by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Hou You-yi/Facebook

SPECULATION IS ON the rise regarding who the KMT intends to field for its next presidential candidate. All indications are that there will be significant in-fighting in the KMT on this matter.

Most assessments generally agree that New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi is the strongest candidate for the KMT at present. February polling by and December polling by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation both shows that Hou is currently polling higher in approval rating than vice president William Lai, who is likely to be the DPP’s presidential candidate, though polling by the Broadcast Corporation of China suggests a Lai-Cheng Wen-stan ticket could beat the KMT.

New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi. Photo credit: Hou You-yi/Facebook

Namely, Lai ran unchallenged for the position of DPP chair after current president Tsai Ing-wen resigned to take responsibility for the DPP’s losses in nine-in-one elections. None of Lai’s potential challengers for the DPP’s 2024 presidential candidate, such as former Taoyuan mayor Cheng Wen-tsan, sought to challenge him. The DPP’s chair is usually the party’s president or presidential candidate, something that has historically also been true of the KMT until changes made during Han Kuo-yu’s run for president. The DPP seems to have united behind Lai rather than fight and split the voter in a way that may cost it the victory.

By contrast, the KMT may divide internally when it comes to settling on its presidential candidate. Current party chair Eric Chu promised not to run for the KMT’s presidential candidacy himself when he became chair in September 2021 and to instead focus on cultivating the strongest possible candidate for the KMT. But it is thought that he may, in fact, harbor ambitions of running again. A recent trip to China by KMT vice chair Andrew Hsia has sometimes been framed by commentators as intended to bolster his credentials for a presidential run.

Although Chu was historically seen as a moderate in the party, like Hou, Hou may currently be distrusted by party insiders because of his lack of a concrete cross-strait stance. Hou realizes that the KMT’s electoral chances have been sunk in past years because of the perception of it as a pro-China party, as a result of which he has steered clear of public stances that would cause him to be seen as pro-unification.

Yet this may lead him to be distrusted within the KMT at a time in which the party’s deep Blue is increasingly vocal and former moderates, such as Chu, must make accommodations to them. Likewise, Hou was close to the pan-Green camp in the past, given a personal relationship with former president Chen Shui-bian, and the DPP tried to recruit him. Before the outbreak of COVID-19 in Taiwan, Hou had made a number of public appearances with Tsai Ing-wen in quite an unusual manner for a pan-Green politician. Chu becoming harder on pro-unification stances may be to distinguish himself from Hou, as he historically faced many of the same criticisms and accusations as Hou.

The KMT has long feared that another politician with closeted pro-Taiwan sympathies, such as Lee Teng-hui, would work their way to the top of the party. This deeply-rooted fear may be a stumbling block for Hou.

KMT chair Eric Chu (center). Photo credit: Eric Chu/Facebook

Either way, Hou may find his path to the top blocked by Chu. Hou previously served as Chu’s deputy mayor during Chu’s stint as New Taipei mayor and so his path to his current New Taipei mayorship occurred through Chu. But the two currently seem to have poor relations, due to their potential rivalry. Indeed, it is not out of the cards that Chu acts to block Hou–Chiang Wan-an’s eventually successful Taipei mayoral run faced obstacles due to lack of coordination between Chu and his campaign, with lack of support from party central during the campaign because of a past grudge between Chu and Chiang’s father, John Chiang.

As such, there has been increased bloodletting in the KMT after its defeat in the Nantou by-election, to fill the seat formerly occupied by Hsu Shu-hua before her victory in the election for Nantou county magistrate. Hou has been blamed for not stumping for KMT candidate Lin Ming-chen hard enough, in acting as a responsible “hen”–a term used to refer in Taiwanese politics to when nationally-known candidates campaign for local candidates to lend their prestige to such candidates.

Such criticisms are in line with accusations of disloyalty. Hou may have not wanted to be tainted by association with Lin, a candidate with a significant history of scandal. If Chu harbors hopes for becoming the KMT’s presidential candidate, he may hope to amplify backlash against Hou.

Taichung mayor Lu Shiow-yen has made some statements that can be interpreted as viewing Hou as the KMT’s most suitable candidate. Likewise, despite that Hou is distrusted for apparently being too light blue, deep blue firebrand Jaw Shaw-kong has criticized Hou for not announcing his future plans and dragging on for so long, suggesting that this will foreclose his chances of running. It is possible that the politically savvy Jaw views Hou as the KMT’s most viable candidate, in spite of deep blue criticisms of him.

FoxConn founder Terry Gou. Photo credit: Terry Gou/Facebook

It is unclear what Hou is himself waiting for. He may hope to pick up the pieces after in-fighting between the other KMT heavyweights or he may believe that his chances are best served by keeping his head low and continuing to claim that he intends to focus first on local politics. Hou may be hoping to avoid the fate of former Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu and Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je, who both came under fire for grandstanding on national issues, but failing to pay attention to local issues.

At the same time, on the opposite side of the political aisle, this strategy did not work out for Taoyuan mayor Cheng Wen-tsan, who also sought to do this but whose star eventually receded in favor of William Lai. This could also be the case with Hou.

And, in the meantime, it is to be seen whether there will be other entrants to the race. FoxConn founder Terry Gou remains coy about whether he will run, stating that this is up to the wishes of Taiwan’s 23 million residents. Yet meetings between Gou and former Legislative Yuan majority speaker Wang Jinpyng of the KMT have stoked speculation. Wang, another individual in the KMT that came under scrutiny because of the possibility of his being a pan-Green turncoat, may hope for Gou to run in order to hit back at the KMT central leadership that sought to oust him from power. More recently, Gou claimed to again have divine endorsement for a run.

Gou has already created issues for Eric Chu because of the fact that to run in the presidential primary, the party would have to make exceptions to its internal rules to allow him to rejoin the party–something it already did in 2020. If Chu allows him into the party, he may be paving the path for a potential challenger, while he comes off as petty if he refuses to allow Gou to enter the party–perhaps affecting what line he takes regarding Hou.

It is also not impossible that one sees other unexpected entrants to the competition for the KMT’s presidential primary, such as its 2020 presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu, who has continued with efforts to rebrand himself as a man of the people. Or perhaps Taichung mayor Lu Shiow-yen, who would likely be a compromise candidate between various wings of the KMT. Sun Yat-sen School head Chang Ya-chung may also unexpectedly try to enter the race, so as to become the preferred deep blue candidate–it is possible that deep blues may field their own candidate in the presidential primary. These are, however, less-discussed possibilities.

It is all but certain that TPP chair Ko Wen-je will run for president, as well, with Ko planning on making an April trip to the US to prepare for a run. This should be worrisome for the KMT, with My-Formosa polling showing that KMT support for Hou You-yi is down by eight points, but support for Ko is up by about the same amount.

TPP chair and former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je. Photo credit: Ko Wen-je/Facebook

It is likely that Ko is taking away light blue votes for the KMT, then. Ko entering the presidential race could then potentially split the pan-Blue vote in a way that benefits the DPP. And, unlike other candidates, Ko would not be running as a KMT member and it is improbable that he could be persuaded to back out of the race in favor of pan-Blue unity.

In particular, Ko has long hinted at presidential ambitions and his forming the TPP was to have a support base for running for president. But, to this extent, Ko is unwilling to make way for pan-Blue unity because it would be political suicide for him to back out of the presidential race–his main form of leverage in Taiwanese politics now that he no longer holds any elected position. If Ko were to do so, he would find himself politically irrelevant, with his reputation having taken a battering by the time he left office and potentially facing challenges from within his own party from those that do hold elected positions such as Hsinchu mayor Ann Kao. Ko has also proven willing to undercut prospective political alliances with individuals such as Terry Gou and Wang Jinpyng in the past because of his need to be at the head of any alliance, and so past behavior suggests he would be unwilling to cut any deal with the KMT.

The KMT likely faces an uphill struggle in the 2024 presidential elections then–even just regarding its choice of candidate. While the KMT has often lashed out at the DPP with the criticism that it is overly factional, the KMT proves no less so, and this will be to its detriment in upcoming elections.

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