Taiwan 2020 presidential race begins to heat up

December 31, 2018 10:49
A file picture of KMT’s Eric Chu, who announced plans last week to run in Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election. Photo: Bloomberg

With the presidential election just a year away in Taiwan, the race has begun to heat up. Last week, Eric Chu Li-lun of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) became the first politician to throw his hat in the ring, announcing his intention to be the party’s standard bearer in early 2020.

The race is wide open. President Tsai Ying-wen of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has not yet tipped her hand about her plans but she is widely expected to seek a second term. She could face a challenge from within her own party after the DPP was handed a crushing defeat in November in races for mayors and county executives. Tsai has resigned her position as the party chair, taking the blame for the loss, but some DPP members say the party would stand a better chance with Premier William Lai at the top of the ticket.

Eric Chu is considered the frontrunner for the KMT nomination but will certainly face competition. If he succeeds, he will face the DPP candidate and possibly a challenge from a popular independent figure, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je. A recent poll by the United Daily News put Ko ahead in a three-way race with any of the top contestants from the two main parties.

The key issues will be the economy, relations with mainland China and how to keep Taiwan safe and prosperous during the worsening standoff between Washington and Beijing.

Chu was the losing KMT candidate in the 2016 election, gathering only 31 percent of the vote, far behind the 56 percent of the DPP’s Tsai Ying-wen. A third candidate, James Soong, got 13 percent.

Chu is a KMT ‘aristocrat’ – born into a political family and educated at National Taiwan University and New York University, where he earned a PhD in accounting. He has served as vice-premier, mayor of New Taipei City and chairman of the KMT.

The KMT is in pole position after its big gains in the local elections in November. It won 15 of the 22 city and county seats, up from the six it had before the vote. That included a surprise victory in the race for mayor in Kaohsiung, which had been a solid DPP stronghold for the last two decades. Voters were unhappy with the DPP’s ideological focus and its inability to address pocketbook issues. They want more jobs, higher wages, and lower property prices.

Latest estimates say that GDP growth in 2019 will fall to 2.18 percent from 2.62 percent, in part because of the intensifying Sino-US trade war and Taiwan’s poor relations with the mainland.

On Christmas Day, Chu stepped down as mayor of New Taipei City and quickly announced he had the presidency in his sights. “I will replenish my batteries and study,” he said. “I will go everywhere and listen to the voice of the people. I will go abroad and study how to solve the Taiwan issue, in line with international rules and competition.”

The voters in November clearly wanted closer relations with Beijing, which they believe will help the economy; they want more mainland tourists and better access to the mainland market for Taiwan goods. But whoever wins the presidency will need to walk a tightrope between such economic benefits and opening the door to the mainland too wide.

Currently, harsh restrictions on mainland buyers make Taiwan an unattractive market for them. If Chu eased these curbs this would please the island’s powerful real-estate lobby, but prices would rise sharply, putting apartments in the major cities even further out of reach of the younger generation.

Beijing has used its political and financial clout to squeeze Taiwan’s space on the global stage. It has sent its planes and warships around the island at times in a demonstration of military might designed to sap public morale.

A public opinion poll commissioned by the official Mainland Affairs Council and released in November found that 83.4 percent supported maintaining the island’s political status quo – wanting neither unification nor independence. Of these, 16 percent wanted political integration and 14 percent wanted independence over the longer term.

Being president of Taiwan is becoming more and more difficult. On the one hand, Chinese President Xi Jinping is eager to achieve reunification within his term of office and is putting diplomatic, military and economic pressure on the island to force it to accept a future on Beijing’s terms.

On the other hand, Taiwan has become one of the most democratic countries in the world. Only 1.5 percent of the electorate – around 280,000 people – are needed to put a referendum to a public vote; there were 10 on the ballot paper in November. Public debate over the island’s politics is intense and non-stop. A free press and energetic social media helps it along.

“Our democracy is a blessing and a curse,” said Alan Wang, an executive at a life insurance firm. “The parties are too polarized and do not work together. They fight constantly. Many would prefer a government like that in Singapore, with long-term policies worked out and then implemented.

“The international market is extremely competitive. Taiwan used to be the strongest of the four Asian tigers but has become the weakest. Dealing with Beijing is a very difficult and complex challenge,” he said.

Much will happen in the 12 months before the election. The Sino-US trade war has already become a diplomatic and technological contest. Will it spill over into military conflict as well?

Beijing evidently wants the KMT candidate to win the election – but will it play its hand discreetly or bluntly? If Chu decides to meet a senior Chinese official this year, would that help or hinder his chances? Add an unpredictable US president into the mix and the outlook for 2019 is even less clear.

So Chu and his opponents must prepare for a bumpy ride during the campaign – and after he or she takes the island’s top job.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.