With fewer than 100 days until the presidential and legislative elections on Jan. 11, the race is shaping up to be a polarized contest with contrasting opinions, including on China, between a clear front-runner and a challenger party that is trying to stage a comeback.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has a solid lead in most polls over her opponent, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) candidate.
According to the latest survey released by TVBS News on Monday last week, Tsai is leading with 50 percent support against Han’s 38 percent, after having trailed him 48-44 on July 17 and 48-45 on Aug. 7.
A survey released on Sept. 23 by the Chinese-language Apple Daily showed Tsai leading at 44.4 percent against Han’s 32.9 percent, the eighth consecutive defeat for Han in polls conducted by the newspaper.
Tsai’s campaign is likely to focus on defending Taiwan’s sovereignty against Chinese pressure, a theme she has played up since the beginning of the year, with the protests in Hong Kong against Beijing’s encroachment bolstering what had been sagging approval ratings.
On the other hand, Han and the KMT, which has generally been more conciliatory toward China, are likely to focus on what they see as the DPP’s weakness on domestic issues, but they will have to rebound from what has been a few bad months for them politically.
DPP presidential election campaign spokesman Ruan Jhao-syong (阮昭雄) said that another way for Tsai to maintain her lead would be to strengthen her grassroots support base.
To achieve that goal, DPP Chairman Cho Jung-tai (卓榮泰) has ordered party officials to trumpet Tsai’s economic record over the past three years.
That includes the lowest unemployment rate Taiwan has seen in 18 years, higher starting salaries for university graduates and a record number of Taiwanese businesspeople from abroad, especially from China, investing at home to avoid US tariffs, he said.
Even though the race focuses on domestic issues, China would still be front and center in an election pitting the pro-independence DPP against the more pro-China KMT.
Han and the KMT insist on the so-called “1992 consensus” as a basis for maintaining relations with China, which was used to underpin better relations with Beijing when then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the KMT was in power from 2008 to 2016.
The DPP rejected the consensus when Tsai took office in May 2016, saying that it never existed, and it opposes the idea that Taiwan is a part of China.
Tsai and the DPP have also accused the KMT and Han of trying to move Taiwan toward Beijing’s “one country, two systems” framework through their recognition of the consensus.
DPP Legislator Lee Chun-yi (李俊俋) said that he is concerned about possible uncertainty ahead.
He said he fears that China might put greater pressure on Taiwan and meddle in the elections by using a more diverse and sophisticated approach to erode Tsai’s chances.
Such a scenario could pose a severe challenge for Taiwan in terms of national sovereignty and democracy, he said.
However, the protests in Hong Kong and Beijing’s heavy-handed response, along with China’s recent poaching of two of Taiwan’s allies in the Pacific — the Solomon Islands and Kiribati — have seemed to help Tsai, convincing some voters that closer ties with China might not be in Taiwan’s best interest.
According to DPP campaign officials, the presidential election could also turn into a choice between the backgrounds and characteristics of the two candidates, which they said contrast sharply.
The DPP has tried to portray Han as a womanizer who enjoys gambling and drinking.
However, Tsai has faced controversies of her own, including questions surrounding her doctoral dissertation at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a cigarette smuggling scandal involving Presidential Office security officers.
The incidents seem to have had a limited effect on Tsai’s approval rating, but the party could not afford to become complacent, they said.
With the DPP united to support Tsai’s re-election bid, Han faces long odds, especially with a lack of unity within the KMT.
The KMT is reeling from Hon Hai Precision Industry Co founder Terry Gou’s (郭台銘) resignation from the party and a lack of support for Han from senior party members, including KMT Legislator and former legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), who are unhappy with how the party’s presidential primary was run.
KMT sources have said that Han is trailing Tsai in the party’s internal polls, but added that the margin is within 10 percentage points.
However, many respondents have refused to reveal their support of Han, they said, adding that they believe support for him has been understated.
KMT officials also believe that with Gou not running as an independent after losing to Han in the party primary, KMT supporters are likely to show solidarity and rally behind Han.
In terms of election strategy, KMT sources said that Han’s staff would take charge of his presidential campaign, while the party would be responsible for organizing groups to rally support from the rank and file.
Former premier Simon Chang (張善政), who leads Han’s advisory team, has come up with many viable policy proposals touching on energy, youth development, long-term care and climate change, hoping to break the public’s stereotype of Han as being disengaged from such issues.
“Han is a person from the rank and file. He is by no means a so-called bumpkin,” Chang said.
In a bid to attract young voters, a demographic where Han is lagging behind Tsai, Han’s campaign team is planning to organize seminars across Taiwan next month in which he would communicate with young people, Chang said.
“We know the challenges will be hard, but we will stick to our own rhythm and pull all our resources together to achieve victory,” a KMT source said.
The “1992 consensus,” a term former Mainland Affairs Council chairman Su Chi (蘇起) in 2006 admitted making up in 2000, refers to a tacit understanding between the KMT and the Chinese government that both sides of the Strait acknowledge there is “one China,” with each side having its own interpretation of what “China” means.
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