Taiwan is gearing up for its November 24 regional elections, in which voters will decide on city, county, and community-level leaders along with a list of referendums on issues ranging from nuclear power to marriage equality. The election results will serve as their own referendum on the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a traditionally pro-independence camp which has taken a firm anti-China stance under President Tsai Ing-wen.
While the DPP is expected to hold its current majority in Taiwan’s 22 cities and counties, it faces a surprisingly potent challenge from the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), which favors reunification with China, in the traditionally pro-DPP south – along with the potential rise of an independent, social media-friendly 2020 presidential challenger in Taipei who the DPP believes treads too close to Beijing.
Who Is Ko Wen-je?
If nothing else, Ko Wen-je, who is running for his second term as Taipei mayor as an independent after winning in 2014 with DPP support, is an enigma.
Ko, a 59-year-old one-time trauma surgeon, saw his DPP backing evaporate earlier this year after a series of events, including his reaction to a protest-marred cross-strait music festival in 2017, led the DPP to decide to nominate its own candidate in 2018. While there are five registered candidates – including a longshot internet darling with a love for honey lemonade – this is effectively a three-way race between Ko, the DPP’s Pasuya Yao, and KMT candidate Ting Shou-chung.
The race has seen its share of theatrics, but Ko is expected to win handily. He opted not to participate in the first televised debate, telling voters they could Google his record. Speculation has mounted that Ko is preparing himself for a 2020 independent challenge for the presidency – far from an impossibility in Taiwan, where nearly half of Taiwanese do not identify with either of the two major political parties.
In the campaign’s second televised debate, held on November 10, Ko defended his record of developing Taipei into a more innovative and sustainable city and said he represents an alternative for people tired of squabbles between the dominant “pan-green” (DPP-allied) and “pan-blue” (KMT-affiliated) camps. At the debate, the KMT’s Ting criticized Ko for his controversial remarks about women, while the DPP’s Yao slammed Ko for his now-infamous claim, made during a 2015 visit to Shanghai, that the “two sides of the [Taiwan] Strait are one family.”
Yao touched on the DPP’s chief concern about Ko: that he favors further enmeshment with China, leading to speculation that Beijing could back him were he to run for president in 2020. In an October interview with Bloomberg, Ko said Taiwan was “just a product on a shelf” for the United States in its ongoing war of attrition with China. His comments resonated with those Taiwanese who have abandoned their support of the DPP amid the island’s rapid loss of diplomatic allies and perceived reliance on support from the United States.
Highly popular with Taipei’s young voters, Ko made waves in late October when he dropped a music video that went viral on social media. Accompanied by Taiwanese rapper Chunyan, Ko donned a button-up shirt and slacks and, over blaring trap music – a form of hip-hop popularized by artists like Three 6 Mafia and Gucci Mane – chanted “Do the right thing, do things right!” At the time of writing, the video had upwards of 2.1 million views on YouTube.
While Ting and Yao continue to campaign aggressively, the sense is that Ko has his eyes set on a larger prize – not that the famously eccentric mayor would ever let that cat slip out of the bag. “My election win in 2014 was already a miracle,” Ko told Bloomberg. “So no matter what else I accomplish, it won’t match up to that miracle.”
DPP Faces a Serious Southern Test
A more immediate test facing the DPP is coming, surprisingly, from its traditional stronghold. Earlier this year, when outgoing Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu abdicated her seat after 12 years to join Tsai’s cabinet as secretary general to the president, few expected the longtime DPP stranglehold over Taiwan’s third-most populous city would be at risk come November.
Han Kuo-yu, a former KMT legislator, has thrown a wrench into the equation. The fiery 61-year-old has unexpectedly surged into contention against DPP legislator and mayoral candidate Chen Chi-mai. He has gained comparisons to Taipei’s Ko in the process as, unlike most candidates outside of the pan-green camp, he has seemingly managed to earn the support of young voters.
For the DPP, losing Kaohsiung – which it has held for 20 years, and which is home to the Zuoying naval base – would be a symbolic loss with an unquestionable ripple effect on the 2020 election. Chen, the DPP candidate, is seen by many voters as lacking Han’s charisma. Despite the enduring popularity of longtime leader Chen Chu, Han has called the city “old,” “poor,” and “moribund,” striking a populist tone in sharp contrast to his DPP opponent, who said he would spur Kaohsiung’s high-tech sector by building a technology corridor and a semiconductor industry during a November 10 televised debate.
Han’s campaign was ripped by the DPP for spreading falsified information via its Facebook page in October – the posts, which accused Chen of rigging development deals, were later deleted, and Han’s Facebook page was deactivated. Since then, the tone of the Kaohsiung race has remained antagonistic. After the November 10 debate, a report claiming Chen had been wearing an earpiece on stage circulated after the Chinese-language Apple Daily picked up a post on Taiwanese social media; Chen quickly refuted the report, insinuating that it was a KMT smear campaign.
The falsities have helped fuel speculation that Chinese-backed operatives may be actively interfering in the Kaohsiung mayoral race. Leu Wen-jong, the director general of the Ministry of Justice’s Investigation Bureau, said in October that his agency was investigating 33 alleged cases of Chinese funding going toward November 24 election campaigns. “Chinese are attempting to interfere with the elections using financial means, primarily by supporting individual candidates,” Leu told the Liberty Times in an October 30 interview.
Chatter over Chinese disinformation campaigns, which has increased in the weeks leading up to the election, can be read as the anxiety of a vulnerable DPP, dire warnings of China’s influence at all levels of Taiwanese democracy, or perhaps both. Like all elections in Taiwan, the November 24 results will reveal present-day public attitudes towards the proverbial China question – and, perhaps, the success of rogue actors, both foreign and domestic, in influencing the Taiwanese popular will.