Taiwan presidential election: opposition in chaos as China looms in background

<span>Photograph: Wiktor Dąbkowski/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Wiktor Dąbkowski/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock

On the eve of the deadline to formally register as a candidate for Taiwan’s presidential elections in January, the ruling party’s pick for vice-president held a slick and short press conference at a Taipei convention centre. Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s high-profile diplomatic representative to the US, took few questions from the massive crowd of press. She presented herself as an experienced and pragmatic deputy to presidential candidate Lai Ching-te in a Democratic Progressive party (DPP) administration.

An administration run by Lai and Hsiao, she said, would continue to defend Taiwan’s democracy from Beijing’s authoritarian threats of annexation and preserve “the status quo”.

Related: Taiwan poll shows dip in US trust amid growing concern over China

Across town it was a very different story. At the historic Grand Hyatt hotel, three opposition candidates gathered for a very public last-ditch attempt to form a coalition and end the prospect of a split vote returning the DPP to power. The candidates – two former mayors and a tech tycoon – are united in wanting to see the DPP ousted, but it’s there the shared vision ends. Previous attempts to agree on who might acquiesce to the second spot had already collapsed. But the circus wasn’t over.

Instead of engaging in negotiations, the event descended into squabbles; spokespeople arguing with each other in front of the gathered journalists while the candidates themselves lobbed accusations at each other, reading aloud private text messages, and hogging the microphone. In the background a large clock brought in as a prop counted down the hours left before registration closed. Ninety minutes later the farce – which had been livestreamed in entirety – ended when half the group walked out. The colourful tech tycoon, Terry Guo, later dropped out of the race, leaving the Kuomintang’s (KMT) Hou You-yi and Ko Wen-je of the self-founded Taiwan’ People’s party (TPP) to fight over non-DPP votes.

Taiwanese elections have always been colourful, and often messy. But this year adds another layer with a three-way race, says Australian National University political scientist Wen-ti Sung. Recent polls show the DPP is ahead, but only with around 35% of the vote. The choice for voters boils down to “continuity vs change” across domestic and foreign policy issues, he says, but with two similar “change” candidates.

“Splitting the votes isn’t necessary a problem, it’s about how it’s split,” Sung says. “Both Hou and Ko will try to marginalise the other so as to monopolise most of the ‘change’ votes for themselves, and turn this back into a de facto two-way race.”

The sovereignty question

Taiwan’s presidential election, scheduled for 13 January, may be about determining the governance of 24 million people, but it’s also of crucial importance to the world. Across the Taiwan Strait, the Chinese Communist party claims Taiwan as a province of China, and is preparing to “reunify” it. Beijing has not renounced using force to do so, but prefers a peaceful transition, ideally with the help of a Taiwan government more amenable than the ruling DPP, which it considers to be a party of separatists.

China has sanctioned Hsiao twice, and called the DPP’s ticket “independence on top of independence”. Outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen is considered a cautious and moderate figure on the pro Taiwan-sovereignty side of politics, but still her leadership has enraged Beijing. The CCP cut communications with her government when she was elected, launched live-fire military drills when she met US speaker Nancy Pelosi in Taipei and successor Kevin McCarthy in the US, and ratcheted up economic coercion, diplomatic isolation, and cognitive warfare.

The opposition parties (like the vast majority of Taiwan’s population) are not in favour of unification with China, but the KMT in particular says peace is more likely to be maintained by having closer ties and dialogue. The KMT’s Hou says a vote for him is a vote for peace over war. The DPP candidate, Lai, who has pledged to continue what Tsai started, has framed the election as a choice between “dictatorship and democracy”. Ko claims to offer a largely undefined “middle ground” between the “overly alert” DPP and the “overly relaxed” KMT.

Ko is the disruptor candidate who rode in on his popularity as mayor of the capital, Taipei, appearing to garner support from a youth demographic weary with the only leaders they really knew in the DPP, but who weren’t keen on the KMT. But observers say his political inconsistency and a series of scandals involving less than progressive views has hurt his standing.

Brian Hioe, a Taiwanese political commentator, notes that Ko is now proposing Taiwan revisit a controversial trade pact with China which sparked mass protests in 2014. It marks a stunning backflip. Ko was among those rallying at the protests that spawned the Sunflower Movement and a new generation of politics.

“Ko’s embrace of pro-sovereignty politics occurred at a moment when it was politically expedient to do so,” Hioe tells the Guardian. “Nine years later, Ko may be acting on what he perceives as a shift in Taiwanese politics, in that the weakness of the KMT has created a space for a more moderate, youth-oriented … party.”

Fang-yu Chen, Assistant Professor from the department of political science at Soochow University, says the major parties will soon return to focus on their core issues: the China threat and foreign policy for the DPP, and domestic concerns for the KMT.

“Ko has always been more uncontrollable and unpredictable, so I don’t know what he will do. What’s certain now is that TPP has to make sure that it’s in second place, and the attacks between KMT and TPP will increase.”