The meteoric rise of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) ahead of Saturday’s elections is likely to guarantee him a place in national politics, regardless of whether he wins.
Without much support from the KMT, Han has single-handedly turned the mayoral election in a city that has been governed by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for the past two decades into one of the most closely watched races.
His rapid ascent to stardom, dubbed the “Han Wave” (韓流), energized pan-blue camp voters, raising their hopes that Kaohsiung might flip from “green” to “blue.”
Presidential Office Secretary-General and former Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) last month admitted in an interview that the DPP was “caught off-guard” by the KMT’s successful use of the Internet, which helped build momentum for Han’s campaign, while DPP Secretary-General Hung Yao-fu (洪耀福) last week said: “If we can hold on to Kaohsiung, then the DPP will not have lost.”
The second-generation Mainlander has a bachelor’s degree in English from Soochow University and a master’s degree in East Asian studies from National Chengchi University. The 61-year-old served as a lawmaker from 1993 to 2002, representing a constituency in then-Taipei County.
Since his tenure ended in 2002, Han mostly stayed out of public life, except for briefly serving as the deputy mayor of what is now New Taipei City’s Jhonghe District (中和) and being listed as the cofounder of his wife’s school in Yunlin County.
An attempt to return to politics was thwarted in 2007, when he was disqualified in a primary for legislators after being accused by his opponent of producing negative campaign materials.
In 2013, Han was retained by former Yunlin County Council speaker Chang Rong-wei (張榮味), whose family had extensive influence in farmers’ and fishers’ associations nationwide, to serve as general manager of Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing Co.
The company was profitable under his leadership, due to soaring prices of fruits and vegetables.
Han’s political career was revived in September last year, when KMT Chairman Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) tapped him to lead the party’s branch office in Kaohsiung, and in May he was officially named the party’s mayoral candidate.
Political commentators have attributed Han’s quick rise to fame to him being an atypical KMT candidate, saying that his catchy campaign slogans and promises appealing to “common sense” have helped him attract the support of farmers and businesspeople.
Han managed to turn his baldness into a political asset, saying that he “welcomes attacks from his opponents, because a bald guy is not afraid about his hair being plucked.”
A 57-year-old diamond dealer and Kaohsiung voter surnamed Chuang (莊) said that he has not voted in a mayoral election in 20 years, but added that he was touched by Han’s campaign message about “north drifters” — a term Han has used to refer to young people in Kaohsiung having to find jobs in northern Taiwan due to a lack of job opportunities in their hometown.
“The city might look beautiful on the outside, with the Love River (愛河), city-wide bike lanes and neat sidewalks, but many young people have to leave the city and find jobs elsewhere, because Taiwanese and foreign companies have withdrawn from the city. One does not see a large of number of workers leaving the export processing zones in Cianjheng (前鎮) and Nanzih (楠梓) districts during rush hour anymore,” Chuang said.
What Kaohsiung residents really want is change, he said.
Ten years ago, he moved his business from Kaohsiung to Taipei due to shrinking sales in the south, Chuang said, adding that he would return to Kaohsiung if Han is elected.
Kaohsiung resident Su Wei-hsuan (蘇偉璇) said that the DPP’s governance over the past 20 years has helped it build a solid base, although not everyone is satisfied with the “status quo.”
However, while Han’s appearance serves as an emotional outlet for some people, Su said that she found his promises empty and without substance.
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