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Once tradition bound, this year’s KMT primary is a blockbuster tale of drama and political intrigue.

Taiwan's Wild 2020 KMT Primary Is Breaking All the Rules

2019/05/03 , Voices
Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文)
Credit: Reuters / TPG
Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文)
Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a contributing writer for The News Lens. He is a publisher of the Compass Magazine, current chairman of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce, the Central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT Radio, the founder of the popular Taiwan News in English Facebook group and is an organizer of rock festivals including the Compass Food and Music Festival.

Television news in Taiwan is awash in breathless reports of drama, surprise, intrigue and enough twists and turns involving a cast of colorful character that makes TV political dramas seem tame. And this is just the Kuomintang (KMT) presidential primary – the actual presidential race has yet to begin.

Traditionally, KMT primaries were largely a forgone conclusion. The real action was the race to become party chair, who it was then assumed would be the de facto candidate for the party. This model was disrupted for a few months in 2015 when then-party chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) declined to run in the primary, eventually handing the nomination to Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), a firebrand deemed too pro-China for the public to handle at the time. The party eventually pulled the rug out from under their increasingly unpopular nominee and shoved a very reluctant Chu into the candidacy, restoring the tradition of the chair and the candidate being one in the same. Chu – a somewhat ungainly, but disarmingly charming man and very popular New Taipei City mayor who married into a powerful family – was very smart to be reluctant. The tide was very strongly against the KMT, and both his campaign and the party were crushed in a landslide.

In 2017, the demoralized KMT held a contest for party chair to determine who would lead the party into the November 2018 local elections, and possibly the January 2020 national elections a year-and-a-half later. They chose party stalwart and ex-Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) from a crowded field, winning with over 52 percent of the vote. Wu, though a local Taiwanese, is a protege and associate of ex-President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the powerful party “mainlander” elites who mostly descend from the exiled KMT leadership from China that arrived in 1949. He’s stiff and wooden in public, but he’s a solid and reliable party man.

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Credit: Facebook / Wu Den-yih
KMT chairman Wu Den-yih.

Among the field of candidates – which included heavyweights like ex-candidate Hung and the ex-Mayor of Taipei – was, improbably, the ex-head of the Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing Corporation and ex-legislator in the 1990s who once punched fellow legislator and future president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in the face, sending him to the hospital: a brash, blunt-spoken then-nobody named Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), who garnered a mere 5.8 percent of the vote. Possibly as punishment for his audacity in running, he was banished to Kaohsiung, a city he barely knew and so deeply in the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) camp it was considered virtually impossible to win. Or so they thought.

The rise of the ‘Han Wave’ and Wang Jin-pyng

Initially, the 2018 local election race for the KMT got off to a tepid start, but by the fall the KMT was building a formidable head of steam – especially in the most unexpected places.

By the last few weeks of the election the same Han Kuo-yu that was banished to Kaohsiung had become a populist superstar leading a “Han wave.” Han came from a humble “mainlander” military background, and after a political career in the 1990s, he faded off into the background, joining his wife in rural Yunlin County, where he grew close to local political patronage faction figures. Now, boasting both a poor and a rural background and playing up a humble, every-man image, Han was able to appeal as an honest, straight shooter: blunt about the city’s problems, but with an optimistic message of hope and prosperity for the future. That many of his proposals were amusing (a love motel & Ferris wheel by the Love River), highly improbable (doubling the population in 10 years) or even dangerous (drilling for oil and gas in the South China Sea) failed to dent his appeal. The KMT base rallied, people who had largely given up hope came out in support – often for the first time – and his populist message set the city, and much of the country, on fire.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Han Kuo-yu, mayor of Kaohsiung and populist force behind Taiwan's 'Han wave.'

An article written then by this author sums up the situation: “Han is now the KMT’s star. The party chairman, historically also the party’s presumptive presidential candidate, Wu Den-yih has largely been sidelined in recent weeks – KMT candidates across the country desperately clamored to be associated with Han, and it is his endorsement that appears on many of their promotional banners. He, along with New Taipei City mayoral candidate Hou You-yi (侯友宜) and to a lesser degree Taichung’s Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕) have reinvigorated the party.”

Boasting both a poor and a rural background and playing up a humble, every-man image, Han was able to appeal as an honest, straight shooter: blunt about the city’s problems, but with an optimistic message of hope and prosperity for the future.

The KMT swept much of the country in a landslide and Han won the mayorship of Kaohsiung, but as noted in that article before the election, party chair Wu was largely sidelined. Han himself, while popular and charismatic, is by no accounts a wily political operator with the connections capable of delivering areas of the country that had in recent years become strongholds of the DPP, while at the same time banishing the party chair from rallies and election materials outside of Taipei. That person is Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), a Kaohsiung native who took Han under his wing.

Soft spoken, given to statements and platitudes so inoffensive as to be virtually devoid of meaning, and with a placid, pleasant demeanor at all times, Wang is the consummate political operator, the longest serving speaker of the legislature in history and who had in past tried for the party chair role – and by extension the candidacy for president – back in 2005, running against eventual president Ma Ying-jeou. The Ma-Wang contest was one between the traditional “Mainlander” elites – powerful KMT families who came over with the Chinese government-in-exile in 1949 – and the local political patronage factions. Wang hails from the political patronage system, which was established in the martial law era by the KMT, utilizing native Taiwanese as local level political candidates. The factions were limited geographically by region to limit their power base, with each region having at least two factions so the KMT could play them off each other. The patronage factions were given control of agricultural associations and credit unions, as well as the cash that ran through them, in exchange for loyalty. Han, though a “mainlander” himself, had grown close to factional figures in Yunlin.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Former legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng (L) and former President Ma Ying-jeou.

Over time, Wang became the most powerful of these Taiwanese political patronage faction leaders. President Ma and the “mainlander” party elites so feared Wang he tried to get Wang kicked out of the party and removed from office as speaker of the legislature – in spite being in the same party – in a bitter contest that, in the end, Wang won in the courts.

In the 2018 local elections, Wang had pulled off what once had seemed the impossible: he had quietly and persistently travelled the countryside and small towns where the patronage factions are powerful, and one by one united them, effectively for the first time on a grand scale, to mobilize the vote in cooperation. In many ways, the 2018 local elections were Wang’s victory. He had successfully sidelined Chairman Wu (who had been his hated nemesis President Ma’s vice president) and delivered a huge victory for the party. Entering this year, Wang Jin-pyng – and his native Taiwanese factions – was riding high, and the presumptive presidential candidate and Ma Ying-jeou protégé, Wu Den-yih, was looking weak.

It seemed that, finally, the Taiwanese factional politicians in the KMT looked poised to seriously challenge, and maybe topple, the “mainlander elites” in Taipei.

Primary season starts off with familiar battle lines drawn

The first to declare his intention to run in the KMT primary was Eric Chu, the loser of the 2016 race. Polling appeared to have shown he’d regained some popularity since that loss. Two other candidates declared not long after: Wang Jin-pyng and the relatively unknown one-term ex-Taipei County Commissioner Chou Hsi-wei (周錫瑋), and Chairman Wu was presumed to be a candidate. The KTM primary was, at the time, based 70 percent on a public opinion poll and 30 percent on voting by party members.

By this point, the KMT primary was shaping up to be crowded and interesting. Chu seemed to have the edge in the polls, but not by much over Wang. Wu lagged and Chou barely registered. The battle royale between the two classic power bases for the soul of the party: The “mainlander” elites (Chu and Wu) and the “native” political factions (Wang), a battle that has raged for years – with victory in the big races almost always going to the elites – was finally here. Or so it appeared.

Bolt from out of the (pan-) Blue

Then, abruptly, Chairman Wu did something totally unexpected: He threw his support behind newly elected Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu.

On talk shows, Wu disingenuously claimed credit for Han’s rise, spoke glowingly of his erstwhile gadfly challenger for the chairmanship, and started rallying the base to demand that the “strongest candidate represent the KMT.” Crowds mobbed Han calling for him to run and the press wouldn’t leave the question alone. Grassroots KMT politicians clamored for his run. Han demurred, saying repeatedly it wasn’t in his current plans – but didn’t rule it out completely. Wu doubled down by dropping out of the race: He was going to do whatever it took to get Han in the race. When Han didn’t respond by the deadline, Wu got the party to delay the primary and began to openly do whatever he could to rig the system to get Han to be the candidate, over the objections of the other candidates who demanded the party stick to the rules (including, rather hypocritically, Chu, who was put in as candidate in the last election after the party dumped their primary winner mid race).

What was going on here? Why would Wu, who has ambitiously coveted the presidency for quite some time drop out and support someone he has few ties to? Why has Han been playing coy? On one level, Wu is correct on who – both then and at present – would be the strongest KMT candidate: Han leads in all the polling conducted across the political spectrum. Perhaps his loyalty in doing what is best for the party should be taken at face value. Perhaps. Another possibility is Wu, knowing he was going to lose anyway, thought this would be a move that would accomplish two other goals if he succeeds in getting Han to run: Weaken or break apart the bond between Han and Wang, and by claiming Han on his side regain influence and power inside the party back from Wang and his factional allies by getting the “Han wave” in his camp. Perhaps. More conspiratorially, perhaps he expects, or knows how to engineer, a fall from grace for Han, which if late enough in the game could mean that the chairman could be drafted to carry the party banner to the finish line – just like what happened in the last presidential election on the KMT side. Maybe. There is no way to know at this point for sure what Wu is up to, but the unexpectedness and boldness of his move naturally raises questions.

Meanwhile, Han was dodging, ducking and weaving to avoid making a firm commitment. Very likely, abandoning the voters of Kaohsiung mere months after being elected mayor would look bad and let a lot of people down. Another possibility was loyalty to Wang. But the pressure just kept mounting on Han to run.

While the Wu-Han drama was unfolding and Han seemingly couldn’t make up his mind, another bombshell hit the KMT primary: Terry Gou (郭台銘), the chairman and founder of Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. and sometime richest man in Taiwan, donned a Trump-style baseball cap with the national ROC flag and announced that the sea goddess Mazu had come to him in a dream and asked him to run for president.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Foxconn founder Terry Gou dropped a bombshell last month by entering the 2020 KMT primary.

Gou is one of the most successful business leaders on the planet, chairing the company known overseas primarily under the brand name Foxconn (and subsidiary Sharp). He’s a largely self-made contract electronics manufacturer whose company manufactures, among many other things, Apple’s iPhones and whose employees number in the millions. His management style is famously dictatorial and ruthless, as Milo Hsieh put it in his piece on Gou in The News Lens: “As a businessman who is often compared to Genghis Khan, Gou’s attitude towards his business resembles a path of brutal yet efficient conquest. His efficient management comes at the cost of his employees. Despite the success of Foxconn, the high stress combined with a lack of labor standards in China led to the suicide of many Foxconn workers.”

In a swipe at the diplomatically savvy, and highly popular in Washington, current president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, Gou said: 'We have been given the highest courtesy, [an invite] to the Oval Office, tell me until now which DPP official has such a capability?'

Gou has many similarities to Donald Trump, some of which, like the hat, he’s openly borrowing from. Like Trump, he has a long history of womanizing. In Gou’s case, there dalliances with models, allegations of hush money payments, abortions, sex tapes and a whole lot more. He’s famously blunt and outspoken and given to making comments that both outrage and offend, and of course is very wealthy. Some differences are also clear; he’s abrasive and easy to anger where Trump – even when insulting people – uses humor and banter. Gou isn’t given to smiling often, and when he does it has a wolf like aspect, which Gou would likely consider a compliment.

Gou’s appeal is that he is genuinely a successful businessman, and he is campaigning on turbo-charging Taiwan’s economy and providing a prosperous future for the young. Like Han, he appeals to those who are tired of “business-as-usual” politics and want a fresh face with a populist message that brings hope for prosperity. Those who are old enough to remember Taiwan’s economic boom times, and grew up during the end of martial law, fervently wish the days of seemingly unlimited potential upward mobility to return. Critics note that his business model was to largely abandon Taiwan for China early and stay there, hastening the end of Taiwan’s boom times. Even today, the vast majority of his manufacturing and business holdings remain there – and at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party. He is also far more pro-China than the population at large, investing heavily both financially and emotionally in the “ancestral homeland” of his parents in China’s Shanxi Province. He openly disparages military purchases from the United States, but relishes his meetings with Trump even though the big investment deal in Wisconsin that inspired the meetings is currently on the rocks. At the time of this article’s publication, Gou is in the U.S. to try and salvage the deal. While there, he has leveraged this business investment to score a second meeting with President Trump, the first time a sitting U.S. president has met with a Taiwanese presidential contender since diplomatic ties were cut in 1979. In a swipe at the diplomatically savvy, and highly popular in Washington, current president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), Gou said: "We have been given the highest courtesy, [an invite] to the Oval Office, tell me until now which DPP official has such a capability?"

Party Chair Wu, in response to both Han’s hemming and hawing and Gou’s announcement, began a series of moves to change the primary rules. For Gou, he got the requirement that he has to have been a party member for at least four months waived – on the pretext (not much contested in the party) that Gou had previously been a member and had effectively saved the party (using his mother as a proxy) with a major loan when the party suffered a financial crisis.

Then Han Kuo-yu dropped the bombshell that he would not run in the primary "under the existing system at this point in time" – but went on to say Kaohsiung couldn’t advance if Taiwan didn’t advance and he was willing to take personal responsibility for the future development of the Republic of China. In short, he was playing the classic political game of “Oh my, I couldn’t possibly”, but if you beg enough and “make me do it I guess I’ll just have to then.” The party responded by changing the rules of the opinion poll part of the primary so that the party will include “likely candidates” on their own, without requiring the candidate to register, and stated they would include Han. They also discussed dropping the 30 percent portion of the primary involving voting by party members.

Han has continued this game to an almost extreme degree. At a press conference after a one-on-one meeting with Wu – and the same day he joined a panel hosted by ex-President Ma featuring only presidential candidates and himself (and jokingly asked if it was “a presidential debate”) – he went on to say: “Given the current situation, I cannot be included in opinion polls on the presidential election.” He continued: “As Kaohsiung mayor, I shoulder the expectations of Kaohsiung residents.” Clearly out of the race? Nope, right after that he went to say: “I(f party headquarters or the Central Standing Committee needs Han Kuo-yu in some way to make all kinds of arrangements, including opinion polls, I will respect” their decision. In short, he’s continuing to say “Oh my, I couldn’t possibly” but has all but outright agreed to run if the party tells him to.

Time is running out for another candidate to enter the race, but the rumor mill hasn’t stopped churning out possibilities. A perennial favorite is a return of Ma Ying-jeou, who was term limited out after two terms previously, but is now eligible to run again. Rumors have also been circulated that the former first lady Christine Chow Mei-ching (周美青), wife of President Ma, might run. Though unlikely, neither is impossible – nor is the last minute appearance of someone else totally unexpected.

According to reports, the party expects to finalize guidelines for the nomination of candidates on May 8, announce the primary schedule on May 15 with an eye currently on holding the primary in June, and with a formal announcement of the candidate in July.

Currently, polling favors Han straight across the board, but with Gou polling quite well. What had originally appeared to be a battle between the old school “mainlanders” and the local factions has for now been overwhelmed by two populist tides. The public is clearly not enamored with the KMT old school politicians, but it is unclear if the public will continue to support the populist candidates.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Taiwan's KMT, rejuvenated by its November election victories, now finds itself in the throes of a complex battle between familiar factions and populist insurgents.

Han, and especially Gou, are far closer to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and to the concept of unification with China than the Taiwanese public. Gou, for one, is deeply invested in China and very closely tied to the CCP financially, politically and personally – otherwise, he wouldn’t have succeeded in a China that is now routinely toppling top business leaders for political reasons. Gou has also managed to, in one statement, defy history, denigrate Taiwanese as “Chinese nationals” and quote Xi Jinping’s propaganda aimed at Taiwan by saying “Chinese don’t attack Chinese” (using “Chinese” meaning of Chinese nationality,” 中國人不打中國人"). The CCP mouthpiece Global Times ran a highly complimentary piece that appears to suggest the party supports his presidential run.

Han, for his part, touts his ability to work with China and attract Chinese business – but sometimes his pro-China actions are controversial, such as when he visited the CCP’s liaison office in Hong Kong, suggesting he endorsed or supported the “one country, two systems” approach that China is rapidly undermining. Both will be highly vulnerable on this count should they become the party’s nominee, as both are far out of the mainstream of public opinion on relations with China – and the DPP and the press will hound them mercilessly on this issue. Some expect that either, or both, will eventually be felled by their gaffs and inappropriate statements. Of the two, Gou is likely the more vulnerable – his famously hot temper could easily to cause him to lash out in ways that could be perceived as very unseemly, and his domineering manner built up over years of being the undisputed boss could come across as arrogant and dictatorial if the pressure mounts. Han Kuo-yu has so far demonstrated an ability to hold up under intense pressure. He is relentlessly positive, non-confrontational and works hard at maintaining a humble appearance – all positives in a society that values harmony. His charisma, optimism and positive message could continue to carry him far, but expect the attacks on him, especially over China, to become far more intense and vicious than previously in the local Kaohsiung race.

Whoever becomes the candidate will then have two major challenges: Restoring unity in the party and making the KMT’s unpopular pro-China ideological palatable to the public. Crucial to the chances of the party winning in January 2020 will be if Wang Jin-pyng can replicate the miracle turnout among the unified factions across the center and south of the country. There isn’t much they have to offer Wang: He is not likely to be interested in being Vice President – after being the speaker of the legislature that is a letdown, though it might make a nice, undemanding retirement position. He might wish to regain the speakership, which would mean winning the legislative elections held alongside the presidential race – but at his age, it may be a “been there, done that” proposition. Han, Gou, Chu, Wu and probably Chou would all be in varying degrees acceptable to the traditional party elites in Taipei, though Han could make them somewhat nervous due his unpredictable nature. Wang would not, if he wins the nomination that would be his weak spot: the urban and especially Taipei-based KMT voters.

Of the candidates, only Wang’s position on China and any potential “unification” is vague enough to give him considerable leeway to tailor his position to make it palatable to the public. The others have rushed towards a more pro-China stance than the KMT went with in the last few elections, with Chu going further than in his 2016 race by proposing a meeting with Xi Jinping on Kinmen with hopes of getting a “peace declaration” (not a treaty as originally reported, China would never agree to sign a treaty with a country it doesn’t recognize). Wu’s stance has so far been a tepid retread of Ma-era policies, which were roundly defeated in the polls in 2016. Both Han and Gou are unabashedly Republic of China nationalists and pro-China in outlook.

There is still considerable time between now and the expected June primary public opinion polling and the game will only intensify further as the candidates strive to take to the lead. Expect the unexpected, the dramatic and further bold, risky moves. These men want to lead the party into the election, and via the presidency the nation into the choppy waters ahead as China rapidly ramps up its pressure on Taiwan.

Read Next: Taiwan's 2020 DPP Primary Puts Tsai Ing-wen and Party Unity Under Pressure

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@TheNewsLens)

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