ANALYSIS: Tsai Ing-wen’s DPP Should Fight Ko-P for Taipei Mayor

Photo Credit: 柯文哲
Why you need to know

A poll finding suggests that to fend off the KMT in Taipei, President Tsai Ing-wen's DPP would benefit from running its own candidate rather than backing the incumbent mayor.

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Taiwan’s ruling party is engaged in an internal debate on whether to back a candidate in this year’s election for mayor of the nation’s capital, Taipei City. President and Democratic Party Chairwoman Tsai Ying-wen (蔡英文) and top party officials are coming under increasing pressure from local Taipei City politicians and supporters to choose a candidate.

On April 22, over 10,000 protested, calling on the party to nominate DPP Legislator Pasuya Yao (姚文智). The march was backed by some prominent DPP politicians and over 90 percent of the city’s DPP city councilors.

And yet, with the clock ticking on the November election, Tsai dithers.

In the last local elections in 2014 the then-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) were swept from power across the nation, only barely holding on to one major city and a few very small local governments. The DPP swept most races, but looking weak in Taipei the party backed the blunt-speaking, political neophyte independent candidacy of surgeon Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), who went on to a stunning win. Doctor Ko, nicknamed “Ko P,” poached supporters from all parties, including the KMT – the party that with few exceptions dominated the city for generations.

The DPP and Tsai need to make a strategic choice on whether to once again back Ko. The mayor of the nation’s capital is a hugely influential national figure, a post that was the stepping stone for three of the last four presidents. The DPP for certain doesn’t want the KMT to regain control of the city. The DPP was founded specifically to oppose the one-party rule imposed by the KMT.

The party is thus a curious mix of left and right wing, liberal and conservative and its continued intense dislike of the more pro-China KMT is – along with a Taiwanese identity – the glue that holds the party together.

Moreover, the massive defeats that the KMT suffered in 2014 and in the national 2016 elections have left little in the way of popular figures on the national level, and the KMT must score some wins in this year’s elections in order to build a new generation of high profile politicians.

In polls, incumbent Ko is riding high and many expect he will win re-election barring a major catastrophe.

Presumptive DPP candidate Yao is polling in the low double-digits in a three-way race, making a DPP win at this point look like a highly unlikely prospect in this KMT-leaning city. Yao claims he will quit politics for good if he gets the DPP nod and comes in third, but currently he is not even close to that low bar.

賴清德, 柯文哲
Photo Credit: 行政院
Ko Wen-je has an odd relationship with the ruling DPP administration.

With their hopes of winning Taipei so low, many are calling for the DPP to back Ko, though this is a position more popular outside of Taipei than in the capital itself. There are two main ideas behind this thinking.

One is to put a wrench into any prospective plans for Ko to run for president in 2020, which are widely rumored and Ko has not ruled out. With the KMT field so bereft of viable candidates at this stage, Ko is by far the most popular nationally recognized non-DPP politician in the country.

Moreover, Tsai’s numbers are anemic. Recent polling shows that 55.5 percent of voters nationally think that if Ko is re-elected mayor this year he should finish his term and not run for president, with only 26.3 percent supporting a run, though this could change as events unfold.

Should Ko run, it opens up the possibility that he could spark a new movement towards building a new political party. Though that is purely speculative at this point, it would be a very worrying development for the DPP. While keeping Ko in office in Taipei would not absolutely stop him launching a presidential run, it would complicate his campaign.

丁守中
Photo Credit:丁守中粉絲團
Ting Shou-chung is the KMT's leading candidate for mayor. The caption reads: 'Accept no compromise, fight for the pride of Taipei.'

The other reason put forward is that in 2014, backed by DPP support, Ko won a resounding victory. The theory runs that if the DPP ran their own candidate it could siphon votes away from Ko and give the KMT a greater chance of winning. Currently, however, in three-way polling Ko leads the leading KMT primary candidate Ting Shou-chung (丁守中) by double-digits and the DPP’s Yao by about 30 percent.

But should Mayor Ko get into serious trouble between now and election day, that math could change – and in KMT-heavy Taipei they would be the most likely beneficiaries.

However, Taipei voters have overlooked his previous gaffes, which include telling reporters that he would sell a gift watch from the British transport minister for scrap, calling Hong Kong a "small boring island" and comparing members of Rotary Club International to fat sheep.

The local Taipei DPP politicians demanding their own candidate largely have two issues with Ko. Much of it is simply local political conflicts with the mayor. The other is Ko’s middle-of-the-road (by Taipei standards) comments on KMT heroes of the authoritarian era such as Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) and his more moderate (and diplomatically flexible) comments on China relations and Taiwan identity. These positions infuriate segments of the DPP base both locally and nationally, who have drawn something of a red line in the sand over the issue of “Taiwan values” that they repeatedly want him to take a firm, DPP-sounding stand on. Already seen as moderate – too moderate for some –Tsai will need to consider her base and relations with her own party in Taipei, that is largely unified on the issue.

Ko's gaffes include calling Hong Kong a "small boring island" and comparing members of Rotary Club International to fat sheep.

There is, however, something very surprising I haven’t seen publicly commented on that may be (or should be) a factor internally in the party: a closer look at the numbers in the last five to six polls in a two-way race between Ko and the KMT’s Ting shows Ko’s lead at 10.4 percent versus 15 percent in a three-way race.

Even more curious is where Yao is taking the votes from: mostly from the KMT’s Ting at an average of 9 percent and only taking an average of 5 percent from Ko’s base. However, though poll numbers vary, all the polls are fairly consistent in this respect – Yao is taking more votes from Ting than Ko.

One reason the DPP’s Yao might take more votes from the KMT’s Ting is that moderate DPP voters dislike Ko, and given a two-way race they would vote against the incumbent mayor Ko, but given a DPP candidate they would vote with their party.

Another possibility is that having both DPP and KMT challengers boosts Ko’s credibility as an independent, keeping some voters loyal to Ko over Ting, who is a lackluster candidate that has failed repeatedly in past mayoral runs.

From a strategic perspective, the DPP may be in a stronger position to both fend off the KMT taking Taipei and a prospective Ko presidential challenge by running a candidate for mayor. From the KMT’s perspective, they should be hoping the DPP backs Ko.

Read Next: The KMT's Must-Win Contests in Taiwan’s Upcoming Local Elections

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