Despite the fact that the candidates of the major parties were only finalized a few weeks ago, the upcoming Taiwanese elections have already seen a number of twists and turns. The elections will take place in January 2024.
After much back-and-forth about who its presidential candidate would be, in mid-May, the KMT settled on New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih. Hou had long been the strongest polling candidate, as one of Taiwan’s most popular mayors, but he seemed to be distrusted within the party.
Namely, Hou has a benshengren background, meaning his ancestors were among the ethnic Han people already living in Taiwan before the Kuomintang (KMT) retreated to the island after the Chinese Civil War. This seemed to be a contributing factor to distrust of Hou within the party, particularly since as part of his background as a high-ranking police official, he had been close to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) during the Chen Shui-bian administration.
Hou also refused to commit to a strong ideological stance on cross-strait relations. That did not sit well with the KMT’s Deep Blue base, even if this may have been a contributing factor in his popularity with the general public.
It was thought that party chair Eric Chu was angling to run as the KMT’s presidential candidate in Hou’s stead. When the KMT settled on deciding its presidential candidate through a closed nomination process by the leadership, rather than open primaries, many analysts saw it as an attempt by Chu to shut out Hou.
Nevertheless, Chu was sidelined after FoxConn founder Terry Gou announced that he would pursue the KMT’s presidential nomination once again. As Hou continued to poll higher than Gou – and he seemed to have more support among the party leadership, in spite of Chu’s efforts – Hou was ultimately chosen as the KMT’s presidential candidate. Most predictions had Hou posing a formidable challenge to the DPP’s candidate, current Vice President William Lai
Yet in the last two weeks, Hou unexpectedly stumbled out of the gate. There has not been any specific incident or scandal to point to, but Hou has not proven as competent at campaigning as he was expected to be.
Namely, Hou has come under fire for polling worse than former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, the leader of the pan-Blue third party, the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). The TPP frames itself as more moderate than the KMT on cross-strait and social issues and beyond traditional pan-Blue and pan-Green divisions. That said, its politicians are mostly drawn from pan-Blue backgrounds, and Ko raised hackles in the past with statements referring to both sides of the Taiwan Straits as one family.
Ko could potentially split the pan-Blue vote, and critics say that Hou has not taken the initiative to upstage his rival in order to secure a decisive KMT victory. For example, Hou, like Ko, has framed himself as moderate, claiming to oppose both Taiwanese independence and China’s “one country, two systems” as extreme stances.
But Hou has not offered any more concrete formula on cross-strait relations. Although this is in line with his previous aversion to ideological stances on cross-strait relations, now that he is a presidential candidate, he is being mocked for his refusal to commit to any political stance. His tendency to speak in pleasant-sounding vagaries has resulted in Hou being derided as “HohoGPT.”
It is possible that Hou’s political style as New Taipei mayor – accruing popularity by avoiding national-level politics and carefully tending to local affairs – is simply not adequate for presidential campaigning. Hou may be having difficulty adjusting.
Nevertheless, more significantly, Hou has experienced a continuous series of snubs by KMT heavyweights. According to reports, Hou has had issues scheduling meetings with former President Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT’s 2020 presidential candidate, former Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, as well as Nantou County Commissioner Hsu Shu-hua.
The most humiliating incident to date involved a celebration for the city god on Taiwan’s outlying island of Kinmen, long a pan-Blue bastion, earlier this month. Terry Gou, Ko Wen-je, and even the DPP’s William Lai were invited to the celebration by the city god temple, but Hou was not invited.
During the temple celebration, Gou met with Lai, handing him a letter with a peace proposal for Taiwan and China and chatting with him in a friendly manner. Gou also helped carry the temple palanquin housing the city god alongside Ko.
But what drew the most attention about the Kinmen trip was a late-night meeting between Gou and Ko on the docks. The image of the two sitting together drew comparisons to a couple, and reports later stated that passers-by heard Gou proclaiming his undying love for Ko. The next day, Gou claimed to have been drunk and that he did not remember what he had said. Gou made similar claims in the past when spotted by reporters meeting with then-U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House.
The bizarre incident has since become the object of numerous internet memes. This continues the pattern of Gou successfully grabbing headlines with theatrical antics – a former aide of Gou’s was later quoted by media stating that Gou had probably gone a bit overboard with his acting. With this literal act of political flirtation, Gou probably aims to stoke speculation that he may align with Ko for a run against Hou. Gou promised to support Hou in a statement after he did not secure the KMT nomination, but Gou may have since rethought this stance.
It appears that in spite of his nomination, Hou is still a divisive figure within the KMT, and that Gou may be out to sabotage his run. Gou supporters in the KMT, such as legislator Chen Yu-chen, claim that Gou believed that he would secure the presidential nomination before unexpectedly learning that he had been passed over in favor of Hou. Snubs against Hou likely reflect the significant degree to which he is still distrusted in the KMT.
It is early in campaigning, with elections more than eight months away, and Hou may yet recover. But the situation is such that chair Eric Chu has already had to brush off suggestions that the KMT replace Hou with another candidate, as the party did in 2016 following the disastrous campaign of hardline candidate Hung Hsiu-chu.
In the meantime, in the last month, the DPP has experienced its own share of controversies. The first was the apparent snub of current Taipei city councilor Wu Pei-yi in favor of entertainer Ili Cheng as a legislative candidate. The DPP candidate would be running to replace independent pan-Green legislator Freddy Lim, best known as a heavy metal musician turned legislator, as Lim has announced that he will be retiring from politics.
Wu, who won two terms in office in Taipei’s Zhongzheng-Wanhua electoral district, is known for her strong local presence, and is close to current President Tsai Ing-wen, having originally come to prominence as a student activist in the 2014 Sunflower Movement. By contrast, though known for her outspoken political views, Cheng is an entertainer frequently in the tabloid news and has no prior political experience.
The DPP seeking to run Cheng over Wu was broadly understood as an attempt by William Lai – who also serves as DPP chair – to replace Tsai’s people with his own. Tsai is likely to become a powerful factional leader in the DPP after her presidency ends.
But following the backlash against Cheng’s nomination, the DPP eventually announced a slate of young legislative candidates that included Wu, alongside other former Sunflower Movement activists. This included Wu Cheng and Tseng Po-yu, who previously unsuccessfully ran as third-party candidates, alongside Lin Fei-fan, the student leader of the Sunflower Movement who previously served as deputy secretary general of the DPP.
For the most part, the DPP will be fielding these candidates in electoral districts of Taipei and New Taipei that have historically slanted toward the pan-Blue camp, continuing the pattern of fielding younger candidates in areas where they will have uphill challenges. The DPP may hope that running well-known former Sunflower Movement activists can generate an image of youth for the party as a whole, with the party touting its “Grand Democracy Alliance” with “Generation Y” in messaging.
There has been some backlash within the DPP that Wu and Tseng were recruited to the party despite previously having been independent or third-party candidates, while the DPP passed over politicians that were previously stalwart party members. However, this is a dynamic long seen in Taiwanese politics.
More controversial has been the DPP decision to field former KMT spokesperson Lee Cheng-hao in New Taipei. Lee was kicked out of the KMT after criticizing Han Kuo-yu’s 2020 campaign on a public talk show. But though this marks a case in which the DPP recruited a former KMT member, this would, too, be far from the first time that this occurred.
More seriously, the DPP’s electoral campaign has been marred by online allegations from a former party worker that she experienced a sexual assault incident that a current deputy secretary-general of the party sought to cover up. The allegations were posted on Facebook earlier this week and framed in the context of “Wave Makers,” a hit political drama that has taken Taiwan by storm in the past weeks.
“Wave Makers” dramatizes Taiwan’s electoral campaigns, while also dealing with issues about entrenched sexual harassment and violence in Taiwanese politics. The show depicts the party workers of a fictionalized version of the DPP. One of the primary subplots follows a party worker trying to seek justice after experiencing a case of sexual harassment in the party, while her superiors try to cover up the incident.
The DPP quickly apologized, vowing to make changes, while DPP Deputy Secretary General Hsu Chia-tien resigned to take responsibility. The KMT has criticized the DPP over the incident, but it is to be seen if the allegations come back to haunt the party in election campaigning. For their part, a number of the young candidates that the DPP announced it would be fielding – some of whom previously praised the realism and accuracy of “Wave Makers” – have expressed regret over the incident.