Written by Gary D. Rawnsley.

The first rule of election communication is decide a strong, positive narrative and, with the help of a clear timeline, stick to the narrative all the way through the campaign.

The second rule follows the first: Do not get distracted from the narrative, and never let your opponents define the agenda for you. Once you stray into their territory, you concede to your opponents the power to decide the themes of the election and force you on to the defensive; and being on the defensive is a sign and source of weakness.

The DPP’s candidate in Taiwan’s 2016 presidential election, Tsai Ing-wen, would do well to remember these rules. These are potentially difficult times for her campaign, buoyant opinion poll figures notwithstanding, and much depends on how she chooses to react to events largely beyond her control. The KMT grabbed the international spotlight once Ma Ying-jeou decided to meet with Xi Jinping in Singapore. This encounter, described almost universally as ‘historic’, propelled Taiwan – and Ma – into the world’s headlines in a way that was never possible before: How often does Taiwan merit almost blanket coverage on CNN? As most analyses suggest the discussions in Singapore were symbolic and indicated that President Ma is consumed by his legacy once he leaves office.

The meeting did not provide any substantive conclusion: Nothing was agreed, and cross-Strait relations did not change. The world kept turning. However, the risk is that the meeting could derail the DPP’s election campaign and change its agenda.

Since news about the meeting broke, the world’s online media have reported Tsai’s reaction. This was overwhelmingly negative, with claims that the meeting damaged Taiwan’s democracy: ‘We had hoped,’ she said in a statement, ‘that President Ma would speak about Taiwan’s democracy, freedom, and the existence of the Republic of China. … It is with regret that we see the only result from the Ma-Xi meeting was their attempt to limit the people’s ability to choose the future of cross-Strait relations by setting political preconditions on the international stage’.

My advice to Tsai Ing-wen is, make sure these are your final word on the subject. Do not let reporters, your advisors or your opponents push you into carrying on the conversation about the meeting. Downplay it. The more you react to it and the more you criticise it, the more you risk amplifying the meeting’s significance. Do not let this meeting divert you from the issues that define your electoral support and which will make sure you win the Presidency in January. Show your voters, Presidents Xi and Ma, and the world now watching Taiwan that you are attentive to the issues that matter to the people of Taiwan: the economy, creating jobs, improving government efficiency, and legislative reform. The domestic arena is where you are strongest and it is from here that you must continue your campaign. Giving too much attention to cross-Strait relations means you are forced to campaign on the KMT’s agenda, and your focus will disappear. Don’t let this meeting in Singapore – however underhanded, however unconstitutional – be a distraction.

Gary D. Rawnsley is a Professor of Public Diplomacy at Aberystwyth University. Image credit: CC by Prince Roy/Flickr

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