The announcement on July 15, 2019 that Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu won decisively in the Taiwan Kuomintang (KMT) presidential primary opens the possibility of redefining Taiwan politics.
In the most heated political party primary since the direct presidential election introduced in 1996 in Taiwan, Mayor Han won the fierce campaign convincingly with 44.8 percent of the primary vote over Foxconn billionaire founder, Terry Gou Tai-ming with 27.7 percent, follow by former New Taipei Mayor Eric Chu Li-luan on 17.9 percent, former Taipei County magistrate Chou Hsi-wei on 6 percent and Kuomintang Sun Yat-sen School President Chang Ya-chung on 3.5 percent.
The primary is based on the survey of five renowned polling organization in the week of July 8 to 14. Each organization collects slightly over 3000 samples with 85 percent of the weighting based on candidate ability to win against the rival candidate of other party and 15 percent of the weighting based on comparative popularity among the five.
The victory confirmed that the “Han Tide” that swept across Taiwan since October 2018 which sent him to the mayorship of Kaohsiung is not subsiding as many pundits predicted, but instead takes on an increasing scale with the strong possibility of winning back the presidency for KMT in the 2020 election.
China Issue and Closer Economic Linkages
The question of cross-Strait relations has dominated Taiwan politics since the 1996 direct presidential election with the two dominant political parties taking on a diametrically different stand. Over the years, the present ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) always champion the localist idea and working systematically on de-sinicization over education and many aspects of social and cultural life. Though it is not officially calling for Taiwan independence, it denied the legality of the 1992 consensus. The consensus is an understanding between mainland China and the island reached in 1992 that there is only one Chinese nation, by which both Beijing and Taipei agree that Taiwan belongs to China, while the two still disagree on which entity is China’s legitimate governing body. For the KMT, the party stuck to the consensus and advocated a pragmatic approach toward China. The party emphasized that a peaceful relationship with China is a cornerstone policy, and it encourages economic and social linkages that benefit Taiwan.
Taiwan re-established linkages with mainland China in late 1987 in the twilight days of then-President Chiang Ching-kuo. Since that time, the economic dynamics has slowly tilted toward China. Taiwan’s nominal GDP in 1987 is more than 45 percent of the Chinese mainland; even as its population was less than 2 percent of the mainland. By 2018, the island’s GDP is less than 4 percent of the mainland, and the gap on per capita GDP likewise narrow dramatically from more than 22.5 times in favor of Taiwan in 1987 to less than 2.5 times by 2018. Taiwan exported around 40 percent of its product to China today from a miniscule base in 1987, and its favorable current account surplus of USD 72 billion in 2018 built on the trade surplus of over USD 80 billion with China.
The economic benefit of the China connection benefited the business sector; many Taiwan industrialists moved their operation to China and expanded their market shares in the then-booming global supply chain. However, there was a significant segment of the population who failed to follow the business migration to the mainland and get stuck in the stagnating domestic sector of the economy. The anecdote that starting salary of a new job seeker has changed minimally in the last twenty years is a poignant reminder on the stagnation of the domestic economy and the failure to properly distribute the benefits of closer cross-Strait ties.
“Han Tide” and Discontent on Governance
It is an observation that KMT is a party of mandarin scholars; many of its political celebrities came from well off, often prominent political families and are PhD degree holders. From former Presidents Lee Teng-hui to Ma Ying-jeou to Vice President Lien Chien, they all fit into this model. The party follows a hierarchical order emphasizing seniority and scholarship, factionalism exists in the party, and the leader holds the different factions together by the immense political and financial resources the party possess as a legacy of the party-state political system in Taiwan until the 1980s. KMT get good administrators with integrity, and its rule is credited to the economic takeoff of the island in the 1960s to 1980s.
The late President Chiang Ching-kuo has remained the most popular president; even as KMT lost power twice in 2010 and 2016. However, the party’s popular base is weak and electoral performance is often poor. There is a common perception that KMT is a party of the elite that knows economics but is detached from the people. Its traditional support base is in the comparatively prosperous industrial North. Following the election of DPP in 2016, the asset of KMT was frozen under transitional justice law passed by the DPP in the legislature. KMT is in financial disarray and now living on loans.
KMT will push for governance and economic future of the poor and the youth, while DPP will likely emphasize cross-Strait relations and put itself as the guardian angel of local identity.
In contrast, DPP has its roots in the democratic movement of the 1970s when the island was under martial law. It is perceived to be the party of the plebeian, and its stronghold is in the traditional more impoverished South. There is a common perception that DPP is the party of the localist that knows electoral issues on the ground but poor in running the economy. The first DPP president Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008) was jailed over corruption charges after his term ended, and the party is often embroiled in corruption scandals.
The election of Han as Kaohsiung mayor in November 2018 was one of the most stunning surprises in the colorful and often unpredictable Taiwan electoral history. The famous 1976 Kaohsiung Riot was the precursor to the birth of DPP, and the southern metropolis was considered the most important bastion of DPP. The party has ruled the city since 1998, and the recent voting pattern of the city is 70 percent in favor of DPP and only 30 percent supporting KMT. Almost all pundits dismissed Han as a serious mayoralty candidate as late as mid-October.
Candidate Han skillfully sidestepped the ideology issue and focused on the governance issues in the election. The charges on nepotism, social injustices, incompetent bureaucrats delivering poor public services, inconsistent social and economic policies design to entrench DPP in power appeared to resonate with the populace. He won the mayoralty election by a margin of 54 percent to 45 percent against a native son and the “Han Tide” that started in October propel KMT to regain control in 15 of the island’s 22 cities & counties in the November election.
People Behind the “Han Tide”
The Han electoral success also saw a dramatic reversal of political profile. His support base is slightly more of the South than the North, and the majority of his supporters are ordinary people. He was in a dilemma earlier this year over whether he should seek the KMT presidential nomination in the coming January 2020 election. The first obstacle was the question over his commitment to Kaohsiung. He started his mayorship in December and just worked for a few months before deciding to throw his hat in the presidential race. This short span of service to the city generated some resentment among Kaohsiung natives. The second was that many elites in the KMT are putting up roadblocks against his participation in the KMT presidential primary. Billionaire Terry Gou’s announcement in April to rejoin KMT and participate in the presidential primary was being viewed as a proxy to stop his bid.
To demonstrate his commitment to the city, Han promised to stay on as Kaohsiung mayor in the primary and presidential campaign periods, a move that Taiwan election law allows. He further said that he would hold office at Kaohsiung half of the time if he was elected. To demonstrate popular support, his supporters ran pre-election rallies over weekends from the end of May to the end of June at Taipei, Hualien, Yunlin, Taichung and Hsinchu. Each of the demonstrations drew an unprecedented crowd; The major one at Taipei and Hsinchu drew hundreds of thousands of supporters and the smaller one in between drew tens of thousands. There is little doubt that Han is the most popular politician at the moment, and the outcome of the KMT primary confirms his public support.
Another electoral phenomenon in the “Han Tide” is the resurgence of commitment to KMT ideas. All the rallies saw waves of national flag and singing of patriotic songs, something absent in all KMT rallies earlier as the move was construed as a sign of relegating local identity to second place. While Han repudiates “one country, two systems” as the formula for a long-term solution of Taiwan problem, his consent over the 1992 consensus and emphasis on peace over the Taiwan Strait are unequivocal. It has been a long time since a national leader puts up such a clear stand on the cross-Strait issue. Han’s contrarian move has not backfired and instead has squarely positioned him as a straight talker and strong leader not hesitant to face sensitive issues head-on.
Incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen will represent DPP, and Mayor Han will represent KMT in the January 11, 2020 presidential election. Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je is likely to throw his hat into the ring and make the race a three-corner fight. Based on the just-released KMT survey of different parties candidate preference, Han leads the pack with close to 45 percent of support. However, the number is short of a majority, and if the other two come together in the last minute, it would spring a surprise. The outcome of the March 2019 by-election at Tainan showed this outcome. Han campaigned actively for a KMT candidate and drew a huge crowd to the rally, but the DPP candidate won by a slim margin when supporters of the independent candidate defected in droves to the DPP candidate in the last minute.
The 2020 outcome depends on which of the two dominant issues will catch the majority of the voters’ empathy. KMT will push for governance and economic future of the poor and the youth, while DPP will likely emphasize cross-Strait relations and put itself as the guardian angel of local identity. The core KMT vote is often estimated at around 10 percent, while that of the DPP is about 20 percent. The decision of the political middle will decide the outcome of the election. Whatever is the result, Mayor Han has successfully put the issue of governance back into the election agenda, a welcome phenomenon in this world of populist extremist politics.