Caixin
Jul 16, 2019 07:55 PM

Populist Mayor Becomes Opposition Nominee for Taiwan Leader

Opposition Nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT) Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu attends a campaign rally for the local elections, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Nov. 23, 2018. Photo: VCG
Opposition Nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT) Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu attends a campaign rally for the local elections, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Nov. 23, 2018. Photo: VCG

*Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu beat Foxconn-founder Terry Gou in a public opinion poll used to choose the Kuomintang party’s nominee

*Han has advocated for strengthened ties and integration between Kaohsiung and Chinese mainland cities

The mayor of Taiwan’s third-largest city has beaten a business magnate to become the main opposition party’s nominee for the island’s highest elected office, in one of the most intense competitions the island has seen since direct leadership elections began in 1996.

Han Kuo-yu, the current mayor of Kaohsiung, won 44.8% of support in the public opinion poll that is used to choose the Kuomintang party’s (KMT) nominee. That was enough to beat out his main rival Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of manufacturing giant Foxconn, who received 27.7% of support, and third-ranked Eric Chu with 17.9%. Han will go on to represent the KMT in Taiwan’s top election in 2020, challenging the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) incumbent Tsai Ing-wen.

The nominee is chosen through a week of telephone polling and opinion surveys of the whole public — that is, including non-party members — that are intended to more adequately reflect the entirety of public opinion.

Of the five KMT party members vying for the nomination, the fiercest competition was between poll leaders Han and Gou. While the gap between the two has been narrowing since they announced their candidacies in June and April, respectively, several surveys showed that Han had a consistent advantage of 5 to 8 percentage points over Gou.

While Chu has rich and solid political experience — he is a former KMT chairman and was a candidate in the last leadership election — he failed to break through the lead of the two “atypical” candidates. While populist Han’s political star has rocketed over the last year, Gou is widely-known for serving as chairman of the world’s largest iPhone-maker – and for his temper and controversial statements.

Han, who unexpectedly won the Kaohsiung mayoral election for the KMT in December, has become a popular figure in Taiwan’s politics but is a polarizing figure. Some believe that he has used his position as leader of the city as a platform for higher political ambitions and complain that he will neglect his duties as mayor during a tight leadership race.

Han, 62, was a legislator in the 1990s, but due to political difficulties he exited the political arena in 2002 and turned to business after a stint of unemployment. As he began to campaign for the mayoral election in Kaohsiung, his deft usage of social media to create viral videos and memes made him into an internet star and his popularity exploded.

Though much of the candidates’ campaigns have so far not focused too much on policy, Han has advocated for strengthened ties and integration between Kaohsiung and Chinese mainland cities, such as Xiamen and Shanghai, as well as with other international cities such as Singapore and Seoul.

While visiting the U.S. in April this year, Han said in a speech at the Harvard Fairbank Center that the biggest challenge for any political leader in Taiwan “is to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and ensure that Taiwan is not excluded from important international activities.” While he said it is important for Taiwan to strengthen its defensive capabilities, Taiwan must “strive for peaceful coexistence with the Chinese mainland and use wisdom to avoid potential conflicts.”

Current leader Tsai Ing-wen won the DPP’s primary nomination in mid-June, but enthusiasm around her campaign has since faded as her poll numbers slumped. Taipei’s independent mayor Ko Wen-je has not officially announced his candidacy, but it is expected that if he were to join the race as an independent candidate his support rate would increase. Gou too has not ruled out the possibility of running as a third-party candidate.

The next leadership election in Taiwan will be held on Jan. 11 next year and the winner will take office in May.

Contact reporter Ren Qiuyu (qiuyuren@caixin.com)

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