Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu at his swearing-in ceremony. Photo: Handout

On July 15, populist Khaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu won the opposition Kuomintang’s (KMT) nomination for Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election, setting the stage for an intense battle in the upcoming contest with Tsai Ing-wen, the island’s incumbent leader. Han was selected by the KMT based on the results of public opinion and phone surveys taken over the last week that showed he was backed by 44.8% of respondents compared with 27.7% for Terry Gou and 17.9% for Eric Chu.

Han, who has quickly risen from relative obscurity, remains an unknown quantity to most Washington observers. His past statements suggest that he holds centrist positions on most major policy issues, though his style of expression is colored with coarse, nationalistic language that drew support at the KMT primary.

Born in 1957, Han attended a military academy in his youth, later going on to university and a master’s degree in East Asian studies. He first entered politics in 1990 as a county councilor, after which he served as a national lawmaker in the Legislative Yuan for eight years. There he earned a reputation for his combative personality, going as far as punching former President Chen Shui-bian during one debate. After failing to gain re-election in 2001, Han left politics and was later appointed general manager of Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing, a little-known organization that oversees the distribution of farm produce.

Eighteen years after he left national politics, Han was back. He won the primary by securing double-digit leads over the other KMT competitors and in the hypothetical three-way contest against President Tsai and Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je. Now having campaigned to voters as the “president of the common people” who will help Taiwanese get rich, it is time for him to win over the party elite.

When facing difficult times, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has long been known for blaming everything on China. In contrast, the KMT’s default tactic has been over-reliance on China. Neither party could grasp that Taiwan’s independent spirit and determined state of self-reliance were key to the island nation’s stability in recent decades, so instead they opted to spin in place. And so the endlessly pointless arguments over reunification and independence consumed the two parties, leaving government open to repeated hijackings by self-interested parties.

Under the dual pressure of presidential candidate expectations and his Kaohsiung mayoral duties, Han faces an unprecedented challenge. If he genuinely wants to present Taiwan with a rosier future, he has an unshakable duty to win the presidential election next January. Assuming he does want to do this, what advice would I offer on the shaping of his campaign?

First, because of the challenge he faces, Han has a duty to become stronger. He should reset his emotional management, showing one again his oft-praised, emotionally intelligent political style.

Next, he must strengthen the team behind him; he should not only clearly separate the campaign and city administration teams, but also recruit a high-level brains trust that will inspire steady, wholesome, and solid concepts and policies for planning and governance at a national level.

Third, in the narrative of concepts and policies, the teams behind Terry Gou and Eric Chu would be treasured resources that Han ought to seek to employ. This quality of backroom staff would help Han to win the presidency.

On a national level, many interconnected problems await the attentions of whoever wins the presidency in 2020. This will be a crucial moment for Taiwan; only by re-opening cross-Strait consultations as quickly as possible can the new president’s government create favorable conditions for foreign investment and the return of Taiwan businesses in China.

The new government must stem Taiwan’s ever-worsening state of international isolation. More importantly, it must shake off the long-established bad habit of seeking official positions and personal benefits that permeated both the KMT and DPP parties. As Han said: “The parties and political figures that muddle through must step down.”

Han’s entry in the race also suggests that when Taiwan wins, Kaohsiung can win. If Han wins the presidential race, he will grant the city an increased number of seats in the Legislative Yuan to reinforce the KMT upon its return to power. From the viewpoint of concrete changes, Han has debunked the myth of Taiwan being deeply mired in political deadlock, neglecting vital economic and social issues for decades.

Taiwan is set to hold the vital election in January next year amid heightened tensions with China. Right now, KMT and Han fans are of the view that, if Han can be elected president, then the growth of Kaohsiung and all of Taiwan will be the prize. Now it is up to the supporters to make sure that happens in January.

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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