- By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
- BBC News, Taiwan
Taiwan’s two main opposition parties appeared to be on the verge of announcing their forced marriage: the leader of one of them would run in January’s presidential election; the leader of the other would be his running mate.
Saturday’s unexpected deal would have upended the race for who wins, posing the first real challenge to the ruling party, currently leading in the polls.
But then the groom – or was it the bride? – I had cold feet. The shotgun wedding was over before it even began, not least because there was never love lost between the old nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT) and the new Taiwan People’s Party ( TPP).
Both promise better ties with an increasingly aggressive Beijing – and a lower risk of war. This sets them apart from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has moved closer to the United States even as its rhetoric about an independent Taiwan has become louder.
But that’s where the similarities end.
The KMT ruled Taiwan from 1945 to 2000. It still considers the Taipei Presidential Office Building its natural headquarters. And party leaders are certain they would return next year, without what they consider a political newcomer called Ko Wen-je.
The 64-year-old former surgeon garnered surprising support this election, particularly from young voters, thanks to his campaign for affordable housing.
His detractors accuse him of being an opportunistic populist, without real, coherent policies – and point out how far he has moved across the political spectrum during his career.
In the 1990s, Mr. Ko was a staunch supporter of Taiwan’s then opposition party, the DPP. At that time, the DPP was an outsider, fighting for full democracy and an end to decades of KMT dictatorship.
In 2000, Mr. Ko campaigned for the DPP when its candidate won the presidency for the first time. Then, in 2014, Mr Ko gave up medicine and ran for mayor of Taipei – and the DPP supported him. He won, but the success apparently convinced him that he needed his own party.
In 2019, he founded the Taiwan People’s Party. According to him, it would be a compromise between the DPP, favorable to the independence of Taiwan, and the KMT, favorable to Beijing.
Today, Mr. Ko is running for president – and he’s doing quite well. All summer and into the fall, he voted ahead of KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih.
This infuriates former KMT grandees, because the current DPP government, in power for eight years, is not exactly popular. Their presidential candidate is the current vice president, a soft-spoken doctor named William Lai Ching-te.
Mr. Lai is not much of an activist. His popularity rating in the polls has gradually fallen, going from more than 40% this summer to barely 30% today.
But there will be no runoff in Taiwan’s presidential race. Mr Lai can become president with just 30% of the vote.
Increasingly exasperated by their own candidate’s failure to overtake Mr. Lai and even Mr. Ko, KMT elders were forced to consider the unthinkable: an alliance with Mr. Ko.
This seemed impossible given Mr. Ko’s famously cantankerous personality and the fact that he has repeatedly — and even recently — declared that he “hated the KMT.”
But last week, to everyone’s surprise, the two parties announced that they would present a joint presidential candidacy.
All they needed now was data from “independent polling experts” to decide who between the two would run for president – and who for vice president.
As of Friday evening, the two sides were arguing over what types of polling data were acceptable. Saturday morning, it was all over.
Mr Ko, rather upset, told a room full of journalists that he had been cheated into the deal – and that he should not have negotiated with the KMT alone, without advisers present.
The DPP’s image specialists struggled to contain their schadenfreude. Mr Ko said he was still “willing” to negotiate, although he also insisted he would be the TPP’s presidential candidate. But time is running out because presidential candidates must register before November 24.
But for now, we’re back where we started: an opposition that ranges from the KMT to the TPP to billionaire businessman Terry Gou, who is running as an independent. They are all chasing the same voters in the hope of overthrowing the DPP, in power since 2016.
The DPP has now unveiled its own electoral weapon: vice-presidential candidate Bi-Khim Hsiao.
Since 2020, Ms. Hsiao has served as Taiwan’s fiery and eloquent representative to the United States. Her supporters jokingly call her Taiwan’s “cat warrior” – a mockery of China’s combative diplomats, the so-called “wolf warriors.”
It will be interesting to see what happens in the polls when the Taiwanese warrior cat – charismatic and popular with young voters – hits the campaign trail.
Gn En Hd