Last week saw a momentary spark in the election season, when Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate Hou You-yi (侯友宜) and Taiwan People’s Party Chairman and presidential candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) attempted to form a joint ticket, ostensibly to defeat the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its candidate Vice President William Lai (賴清德). This mating of massive egos was arranged by longtime KMT stalwart and former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). The deal predictably fell apart, though as of this writing — Thursday — there was still a chance for an 11th hour recovery. (Editor’s note: it didn’t happen.)
Many people saw a week of tumult, but for most of us, it was a week of comic anti-climax. Tumult? That was 2000, when the DPP took the presidency, the pro-China side engaged in post-election violence against itself, coup rumors swirled and a major new political party was announced. In 2004 the president was shot on the eve of the election and the pro-China factions once again committed post-election violence. The Hou-Ko joint ticket week was merely bad entertainment by comparison.
The deal was driven by the machinations of Ma, a far-right Republic of China (ROC) bitter-ender who grew up steeped in the lore of the ROC, with its long history of backstabbing, side-switching, intrigue and betrayal. Ma had been overseeing candidate Hou, whose campaign manager is Ma’s hatchet man King Pu-tsung (金溥聰). Hou had been careful to walk the unpopular KMT party line on China policy. The results were obvious: Hou’s campaign was limp, and TPP upstart Ko had been polling higher than Hou.
Photo: Chu Pei-shong, Taipei Times
More importantly, the TPP is dipping into the same pool of pro-China, pan-blue voters as the KMT. This was a mortal threat to the KMT. The obvious move for the KMT was to break up the TPP somehow and absorb its blue-tinted membership and politicians over a couple of election cycles, just as the KMT had done with the People’s First Party (PFP) over a decade ago, another party led by a popular independent poaching KMT votes.
Recall that in 2004 PFP Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) had been the running mate of KMT candidate Lien Chan (連戰). They lost. In 2008 the PFP agreed with the KMT to run a joint legislative ticket. After that, the PFP ceased to be a major factor in Taiwan elections, and the KMT slowly absorbed its politicians. The PFP is now moribund. For Ma, the inference must have been obvious.
The first step was to bring Ko onto a joint ticket. Clearly, if Ko were simply given the top spot, he would have accepted. But Ma wanted to have it both ways: he wanted to bring Ko in, but then deny him the top spot via a complicated mechanism of polls that could be made to look objective. The offered deal smacked of classic KMT intrigue and betrayal. It made sure that even if Ko were president his administration would be a KMT administration that would do little to help Ko’s own party. Nevertheless, Ko accepted.
A storm of laughter swept across the political world. Observers found it immensely amusing to watch Ko, who had long boasted of his own intellectual prowess, be so effortlessly played by Ma and the KMT. As political scientist Nathan Batto observed in “Ko Gets Rolled,” a post on his perspicacious blog Frozen Garlic, “it appeared that Ko completely capitulated.” Ko’s own people rebelled, and Ko quickly turned around and, as so many of us had initially expected, rejected the deal. Nevertheless, the damage had been done.
Ko’s apparent gullibility and self-centeredness, comical though they may have been, were a tragedy for Taiwan. If Ko had waited a couple of more election cycles, patiently building his party and cultivating popular, Taiwan-centered candidates, he might have been able to establish a Taiwan-centered, blue-tinted party to replace the China-centric KMT. Instead, he revealed himself to be an unserious, easily manipulated politician, unfit to do the hard work of constructing positive politics.
Indeed, all three did. As longtime Taiwan observer and Ketagalan Media head Yeh Chieh-ting (葉介庭) observed on the site formerly known as Twitter last week, Ma, Hou and Ko had negotiated a one-page agreement on Tuesday, then on Saturday said they didn’t know what they agreed to. These are the same people, Yeh noted tartly, who claimed that “we will negotiate peace with China.” There was widespread agreement with this sentiment: can you imagine, many asked, if Ko were trying to negotiate with Chinese leader Xi Jinping (習近平)?
The media represented the KMT-TPP breakdown as occurring because they couldn’t agree on the margin of error for the polls they were relying on to determine the candidates. Several well-meaning explainers from political scientists followed on blogs and Twitter, clarifying the meaning of the ostensible 3 percent vs 6 percent disagreement between the two sides. Ko again looked like a clod, but the issue was never the poll margin of error. Instead, the problem was that the KMT was trying to eat the TPP and Ko had finally come to understand that. The margin of error “misunderstanding” was just an excuse.
A number of observers have contended that since Hou and Ko separately control enough votes to beat Lai, a team-up would result in Lai’s defeat. Elections are not math tests. They bring a constant flow of news and events that change minds. Many people are going to look at a joint ticket and say to themselves: “I can’t support this.” Recall too that Taiwanese consistently say in polls that they support the anti-establishment candidate. But they vote establishment once they get in the voting booth.
There have been complaints that the campaign of the DPP candidate has been lackluster. Indeed, the BBC described Lai, who has never lost an election, as “not much of a campaigner.” This impression stems in part from the dominance of the news cycle by the possibility of a pro-China alliance against the pro-Taiwan DPP. But it is also driven by the simple fact that as long as the possibility of a joint pro-China ticket existed, Lai did not know who he should be campaigning against.
Lai announced last week that his running mate would be Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), the ROC’s unofficial ambassador to the US, who has done yeoman work in Washington on the nation’s behalf. The choice generated immediate excitement for the Lai campaign, and pushed the Hou-Ko deal out of the news media for a few days. Hsiao is a woman of immense intelligence and fortitude, an excellent choice. She is a highly experienced politician who ran the DPP’s 2012 presidential campaign and served two terms as a legislator from a KMT stronghold in Hualien. She supplies the foreign policy street cred that Lai lacks, while also aiding his domestic campaign.
I am among the many looking forward to toasting the future Hsiao presidency.
Notes from Central Taiwan is a column written by long-term resident Michael Turton, who provides incisive commentary informed by three decades of living in and writing about his adoptive country. The views expressed here are his own.
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