Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu’s (韓國瑜) recent poor showing in opinion polls has commentators speculating on whether the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) miscalculated when it nominated him as its presidential candidate. Will the party stand by its man or jilt him at this still-early stage?
Han defeated Hon Hai Precision Industry Co founder Terry Gou (郭台銘) and three others in the KMT primary, but a series of scandals, gaffes and unsubstantiated claims, as well as his controversial decision to run for president just months after persuading Kaohsiung voters he would be their savior, have dented his popularity ratings.
As it stands, Han will be up against President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who is seeking a second term as the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) candidate. Voters would be faced with a relatively simple choice between representatives of the pan-blue and pan-green camps.
However, on Tuesday Gou’s office stated that he is considering running as an independent, and if so, this would complicate matters considerably.
There have been rumblings that Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) might run, and he has suggested that this would please Han, as he could split Tsai’s vote. Ko has said that he would not run if Gou decides to.
Ko is not really a natural fit for either the KMT or the DPP; he might take votes from either. Gou, on the other hand, would seem to be a closer fit to the values of the KMT, which voters have traditionally seen as a better steward of the economy.
He has demonstrated that he is pro-China in purely practical terms, and is a proven success in business, which would recommend him to many. If he stands as an independent, Gou would have the added advantage of being invulnerable to the DPP’s attacks on the KMT and its political baggage.
On balance, then, Gou’s candidacy would probably benefit Tsai more than it would Han. If the KMT wants to prevent another split vote depriving it of the presidency, as happened in 2000, it could abandon Han and nominate Gou as its candidate.
Replacing Han would risk the ire of the core of his fans, who are almost militantly resistant to any suggestion of treason against Han by the party elite. The gamble is that abandoning him might come as relief to KMT members and swing voters hoping for a stable, reliable, substantial candidate standing for the values they attribute to the KMT.
It could also attract undecideds looking for an alternative to the DPP, but who are put off by Han’s shenanigans, lack of governing experience, perceived pro-China proclivities and premature departure from the Kaohsiung mayorship.
Gou has said he does not expect the KMT to abandon Han at this stage, and he is probably right. The party was damaged in 2015 when it replaced former KMT chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) with then-New Taipei City mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫) as its presidential candidate. It is unlikely to want to repeat that mistake.
Also, Han has confounded the pundits before.
If the KMT sticks to its guns and Han ends up losing the presidential election, it will recover from the defeat. The same would not likely be true for Han.
Defeat could spell the end of his political career: He would almost certainly face a recall vote and even if he survived that, he would find winning re-election extremely challenging.
If he loses the presidential race and the Kaohsiung mayorship, Han would be reduced to nothing within the KMT. He has neither the elitist pedigree nor the seniority that would allow him to just pick up the pieces and brush himself off.
Given Han’s perceived weaknesses, a third candidate, be it Ko, Gou or another — possibly KMT Legislator Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) standing as an independent — would be good for Taiwanese voters and for democracy.
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