The Upcoming Taipei By-Elections Will Measure Ko Wen-je's Political Power

The Upcoming Taipei By-Elections Will Measure Ko Wen-je's Political Power
Credit: Reuters / TPG
What you need to know

January's Shilin-Datong city councilor by-election has major 2020 presidential implications for Ko-P and Taiwan's 'White Force.'

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In Taiwan’s nine-in-one regional elections, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was overwhelmingly defeated throughout the country, including in Taipei. Even though they did their best to shut out Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), he still went on to pip his opponents to the post.

After his victory, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) made a personal visit to congratulate Ko, but by that time he had long since decided to break away from the DPP. Will Ko Wen-je look to challenge Tsai for the presidency in 2020, or will he continue to build his legacy in Taipei?

It all starts with the upcoming by-election for the vacant Taipei Shilin-Datong District Legislative Yuan seat, set to be held in January 2019 to fill the seat of failed DPP Taipei mayoral candidate Pasuya Yao (姚文智). It looks to be a close battle between the DPP’s Mark Ho Chih-wei (何志偉) and the Ko-backed “White Force” independent Chen Su-yu (陳思宇). It will also tell us a lot about the future of Ko’s independent coalition and hint at his strength as a potential 2020 presidential candidate.

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Credit: CNA
DPP Taipei city councilor candidate Mark Ho.
Mark Ho: Seen as the ‘best of the best’ in the DPP ranks

The DPP were originally uncertain of whether Mayor Ko was an ally or an enemy, as their prospective mayoral candidates were in disarray. By the time the race kicked off, the DPP knew that they would have to go to war against Ko Wen-je. Now, after Ko’s November victory, the DPP has gotten behind Mark Ho, nominating the city councilor for the vacant Shilin-Datong seat.

Ho, who has stepped down from his city councilor position, is seen as having the strongest potential in the field, making this by-election the very first skirmish in the DPP-Ko power struggle.

Ho is a second-generation politician. His mother Hsueh Ling (薛凌) was a two-term legislator and his father, Chen Shen-hung (陳勝宏), was the former Director of Sunny Bank and was twice a Taipei city councilor under the DPP. Mark’s political roots are strong. More importantly, however, Ho does not exude the typical arrogance of second-generation politicians. He is seen as being incredibly kind and down-to-earth, and even though he is a city councilor, his political instincts seem stronger than those of Pasuya Yao. It makes sense that the DPP would turn to Ho if they want to retain the Shilin-Datong district.

Although Ho is courteous and cooperates as much as he can with the media, never refusing interviews, he has always been very cautious when speaking. He has never made any mistakes when addressing sensitive topics, and he often appears restrained when he speaks.

If the DPP avoids getting sucked into controversy during the by-election campaign, Ho has an excellent chance at claiming this seat.

Chen Su-yu's candidacy highlights two of Ko Wen-je's largest obstacles

Chen Su-yu was also born into politics. In addition to enjoying the backing of the ever-popular Ko Wen-je, her father Chen Jian-ming (陳建銘) has been a multi-term councilor of the Shilin-Beitou District, and her aunt, Chen Ching-min (陳靜敏), is a DPP non-district legislator. Politics runs in her blood.

In addition, she serves as the commissioner of the Taipei Department of Information and as Tourism Commissioner under Ko and was appointed the treacherous task of rescuing the Lantern Festival. After successfully saving the event, she received instant recognition from Ko for her comprehensive and natural ability. This is also seen in her rapport with the media, where she avoids bogging reports down in bureaucratic language.

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Independent 'White Force' Taipei city councilor challenger Chen Su-yu.

Chen earns points across the board for her political savvy, but judging from her struggles in her current campaign, she is being completely outplayed by her opponent, who receives far more media and public attention.

Ko’s quest to support fellow “White Force” independent candidates, such as Chen, stand out faces at least two obstacles. (In Chinese, “white party” (白色派對) means “independent party” while the term “white power” (白色力量) refers to the strength of an independent candidate. These terms have, in the past, seen some unfortunate translations.)

First, Ko’s shining light cannot be directly passed on to those under his stewardship. He must invest a lot of his own time and effort to lend his direct support in the Taipei by-elections.

Second, most of the candidates supported by Ko are new to politics. They may be comfortable with the media, but they lack actual experience in running for elections.

Chen Su-yu is part of the first generation of the “White Force.” Compared to Ko, she does not have as impressive of a professional background. She also cannot compete with Ko endless talent for public speaking and still relies heavily on pre-written speeches. This makes it impossible for her to copy Ko’s sharp, domineering style when she faces the media. Her modest and courteous personality traits are like chalk and cheese compared to the direct, unruly and domineering Ko.

The apparent disconnect between Chen and Ko is not necessarily a difficult problem to take on. If Ko takes every opportunity to actively promote Chen and take the stage beside her, I believe her popularity will rapidly increase.

However, if Ko has to spend this much time and effort campaigning for legislative by-elections, how will he find the time to pedal his way through all four corners of the island and support his candidates contesting the six special municipalities once the presidential election comes around?

Rallying the troops this way is not an efficient use of his time – especially if he decides to run for President.

The other problem is that the group surrounding Ko Wen-je, although talented, are mostly unfamiliar with election customs. They have the advantage of being fresh and unconventional, but they also do not know how to campaign depending on each locale.

For her part, Chen has accumulated plenty of experience as a politician as she was an assistant for the campaign of former tourism commissioner Chien Yu-yien (簡余晏) and witnessed her father’s many election campaigns. However, she has still lost a lot of ground to her opponents, Mark Ho and Chen Ping-fu (陳炳甫), and is seemingly failing to proactively organize her campaign and mobilize support. If someone of Chen’s experience is having this much trouble, other electoral novices should think twice about whether they can adapt to the ebb and flow of elections.

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Credit: CNA
Can Ko Wen-je guide his favored candidates to victory while keeping his eyes on the presidency?
The 'White Force' claimed victories in Taipei... but not just because of Ko

Independents enjoyed significant success in November’s Taipei city councilor elections. The “Taipei Supervising Alliance” of Hsu Li-hsin (徐立信), Vivian Huang (黃珊珊), Lin Kuo-cheng (林國成) and Hung Shih-chi (洪士奇), Chen Cheng-chung (陳政忠), and Lee Ching-yuan (李慶元) were all successful in their campaigns – the only exception was Hung Shih-chi (洪士奇).

However, it would be wrong to credit these victories to the assistance of Ko Wen-je.

We should keep in mind that Chen Cheng-chung became an elected council member for the ninth time, Lee Ching-yuan for the sixth time, Vivian Huang for the fifth time and Lin Kuo-cheng for the fourth time. This is because they have a deep and profound knowledge of their respective locals. In addition, even though this was Hsu Li-hsin’s first election victory, he had performed well in previous election and has long been a provider of free legal services in his area.

Critically, Hsu, Huang, Lin and Lee all received strong support from the People First Party (PFP). This proves that Ko’s assistance was only part of the reason for their success.

We should keep a close eye on any new developments leading up to January’s by-elections. We do know that, for Ko Wen-je’s “white force” army, this is only the first battle. It is too much to expect them to claim a comprehensive victory, as elections are like wars. The first skirmish is not a training session, but it is a step forward as they keep their eyes on the prize: the 2020 presidential election.

Read Next: OPINION: Ko-P Just Goes and Goes in Taipei Mayor TV Debate

This article first appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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