Taiwan’s presidential elections took an unexpected turn in the last month, with what was widely viewed as a not very competitive race suddenly looking as though it might become, in fact, a highly competitive one. In particular, William Lai of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has been seen as the most likely victor for months, due to the fact that the pan-Blue camp is fielding not one, but three competing presidential candidates. These candidates are Hou Yu-ih, the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate and New Taipei mayor; former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), and Foxconn founder Terry Gou, who is running as an independent.
The TPP and KMT had ostensibly agreed to a joint ticket in which the candidate of one party would become the vice presidential candidate of the other. However, talks on cooperation stumbled in recent weeks, with a series of meetings failing to result in formal cooperation. In particular, the two parties could not come to an agreement about polling to decide if Ko or Hou would be the presidential contender. The KMT hoped for in-person polling, in which the IDs of voters would be checked, and participants would sign a vow expressing support for removing the DPP from power. By contrast, the TPP hoped for telephone polling.
The TPP believed that telephone polls would favor it, particularly if they included cell phone polling. The TPP has a younger base of support, who would be more likely to be included in telephone polling. Voter turnout among young people, as compared to elderly individuals, suggests that they might not turn out for in-person polls, even as polling between Hou and Ko was close.
Inconclusive meetings between the TPP and KMT included a dramatic late night meeting between KMT chair Eric Chu, Hou, and Ko on October 31 in a factory in Jingmei, Taipei. As the stalemate dragged on, each side accused the other of seeking to rig the process.
A breakthrough occurred when former President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT and former Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, the KMT’s 2020 presidential candidate, threw their weight behind telephone polling. This had the effect of pushing Chu and Hou toward accepting that option – in part because at this time, it was too late to organize in-person polls. Some read this as a sign of the KMT’s willingness to swap out Hou for Ko, similar to the swap out of Hung Hsiu-chu for Eric Chu just three months before the January 2016 presidential election.
Even then, the two parties continued to spar about their preferred means of polling. The TPP hoped for telephone polling that consisted entirely of mobile phone polling which, again, would lead to more younger voters being included seeing as younger people usually do not have landlines. On the other hand, after first proposing that respondents vote on the preferred candidate, the KMT hoped for surveys that would take both the preferred choice of party and choice of candidate into account, because the KMT still has a larger party base than the TPP.
Once again, the two parties proved unable to come to an agreement, even though during this period, the KMT gradually reduced the percentage of the polling that would be based on party preference – a sign of how Chu and Hou’s position seemed to be eroding.
Given these points of contention, it came as a surprise when, on November 15, the two parties announced they had come to an agreement to base their choice of candidate on polls taken between November 7 and November 17. The victor would be decided based on a system in which candidates would gain a point if their lead was greater than the margin of error on a specific poll.
Nevertheless, the agreement between the two sides did not specify a clear methodology for the polls to be aggregated, with no set framing for sampling, the validity of polling, or what questions would be asked of voters. Such judgments would be made by a panel of three experts, one chosen by the KMT, one chosen by the TPP, and one chosen by the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation. The results were to be announced on November 18.
Although the TPP was banking on victory through the significant incorporation of mobile polling, which showed Ko ahead, Ko did not get this guarantee either.
The November 15 announcement was made after a closed-door meeting between Ko, Hou, Chu, and Ma. It was widely reported in Taiwanese media that this decision took members of the TPP by surprise, with a spokesperson for the Ko campaign breaking down in tears. Members of the TPP seemed to have been shocked by Ko suddenly agreeing to the deal, which was understood as disadvantageous to Ko.
The unusual presence of Ma Ying-jeou in attempting to facilitate an alliance between the KMT and TPP illustrates his continued influence in the KMT. Likewise, the KMT’s 2020 candidate, Han Kuo-yu, clearly remains a key player in the party, though he has not played as prominent a role in the current proceedings.
Han was announced at the number one position in the KMT party list on November 19. This has been read as that the KMT’s hope for Han to become the majority speaker of the Legislative Yuan if they win a majority. Although Han was recalled as mayor of Kaohsiung after his massive defeat in the 2020 presidential elections, he still commands a loyal following among some members of the KMT.
Fractures began to show on November 17, with Ko demanding that the KMT publicize the results of the polls by 6 p.m. This did not take place, though the KMT responded by issuing a statement that the results would be announced at 10 a.m. on November 18. The KMT also stressed that an alliance between the KMT and TPP was meant to defeat the DPP for Taiwan’s sake rather than for the political career of any individual.
By the morning of November 18, reports indicated that Ko had pulled out of the agreement. Yet when asked at 8:55 a.m. – just over an hour before the results were set to be announced – if the alliance was off by representatives of the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation, Ko replied, “Give me a little time.”
Finally, at 10:30 a.m., Ko held a press conference. Ko claimed that the TPP and KMT disagreed about the margin of error to factor in, and that this led to a different results between the two calculations. The TPP claimed that the six polls consulted showed three wins for Hou and three wins for Ko, while the KMT’s view that was Hou had five wins, while there had been one win for Ko.
Ko criticized the KMT for obstinacy and reiterated his view that the strongest ticket was the one in which he was the presidential candidate and Hou was the vice presidential candidate. He stressed that he was still open to further negotiations.
Though reporters pointed out to Ko that the KMT and TPP did not have time to hold further polls and both sides seemed intent on pushing for their original candidate to serve as the presidential candidate, Ko still claimed there was room for negotiating. In his words, anything was still possible before the deadline for candidate registration of 5 p.m. on November 24.
Ko largely shrugged off questions about whether he had understood what he agreed to. Yet Ko did state that he would go into future negotiations with his party rather than as an individual; otherwise he would agree too easily to what the KMT offered. The TPP would delay its announcement of a vice presidential candidate and its party list candidates to still allow for the possibility of cooperation with the KMT.
Ko also criticized the KMT for excluding Terry Gou, the third opposition contender in the presidential race, from discussions. Ko claimed that channels of communication were still open between his campaign and Gou.
Likewise, Ko vowed to “sue to death” media that speculated that he had been blackmailed by Ma. Some media outlets honed in on a moment when Ko was shown a piece of paper by Ma and his expression visibly changed, suggesting that the paper could have referred to something Ko had done in China.
The DPP immediately zoomed in on Ko’s perceived missteps in negotiating with the KMT. Citing a tweet by Bonnie Glaser of the German Marshall Fund, DPP politicians suggested that given Ko’s ineptness in negotiating, he could not be relied on if he were involved in high-stakes negotiations with China. Lai also chose this moment to lock in his vice presidential candidate, selecting Hsiao Bi-khim, who was until Monday Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States. The timing of the long-expected announcement provided a further contrast between the unity within the DPP and the disarray in the pan-Blue camp.
On November 19, Ko vowed that he would run until the end as the TPP’s presidential candidate. This has been interpreted by some as reflecting the final breakdown of collaboration between the TPP and KMT, with Ko now pulling away from a prospective alliance.
Ko’s statement may seek to reassure TPP rank-and-file, who were likely rattled by the incident. As part of their negotiations over cooperation in the presidential race, the TPP and KMT agreed to cooperate in legislative elections, but in truth this has always potentially been a stumbling block to cooperation. In local races, TPP and KMT candidates have been campaigning for months, at times directly competing with each other. It’s hard to believe candidates of either the TPP or KMT would be happy if made to withdraw in favor of the candidates of the other party;.
With the deadline for candidate registration looming, the next week will provide final clarity as to whether this is the end of hopes for a KMT-TPP alliance. When asked if this was the case, a spokesperson for the Ko camp responded that all parties were welcome to interpret his statement as they wished to do so.
In the meantime, former Taipei Deputy Mayor Huang Shan-shan, who heads Ko’s campaign, criticized the KMT as akin to a bully character from the Japanese anime “Doraemon.”