Will Taiwan choose China or choose the world? Its next presidential election will determine its future
- One candidate promises money and better relations with China. Another leans on progressive values and diversification. Their clash is likely to be highly acrimonious, and may well change the direction of the island
With the selection of the candidates from Taiwan’s two main parties complete, the stage is now set for an acrimonious campaign to define the future of the island nation’s character, with implications for Taiwan’s relationship with China and the international community.
A populist with little governing experience who won the race for mayor of the southern port city of Kaohsiung in last November’s local elections, Han is regarded as an outlier within his own party. Flexible with the truth and prone to self-contradiction, Han has nevertheless harnessed the passions of a swathe of the population that has seemingly grown disillusioned with the elite-driven technocrats who have run the country, both in DPP and KMT administrations, over the years.
Popular with older voters and less affluent members of society, Han has also garnered support among local secret societies as well as the influential Huang Fu-hsing branch of the party, which comprises military veterans and their families.
Amid his rise, mainstream KMT members have only reluctantly embraced Han, initially supporting more establishment figures like Gou and Eric Chu Li-luan in the primaries. A number of party “princelings”, including Chiang Wan-an, grandson of former president Chiang Ching-kuo, have sought to distance themselves from Han, and more will likely follow. Others in the KMT, meanwhile, have been willing to ignore Han’s anti-establishment proclivities for the time being, and see in his sudden rise an opportunity to improve their party’s appeal following years of stagnation.
It is difficult to avoid drawing parallels between Han’s emergence and that of US President Donald Trump, who also successfully tapped into popular discontent and hijacked a rudderless party in the process. Should Han succeed in co-opting the KMT in similar fashion, the party that comes out at the end of this could be markedly different from what it is today – something that core members may not like.
Other than his repeated slogan that “things are terrible under the DPP administration” and that under his watch “people would make lots of money”, little is known about Han’s proposed policies, and quite possibly little more of substance will be proposed in the coming months.
Han supporters have also initiated an unprecedentedly vicious campaign of intimidation against his detractors, resulting in several threats against political commentators, journalists, politicians in the green and blue camps and their families, as well as local businesses.
In this toxic environment, which threatens to exacerbate polarisation, Han has argued that such extreme elements are not among his supporters, and has refused to condemn such behaviour. (Arguably, many of the accounts that have participated in this systematic online bullying appear to live outside Taiwan, in places like Malaysia.) Such belligerence is expected to intensify as the elections approach, posing a threat to social stability in Taiwan.
Rampant disinformation targeting the Tsai administration, with evidence suggesting links to China’s United Front organs, has also raised the spectre of possible interference by Beijing in the elections to ensure that a candidate of its liking ascends to power. Han’s failure to come clean on the financial support for his campaign has fuelled such speculation.
In the end, this election will determine the nature of the future Taiwan: one that, under Tsai, continues to seek space in the community of democracies while challenging an increasingly belligerent China, or one, under Han, that re-prioritises ties with China and fixates on money, at the inevitable cost of retrenchment in its involvement with the global liberal-democratic order.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, DC, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada, and the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham, UK. His latest book, The End of the Illusion: Cross-Strait Relations Since 2016, was published earlier this month