Taiwan Presidential Election Set to be 3-Way Battle

Masatsugu Sonoda / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party, left, and Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang, second from right, leave after talks to unify an opposition presidential candidate fell apart at a hotel in Taipei on Friday.

TAIPEI/GUANGZHOU, China — With the registration period for filing candidacies for Taiwan’s presidency having ended Friday, the Jan. 13 election is now set to be a three-way battle. While Taiwan Vice President Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has maintained the lead, candidates from two main opposition parties — New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT) and former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) — are challenging the ruling party candidate during the 50-day election battle.

On Thursday evening, Hou, Ko and other opposition politicians gathered at a luxury hotel in Taipei. In front of 300 members of the media, they discussed the possibility of unifying behind a single candidate in an unusual atmosphere.

Hou stressed that the KMT could take advantage of its organizational strength if public polls if a situation emerged that public opinion polls were so close as to be within the margin of error as election day approached. But Ko insisted that the strongest candidate should be put forward from the opposition camp.

On Nov. 15, the two opposition parties agreed that they would pick a unified candidate, but how to handle the prospect of extremely tight polls caused an impasse. Following criticism from TPP supporters who opposed joining hands with the KMT, Ko shifted to a hard-line stance, saying that he would stay in the race as a presidential candidate.

Under such circumstances, the two parties failed to reach an agreement in a short period of time and quickly ended up criticizing each other. After about an hour and a half, their talks fell apart. Shortly after the talks, the TPP and then the KMT separately announced their candidates, scraping the envisaged opposition coalition that had aimed for a change of government.

On Friday, Terry Gou, former chairman of Hon Hai Technology Group (Foxconn) who had collected signatures to qualify to run as an independent candidate, announced his withdrawal from the election. According to a campaign source, he said he would not play a game he cannot win.

Legislative election

China had pinned some hopes on a unified candidate from the opposition parties in order to remove the DPP from power. As both opposition parties have emphasized dialogue and exchanges with China, it would be significantly easier for Beijing to deal with an opposition-led government compared to the situation in which the DPP, which is closer to the United States, remains in power.

China also has memories of the previous Taiwan presidential election. In 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled a policy of “one country, two systems” for Taiwan — which strongly rejected the policy. In addition, antigovernment protests expanded in Hong Kong, where such a “one country, two systems” policy has been adopted. Xi’s move aroused opposition and concern among Taiwan residents, paving the way for the reelection of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP in a landslide victory.

After that, China continued to increase its military pressure in the Taiwan Strait, resulting in heightened fears of an “armed invasion” among Taiwan people.

Since the beginning of this year, however, China has begun to mix hard and soft approaches in its policy toward Taiwan. It has repeatedly welcomed visits to China by KMT officials and resumed its imports of some Taiwan agricultural and marine products, which had been embargoed. In September, China announced plans to create a model zone in Fujian Province for integrated development with Taiwan.

On Nov. 2, Song Tao, the director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, which is in charge of Taiwan policy, said that China-Taiwan relations face a choice between peace and war, prosperity and decline, urging people in Taiwan to make a decision.

On Nov. 15, a spokesperson of the Taiwan Affairs Office called Lai a warmonger, saying that Taiwan independence would mean war. The spokesperson apparently intended to plant an image linking Lai and “war” in people’s minds.

In tune with China, the KMT has called on people to make a choice between peace and war, and the TPP also does not want a confrontation with Beijing. There has been concern in Taiwan that if Lai is elected, the current confrontation with China will continue. Given that, the move to bring together the opposition forces appeared to be proceeding according to China’s wishes.

However, China appeared to anticipate a split in the opposition parties, so it is unlikely to change its policy to promote Taiwan unification regardless of who wins the presidential election. Beijing is also sure to pay attention to Taiwan’s legislative election, which is scheduled to be held on the same day as the presidential race. It has been speculated that the DPP might lose its majority of seats. If that happens, even if Lai is elected as president, it will be difficult for him to manage the government. China is thus expected to continue putting pressure on the DPP.

Close race expected

The move to rally the opposition parties was also a response to a series of scandals involving DPP lawmakers and other incidents that have increased calls for a change of government to the point where such calls now have been voiced by a large majority of respondents in a public survey.

An opinion poll in October showed that 65.2% of respondents supported a change of government in the presidential election. Even after the breakdown of the opposition parties’ efforts to settle on a unity candidate, there remains a possibility that voters who dislike a long-term government might shun the DPP-led government, which has been in power for eight years.

Amid moves to rally the opposition parties, public attention to the opposition candidates has increased. Recent polls have shown a relative decline in support for Lai. According to a survey by the Formosa online news site, with results released on Friday, Lai remained in the lead with 31.4% of respondents supporting him, but the gap between him and opposition candidates Hou and Ko shrank with their support ratings at 31.1% and 25.2%, respectively, making the situation unpredictable.

In Taiwan’s past presidential elections, voters have favored the DPP, which has a clear opposition stance against China, when Taiwan comes under strong pressure from Beijing. However, with a majority of voters seeking to maintain the “status quo” in Taiwan-China relations, it has come to be perceived that there will be no major changes in Taiwan-China relations regardless of which candidate is elected.

If campaign attention is drawn to domestic policies, such as on the economy and issues affecting young people, it would be difficult for voters to see as much difference between the ruling and opposition parties as they might in regard to policies toward China. In such a case, the campaign may become fierce as election day approaches.