Photo: Eyepress

Open speculation about whether Han Kuo-yu could – or would – run for president of Taiwan as the Kuomintang (KMT) party’s candidate in the 2020 election has dramatically increased over the last few months.

The Han brand has become even stronger and the number of people hoping that Han will run is rising fast. He is no longer just the mayor of Kaohsiung, but the veritable leader of the pan-Blue camp.

So, what on earth has happened? It has been a seismic couple of months in Taiwan politics and there is an awful lot to unpack. If you had to explain the rise of Han Kuo-yu in just one sentence, the easiest way would be to draw a comparison with the rise of US President Donald Trump. Like Trump, Han has employed strong rhetoric. Han has tried to position himself as being something different from the usual breed of politicians. To persuade people that he represents genuine change, he has cultivated a regular man-on-the-street image rather than coming across as a career politician.

When Tsai Ing-wen was elected president in 2016, she passionately called on the people to “welcome Taiwan’s new era.” Three years on, the “new era” that she promised has not arrived. Tsai and the Democratic Progressive Party she led suffered another violent vox populi tsunami in the legislative by-election. The people could no longer tolerate the DPP government’s arrogance and abuse of power, and Tsai’s coldness and indifference to popular opinion have caused her to lose legitimacy as the nation’s leader in the eyes of many people.

Under Tsai’s administration, people have witnessed a great backpedaling of Taiwan’s democracy. For instance, the statement that “Taiwan’s democracy cannot be lost” reflects the DPP’s arrogance, complacency and stagnation. The fact is that the DPP has been in power twice, both times being deeply mired in the set pattern of rule by ideology, being unable to present a report card satisfying the people, nor being able to push the country to a higher plateau in the contexts of politics, economics and rule of law. Conversely, it has led Taiwan society to the abyss of rupture and mutual grievances, and a gradual decline in economic development.

Several unusual characteristics have been identifiable in recent elections, outlining the people of Taiwan’s expectations for the “new politics”; this is something that President Tsai should not overlook. In the past, the DPP has performed wonders with such tactics as playing the card of provincial origins, the card of unification versus independence, the card of the victimization complex, and the card of the Chin threat: this time they all failed. In last year’s local elections, the voters changed the keynote of their perception to “caring for economics and people’s livelihood.”

The political participation of the younger generation has also become more aggressive in the past three years. The younger and middle-aged generations’ call for Taiwan to move forward has become stronger. This is something to which the ruling party must seriously respond. Tsai, however, has endlessly expanded powers by herself, twisting the spirit of neutrality of the executive system, and refusing public discussions while directly changing the country’s policy directions in foreign affairs, cross-Strait affairs, economics, and energy sources.

Tsai has continuously allowed the country’s resources to be used by the DPP. Such selfishness not only made Taiwan’s democratic politics retrogress but also caused the country’s development to lose direction. This is the principal reason that the DPP lost the people’s trust. In short, the vox populi tsunami that Tsai encountered means she was defeated by her own arrogance and prejudice.

Recent online polls have shown that Han Kuo-yu is currently the most popular elected official in Taiwan, with Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je trailing shortly behind, and President Tsai coming in third place

Recent online polls have shown that Han Kuo-yu is currently the most popular elected official in Taiwan, with Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je trailing shortly behind, and President Tsai coming in third place. According to the latest poll on the KMT’s hopefuls for the 2020 presidential election, Han is the most popular candidate. Han’s popularity has generated speculation, along with excitement and concern among different groups, that he may consider jumping directly into presidential politics, only months after his victory in Kaohsiung’s municipal elections last November.

Huge popular support has brought a heavy burden and Han has not yet indicated that he would enter the 2020 presidential race; objective circumstances do not allow him to so indicate. Taking a step further, whether Han runs for president is not a matter he himself could decide – it is a vox populi matter. As a very popular politician garnering what many consider excessive media attention, Han is likely to be a very influential force in the KMT’s presidential campaign. Some are already predicting a Han presidency.

Since last year’s local elections, the “Han Kuo-yu effect” keeps on fermenting; the “1992 Consensus,” which has long been dormant, has once again become the key phrase in conversations across the island. The post-electoral situation is very clear; most voters are not happy with the relentless partisan squabbling and hope that the two sides of the Strait will break the status quo of cold confrontation. Furthermore, the possibility of a Han presidential campaign has been widely discussed. Given the feverish media coverage of Han during the legislative by-election, this idea will likely continue to be a focus of speculation in the coming months.

The voters have clearly demonstrated that the mainstream in Taiwan wants less ideology and more pragmatic development. It has rejected fierce political fighting and wants a government for all the people and a return to rational mainstream values. The sweeping popularity of the “Han Wave” is a social phenomenon that looks set to make his presence known in Taiwan’s presidential race.

Han is ubiquitous. He went from looking like a longshot to causing a countrywide storm, dominating news cycles like no other public official in Taiwan. Now, he’s about to enter Taiwan’s presidential race, gaining even more attention. For the people of Taiwan people who are eager to see change, Han’s arrival is a welcome next stage in the country’s development. But whether the sweeping popularity and the media buzz will translate into a continued support base for Han remains to be seen.

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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