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Can Taiwan’s Opposition Settle on a Unity Candidate?

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Can Taiwan’s Opposition Settle on a Unity Candidate?

To have any chance of winning, the pan-Blue camp will need to avoid the current three-way contest for votes. But so far no one looks willing to withdraw.

Can Taiwan’s Opposition Settle on a Unity Candidate?

Ko Wen-je (right) greets supporters while attending the 160th anniversary celebration of the Baishatun Gongtian Temple, Miaoli County, Taiwan, Sep. 29, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/ Ko Wen-je

With a mere three-and-a-half months to go before the Taiwanese presidential elections on January 13, 2024, much remains up in the air. 

Typically, an election in Taiwan means voters will be deciding between the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT). The DPP, which currently holds the presidency and a solid legislative majority, is the largest party in what is referred to as the pan-Green camp, which historically has leaned toward support for Taiwanese independence. The KMT is the largest party in what is referred to as the pan-Blue camp, which has historically leaned toward support for unification with China. 

This year, however, Taiwanese voters face an unusually fractured political landscape. The pan-Blue camp is fielding not one, but three candidates: the KMT’s presidential candidate, New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih; Taiwan People Party presidential candidate Ko Wen-je, the former Taipei mayor; and independent candidate Terry Gou, the founder of Foxconn, who failed to secure the KMT nomination for both the 2020 and 2024 elections.

With the pan-Blue vote facing a three-way split, many expect the winner to be the DPP’s presidential candidate, current Vice President William Lai. 

The pan-Blue camp faced the possibility of a split vote from the onset of the election season. Ko’s TPP has grown in past years to become the second-largest party in the pan-Blue camp, overtaking third parties such as the New Party and People First Party (PFP). 

When Ko made his political debut in 2014, winning the Taipei mayorship as an independent, he did not position himself as a candidate of the pan-Blue camp. In fact, Ko ran with the endorsement of the DPP after winning a primary for the pan-Green camp. Still, Ko emphasized that he was an independent who was not squarely of the pan-Blue or pan-Green camps. 

In past years, however, Ko has drifted more closely to the pan-Blue camp,  though he has continued to depict himself as a political independent. He is now perceived as a “light blue” candidate, in that he is not necessarily as pro-China as the KMT on cross-strait issues, including support for unification. 

Given Ko’s need to maintain his reputation as an independent, it was expected that Ko would run for president independently of the KMT. His party’s platform is based on providing an alternative to the traditional Blue-Green divide, with the TPP adopting the color white as its symbol. Even if he did not stand a realistic chance of winning, Ko would be able to boost the odds of other candidates in his party if he ran. 

As such, it was known from the onset that the pan-Blue vote would be split. This is a recurring dynamic in Taiwanese politics – other pan-Blue third parties such as the PFP are themselves the legacy of presidential runs by pan-Blue candidates that challenged the KMT candidate. 

Ko has done far better than expected, however. He sometimes polls as the second-strongest performing candidate at present, even through many polls previously suggested that the KMT’s candidate, Hou Yu-ih, would be the strongest candidate in the election cycle. 

This is as much due to the strengths of Ko and his party’s campaigning as it is a result of the KMT’s missteps. Hou faltered out of the gate, coming under fire for political wishy-washiness. In trying to avoid being pinned down as having any firm stance, Hou often responds to questions from the media in vague terms. 

A scandal involving allegations of students at a kindergarten in New Taipei being poisoned by their teachers also hurt Hou’s run – even though the school was later cleared of wrongdoing. Hou’s mayoral administration handled the PR fallout poorly, and the scandal dealt a blow to his reputation. 

Making matters worse for Hou and the KMT, the pan-Blue vote was further split with Terry Gou’s entrance into the race in August. This, too, was the result of missteps by the KMT. 

Gou has been understood as angling at a presidential run for over a decade. The Foxconn founder announced in April that he would be again seeking the KMT’s presidential nomination. He appealed to be allowed to rejoin the party in spite of quitting the KMT in anger after failing to win its 2020 nomination. 

After much back-and-forth, Hou was announced as the KMT’s candidate in May. Hou was selected not through an open primary, but through a closed nomination process by the KMT’s central standing committee. Ironically, the shift was originally widely thought to be because KMT party chair Eric Chu himself harbored presidential ambitions and hoped to displace Hou, who would have likely won an open primary. Chu’s chances of running as the KMT’s presidential candidate, as he did in 2016, were put to an end after Gou announced his intention to run, sidelining Chu.

In the end, the KMT leadership settled on Hou as the candidate because he polled more strongly – even if there was distrust in the party regarding Hou’s political loyalty, seeing as he had been close to the DPP before joining the KMT. 

At the time, Gou vowed to stay out of the race and to back Hou, but he has since changed his mind. It is thought that the closed nomination process resulted in bruised feelings on Gou’s part. As one of Taiwan’s richest men, Gou may believe that he will be able to finance his own run. 

To run as an independent, Gou will need to acquire 300,000 signatures from the public. He has denied rumors that he is having issues securing signatures. 

Gou has begun to lean into populist rhetoric during the present campaign in a way that he did not in the 2020 campaign cycle, perhaps taking a page from the political playbook of the KMT’s 2020 presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu. But this populist turn, involving outlandish campaign promises such vowing to fund the construction of 80,000 robots to defend Taiwan from China, may have backfired by alienating more voters than its attracts.. 

Meanwhile, Lai, the DPP candidate, is not polling as strongly as Tsai Ing-wen did before the 2020 election, when Tsai won 8.17 million votes, amounting to 57.1 percent of all ballots. Tsai’s win was the highest vote share by any non-KMT candidate in Taiwanese history. By contrast, Lai is consistently polling in the low 30 percent range.

Though Lai is polling better than Ko, Gou, or Hou individually, it is possible the pan-Blue camp could still defeat the DPP if they politically unite. Consequently, there have been months of speculation about the odds of two or three of the pan-Blue candidates uniting in some fashion. 

So far, Gou has taken a scorched-earth approach to the KMT. He is prying off KMT members to join a political grouping he has termed the “Major League” in one of the many baseball metaphors that creep into Taiwanese politics – a more literal translation might be the “Mainstream Opinion Alliance” (主流民意大聯盟). Reports in Taiwanese domestic media state that Gou has rebuffed attempts by Hou to meet with him, including times in which Hou was given the cold shoulder at Gou’s personal residence. Ironically, Gou publicly claims that his aim in running is to unite the political opposition against the DPP. 

For its part, the TPP has denied but also hinted at negotiations with the KMT over cooperation. More recently, however, Ko proposed that primaries be held for the pan-Blue camp, if all candidates agree to withdraw in favor of the eventual winner. It’s obviously an attractive option for Ko, who is outpolling his competitors in the opposition ranks. If this proposal were to catch on, it could prove a means for the pan-Blue camp to unite, so as to field a viable challenger to the DPP. Yet it’s unclear if this will take place. Ko stated on Monday that after floating the idea for several days, he has not received any real response. 

Analysts suggest that negotiations between the KMT and TPP face the problem of operationalizing any alliance down the ballot. The KMT is fielding candidates across all of Taiwan in legislative elections, all of which would be loathe to withdraw in favor of TPP candidates. 

The major stumbling block of any possible cooperation between Ko, Hou, or Gou is the question of who would withdraw, potentially to serve as a running mate or premier. Even if Hou faces internal distrust in the KMT, the party would be hesitant to withdraw its own candidate in favor of a candidate from an upstart third party. Like Hou, Ko would also be distrusted by KMT leaders because of his past dalliance with the pan-Green camp. Ko, meanwhile, may find it a bitter pill to be forced to play second fiddle to Hou or Gou, whom Ko is consistently topping in the polls. And if, as many suspect, Gou may be seeking to lash out at the KMT, this makes it unlikely that the Foxconn founder would be willing to bury the hatchet with them so easily. 

By contrast, if the DPP does win the presidency it may be because the party united relatively quickly behind Lai. Lai was not challenged by Taoyuan Mayor Cheng Wen-tsan, largely seen as the DPP’s other potential choice for 2024, after Cheng was affected by a scandal involving academic plagiarism. It was rumored that Tsai herself preferred that her former vice president Chen Chien-jen be the DPP’s candidate, but Chen did not challenge Lai in the end, instead taking up Lai’s old post as premier. 

Yet Lai can’t rest comfortably just yet. History shows that Taiwanese electoral politics can be subject to unpredictable plot twists. Per Taiwan’s Central Election Commission, registration for president candidates will need to be finalized in late November. Until then, Taiwan’s political sphere will be rife with rumors of prospective alliances being negotiated – or how talks for such alliances have broken down.