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How the Taiwan Opposition Alliance Talks Fell Apart

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How the Taiwan Opposition Alliance Talks Fell Apart

The pan-Blue camp’s attempt to settle on a unity ticket came crashing down last week in an embarrassing televised spectacle.

How the Taiwan Opposition Alliance Talks Fell Apart

Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) presidential candidate Ko Wen-je, center left, with his vice president candidate Cynthia Wu Hsin-ying, center right, answers to the media outside of Central Election Commission in Taipei, Taiwan, Nov. 24, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/ Chiang Ying-ying

The pan-Blue camp’s efforts at establishing an alliance between the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) and Kuomintang (KMT) came crashing down in flames on Thursday with a bizarre televised spat between the three major opposition candidates: Hou Yu-ih of the KMT, Ko Wen-je of the TPP, and Foxconn founder Terry Gou, who is running as an independent. Since then, Gou has withdrawn from the election, while Hou and Ko have registered to run separately.

Polls showed that any combination of Hou and Ko on a single ticket stood a strong chance of defeating the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s presidential candidate, current Vice President William Lai. However, ultimately the alliance did not come together because of disagreements about who would be the presidential candidate and who would settle for the vice presidency. 

It would be very difficult for the KMT, with a history of more than 100 years, to accept playing second fiddle to the TPP, an upstart pan-Blue third party. Similarly, the TPP has built its party identity in past years on the basis of being a third party that is neither DPP nor KMT, even if it hewed closer to the pan-Blue camp. 

Nevertheless, the past weeks have been fraught with drama as the TPP and KMT sought to court each other, only for negotiations to break down. This was described as a prospective Blue-White alliance in political discourse, seeing as the KMT’s party colors are blue and the TPP’s party colors are white. 

The Breakthrough That Wasn’t

Ko began to call for a primary of some kind to be held between opposition parties in late September. By mid-October, the TPP and KMT met for talks. Both parties vowed to cooperate in legislative races, but no concrete promises were made, with various local candidates still set to compete with each other. 

The major obstacle to holding a joint primary was settling the format. The TPP hoped for primaries that consisted of telephone polls, with an emphasis on cell phones, while the KMT hoped for in-person primary voting. The TPP favored mobile polling because it has a younger voter base, and younger people are less likely to own landlines. On the other hand, the KMT may have believed that its (largely older) supporters would be more likely to come out for in-person polling. 

Negotiations between the two sides proved inconclusive. However, things took an unexpected turn when former President Ma Ying-jeou and 2020 KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu threw their weight behind allowing for telephone polls. Ma continues to be politically influential in the KMT after the end of his presidency and, despite Han being recalled by large margins from his position of mayor of Kaohsiung after defeat in the 2020 presidential elections, Han continues to command a following in the KMT from the ideologically hardline. 

This seemed to throw a wrench into the designs of Hou and KMT party chair Eric Chu, who first suggested that standing legislators vote on a candidate and then called for polling in which party preference would be weighted. Both would obviously have favored the KMT. Clearly, Chu and Hou did not wish to compromise with Ko’s TPP and so an alliance again seemed improbable. 

Nevertheless, to the surprise of many, the KMT and TPP were able to agree on forming a joint presidential ticket on November 15. Under the arrangement, three experts – one chosen by the KMT, one chosen by the TPP, and one by the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation – would decide how to draw on polls conducted between November 7 and November 17 to decide the best candidate. The results were to be announced on November 18. 

It initially appeared as if the two parties had finally reached a breakthrough. However, fractures became visible right away. For one, it quickly became apparent that Ko Wen-je had agreed to a bad deal, against the wishes of his party. Ko emerged from a solo meeting with Hou, Chu, and Ma with a deal that took members of his own campaign aback. For one, the agreement did not specify any methodology for weighting the polls, with Ko not securing any guarantee that mobile polls would play a significant role in how polls were assessed, and the choice of who the candidate would be based on the best out of six polls. 

Consequently, by November 18, the deal was already off. Ko claimed that the TPP was unable to accept the margin of error that the KMT had hoped for with the polls, claiming that out of six polls drawn on, the TPP’s results indicated three wins each, and that the KMT’s results indicated five out of six wins went to Hou. 

Even so, Ko claimed that he was still up for discussing cooperation. But, as journalists pointed out at the press conference where he claimed this, neither side was likely to give way, making it a question as to what was to be negotiated. 

The pan-Green camp leveraged the incident to criticize Ko. A quote by Bonnie Glaser of the U.S. German Marshall Fund questioning Ko’s ability to negotiate with China if he had proven so inept in negotiating with another Taiwanese political party was widely cited. Likewise, it was suggested that China’s influence could potentially be what led to the sudden willingness of the TPP and KMT to align, as part of an attempt by the DPP to introduce a China frame into the election. 

The next few days saw rumors that the three candidates planned to meet. When this meeting finally took place on November 23 – with only just over 24 hours before the final deadline to register to run – it proved catastrophic. Some have suggested that what ensued was among the strangest political moments in Taiwan since democratization, as the three presidential candidates bickered publicly on live television in a meeting where Chu and Ma were also present. 

A Public Airing of Grievances

Before the meeting even took place, the candidates could not agree on where to meet. Hou waited at the offices of the Ma Ying-Jeou Foundation for the other two, while Terry Gou and Ko convened at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, in downtown Taipei. Gou had been marginalized in the earlier talks between the KMT and TPP. His sudden inclusion in the negotiations took place after meetings with Ko in the wake of the breakdown of talks with the KMT, with Ko criticizing Gou’s exclusion from the process. 

After a morning and early afternoon spent waiting, Hou, Chu, and Ma eventually set out for the Grand Hyatt. Media speculated that the location was chosen because of its symbolic import as the site where KMT officials had once hoped to talk James Soong out of his 2000 run (Soong did not withdraw, and his candidacy led to the split vote that put Chen Shui-bian of the DPP in power for the first time). After arriving, the KMT trio were first kept waiting for over 20 minutes in which it was not clear whether Ko and Gou would actually come to meet them despite being in the same building. During the wait, the Gou and Hou campaign spokespersons traded vocal barbs.

When the meeting finally convened, Gou presided, claiming that he held the right to do so because he had called for the gathering. He then began a bizarre 20-minute rant that ranged over a number of topics. Gou highlighted the personal significance of the Grand Hyatt for himself, noting he had been married in the hotel with Ma Ying-jeou as a witness – a wink to a long series of metaphors in Taiwanese media that termed a possible KMT-TPP alliance as a “marriage.” Gou also repeatedly noted that November 24 was Thanksgiving, though the holiday is not widely celebrated in Taiwan, periodically inserting English comments. 

Finally, Gou returned to the point of his unhappiness with Ma and Chu appearing uninvited at what he had planned as a three-person meeting. He claimed it would be impossible to change the video set-up he had put in place to ensure that negotiations were open and transparent, and that he had not prepared for extra guests. Hou declined to kick out Ma and Chu, suggesting that the present set-up was adequate. 

When called on by Gou, Ma refused to comment, claiming to only be a “witness” to proceedings and Chu attempted to be diplomatic. 

Things continued to go downhill, as Hou read text messages from Ko in which the TPP candidate claimed that Gou was looking for a pretext to withdraw from the elections, given that he was polling dead last. The messages said that while Ko would be happy to meet one-on-one, it was best to have a public meeting to allow for Gou to bow out. 

Ko reacted in anger to private text messages being read aloud to a nationally televised audience, while Gou was incensed about being excluded from discussions of the race as though he were not a participant. Comments from Gou pushed Hou into stating that he had only invited the Foxconn founder to participate as a witness to the union of the TPP and KMT, not as a participant in the process. 

Gou suggested that he would withdraw to go to the bathroom to allow the other candidates to discuss, and Ko called for a five-minute break. There followed a tense five minutes in which all of the candidates got up and left the meeting room while the media chased them to ask if they would genuinely return. All but Gou did, in fact, return. 

Chu, Hou, and Ko returned to clashing about polling, with Chu seeking to reiterate that there was no discussion about any margin of error in talks between the KMT and TPP, and Hou suggesting that he had left discussions of polling to Chu and Ko, as fellow graduates of the prestigious National Taiwan University. 

Finally, Huang Shih-hsiu, the spokesperson of the Gou camp (and an ex-KMT member), announced that the time that they could use the Grand Hyatt’s meeting room had run out, and began to interject with his own views. Chu interrupted to state that the remaining time should be given to Ko and Hou to have final remarks, but Chu himself could not help but interject in to criticize Ko one last time, something that was called out by Huang. 

Huang began to call on Gou to again take the stage, but was interrupted by KMT spokesperson Lin Tao. Then a different spokesperson, who happened to be female, finally interjected to declare that today’s meeting was over. 

Huang – best known as hardline KMT chair Hung Hsiu-chu’s former assistant and Taiwan’s most prominent pro-nuclear advocate – later compared the female spokesperson’s interjection to sexual harassment in comments on social media, drawing an analogy to the wave of #MeToo cases that swept Taiwan earlier this year. 

All candidates left afterward, though the KMT held a press conference stating that they would hold out hope for an alliance until the last moment. The Ko camp announced that he would register his run the next morning, with reports suggesting that TPP legislator Cynthia Wu – best known as the scion of the Shin Kong Group – would be his running mate. 

Gou posted an image of himself and his running mate Tammy Lai on Facebook to suggest that he would also proceed with a run. By then, Gou’s inexplicable references to Thanksgiving – again, a holiday that is not actually celebrated in Taiwan – had begun to go viral online and become the object of numerous internet memes. 

The Race Is Set

The next morning, Ko and Gou met again for two hours, stoking speculation that his running mate would not be Wu but could potentially be Gou. But when Ko appeared at the Central Election Commission to register at 11 a.m. on November 24, he was with Wu and not Gou. 

Hou officially registered his candidacy around 11:45 a.m., with his running mate being media commentator and pan-Blue firebrand Jaw Shaw-kong. This was somewhat of a surprising move for Hou, who historically differentiated himself from other leading KMT figures through his moderate stances. By running alongside a deep Blue hardliner, Hou would alienate moderate pan-Blues and push them toward Ko. 

Jaw was probably chosen to reassure the KMT’s base of Hou’s loyalty, seeing as Hou’s moderate stances had led to questioning if he could potentially prove a political turncoat in the mold of Lee Teng-hui. Like Lee, Hou is benshengren, referring to those descended from waves of Han migration to Taiwan prior to the Chinese Civil War, another factor in the KMT’s mistrust. By contrast, Jaw is waishengren, a descendent of those who fled to Taiwan along with the KMT government in the waning days of the civil war. 

Also on November 24, Gou announced that he would not be running, though he claimed that he remained committed to voting out the DPP. It is unclear if Ko talked Gou out of running or if Gou may potentially campaign for the TPP – though Ko may not want to be too closely associated with Gou after the televised debacle. 

The pan-Blue camp has clearly not healed its political splits. To begin with, that there were so many candidates was the result of missteps such as not holding an open primary that would have allowed a candidate to build legitimacy, and the refusal of a number of political figures to step aside for the greater good of the party as a whole. Moreover, the debacle perhaps shows that the populist rhetoric of pan-Blue candidates in past years – including Ko, Han Kuo-yu, and Terry Gou – can be highly effective in some situations, but misfire dramatically in others, as when it comes to messy, unstructured televised arguments between pan-Blue political heavyweights. 

The coming weeks will bring more clarity as to how what the most dramatic 48 hours of a relatively slow election cycle impacts the pan-Blue candidates. It is broadly agreed that William Lai’s campaign will now be significantly easier – not only because of the split vote, but because of the embarrassing fallout for the pan-Blue camp as a whole.