A picture is worth a thousand words. Photographs of New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜) and former Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) embracing on stage at the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) National Congress on Sunday is a case in point.
At the event, the party unanimously passed a resolution nominating Hou as its presidential candidate, despite rumors that it might replace him. For the KMT, it was a much-needed show of unity. The hug between Hou and Han served to exemplify it, but its metaphorical meaning runs far deeper.
Neither Han nor Hou are from the KMT elite; both were born in Taiwan. Han is a second-generation Mainlander, but Hou’s family has its roots firmly in Taiwan. This is significant in Taiwanese politics, especially within a party that originally took control of Taiwan as an exiled regime from China.
Han rose to prominence as a loose cannon; Hou has always been the quiet observer.
Both have followed their own path, but Hou is regarded as the more experienced, competent politician, and has been in public service throughout his career, first in law enforcement and then in local government.
Han has a gift for attracting votes and a loyal base, but has never achieved much in government. It was not that the electorate did not give him a chance; it was that he was brought down by his own hubris in his mad dash to the presidential office in 2020, blowing his chances of proving his mettle as the mayor of one of the nation’s special municipalities.
Hou has cultivated, whether by chance or design, an image of a cautious politician willing to diverge from the party line when he thought it right to do so. Voters saw this in his refusal to toe the KMT line in the 2021 referendum on restarting construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in his constituency, something that rational swing voters responded well to.
The significance of the KMT finally allowing a non-party elite, Taiwan born-and-bred presidential candidate would have made undecided voters that are unhappy with its pro-China and legacy policies think there might be a chance for the party to move in a more Taiwan-centric direction.
Han soon proved himself to be too maverick, while Hou initially gave reason for hope.
The KMT under former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), former KMT chairman Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) and KMT Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) has been pro-China, skeptical of US influence and unfriendly to Japan in its policies while in power and its rhetoric in opposition.
If swing voters had been hoping to see Hou take his own path, they would have been disappointed to see his backsliding to Ma’s old policies and positions, most recently in his suggestion of reinstating the long abolished Special Investigation Division (SID), which Ma used to further his political agenda in a way that gave rise to concerns about presidential abuse of power; rather than fighting corruption, the SID had the potential to enable it.
Swing voters are concerned about the nation getting too close to China and are legitimately concerned about Taiwan becoming a pawn in US-China tensions, but are overwhelmingly friendly to the Japanese. In the event of military aggression from the Chinese Communist Party, Taiwan would have to depend on Japan’s willingness to offer support, be it military or purely logistical.
On Monday, Hou is to depart for a three-day visit to Tokyo, where he is to meet with Japanese legislators and Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association officials.
Would this be a chance for Hou to come out of the shadow of Ma, Chiang and Chu, distance himself from Han’s populist instincts and give swing voters a reason to take another look at his candidacy?
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