The fall and rise of Taiwan’s Han Kuo-yu: a former Kuomintang outcast turns up the heat on Kaohsiung mayoral election rival Chen Chi-mai

  • In just six months, Han has proved indispensable, making big gains in public support
  • Once shunned by other aspirants, Han is now the most sought-after KMT campaign accessory
PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2018, 7:30am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2018, 10:47pm

Taiwan’s mayoral elections have seen a dramatic twist this year, with a long-shunned opposition politician now seeing a very good chance of winning the upcoming race in the southern city of Kaohsiung – and redrawing the self-ruled island’s political landscape, if not of the cross-strait status quo.

Han Kuo-yu, 61, an opposition Kuomintang outcast since his eight-year stint as a legislator ended in 2001, is seriously threatening his Kaohsiung mayoral opponent Chen Chi-mai from the ruling, independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, just six days from Saturday’s local polls.

With almost no blessing from his party – he received neither money nor resources after being nominated in May to run for Kaohsiung’s top post – Han was originally seen as mere KMT electoral cannon fodder; treated as expendable in what was certain to be a poor finish in a constituency long considered a stronghold of the pro-independence camp.

But in just six months, he has proved indispensable, gaining surprising popularity. His acceptance even has spilled over to other KMT candidates, helping them gather support in local election campaigns elsewhere in Taiwan. Once shunned by other aspirants, Han is now the most sought-after KMT campaign accessory.

As of November 13, the last day that local agencies were allowed to release the results of opinion polls measuring the popularity or approval ratings of candidates before Saturday’s vote, some surveys had Han leading Chen by 3-17 percentage points; others, however, showed him trailing his DPP rival by 3-10 percentage points.

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The close contest has many DPP jaws dropping as the 53-year-old Chen – a former doctor, turned legislator, cabinet spokesman, deputy presidential secretary general and acting Kaohsiung mayor – originally was seen as having to do nothing more to chalk up a victory than sit back and relax.

The race between Han, who had been head of a Taipei-based farm produce marketing association, and Chen has been described by news media and analysts as a battle between a “vegetable vendor” and a “political elite born out of a rich and political family”, or as an “unconventional politician” versus a “conventional politician”.

Speaking with little or no artifice in his rhetoric, Han, a graduate of the army military academy in southern Taiwan who sparred with disgraced president Chen Shui-bian when they were both legislators, could blend in with the vernacular culture in Kaohsiung, said Wang Kung-yi, a political-science professor at Chinese Culture University in Taipei.

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Wang said most residents in the massive port city saw themselves as part of a grass-roots movement rather than the elite.

“[Han] is more like a populist than a political elite, a sharp contrast to the conventional KMT types who are either well-learned scholars or members of famously rich and political families like Sean Lien, son of the former vice-president Lien Chan,” Wang said.

Unfortunately for Chen, his family background and academic training have suddenly made him a lightning rod for Han’s withering attacks on the DPP.

Han has campaigned on the slogans that “Kaohsiung is old, poor and ugly, and various businesses are declining”, “the DPP has not found young people a road to return home” and “let politics stay in Taipei and the economy stay in Kaohsiung”. Through popular social media and live-streaming his speeches and activities online, he has won the support of residents dissatisfied with the economy’s poor performance under President Tsai Ing-wen’s government and the DPP.

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“I am no ecstasy pill; it is the public who can bear no more,” Han shouted during a rally on Wednesday at Kangshan in southern Taiwan before more than 100,000 supporters, amid chants of “we want changes” and “make Kaohsiung great”.

He was referring to DPP official Lin Hsi-yao’s cutting remark than Han’s popularity would be short-lived – like an “ecstasy pill whose effect does not last”.

Some voters who supported the DPP in the past said Han’s words resonated with young people who have gradually migrated to Taipei or northern Taiwan because of the lack of prospects in their home city, where business is in decline.

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“Maybe it is time for a change,” said Royce Chang, who owns a wristwatch shop in Kaohsiung. “After all, the DPP has governed the city for two decades and we really need some lively ideas to bring our businesses back.” He said a number of his DPP friends would vote for change.

Yang Shiang-ming, executive director of the Shinkuchan Shopping Complex Administration Committee, reflected on the faded glory of the shopping zone, once an equivalent of the bustling Ximending in Taipei.

“We have been waiting [to see] if we can do better this year, but it [ultimately] is even worse than last year,” the director said. “In 2011, we were still able to rent out a shop at between NT$3,000 and NT$12,000 (US$97 and US$389) per ping (3.3 square metres), and this year many shops are not able to rent out, even [though] the rental has dropped to NT$2,000 (US$64) per ping,” he said.

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Han’s unexpected rise in popularity worries the DPP. Tsai, who is also the DPP’s chairwoman, and other party bigwigs have sharply increased their visits to the south to campaign for Chen, knowing that a defeat in the pro-independence stronghold would mean a major setback for the party.

“This is something worth pondering,” DPP legislator Tuan Yi-kang said.

“The DPP must study the ways and techniques Han has [used to interact] with voters and to find out why voters would choose such a politician,” he said. He acknowledged the “Han phenomenon” had sent a “certain” signal to the DPP, although he said he still believed the DPP candidate would win.

Analysts warned that if the DPP lost Kaohsiung, the party would suffer a great humiliation. And if the DPP lost both Kaohsiung and Taichung in central Taiwan, where its candidate is ahead of the KMT challenger, legislator Lu Hsiu-yen, by just the margin of error, it would hand a big defeat to the ruling party, which controls four of the six largest metropolitan areas in Taiwan.

“If the DPP lost both cities, Tsai must be forced to resign as the DPP chairwoman and Premier William Lai might take over as the DPP leader,” Wang said.

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He added that Lai, who has openly identified himself as a “practical worker of Taiwan independence” and has strong support from the hard core pro-independence camp, might be chosen as the DPP candidate for the 2020 presidential elections.

The Taiwan Nation Alliance, a hard core pro-independence camp, has already said Tsai must take responsibility if the DPP loses the race. If this happened, the alliance said, it would mean the cross-strait policy adopted by Tsai was not supported by voters and that the group would push for the “rectification of Taiwan’s official title”.

Tsai has vowed to maintain the cross-strait status quo, despite a repeated push by the hard core camp for the replacement of the island’s official “Republic of China” title for just “Taiwan”.

Tsai can expect little sympathy from Beijing, which considers Taiwan a wayward province to be brought into line, if necessary, by force, and has insisted that Tsai accept the “one-China” principle. It has suspended official talks and exchanges with the island since Tsai became president in 2016 and has applied pressure, including staging war games around Taiwan and poaching five of Taiwan’s allies, to make Tsai change her mind.