Politics & Law
Blue-White split favours DPP
The failure of the KMT and TPP to agree on a joint presidential ticket and the fallout from their televised spat is likely to hurt all parties involved, giving momentum to the DPP.
By Brian Hioe
The fallout from the blue-white alliance stands to have a large impact on the upcoming elections, as a major incident of televised spectacle that will impact the Kuomintang (KMT), Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), and the pan-Blue camp as a whole. In particular, it was not only that the TPP and KMT failed to align, but they fought about it in a protracted public debacle with few other parallels in Taiwanese history.
This was not the first time there have been splits in the pan-Blue camp that stood to lead to a DPP victory. It also happened in 2000 when Lien Chan and James Soong split the pan-Blue vote. This was an important precedent for not only how splits in one camp could potentially lead to the victory of the other camp, but how third parties and independent candidates could accentuate existing splits within a political camp.
On the other side of the political aisle, the New Power Party (NPP), too, in the lead-up to 2020 elections, faced similar challenges as to the TPP with regard to whether to support Tsai Ing-wen openly in the presidential election. This led to splits within the NPP that the party has never recovered from. This has structural parallels with the TPP in that the TPP’s decision-making was constrained by that of its leader, Ko Wen-je, much as how the NPP was caught between the conflicting stances of party heavyweights Freddy Lim and Huang Kuo-chang about whether to openly endorse the DPP or not.
And the possibility that the KMT would swap out its candidate at the last moment reminds one of the 2016 elections, when Hung Hsiu-chu was replaced by Eric Chu because of her poor polling. Nevertheless, this still took place comparatively earlier in the election race, seeing as Hung was swapped out in October. By contrast, this time around, the TPP and KMT were still discussing possible means to cooperate and failing to do so until the final deadline to register candidates at 5:30 PM on 24 November. But last-minute surprises in themselves are not anything new in Taiwanese politics, as exemplified by the shooting of Chen Shui-bian and Annette Lu on the eve of elections in 2004.
More attention has gone to the public spectacle of KMT candidate Hou You-yi, TPP candidate Ko Wen-je, and independent political candidate Terry Gou publicly bickering at a televised meeting in which former president Ma Ying-jeou and KMT chair Eric Chu were also present. After this meeting resulted in a failure to break the deadlock between the TPP and KMT, the next morning, Ko and Hou both registered separately, with their vice presidential candidates becoming known only as they registered. Gou later announced that he would be withdrawing from the race, although he emphasized that he still hoped to see a political transition take place in Taiwan.
What the pan-Blue split indicates about Taiwanese politics
Nevertheless, it may be more significant to note what the dynamics of the meeting–as well as the nominations that took place–indicate about the state of Taiwanese politics.
For one, even as the pan-Blue camp as a whole remains split, the KMT itself is also very split internally. Former president Ma Ying-jeou continues to play a large role in the decision-making processes of the KMT, even when it comes to the choice of candidate for the party. Previously, Ma intervened to prevent the KMT from deviating from the 1992 Consensus–which he likely views as a significant part of his political legacy–and took a historic trip to China as the first former ROC head of state to do so since the Chinese Civil War as part of efforts to strengthen the war versus peace narrative in the present election cycle.
To this extent, the KMT has a divided internal power structure between the party chair and presidential candidate. Though traditionally both positions were held by the same individual, the presidential candidate was split from the party chair in the lead-up to the 2020 elections because of distrust of Han Kuo-yu, the KMT’s 2020 presidential candidate. Even if Han commanded a strong, populist following from hardline members of the KMT, the party establishment likely feared that he could challenge their power if he turned on them with his followers–the so-called “Han wave”.
This may have proved short-term thinking in such a manner that backfired for the party in the long run, in that it contributed to splits within the KMT, with Chu seemingly keeping a tight rein on Hou You-yi. To begin with, Chu hoped to run for president again himself, and so the KMT did not hold open primaries but instead decided its candidate on the basis of a closed nomination process. Public pressure led to Hou–then clearly the frontrunner in polls–to become the candidate. Yet Hou continues to be distrusted and Chu continues to keep a tight rein on him.
The KMT leaning into hardline positions after the split
Ironically, despite such distrust of Han Kuo-yu, he will still be taking up position number one on the KMT party list of legislators-at-large (one of 34 seats in the legislature decided by proportional representation). This means that Han is effectively guaranteed a seat in the legislature and suggests that he will become the president (or speaker) of the Legislative Yuan if the KMT wins a majority in the legislature.
But the choice of Jaw Shaw-kong for the KMT’s vice presidential candidate is significant. If a Hou-Ko or Ko-Hou ticket had been formed, this would have meant that two candidates known for their relative moderatism in the pan-Blue camp would be aligning. By contrast, Hou will now be aligning with a political hardliner with deep Blue views, and the choice of Han as number one on the party list of legislators-at-large means another political hardliner is expected to become speaker. Unusually, it has been noted that the KMT party list described its candidates in youth Internet slang terms, such as terming Han a “KMT super-warrior”, perhaps an attempt to make candidates who would otherwise not be amenable to young people more appealing.
This seems intended to once again reassure about Hou’s loyalty, to appeal to deep Blue members of the party base, or with the hopes that this can keep Hou in check. The reason why Hou is distrusted is because he was close to the DPP in the past and because he is benshengren (born in Taiwan), while Jaw is waishengren (his ancestral home is in China) and known as a pan-Blue firebrand. Yet this illustrates perhaps how the KMT does not have clear messaging in terms of whether to adhere to a light blue or deep blue framing for the upcoming election, with the KMT suddenly pivoting to appealing to deep blues after its prospective alliance with Ko did not pan out.
In the meantime, with Foxconn founder Terry Gou deciding to withdraw from the race, it remains to be seen if he throws his support behind Ko. The fact that Gou met with Ko before deciding to withdraw and met with him a number of times in the days up until the fateful televised confrontation between the pan-Blue candidates further stoked speculation. Ko’s own choice for vice-president, that of Shin Kong Group scion Cynthia Wu, was primarily framed not in terms of Wu, but in terms of his own political accomplishments. Although Ko’s former deputy mayor and campaign manager, Huang Shan-shan, would have been another potential choice, she may have been too contentious a choice. Huang was seen as taking a hard line within the TPP to prevent Ko from too easily aligning with the KMT in a manner that ultimately cost the TPP. If Huang had been the candidate, she could have alienated members of the pan-Blue camp that the KMT would still hope to appeal to.
Instead, Huang has been selected to top the TPP’s legislators-at-large list. Although the TPP initially held off on announcing its party list to create more room for negotiations with the KMT, before this dramatically fell apart, the TPP announced 34 candidates—the same as the DPP and KMT—to signal parity with both parties. Apart from retaining current legislators such as Tsai Pi-ru and Lai Hsiang-ling, the list includes former NPP chair Huang Kuo-chang—a sign of Huang’s tilt toward the pan-Blue camp in past years, perhaps in a manner not dissimilar from Ko. For the most part, the TPP party list represents continuity in terms of the TPP’s stances.
But it is probable that the debacle will reflect badly on the pan-Blue camp. This will affect not only the presidential race, but also legislative races, in that traditionally the former sets the tone for the latter. Yet, even if the master narrative of presidential election years in Taiwan is set by the presidential candidates, it is not clear to what extent this will impact the legislative races, in which much will also depend on local issues in constituencies and the strengths of the individual candidates.
But it is not merely that voters will be deterred from going out to vote if their preferred candidate is marginalized because the outcome of the prospective blue-white alliance did not result in their candidate having the top billing. Rather, the sheer spectacle of the public spat between the TPP, KMT, and Gou campaigns caused all sides to come off as incompetent. Hou came off as weak because he still seemed willing to hold out hopes for Ko to join him after the debacle, while Ko was already derided for his poor skills in negotiating in having dragged his party into an unfavourable deal with the KMT. It did not go unnoticed that Ko was mostly silent during the meeting. Ko was probably hoping to avoid any negotiating missteps, as well as alienating potential allies if he went in too hard with criticisms.
Gou, however, is likely to fare the worst, with his political career likely finished after his bizarre behavior during the meeting. Outlandish statements by Gou such as his repeated refrain of “Happy Thanksgiving!”–a holiday rarely celebrated in Taiwan–has now become the object of widespread mockery. It remains to be seen how the pan-Blue camp is affected by the controversy–which will likely go down in the pages of Taiwanese history as a consequential incident.
So, will the pan-Green camp ride to victory because of the split in the pan-Blue camp? This remains to be seen, with the DPP settling on Hsiao Bi-khim as Lai’s vice president instead of former minister of culture Cheng Li-chun. Hsiao would serve to reassure the US of Lai’s reliability in an election that the KMT has sought to frame as a choice between war and peace, emphasizing that strong relations with the US would be a bulwark against China even as the KMT leans into US-skeptic narratives.
To this extent, the DPP party list mostly made headlines because of the inclusion of civil defense-focused Kuma Academy co-founder and Chinese disinformation-focused Doublethink Lab chair Puma Shen, indicating how the DPP continues to center the issue of China in the current election cycle. But the party list also contains current legislators such as Ker Chien-ming, Fan Yun, You Si-kun, and Hung Sun-han, while including some youth activists such as Hsu Han-yun, in line with the DPP running a number of post-Sunflower activists.
It remains to be seen if the DPP’s emphasis on issues pertaining to sovereignty is effective in appealing to voters in the election—though even if it is not, the pan-Blue camp’s missteps certainly raise the DPP’s odds of success. As swing voters have always played a significant role in Taiwan’s elections, the pan-Blue camp’s missteps at least contribute to the possibility that those undecided on core issues about sovereignty would simply vote DPP because it seems to be the more competent party.
Brian Hioe is a Taiwanese American writer, translator, and the founding editor of New Bloom