates). At the outset, Tsai had something of the professorial aloofness of Peng Ming-min (minus the Taiwan independence obviously. Newcomers take note: when Peng was running in ’96, it was accurate to describe him as the ‘independence supporting DPP candidate’).

One of the difficulties for Tsai is that no one knows what helps a woman get elected president in Taiwan. Former Vice President Annette Lu had a stellar political lineage, educational pedigree and a strong identity as Taiwan’s premier feminist. But voters were really choosing her running mate, and by the 2004 re-election campaign she had become rather like having an incontinent pet around when visitors come for tea.

Unsurprisingly, male presidential candidates have tended toward the man of action (e.g. “rescuing” disaster victims) or the paternal (e.g. LTH’s sofa stories). Chen bucked the trend in 2000, both with his “sentimental journeys” and the explicitly cutesy A-Bian merchandise (discussed at length in this paper on Kawaii in Taiwanese politics, the author of which will post her expert views here soon).

Given the phenomenon of “cuteness” in Taiwanese society and the expectations on women to act in certain ways (as explicated in this paper), expect Tsai’s campaign team to design something cute for her to do. In this sense, the piggy bank thing was a gift gratefully received.

It is a difficult balance for Tsai, a serious and intellectual woman. But it also presents Ma with questions of his own. Should he go all out action man, or bring out his feminine side?

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