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There's plenty going on outside the DPP and KMT presidential primaries.

All Bets Are Off: An Overview of Taiwan’s 2020 Presidential Primaries

2019/05/08 , Voices
Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文)
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.

In the first two articles of this series, we looked at the internal dynamics of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Kuomintang (KMT) presidential primary races, both of which find themselves in unprecedented, unpredictable and potentially dangerous territory.

In both parties, unity is at stake as competing interests and factions go head-to-head. But there is a whole lot more going on outside of the parties that could determine the final shape of the race going into the presidential election season.

Third party or independent candidates could have significant impact, with the possible entry of Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) being a potential game changer. Foreign powers, most notably China and the United States, are already starting to get involved in the race – with considerable concerns over direct meddling on the part of China. For the full details, read the previous two parts of the series, but to recap:

The DPP is currently running their primary as a public opinion poll after May 22, choosing the more popular of the two candidates – incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) or ex-Premier William Lai (賴清德) – among the public at large. The president is, according to most polling. more popular among party members, but is facing an unprecedented primary challenge from Lai. Currently, broad public opinion polls are leaning in Lai’s favor. This could lead to a lame duck president in office while the party’s candidate runs to replace her in office, an awkward arrangement at best. Should Tsai prevail, she will be faced with the challenge of healing the rifts that have opened up in the party – in part over her and the top party leadership’s current efforts to change the rules on the primary through delays to try and head off Lai’s challenge, which Lai’s supporters consider unfair and underhanded.

On the KMT side, the rules currently mandate an opinion poll like the DPP’s – but it would account for 70 percent of the result, with 30 percent of the result being allotted to party membership voting. However, the rules on the KMT side are proving even more malleable than the DPP’s, and current Chairman Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) is unabashedly working to change the rules in whatever way necessary to rope in popular Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) as the party’s candidate, over the objections of earlier declared candidates Eric Chu (朱立倫), Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) and Chou Hsi-wei (周錫瑋). However, Han is playing coy, refusing to join the primary race but also refusing to rule out declining should the party order him to be their candidate. Chairman Wu has already delayed as much as he could and has convinced the party to change the rules so that the opinion poll portion can include anyone they think is a “likely” candidate in the poll they should so choose – explicitly saying they will include Han in the poll. Han, however, is rumored to prefer that the primary be 100 percent poll based, throwing out the 30 percent party membership portion. Though not officially confirmed that is what he wants, the party and Chairman Wu have been openly discussing doing just that in favor of Han. While Han is a populist and has taken the spotlight from the more established candidates in the race, another populist candidate in the form of Terry Gou (郭台銘) – the controversial billionaire and Foxconn mogul – has entered the race, further confusing matters. The KMT is currently expected to hold their primary in June, announcing their candidate in July.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Will Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (C) find room to compete in Taiwan's crowded field of presidential candidates?
Independents or third-party candidates could change the equation

Whomever the two dominant parties pick as their candidates will be contenders out of the gate (though by the end of the race all bets are off). But who else will enter the race? Since free elections for president began in 1996, half have featured three or four candidates (1996, 2000, 2016) powerful enough to reach the double digits – so a significant third (or fourth) candidate would not be unusual. In this topsy-turvy election season, it seems very possible one will appear.

Simon Chang (張善政), who was briefly a caretaker premier between President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) stepping down after two terms and incoming President Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration, is already in the race running as an independent. He’s also behind a referendum push to create a “digital nation.” So far, he’s failed to gain significant traction, with pollsters not even bothering to include him. Once the primaries are over, however, and the outlines of the race clearer, he may get a second look.

The most obvious disruptive candidate is popular independent Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, also known as “Ko P” (for “Professor Ko”, the title goes after the surname in Chinese). Ko is openly considering a run and, as he has said he has made a decision, he claims he needs to convince himself it is the right decision – and he hasn’t made it clear if he’s trying to convince himself to run or not to run. He has won two successive races for mayor of Taipei running on a platform of being neither pan-Green (DPP and allies) nor pan-Blue (KMT and allies), but rather as a third “white force” (this is sometimes more literally translated as “white power,” but the “white” refers simply to not “green” or “blue”).

Almost totally lacking in traditional measures of charisma but yet compelling, he is an acclaimed surgeon by trade, and is known for his blunt (but also highly gaffe prone), hardworking and practical approach. A breath of fresh air in comparison to traditional politicians, he’s done well attracting younger voters in Taipei. In traditional politics, however, his blunt, brute force scientific-style approach turns off some potential political allies like a caveman at a tea party. He is regularly included in polling for the presidential race, and consistently does well, in some cases coming out on top ahead of some potential three-way matchups against DPP and KMT candidates – though so far, when Han Kuo-yu is polled as the potential KMT candidate, Ko loses.

While both popular and well-known outside of Taipei, he has some disadvantages. Most crucially, he lacks a political party and the funding and voter mobilization abilities that comes with it, and his attempts to help other “white force” candidates have been a failure. However, he has successfully overcome this challenge twice in the nation’s capital. His views regarding relations with China are in Taipei considered roughly centrist, but outside of Taipei he could potentially be considered somewhat closer to the KMT than the DPP on his record and by past statements if he is held to those. His image, however, is of being pro-Taiwan, and he has some leeway to shift directions as his statements haven’t always been consistent in one direction or the other in the past. Should he decide to run, he will be a serious contender and will significantly change the political calculus on the KMT and DPP sides.

Other third party or independent candidates could emerge. So far, aside from the two noted above, there doesn’t appear to be any significant chatter of anyone well known entering as an independent... for now. Should one or more of the losers of the KMT or DPP primary enter the race as an independent, that could significantly change the race. So far all the candidates have expressed their loyalty and devotion to their parties, so at present it seems a remote possibility – but this is the season for surprises. Terry Gou would be the best placed financially, while Wang Jin-pyng would be the most powerful at mobilizing a significant voter turnout ground game.

So far, none of the smaller political parties seem to have any interest in fielding a candidate, but there is still time for one to do so. The only two parties at this early stage that likely would have enough electoral pull to make a dent are the People’s First Party (PFP) and the New Power Party (NPP).

The sometime KMT-allied PFP put forth James Soong (宋楚瑜) as their candidate in 2016, garnering 12.8 percent of the vote. Soong narrowly lost the 2000 election running as an independent, getting 36.8 percent of the vote that year (the PFP was founded by him after that election). Soong was also on the KMT ticket as the vice presidential candidate in 2004. After so many losses, and at his advanced age, it seems unlikely he’ll contest yet another race – but his 2016 candidacy was something of a surprise as well, so it’s too soon to rule it out.

At this point, the sometime DPP-allied NPP hasn’t made any moves to suggest they plan on running a candidate. The party is small, and they only have three or four people well-known enough to run. They will likely follow their past strategy of supporting the DPP candidate as being more likely to defeat the KMT than a candidate of their own – but again, things are unusual this year and if the DPP comes unglued with infighting between Tsai and Lai, the NPP may consider their options.

Foreign actors already meddling

China has loomed large over every presidential election in Taiwan. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime has already tipped their hand via the state-run mouthpiece Global Times that they are quite fond of Terry Gou. That is not surprising in the least. Gou’s business empire and his fortune is largely based there – and it wouldn’t have become an empire without active efforts on Gou’s part to court the CCP personally and professionally. The CCP has reciprocated, subsidizing Gou’s businesses and smoothing his path to success. Also, in what would have provoked serious outrage by the CCP were it almost any other presidential candidate, they remained completely silent on Gou meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump – the first time a Taiwan presidential candidate has had a meeting with a sitting U.S. president since the U.S. cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979. Gou also bluntly stated that Taiwan is part of China while in the U.S., which is music to Beijing’s ears but not a popular statement in Taiwan. (Gou has since claimed that he meant Taiwan is part of the Republic of China.) Fellow potential candidates Eric Chu and Han Kuo-yu have received some positive press in China in the past – albeit not so gushing – while Wang Jin-pyng has not been so well received by the CCP.

What is more concerning for many, however, is direct meddling by China in the local media (and later as the campaigns formally start, the election). Taiwan’s National Security Bureau bluntly stated on May 2 that some media outlets were “on the same path” as China, and that these media outlets were also the source of false – or only half true – news that benefits the CCP line. Though declining to specify the media outlets, this follows on news that the Want Want group, which owns major newspaper China Times and TV news stations CTS and CtiTV, has been receiving significant subsidies from the Chinese government. Chinese operatives, operations, proxy groups and an army of cyber warriors at the CCP’s United Front (UFW) command have tried to influence public opinion and elections in Taiwan for some time.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
China's army of party operatives may be plotting to influence Taiwan's upcoming presidential election.

Aside from these influence tactics, what else will China do during the primaries? Most likely, they will not do much, for they appear to be biding their time waiting to see who the candidates will be. Once the candidates set and the actual election season is underway, expect them to act more forcefully, probably working to disrupt diplomatic relationships with one or more countries, engage in military shows of force and generally remind Taiwan and the world that they are unhappy with DPP-led administrations in Taiwan. For the primaries, however, engaging in media manipulation and trying to sway public opinion on the sly through proxies is a safer bet.

Unlike China’s CCP, whose threats to invade and underhanded means of infiltrating Taiwan’s election threaten the very fundamentals of democracy, the U.S. has taken a much softer approach. Make no mistake, however: They also want to influence Taiwan’s election. They have signaled they are fond of President Tsai, the incumbent, mostly by extending symbolic gestures of support through invitations to speak at foreign policy think tanks and quiet diplomatic outreaches. Others, no longer officially on the payroll but connected to the foreign policy establishment, have been gushing in their praise for Tsai. This is a strong turn-around from the 2012 election, when the U.S. quietly signaled that they preferred Ma Ying-jeou over Tsai Ing-wen via another ex-diplomat, suggesting she threatened stability in the region. Tsai went on to lose in 2012 before returning to victory in 2016.

There will be other factors that come into play in determining who at the end of the day will be the candidates for president. The next month or two will no doubt throw up quite a few surprises – some of which could totally re-write the calculus of the race. Of the current crop of candidates, most have been vetted thoroughly in the past, with the possible exceptions of Terry Gou, Chou Hsi-wei and Simon Chang. President Tsai, Eric Chu and to a lesser extent Mayors Ko and Han have proven their ability to stand their ground under intense campaign pressures, though Han and Ko have exceptionally high – and potentially more easily dashed – hopes riding on them. Both William Lai and Wang Jin-pyng have years of public scrutiny, but less intense elections, under their belts. Terry Gou has the least political experience of the major candidates, along with high expectations on the part of his followers, and so remains something of an unknown – though he is characterized by both intense grit and dedication, and thin skin and a bad temper.

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

Editor: Nick Aspinwall@TheNewsLens

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