06/08/2023, 17.03
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Ko Wen-je, the man in the middle, chipping away at Taiwan's two dominant parties

by Dario Salvi

Taiwan’s presidential race is still too close to call with just over six months to go. The DPP’s Lai Ching te is leading in the polls, but Taipei’s former mayor, Ko Wen-je, is closing in on the KMT candidate for second place. The island’s future is at stake, amid fears of war with China and “subservience” to the United States. Young voters and their unexpressed demands might tip the balance.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Taiwan will hold presidential elections in January next year, a key test for its 23.5 million people. For the "rebel" island, this will be crucial in shaping its relations with mainland China and the rest of the world.

Voters will determine the political orientation of the next Taiwanese government and its alliances for the next four years in a part of the world that is a major source of economic, military and trade tensions and a battleground between China and the United States.

Taiwan can rely on the support of the United States, which is opposed to China and its growing diplomatic and military pressure on the island.

The main candidates reflect conflicting views. The main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), and its candidate Hou Yu-ih, current mayor of New Taipei, have positioned themselves as the guarantors of good relations with the mainland and peace in the Taiwan Strait; conversely, outgoing Vice President Lai Ching te,[i] a former mayor of Tainan, who is running for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has taken a hard line to defend the island’s freedom and democracy against Chinese imperialism and autocracy.

However, Ko Wen-je, Taipei’s former mayor, is running for the Taiwan People's Party (TPP), which he founded in 2019, and could play the spoiler. He announced his candidacy last month and could tip the balance in the tug of war between China and the United States.

A bridge between Beijing and Taipei

Ko, a surgeon by profession, was the last to announce his candidacy. The capital’s mayor until last year, his arrival on the scene has changed the election’s dynamics.

Although his party has few lawmakers, the 63-year-old is rising in the polls with some showing him ahead of the KMT’s Hou Yu-ih but far behind the favourite, the DPP’s Lai Ching te.

As mayor of Taipei, Ko tried to reach out to the mainland several times but also criticised its military pressure last year during a virtual meeting with Shanghai officials.

When asked by Reuters during a recent trip to Tokyo whether he would meet with Xi, Ko said, “let's not meet for the sake of meeting” without clear aims. Any face-to-face “has to be pragmatic: What would the talks be about, what is the aim?"

While favourable to cultural exchanges and economic cooperation with China, he stressed that, "Politically, at the present stage there are different political systems and ways of life,” so “what would be the aim, what would be the advantage for Taiwan” in meeting with Xi?

Only one former Taiwanese president, the KMT’s Ying-jeou, met with his Chinese counterpart in Singapore in 2015.

China later rejected calls for talks with incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, calling her a separatist who opposes the motherland.

As for relations with Beijing and Washington, Ko explained that Taiwan would buy the weapons it needs from the United States, but not "whatever the Americans tell us to buy".

Radicalism, moderation and chipping away at the system

Although the three main candidates for president have experience as mayors, their profiles are different. Whoever wins in January and replaces the incumbent president, he will lead the island at a delicate and uncertain time.

Lai, 63, has long been close to the DPP's "green”, more radical wing, the one most favourable to independence and his victory, for many, could exacerbate tensions.

He once described himself as a "pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence”, but today he seems to have adjusted his tune, noting that the island is already a sovereign country and does not need to declare independence, stressing the importance of maintaining the status quo. However, he remains unpopular in Beijing, which has accused him of "playing with fire" by promoting independence.

The KMT candidate is considered more moderate, and the party wants to maintain its electoral base and try to attract middle-of-the-road voters. But Hou You-yi, a 65-year-old  former police officer, is considered "inexperienced" in foreign policy and not up to managing cross-strait relations.

In the past, he has said that he opposes both Taiwan's independence as well as China’s “one nation, two systems" idea of reunification. For many analysts, this favours the status quo, which happens to be what most voters prefer.

Yet, with his fortunes rising, Ko might get the moderate vote. In the latest poll, Lai is ahead with 35.7 per cent, followed by Hou at 25.9 per cent, and Ko not far behind, at 24.9 per cent.

Much could change in the coming months. In particular, Ko cannot be ignored. The TPP, which he founded in 2019, is now the country’s third-largest political party.  Dubbed the “white force,” it has broken Taiwan’s traditional two-party dominant system.

The TPP leader has consistently been strong among young people, so much so that Ko is neck-and-neck with the Kuomintang’s candidate with strong growth potential. One of his strategies to attract young voters will be to focus on their “helplessness” at a time of high inflation, stagnant salaries, skyrocketing housing prices and other domestic issues.

Ko’s approach offers an emotional outlet for young people’s frustrations, but his challenge is to turn popularity in public opinion polls into the actual votes on election day.

In April, during a three-week visit to the United States, he discussed relations with China, saying that Taiwan must be prepared for war by boosting its military. This will help deter it, while showing goodwill could reduce tensions with the mainland.

Speaking to Nikkei Asia, he said that Taiwan’s only realistic option is the status quo, i.e. exercising de facto, unofficial independence. For this reason, he slammed the two main parties, the DPP for being “pro-war” and the KMT for being “too deferential” to Beijing.

Overall, it appears that Ko is trying to find a middle way, chipping at Taiwan’s two dominant parties, with a moderate stance towards the mainland but from a position of strength.


[i] Also known as William Lai.

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