In Taiwan, controversies regarding presidential nominations from the Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have caught the headlines of newspapers and TV shows and have attracted popular attention since March 2019.
KMT’s nomination process is dramatic. The most popular candidate Han Kuo-yu, the newly-elected Mayor of Kaohsiung, and the richest man in Taiwan and chairman of Foxconn, Terry Guo are set to fight for the party’s nomination. Existing polls show that Han defeats Guo by a small margin and both of them can defeat potential challengers from DPP and the non-partisan candidate Ko Wen-je, the present Mayor of Taipei. Pan-Blue supporters and KMT elites are happy to have two strong candidates, but they are split on how to choose its nominee for the presidency in the 2020 general election.
Mayor Han is undoubtedly the most popular star in Taiwan now and has won in most existing polls as of April 2019. He can defeat any other potential challengers with big margins. Before Han indicated his willingness to run for 2020, the non-partisan Taipei Mayor Ko was second to none, which caused anxieties among the pan-Blue supporters. There was therefore a strong appeal for Han’s campaign in 2020. However, Han is facing two major interrelated barriers on his way to presidency. First, as a newly-elected Mayor of Kaohsiung, Han needs to justify why he should terminate his service, leave the city without fulfilling all the previous commitments he made during the local election, and run for presidency now. It will surely disappoint many of his Kaohsiung supporters. Han has requested KMT to make special arrangements to accommodate his needs, so that he will be seen as being requested to join other candidates of the party to compete for the nomination. Second, along with the first one, other KMT candidates are unhappy to see Han being treated specially by the party, which probably put them at an disadvantage in the competition. This raises the danger of a split in the KMT. For example, Wang Jin-Pyng, another senior elite of the KMT, vowed to continue with his campaign until the end of the election. Many people suspect he will run as an independent candidate, if KMT do not nominate him. Another strong candidate, Eric Chu, former Mayor of the New Taipei City, also emphasized that KMT’s nomination must meet the principles of democracy, transparency and procedural justice.
The biggest black horse is Terry Guo, the richest man in Taiwan and founder and chairman of Foxconn. Terry is a strong supporter of KMT. When KMT’s property was frozen due to DPP’s controversial policies on nationalizing illegally-obtained party properties, Ko lent TWD 45 million to KMT. Guo’s announcement to join the primaries of KMT is unexpected, because people believe that Foxconn cannot run without Guo, and it is hard for Guo to put aside his business empire. However, Guo announced his bid for the candidacy in a KMT meeting, which was to honor him for his contributions as a KMT member.
Based on my observation, Han has better chances than Guo of winning in the 2020 general election due to his charismatic leadership and service-oriented governance style.
The competition between Han and Guo continues and will possibly split the pan-Blue campaign. As Guo declared his campaign, he emphasized his willingness to win the KMT nomination via a democratic procedure, and refused to be enlisted by the Party. Many people believed that this action was targeting Han, hoping to block Han out of the primaries via procedural arrangements. Han responded with a five-point statement. He not only expressed his willingness to safeguard and defend Taiwan, he also indicated the necessity of KMT central to enlist him as the party’s nominee, and criticized the political elites in the party of stirring up the primaries while neglecting the will of the people. Many of Han’s supporters joined the propaganda warfare and criticized KMT politicians who were reluctant to support Han unconditionally. The result was catastrophic for KMT. In a recent poll, Han’s supporting rate dropped by 5 percent, while Guo’s lowered by 10 percent. Taipei Mayor Ko benefited the most from Han and Guo’s losses. What is more, this is only the start of a competition between the two strong candidates. Things may become worse, as KMT officially kick-starts the nomination process.
Based on the existing polls, most of Han’s supporters are middle aged or above, of lower social economic class and KMT supporters, probably due to Han’s commitment in developing grassroots economics and taking care of the vulnerable of the society. Han also has the firm support of the majority of the pan-Blue electorate. Guo has the most support from the educated and young working classes, and he has more median voters’ support than Han. Guo has vowed to upgrade the manufacturing industry of Taiwan and develop artificial intelligence, so that Taiwan can seize the opportunities of the future. He is also considered to be well connected with the Chinese and American leaders, which can help Taiwan survive and thrive in the great power competition.
Han and Guo also share a lot of things in common. First, both of them agree that Taiwan should focus more on economic development than ideological conflicts. Taiwan has wasted too much time and too many resources on meaningless ideational conflicts and “independence versus unification” struggles, while letting itself become less competitive and Taiwanese people lead difficult lives. It is time to refocus on economics. Second, both candidates agree to develop friendly relations with mainland China, the United States and Japan. On the basis of the 1992 consensus that acknowledges that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one China, they want to maintain peaceful relations with Beijing and see China’s rise as an opportunity rather than a security threat. Third, both of them are non-typical KMT politicians and are more likely to break away from path dependence and elite power struggles, and reform the party and Taiwan’s governing systems. Major policy reforms in energy, industrial development, and cross-Strait relations are quite likely, if any one of them become the next leader of Taiwan.
However, both of them face serious challenges. For Han, more than half of Kaohsiung’s citizens do not support his presidential campaign, which worries Han most. This could hurt his political credibility significantly. For Guo, most of his business empire is in mainland China. The electorate will wonder whether he, after being elected, can stand firm against pressure from Beijing if necessary. What is more, there is a strong anti-rich sentiment in Taiwan. While the economic-rational voters may support him, the lower classes may wonder whether Guo can really reflect their needs in his policy agenda. Based on my observation, Han has better chances than Guo of winning in the 2020 general election due to his charismatic leadership and service-oriented governance style. However, winning the 2020 election needs a united KMT. Any split in the primaries could give DPP a chance to exploit KMT’s mistakes and bounce back.