“Disarray” is a frequently used description for Taiwan politics. The aftermath of the mid-term defeat of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) by the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) is just the latest case in point.
The unexpected avalanche against her ruling party just two years after her landslide victory has badly weakened Tsai Ing-wen, the sitting president. Her former No 2, William Lai, was emboldened publicly to declare his candidacy to unseat Tsai in the forthcoming primary election and lead the DPP ticket for 2020.
To challenge the incumbent president of one’s own party is extraordinary and an indication of Tsai’s badly wounded position. Her response was to attempt to cancel the primary so as to give herself an automatic nomination for the general election, or failing that, to delay holding the primary in hopes of Lai running out of steam. If Lai should win, Tsai has threatened to run as a third-party candidate, thus ensuring a lose-lose outcome for the DPP.
The KMT has a dilemma of its own, namely how to pick the strongest candidate to lead the presidential ticket and maximize the party’s chance not only to regain the presidency but also to use its coattails to capture a strong majority in the legislature.
KMT wanted Han Kuo-yu to run
The party elders had been casting a covetous eye on Han Kuo-yu, the newly elected mayor of Kaohsiung. His surprising win in the heart of the DPP stronghold has thrust him to the forefront as the most charismatic and logical candidate to lead the KMT ticket.
The KMT expectation for Han to assume the leadership has put him in an awkward position. Having just been elected as mayor, Han is expected to make good on his campaign promises for the people of Kaohsiung and can’t very well openly commit to running for president.
Even with a divided DPP, running for president won’t be a slam dunk. Han is probably also mindful of the fate of Eric Chu, who led the KMT ticket during the last presidential campaign. At the last moment, Chu was asked to replace a weak candidate at the top of the ticket in order to give the rest of the ticket a decent chance to succeed.
At the time, Tsai was regarded as the overwhelming favorite, and even though Chu as the mayor of New Taipei City was considered the strongest possible candidate to run against her, he was nevertheless regarded as a sacrificial lamb. Sure enough, the outcome was a disaster for the KMT and a costly setback for Chu’s political career.
With Han not willing to declare his candidacy in a primary election, the KMT would have to draft him without his consent. At this critical juncture last Wednesday, Terry Gou, chief executive of Foxconn and the richest man in Taiwan, made the surprising announcement that he is a candidate in the KMT presidential primary. He further pledged his unconditional support to the winning candidate if he does not win.
Gou’s pledge to win fair and square was seismic. He is on friendly terms with all the other already announced candidates as well as non-candidate Han. If he wins the primary, Gou will not cause rancor and resentment among the other candidates and offers the best chance for a united party in the general election.
Gou took pressure off Han
Han’s public reaction was one of relief. He welcomed Gou’s entry and said having two giants to shoulder the mantle of KMT leadership was much better than just one. Now he could go back and concentrate on being the mayor as he promised.
Gou’s high public profile with no pre-existing political baggage works to his advantage. He already enjoys high name recognition among the public as a highly successful corporate CEO.
Analysts have identified the following positive attributes to his candidacy:
- After four years of economic stumbling under Tsai, Taiwan is badly in need of someone who can rejuvenate the economy. Gou’s life from rags to riches is testament that he has the credentials.
- Gou’s personal conduct and accomplishment suggest that he can be a positive role model for Taiwan’s youth befitting the leader of his country.
- With his success in establishing manufacturing operations on the mainland, he understands the Beijing leadership and the People’s Republic of China government. He is best positioned to maintain peaceful cross-Strait relations.
- From his past commercial activities, he has a worldview and an international stature. He is said to enjoy a personal friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and is personally acquainted with US President Donald Trump.
- Having grown his company into a multibillion-dollar enterprise, he has demonstrated proven management ability and is well qualified to run the Taiwanese government.
In stepping forward, Gou told the audience that Mazu appeared in his dream to urge him to run. Mazu is Taiwan’s most popular deity that looks after fishermen and sailors at sea.
Divine guidance aside, Gou said that peace across the Taiwan Strait would top of agenda, that Taiwan would continue to need to develop home-grown innovation, and that it needed to address the world as its market, and not just be dependent on mainland China.
Furthermore, Gou said Taiwan must take control of its own fate and could not count on the US to provide its security.
While Gou’s surprise entry has brought new energy to Taiwan’s presidential race, it’s a long way to the actual election and far from a done deal.
Assuming that Gou wins the primary and becomes the head of the KMT ticket, he will need to rally and unite the followers of contending candidates, especially persuading Han’s supporters to swing over to him.
Taiwan’s history of twists and turns
The first time the DPP came to power, Chen Shui-bian eked out a thin plurality with barely 40% of the vote when the KMT self-destructed by dividing into two contending camps. Gou will have to make sure the KMT does not repeat such splintering.
A divided voter sentiment does exist in Taiwan now. Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, ostensibly an independent but considered DPP-leaning, commands roughly one-quarter of popular support. A DPP ticket that included Ko would become a much more formidable opposition to the KMT.
Taiwan also has a history of strange happenings around their elections, and not just divine intervention by Mazu. Chen Shui-bian was on the verge of going down to defeat in his bid for re-election when an alleged assassination attempt on election eve changed voter sentiment.
Taiwanese people are still scratching their heads on how an assassin’s bullet managed to graze Chen’s belly and turn in mid-flight to nick his running mate on her knee. Suffice it to say, the ensuing confusion allowed the DPP to squeeze out another win.
Eight years of Chen’s corrupt and ineffectual regime paved the way for eight years by Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT. Ma did a good job rebuilding Taiwan’s economy and maintaining peaceful relations with Beijing but was a weak and ineffective political leader. He was frequently pummeled by the opposition and by factions within his own party.
The end of Ma’s administration led to a landslide victory by Tsai and the DPP in 2016. Unfortunately for Tsai, she failed to grasp that economy trumps ideology and proceeded to make a hash out of the economy. Consequently, she opened the door for massive disaffection and defection from the DPP, as shown by the December mid-term election.
Gou’s announcement is the curtain raiser for a new political show in Taiwan. There will be many twists and turns yet to come in the ensuing acts before the final curtain, that is, the actual election. It will be interesting to see how Gou will handle the inevitable mudslinging directed his way during the campaign leading to the general election in January 2020.
Taiwan is the favorite showcase to watch democracy in action for many in US academic circles. This time around they may be in for one heck of a show.