Monday, April 29, 2019

Twists and Turns of Taiwan Politics

This was first posted on Asia Times.

The twists and turns of Taiwan politics

Disarray is a frequently used description for Taiwan politics. The aftermath of the mid-term defeat of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the party in power, by the opposition party, Kuomintang (KMT) in just the latest case in point.

The unexpected avalanche against her ruling party just two years after her landslide victory has badly weakened Tsai Ing-wen, the sitting president. Her former number two, William Lai, was emboldened to publicly declare his candidacy to unseat Tsai in the forthcoming primary election and lead the DPP ticket for 2020.

To challenge the incumbent president of one’s own party is extraordinary and an indication of Tsai’s badly wounded position. Her response was to attempt to cancel the primary so as to give herself an automatic nomination into the general election, failing that, to delay holding the primary election in hopes of Lai running out of steam. If Lai should win, Tsai has threatened to run as a third-party candidate, thus ensuring a lose-lose outcome for the DPP.

The KMT has a dilemma of its own, namely how to pick the strongest candidate to lead the presidential ticket and maximize the party’s chance of not only to regain the presidency but also to use the coattail to capture a strong majority in the legislature.

KMT needed Han Kuo-yu to run

The party elders had been casting a covetous eye on Han Kuo-yu, the newly elected mayor of Kaohsiung. His surprising win in the heart of the DPP stronghold has thrusted him to the forefront as the most charismatic and logical candidate to lead the KMT ticket.

The KMT expectation for Han to assume the leadership has put him in an awkward position. Having just been elected as mayor, Han is expected to make good on his campaign promises for the people of Kaohsiung and can’t very well openly commit to running for president.

Even with a divided DPP, running for president won’t be a slam dunk. Han is probably also mindful of the fate of Eric Chu, who led the KMT ticket during the last presidential campaign. At the last moment, Chu was asked to replace a weak candidate at the top of the ticket in order to give the rest of the ticket a decent chance to succeed. 

At the time, Tsai was regarded as the overwhelming favorite and even though Chu as the mayor of New Taipei City was considered the strongest possible candidate to run against her, he was nevertheless regarded as a sacrificial lamb. Sure enough, the outcome was a disaster for KMT and a costly setback for Chu’s political career.

With Han not willing to declare his candidacy in a primary election, KMT would have to draft him without his consent. At this critical juncture last Wednesday, Terry Guo, CEO of Foxconn and richest man in Taiwan, made the surprising announcement that he is a candidate in the KMT presidential primary. He further pledged his unconditional support to the winning candidate if he does not win.

Guo’s pledge to win fair and square was seismic. He is on friendly terms with all the other already announced candidates as well as non-candidate Han. If he wins the primary, Guo will not cause rancor and resentment among the other candidates and offers the best chance for a united party in the general election.

Terry Guo took pressure off Han 

Han’s public reaction was one of relief. He welcomed Guo’s entry and said having two giants to shoulder the mantle of KMT leadership was much better than just one. Now he can go back and concentrate on being the mayor he promised.

Guo’s high public profile with a clean, no preexisting political baggage works to his advantage. He already enjoys high name recognition among the public as a highly successful corporate CEO.

Analysts have identified the following positive attributes to his candidacy:

(1)After four years of economic stumble under Tsai, Taiwan is in badly need of someone who can rejuvenate the economy. Guo’s life from rags to riches is testament that he has the credentials.

(2)Guo’s personal conduct and accomplishment suggest that he can be a positive role model for Taiwan’s youth befitting the leader of his country.

(3)With his success in establishing manufacturing operations on the mainland, he understands the Beijing leadership and the PRC government. He is best positioned in maintaining a peaceful, cross-strait relations.

(4)From his past commercial activities, he has a worldview and an international stature. He is said to enjoy a personal friendship with China’s Xi Jinping and is personally acquainted with Donald Trump. 

(5)Having grown his company into a multi-billion enterprise, he has demonstrated proven management ability and is well qualified to run the Taiwan government.

In stepping forward, Guo told the audience that Mazu appeared in his dream to urge him to run. Mazu is Taiwan’s most popular deity that looks after fishermen and sailors at sea.

Divine guidance aside, Guo said that peace across the straits will on top of his agenda, that Taiwan will continue need to develop home grown innovation and that Taiwan need to address the world as its market, not just dependent on mainland China.

Furthermore, Guo said Taiwan must take control of its own fate and cannot count on the US to provide its security.

While Guo’s surprise entry has brought new energy to Taiwan’s presidential race, It’s a long way to the actual election and far from a done deal.

Assuming that Guo wins the primary and becomes the head of the KMT ticket, he will need to rally and unite the followers of contending candidates, especially persuading Han’s supporters to swing over to him. 

Taiwan’s history of twists and turns

The first time DPP came to power, Chen Shui-bian eked a thin plurality with barely 40% of the votes when the KMT self-destructed by dividing into two contending camps. Guo will have to make sure the KMT does not repeat such splintering again.

A divided voter sentiment does exist in Taiwan now. Taipei mayor, Ko Wen-ji, ostensibly an independent but considered DPP leaning, commands roughly one-quarter of popular support. A DPP ticket that includes Ko would become much more formidable opposition to the KMT. 

Taiwan also has a history of strange happenings around their election and not just divine intervention by Mazu. Chen Shui-bian was on the verge of going down to defeat in his bid for reelection, when an alleged assassination attempt on the election eve changed the voter sentiment.

Taiwan people are still scratching their heads on how an assassin bullet managed to graze Chen’s belly and turned in mid-flight to nick his running mate on her knee. Suffice it to say, the ensuing confusion allowed the DPP to squeezed out another win.

Eight years of Chen’s corrupt and ineffectual regime paved the way for eight years by Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT. Ma did a good job in rebuilding Taiwan’s economy and maintaining peaceful relations with Beijing but was a weak and ineffective political leader. He was frequently pummeled by the opposition and by factions within his own party.

The end of Ma’s administration led to a landslide victory by Tsai and the DPP in 2016. Unfortunately for Tsai, she failed to grasp that economy trumps ideology and proceeded to make hash out of the economy. Consequently, she opened the door for massive disaffection and defection from the DPP as shown by the December mid-term election. 

Guo’s announcement is the curtain raiser for a new political show in Taiwan. There will be many twists and turns yet to come in the ensuing acts before the final curtain, i.e., the actual election. It will be interesting to see how Guo will handle the inevitable mudslinging directed his way during the campaign leading to the general election in January 2020.

Taiwan is the favorite showcase to watch democracy in action for many in the American academic circles. This time around they may be in for one heck of a show.

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