Odds Look Long for Taiwan’s China-Friendly Presidential Contender
(Bloomberg) — Trailing in the polls weeks before election day, Taiwan’s opposition presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu was asked a straightforward question during an appearance on a late night talk show.
“Which country poses the biggest threat to Taiwan?” the host asked.
Instead of responding “China” — Taiwan’s only real military rival — Han gave a long-winded answer before challenging the host to see who could waddle further across the floor on their knees with their legs locked in a lotus pose. Han demonstrated that he could accomplish that physical feat, but appears to have lost further ground in the fight for Taiwan’s top office.
Going into 2019, Han was riding high. His unlikely come-from-behind victory in the race for mayor of Kaohsiung — Taiwan’s third-largest city — immediately made him a top contender to unseat incumbent Tsai Ing-wen in the Jan. 11, 2020, presidential election.
He was the talk of Chinese-speaking communities from Singapore to New York. Driven by the passionate backing of a sizable group of supporters made up largely of retirees, he polled at 54% in February, 29 percentage points ahead of Tsai, according to a TVBS survey.
Since then, the race has seen a turnaround, with all major polls showing Tsai holding a lead of around 20 percentage points over Han. Her resurgence has been fueled by a resilient economy and stock market, an effective campaign and sometimes violent protests over China’s grip in neighboring Hong Kong, which have confronted Taiwanese voters with the potential perils of closer ties with Beijing.
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While Tsai enjoys a strong lead, her victory is by no means assured. Her supporters are largely made up of Taiwanese between the ages of 20 and 40, a demographic less likely to turn out than the older voters who predominantly back Han. And recent opinion surveys may overestimate Tsai’s lead, after Han urged his followers to undermine them by claiming to support Tsai if contacted by pollsters.
In the end, turnout is likely to be the deciding factor for whether Han can translate the ardent support of his smaller cadre of die-hard supporters into victory over Tsai’s broader — but less motivated — base.
Still, Han’s talk show appearance was the latest in a series of gaffes and bizarre comments that have, for some voters, cast doubt on his viability. His performance as mayor has done little to overcome the public’s skepticism.
A video that showed him struggling to answer city councilors’ questions about Kaohsiung went viral in May. He’s also the subject of a local recall motion after upending a vow to see out his term as mayor mere months before launching a presidential campaign.
“Han is a populist. Populists usually claim to implement some huge policies that will bring about immediate effect to help the economy,” said Austin Wang, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada. “However, Han has failed to implement any of the important policies he promised in Kaohsiung, such as the Ferris Wheel, drilling in the South China Sea or bringing Disneyland to Kaohsiung.”
While Han’s emotional, shoot-from-the-hip rhetorical style is one of the reasons he engenders such passion among his supporters, it has driven others away. He was accused of misogyny in October when he spoke disparagingly about Tsai’s weight and complexion, calling her “pale-skinned and fat” — the implication being that she shunned hard work.
He also came under fire from Manila’s top representative to Taiwan in March after using a racially derogatory term while questioning whether Taiwanese parents could accept teachers from the Philippines teaching their children, and denigrating other immigrants to the island.
Han’s main challenge, as the talk show appearance signaled, has been articulating a clear policy on relations with the mainland.
Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party supports independence, has vowed that Taiwan will never be unified with China as long she is in power. Han, on the other hand, has struggled to find a consistent message.
In recent months, Han has repeated, sometimes reading directly from a written statement, that he thinks the 1992 Consensus — a vague agreement stipulating that both sides of the Taiwan strait are part of China — is the best way forward for Taiwan. When pressed for greater detail, he has either repeated the statement word for word or launched into an unrelated story.
In an interview with Bloomberg News in November, Han warned Taiwan against testing Beijing’s “red line” by pushing independence.
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“If the 23 million people of Taiwan came to a consensus and voted for independence in a referendum, they would have to deal with the military and political consequences,” Han said. “You can’t avoid it. We don’t have any resources. We have nothing.”
In March, Han traveled to Hong Kong and held a closed-door meeting with China’s powerful Liaison Office in the city, a summit that elicited a warning from the Mainland Affairs Council about the political sensitivity of entering the office to meet with Chinese officials. In his initial response to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, he claimed — to widespread incredulity in Taiwan — to not know much about them.
“The DPP successfully managed to shape the public’s stereotype of Han, that of a China-friendly bumpkin, after his visit to the Beijing liaison office in Hong Kong,” said Alexander Huang, an associate professor at Tamkang University and a defense and diplomatic affairs adviser to Han.
–With assistance from Cindy Wang and Hannah Dormido.
To contact the reporter on this story: Samson Ellis in Taipei at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Liu at email@example.com, ;Brendan Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org, Karen Leigh
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