23 March 2019
According to a recent poll by a Taiwan newspaper, KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu has a 17 percentage point lead over his DPP rival in the Kaohsiung mayor contest. Photo: Reuters
According to a recent poll by a Taiwan newspaper, KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu has a 17 percentage point lead over his DPP rival in the Kaohsiung mayor contest. Photo: Reuters

Why a Kaohsiung race is drawing much focus in Taiwan local polls

With the so-called nine-in-one local elections in Taiwan around the corner, the island’s main political parties — the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) — are firing on all cylinders to mobilize their support bases.

The public attention, however, has been focused on a key mayoral contest in the southwestern city of Kaohsiung, a traditional DPP stronghold.

It is because according to the latest poll figures of Taiwan’s United Daily News, the KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu is having a whopping 17 percentage point lead over his DPP rival Chen Chi-mai.

So how did Han, a KMT candidate who was widely seen as the underdog at the beginning of his campaign, manage to overtake his DPP rival in popularity just within a matter of months against almost impossible odds?

Perhaps one can find the answer in his refreshing yet unorthodox political stance.

During a recent media interview, Han pledged to ban all ideology-related protests in Kaohsiung if he is elected into office, and outlined his aim to focus on the economy.

Simply put, he firmly believes that the people of Kaohsiung, be they supporters of the Pan-Blue camp or the Pan-Green camp should set aside their ideological differences and stay focused on developing the economy and on making big bucks.

And when it comes to “making big bucks”, Han has put forward a very outside-the-box idea: tapping into the 20 billion-barrel oil reserves of Taiping Island in the South China Sea, over which the Kaohsiung municipal government has jurisdiction, and then launching an initial public offering on the drilling project.

Taiping Island is not an ordinary offshore island. It is a strategically sensitive and a disputed territory among the Philippines, Vietnam and China.

As such, even though the island is under Taiwan control, any attempt to drill oil in its adjacent waters would be extremely unlikely, as it would trigger a firestorm of diplomatic controversy in the region.

No matter whether Han’s plan is feasible or not, one thing is for certain: his surge in popularity is, to a significant extent, a reflection of growing public discontent with the sluggish economy, declining livelihood, deteriorating cross-strait relations, and Taiwan’s diminishing presence on the world scene ever since the independence-leaning DPP President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016.

Han’s emphasis on developing the economy and setting aside ideological differences bears a close resemblance to the election pledges of Ko Wen-je, the sitting mayor of Taipei who is seeking re-election this year.

Despite his constant flip-flopping on the issues of cross-strait relations and reunification, Ko has remained highly popular ever since he took office as the mayor of Taipei. And there is a view that he may be a potential front-runner in the 2020 presidential election.

It is noteworthy that the supporters of both Han and Ko are predominantly young people, who have taken the brunt of the economic downturn in Taiwan over the past two years, and who have become deeply disillusioned with mainstream politicians who are routinely long on talk but short on action.

As Han’s call for ditching political differences has struck a deep chord among the average voter, it suggests that many Taiwanese people are getting increasingly fed up with the intense competition and the “green-blue” partisanship in Taiwan.

If Han Kuo-yu pulls off a stunning victory and becomes the new mayor of Kaohsiung following the Nov. 24 regional elections, it will mean a big alarm for the DPP-led pan-Green Coalition.

And if that happens, it could render Tsai Ing-wen a lame-duck leader for the remaining two years in her office as Taiwan president, or might even mark the beginning of the end of DPP rule if Tsai insists on sticking to her current policy line.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 13

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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