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As Taiwan’s Election Looms, KMT-TPP Unity Talks Stumble

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As Taiwan’s Election Looms, KMT-TPP Unity Talks Stumble

With three candidates vying for the pan-Blue vote, Taiwan’s presidential election is shaping up to be contentious but ultimately not very competitive.

As Taiwan’s Election Looms, KMT-TPP Unity Talks Stumble

TPP leader and presidential candidate Ko Wen-je (left) meets with KMT chair Eric Chu to discuss a possible unity ticket, Oct. 31, 2023,

Credit: Facebook/ Ko Wen-je

The present outlook for the 2024 election in Taiwan indicates that the pan-Blue camp is set for a loss in at least the presidential race, as many projections have the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) losing its current majority in the legislature. The DPP and the pan-Green camp rallied behind its presidential candidate, Vice President William Lai, relatively quickly. By contrast, the pan-Blue camp became enmeshed in internal conflict, resulting in not one, but three rival candidates. 

These are Kuomintang (KMT) candidate and New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih, Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) candidate and former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, and Foxconn founder Terry Gou. Polls alternatively show Hou or Ko leading the pan-Blue candidates, while Gou trails behind. Lai is consistently ahead of all three. 

Although polls at the start of the year indicated that Hou would have a strong showing, he has stumbled during his months on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, as a third-party candidate, Ko is performing better than anyone expected. 

As for Gou, after failing to secure the KMT nomination he initially pledged to back Hou, but he later reneged on that promise to throw his hat into the ring nonetheless. Gou is thought to be potentially motivated by a desire to hit back against the KMT for the snub, particularly given that he is able to financially back his own campaign as one of Taiwan’s richest men. 

If Lai does win, he is not likely to see the same large margins of victory that current President Tsai Ing-wen enjoyed, with Lai lacking the base of youth-driven support that Tsai had. Nevertheless, Lai’s path to the presidency is easiest if he steers clear of scandal while letting the pan-Blue candidates split the vote among themselves. If current trends hold, the 2024 election cycle is shaping up to be a not very competitive campaign. 

It may not be surprising, then, that there have been calls for pan-Blue unity in the past month. This is usually framed as unity between the “blue” (referring to the KMT’s party color) and the “white” (the party color of Ko’s TPP). Ko proposed that the two parties should settle on one candidate between them in early October.

Although Ko initially complained that he had not heard back from the KMT, the two parties entered talks on October 14. After three hours of meetings, both parties vowed cooperation, but they have not agreed to field a joint ticket. 

By contrast, both the KMT and the TPP began attacking each other after the meeting, accusing the other party of being undemocratic and seeking to rig the process of choosing the unity candidate. In particular, the KMT wants to have in-person primaries, with participants required to show their IDs and sign a pledge vowing opposition to the DPP. By contrast, the TPP hopes to conduct a series of telephone polls to determine whether Ko or Hou is the stronger candidate. 

Both parties probably believe that they would benefit from their preferred means of polling. The KMT may have been hoping that its relatively older base would be more willing to turn out for physical primaries, while polling by way of phone call might lead to more representation among young people as part of the sample. 

Both parties also agreed to hold televised debates. Yet this has not happened, either.

The KMT hoped to hold primaries between November 2 and November 5 and the TPP hoped for polling to take place before October 31. With both deadlines for holding polls or primaries not past, the parties would have to negotiate on a party-to-party basis. 

Hou held a press conference on October 23 stressing the need to move quickly, and holding up two prospective paper ballots – one with Ko as presidential candidate and himself as vice president and another with the opposite arrangement. Ko initially lashed out at the KMT for what he termed an attempt at a “forced marriage.” Colorful metaphors about a “marriage” between Ko and Hou dominated the Taiwanese news cycle for the next few days. 

Yet Ko eventually backed down from his spate of attacks on the KMT, and further meetings were held between the KMT and TPP on October 30. But the meetings still did not result in a joint presidential ticket; the main takeaway was a vow to cooperate in legislative elections to maximize gains for the pan-Blue camp. This was often reported on as though it marked an advance in negotiations between the KMT and TPP but had been largely agreed to in the prior meeting.

It is unclear how such legislative cooperation would work. Time would be limited to hold primaries between TPP and KMT candidates. And with the KMT and TPP alike fielding legislative candidates across Taiwan, candidates that have campaigned for months on behalf of either party would be reluctant to pull out because of the dictates of the party central. Cooperation may be in name only. 

Since the October 30 meeting, Ko and Hou have made some joint campaign appearances. Negotiations continued, with KMT chair Eric Chu meeting with Ko and Hou in a secretive meeting held at 10 p.m. on October 31 in a factory in Jingmei, Taipei. The meeting was originally scheduled to take place in Xindian, New Taipei, but the location was changed to the Jingmei factory after information leaked to the press. 

The meeting lasted 53 minutes, and neither the Hou camp nor the Ko camp took questions from the media when they left. The DPP has since leveraged on the secretive nature of the meeting and its strange location to attack the pan-Blue camp as lacking transparency. 

The primary stumbling block for a joint presidential ticket is the question of which candidate would withdraw in favor of whom.

It would be difficult for the KMT – a political party with more than 100 years of history – to have its candidate play second fiddle to Ko, a candidate of the upstart TPP. On the other hand, Ko and his TPP historically have sought to distinguish themselves from the KMT as a “lighter blue,” independent party free of the KMT’s historical baggage. To suddenly engage in a joint ticket with the KMT could potentially be seen by party supporters as a betrayal. 

The KMT agreed to some of Ko’s platform during the initial meeting on October 14, including a proposal by Ko to change the position of president or prime minister, creating a parliamentary-style democracy in Taiwan. Ko wants to shift Taiwan to a political system in which the Cabinet was the main locus of political power, and the premier and other members of the Cabinet would need to be approved by the legislature. 

However, Ko’s proposal was not likely a serious one, given how late in the election cycle it was proposed, and because of how many broad-sweeping changes to Taiwan’s fundamental system of governance would have to take place if it were enacted. Ko may have simply been looking for a way to have a distinctive political platform of his own. The KMT signing onto the idea was probably as a gesture toward unity, knowing that this was not a serious proposal.

Ko currently claims that there is no need for another meeting if both parties remain in a deadlock. Certainly, with both parties having staked out their positions on how a joint candidate would have to be decided, for one party to back down now would be read as a sign of weakness. 

It is possible that neither parties was really serious about any alliance, unless they would be the dominant force. But each side likely wanted to at least make a show of seeking unity. 

But in the course of these talks, Terry Gou has continued to be a wild card. Having gained enough petition signatories to run for president as an independent – even if a number of Gou polling stations have been accused of vote buying – Gou has vowed to stay in the race despite the numbers not being in his favor. To try and undercut the KMT, Gou has floated the possibility that cooperation with Ko on a presidential ticket could still be possible, meeting with Ko twice in a similar timeframe to Ko’s meetings with the KMT. Ko himself called for Gou to be included in negotiations between the KMT and TPP and more recently suggested that cooperation with Gou  is still potentially in the cards. 

If talks between the KMT and TPP have broken down, one or the other of these parties – more likely the TPP – might turn toward courting Gou. But this faces the same fundamental issue, because Gou is not likely to be willing to back down from his presidential bid and become someone else’s running mate. Splits among the pan-Blue camp may continue, then.