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Taiwan’s Democracy Is Utterly Confounded by Populist Mayor Han Kuo-yu

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Taiwan’s Democracy Is Utterly Confounded by Populist Mayor Han Kuo-yu

The controversial Kaohsiung mayor, now a presidential frontrunner, was never supposed to make it this far. It’s an increasingly familiar story.

Taiwan’s Democracy Is Utterly Confounded by Populist Mayor Han Kuo-yu

Han Kuo-yu reacts after winning the mayoral election in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Nov. 24, 2018.

Credit: AP Photo

Han Kuo-yu is refusing to disappear. The polarizing mayor of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s largest southern city, sauntered north to Taipei last weekend to greet reportedly hundreds of thousands of rabid supporters rallying in the heavy rain. Never mind that Han has not formally announced he will run for president in Taiwan’s January 2020 presidential elections. Hate him or love him, Han has Taiwan glued to his every move.

Han, who was elected to Kaohsiung’s highest office just over six months ago, shares many characteristics of nontraditional “populist” politicians constructed to break all the presumed rules of democracy. Han seems to be bolstered by all publicity, whether good or bad. Every social media mention, of which there are many, ingrains him further into the Taiwanese consciousness. Taiwan’s ruling government fined one TV station in March for failing to fact-check its coverage of Han, but since the dog days of his campaign, TVs in Taiwan have featured nearly nonstop Han Kuo-yu – whether myth or reality, fawning or critical, there has been wall-to-wall coverage of the opposition Kuomintang’s (KMT’s) new superstar.

Han has done precious little as mayor of Kaohsiung. His city council appearances – his chance to talk policy with probing opposition legislators – have been disastrous. His list of personal scandals has continued to grow, the latest involving allegations of an extramarital affair with a woman who gave birth to a child. (Han has sued the publication which first shared the rumors.) Han’s critics are eagerly awaiting the incident that will finally sink him. The next major hiccup, they say, is the one that’ll do him in; the voters can only handle so much Han Kuo-yu. His momentum, according to Taiwanese media critical of Han, was fading over the last few weeks. Saturday’s rally has, for now, quashed that thought.

Taiwan observers have not yet grasped how to cope with the “Han wave” – the term for the mayor’s viral, seemingly inexplicable popularity. Then again, from the United States to Brazil, from Italy to the Philippines, nobody has made absolute sense of the world’s new breed of populists and their uncanny ability to seize the eyes and ears of the public.

Like his contemporaries, Han convinces his supporters he has a unique remedy to all that presumably ails them. Han presents himself, with little evidence, as a walking stimulus for Taiwan’s stagnant economy. He also strikes a palpable fear into his critics – his openness to forging closer ties with Beijing is the existential anathema to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP’s) agenda for maintaining a free, democratic Taiwan. In stark contrast to the staunchly pragmatic President Tsai Ing-wen, who is not known for being an inspiring public speaker, Han constantly conjures love, fear, or both at once.

Han publicly denounces negative messaging in favor of preaching acceptance and prosperity; a core plank of his Kaohsiung economic stimulus plan is developing a “love economy” around the city’s aptly named Love River. But his rally on Saturday proved an acceptant space for anti-gay marriage campaigners, who drew cheers from much of the assembled crowd. (Han himself has cautiously avoided speaking on Taiwan’s recent move to legalize same-sex marriage, which was opposed by much of the KMT.) Many of his supporters have embraced the island’s history of racism toward Southeast Asians – of whom there are now over 700,000 in Taiwan, mostly migrant workers who face frequent discrimination. Han fueled that fire in March by using a derogatory term for Filipino caretakers, to which he quickly issued a clarification.

But nothing has toppled Han, who still outpaces all other potential candidates in most public opinion polls. Han has remained coy about his presidential ambitions, saying that while he is reluctant to abandon Kaohsiung, he will run if the KMT deems it necessary for the good of Taiwan by drafting him as its candidate. This is a page out of the playbook of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who said he would only run for president to “save the republic” and had a representative file for candidacy on his behalf as he publicly vacillated on whether to run.

This new class of candidates, masters of harnessing shock value and commandeering attention, have confounded citizens and journalists tasked with making sense of them. In Taiwan, Han Kuo-yu has done the same. Precious few, including those who frequently speak to Han supporters, claim to truly understand the “Han wave.”

Some of Han’s critics argue that it’s best to let Han keep talking and wait for him to shoot himself in the foot. This argument relies on the premise that Han’s popularity will be sunk by a rational counterstrike to his growing empire of captured emotion. Taiwanese voters do have a strong history of pragmatism. They have voted against deeply held sentiments – last November, voters convincingly struck down a proposal to compete in the Olympics as “Taiwan” rather than “Chinese Taipei,” although most Taiwanese do not consider themselves Chinese – and the country has convicted two of its former presidents for crimes committed in office. However, there is no evidence that Han’s support is seriously threatened by a cascade of changed minds. As of now, this argument is mostly rooted in hope.

Others, in an echo of the chatter surrounding the Mueller Report in the United States, aim to paint Han as a vassal of Beijing and its shadowy influence campaigns. There is some evidence that Chinese actors aided Han’s online popularity before and during his election as mayor, but there is nothing suggesting that Han has personally colluded with China to win elections, nor that Chinese astroturfing is primarily responsible for Han’s surge in popularity. Some Han-friendly Taiwanese media outlets are themselves ideologically close to China, but the entirety of Taiwan’s free press, regardless of their politics, has eagerly fed the Han Kuo-yu frenzy.

There’s also a question of whether Taiwan’s political coverage, mostly concentrated in Taipei, understands why Han’s supporters back him – calling to mind the drive in the United States to venture into Appalachia and flyover states to understand Trump voters. Taiwan’s domestic media is highly polarized, easily divisible into green (DPP-leaning) and blue (KMT-leaning). Taipei-based foreign coverage of the country can be prone to overstating the popularity of the U.S.-friendly DPP and President Tsai, who has suffered from low approval ratings for the majority of her time in office. (The KMT triumph in November’s regional elections, widely described as shocking, was not especially surprising to most Taiwanese voters.) Many words have been penned describing the dangers to democracy, and to Taiwan-U.S. ties, of Han’s potential candidacy; far fewer have been dedicated to exploring the actual roots of his support and asking the uncomfortable question of why so many Taiwanese cheer when Han speaks of economic rapprochement with Beijing.

For all we know, more trips to KMT-leaning rural provinces such as Changhua, Miaoli, and Hualien, where Han plans to hold a rally this weekend, might provide valuable context. Voters outside Taipei have long felt scorned by a presumed Taipei-centric approach taken by both parties; Han himself won in the historically DPP-leaning Kaohsiung in large part because its longtime DPP mayor, Chen Chu, left before the end of her term to serve as an adviser to Tsai. Han’s recent proposal to move the capital of Taiwan from Taipei allows voters elsewhere on the island to imagine themselves finally included in the island’s center of power. It’s almost certainly an empty policy promise, but it’s an emotional masterstroke.

And Han’s rise does not appear to be about policy. After all, Han does not deal much in policy; to this date, he has offered only sweeping statements describing his personal cross-strait stance, along with boilerplate proclamations of how he hopes to shower Taiwan with wealth and happiness. Han has no perfect populist parallel – he pointedly eschews Trumpian vitriolic name-calling, for instance, and in a country whose major parties do not operate on the left-right spectrum, he’s hardly a right-wing scion – but he is Taiwan’s own populist, blazing a path through Taiwan’s foundation of democratic norms as a puzzled yet enraptured populace gazes at the aftermath.