Tsai said Taiwanese must heed the lesson of Hong Kong, when addressing a penal discussion hosted by the Heritage Foundation. Photo: Handout

I have always been fascinated with the world’s most successful magician, David Copperfield, who was famous for making the Statue of Liberty disappear. How did he do that? I wondered. I’ve been thinking about him lately as I’ve watched an even more profound magic trick playing out in Taiwan’s politics. The most mature democracy of any Chinese society has a president who can make vox populi disappear.

How does she do that trick? Surely the answer lies partly in President Tsai Ing-wen’s mind: In so many cases, she has been able to use various means to inject partisan forces into the government, allowing the neutral, objective, professional, and selfless spirit to disappear from the public sector. This has made her unable to feel the pulse of society and the vox populi, even being unable to get in touch with sincere and down-to-earth grassroots; she is even afraid of meeting real people and listening to true public opinion. It’s awesome!

Few could have predicted that after garnering 56% of the votes in all Taiwan, shouldering the expectations of 6.89 million people, being inaugurated with a halo, making lofty pledges, all these have become heavy baggage for Tsai’s administration: Popular support ratings have quickly plummeted, miring her in a serious predicament, both domestically and internationally.

As some observers have noted, Taiwan’s elections have always been tumultuous. Few could have predicted that after President Tsai suffered a stunning defeat in last year’s nine-in-one local elections, she used up all her resources, exhausted all her strategies, and utilized external factors to help shape an image of “Joan of Arc,” forcefully pulling up her support ratings in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential primary, which had originally been rock-bottom; this could be called the paradigm of a turnaround electoral battle. However, a presidential election is completely different from a party primary; if Tsai wants to seek re-election, she must find a way to win sufficient trust of the voters.

But the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) hasn’t won the 2020 election yet – and it has a long way to go. For that reason, the pan-Blue groups (a loose political coalition consisting of the KMT and others) need to take a strategic approach to the next six months. In the last election, pan-Blue forces were too quick to dismiss the possibility that voters would take Tsai “seriously, not literally.” This time, they should not only take her seriously, they should take her literally when she tells us exactly how she’s going to run her re-election campaign.

This campaign is going to be less about ideological purity and litmus tests, and more about how voters size up the candidates’ personal qualities

This campaign is going to be less about ideological purity and litmus tests, and more about how voters size up the candidates’ personal qualities. If 2016 proved nothing else, it demonstrated that the pan-Blue coalition ignores Tsai’s antics at its own peril. In much the same way, the pan-Blue coalition shouldn’t paint their supporters with a brush so broad that it alienates convincible voters.

Now that Tsai has vanquished her primary challenger for the DPP leadership and made it official that she’s running for president again in 2020, the KMT looks set to nominate either Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu or Foxconn finder Terry Gou. So, right now, what should the KMT do? What should the KMT (and the pan-Blue coalition and the anti-Tsai conservatives) do to dethrone the president they loathe? Here are a few suggestions for defeating Tsai Ing-wen in 2020.

First, the KMT’s candidate must have a message and a story that are authentic to his character. The crux of the 2020 election lies not in letting the KMT return to power, but in unseating the DPP, which supports Taiwan independence. In order to make all people in Taiwan more prosperous, besides motivation and capability, one must, in the shortest possible time, reconstruct cross-Strait relations, smooth out the tensions and restore and institutionalize a channel of communications between Taipei and Beijing. Agreements focusing on the economy and other practical areas must be brokered. It’s imperative that the KMT candidate captures and motivates independent and undecided voters in 2020.

The second issue is credibility. Voters have to be able to imagine and envisage the candidate in the Presidential Office. As they watch the KMT candidate, they will inevitably ask themselves, does this person have the gravitas to withstand the pressure that comes with leading the 23 million people? Credibility proved to be something of a liability in 2018, when Tsai’s DPP suffered a string of defeats in local elections-cum-plebiscite elections. By now, the public fully understands Tsai’s various tactics of coldness, evasion, and high-handedness; the “new vox populi” of the elections has been completely stamped down. But after the past three-plus years, the country now yearns for a return to normalcy – meaning that voters will likely want their next president to fit the part more credibly.

Which brings us to the third issue: Speak the language of the people. For some bizarre reason, KMT leaders behave as if all voters keep up with current political news, academic journals, think-tank policy briefs and government briefings. Because of this fallacy, they speak in an esoteric political language or political lexicon that millions of citizens don’t understand. In essence, traditional KMT leaders’ policy language and messages have never resonated with millions of voters who feel that the system is rigged against them. Successful politicians must speak to the people in a language that they understand.

Fourth issue: Realize that Tsai is vulnerable. Tsai’s seeming invulnerability to the usual rules of politics got inside the pan-Blue group’s heads. Yes, Tsai won in 2016. But she has been, since Day 1, one of the most unpopular presidents in Taiwan’s history. The pan-Blue coalition won a majority of the popular vote in the 2018 local elections; they should be able to do it again in 2020. This may sound like little more than the power of positive thinking, but it really matters. As but one example, for the pan-Blue coalition to choose the best candidate, the party’s stars have to see this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to seize the presidency from a hobbled incumbent. Don’t believe that Tsai is bulletproof against the normal rules of politics. She’s weak and she’s vulnerable.

Fifth issue: the KMT candidate must practice modesty. During the three years under the Tsai administration, popular grievances have abounded, not only leaving cross-Strait relations to be mired in a precarious situation, but even causing adversities in people’s livelihoods and economic doldrums. For this reason, in 2020, Tsai must be brought down, creating a new opportunity for Taiwan. Under the heavy pressure of expectations by the vox populi, Han and Gou are facing an unprecedented challenge. If they are willing to let Taiwan win a much better future, they have an unshakable duty to become stronger. Only if Han and Gou both can show a rational and new look in the competition with substantive content, it will inevitably elevate the positive momentum and image of the pan-Blue camp.

Finally, and most important, the fifth issue: safeguarding the elections. Perhaps Tsai was able, through coalescing with the system and elites of the Green camp, as well as grasping the machinery of the party and state, utilize backroom procedures, fake information, and a netizen army, to win the party primary. However, Tsai will not be able to win over the people’s trust vis-à-vis the fairness of this primary and vis-à-vis the DPP. For the same reason, though Tsai could abuse resources of the state, viewed from the results of the nine-in-one local elections, she equally could not garner the support of the majority of the people. Tsai must squarely face this point, letting the presidential election proceed in a fair manner, no longer abusing the authority of the party and the state to twist the results. Power secured by cheating can only harm Taiwan’s democracy.

President Tsai Ing-wen has won the party primary and is setting up a campaign for re-election. In the KMT’s primary, Han Kuo-yu and Terry Gou are neck and neck, with their support ratings mired in stagnation. If Han and Gou can honestly face their strong suits and shortcomings, they should understand that the duo must maintain room for mutual cooperation in the future, which is the only way for the Blue camp to win next year’s electoral battle. No matter who wins the primary, the other should unconditionally join his team, complementing each other’s momentum, making the camp stronger and stronger.

Tsai’s low approval ratings suggest that if she wins a second term, the KMT’s pan-Blue coalition will have no one to blame but themselves. They are blessed with a slate of primary candidates capable of making Tsai the first one-term president in more than a quarter-century. But to get there, they’ll need to put some of their internal disagreements on hold. For the pan-Blue coalition, their first, second and third priorities should be to produce a candidate who will appeal to the widest swath of both moderate and progressive voters. Until January 11, 2020, they need to make sure that everything else is set aside.

To be clear, I think a second Tsai term would be a disaster. Tsai is a freak of political nature. She’s a political Weeble who wobbles but never falls down. She says whatever she wants, whenever she wants, wherever she wants. She could march arrogantly on in the middle of Ketagalan Boulevard in front of the Presidential Office and coldness and indifference to popular opinion. And as hard as it was for pan-Blue to run against her, the KMT’s nominee will face something they didn’t: the power of incumbency.

Tsai’s re-election strategy is to divide the Taiwan people. The KMT’s job is to keep her from doing that. That means the KMT should pick a candidate with a bold and forward-looking agenda – one that gives voters hope for their own individual futures. That agenda needs a much fresher face to represent it. And there’s evidence that there’s plenty of enthusiasm for these big ideas, whether they’re carried by Han or Gou. They’re the leading candidates to beat Tsai.

As of now, I’m not endorsing anyone, but I appreciate that Terry Gou’s entry into the race will help pull the theme of the presidential campaign from the DPP’s “national-security card” back to the economy. This point may echo Han Kuo-yu’s mantra “to make Taiwan safer and more prosperous.” No matter who wins the KMT’s primary, this can certainly be the foundation for cooperation between the two.

In conclusion, the KMT needs a candidate who can appeal not only to the pan-Blue coalition but also hold the independents and moderate DPP voters who shifted the 2018 local elections and whose support will be vital for the KMT to win the presidency.

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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