FEATURE/Tycoon Gou pushes on despite undermining opposition unity
[Editor's Note: This is part three of a multipart series taking an in-depth look at the main presidential candidates in Taiwan's 2024 election. The rest of the series will be published in the coming weeks. Read part one & part two here]
By Chung Yu-chen, CNA staff reporter
When tech billionaire Terry Gou (郭台銘) announced with great fanfare on Aug. 28 that he would run for president as an independent candidate, his goal was to unite a splintered opposition against the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its candidate Lai Ching-te (賴清德).
"The purpose of my candidacy is to advance the integration of the opposition, as only through integration can victory be achieved," the 72-year-old Gou said.
He said he wanted to represent "mainstream public opinion" in unifying the opposition, already split between two candidates, New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) of the Kuomintang (KMT) and former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) of the Taiwan People's Party (TPP).
His ambition, however, has collided with hard reality, as Gou has finished last among the four candidates in recent polls with less than 10 percent support, and rather than uniting the opposition, his candidacy is only splitting it further.
In the latest tracking poll conducted Sept. 18-20 by formosa.com, Lai was leading the four-way race with 38.2 percent support, followed by Hou at 18.8 percent, Ko at 16.3 percent and Gou at a paltry 7.3 percent.
Will his efforts be in vain?
Though his poll numbers offered little indication of a successful candidacy, Gou may have thought his stature as a billionaire and the founder of electronics giant Hon Hai Precision Industry (Foxconn) would prompt a surge in support once he declared his candidacy.
"I am the only entrepreneur with practical management skills. I have nearly five decades of practical experience -- who else is better suited to lead Taiwan's political sphere than me?" Gou said on Aug. 28 in a room adorned with Republic of China (Taiwan) flags.
His poll numbers suggest that voters are not buying the pitch, but the billionaire said that the numbers cannot be believed because many of his supporters are "closet partisans" who are keeping their political preferences private.
Some of his supporters believe Gou has been treated unfairly in the polls.
"I'm a supporter of Terry Gou, and I've never received any calls from polling companies," Jennie Lin, a retired foreign company executive, told CNA.
Lin said she supports Gou because he is "free of political baggage" and believes that he will be a "breath of fresh air" to Taiwan's politics.
Part of Gou's problem, according to Yoshiyuki Ogasawara, an emeritus professor at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, is that rather than unifying the opposition, Gou has further divided it.
The KMT, for example, distanced itself from him in the week after he announced his bid, prohibiting KMT members from supporting his candidacy.
"It's evident that Gou can no longer rely on the KMT's resources to support his own campaign, which will undoubtedly make the upcoming election battle challenging for him," Ogasawara, who correctly predicted most of the results of Taiwan's last presidential, legislative and 9-in-1 local elections, told CNA.
Despite his weakness in the polls, Gou is still campaigning aggressively to collect the signatures of 289,667 people, or 1.5 percent of eligible voters in the 2020 presidential election, he needs as an independent candidate to make it onto the ballot.
Perhaps he is hoping that an outpouring of endorsements by the Nov. 2 deadline would still give him the upper hand to get opposition candidates to line up behind him.
Whether he meets the threshold depends on how grassroots members of the KMT act, Shen Yu-chung (沈有忠), a political science professor at Tunghai University, told CNA.
"If local [county or city] speakers are supportive of Gou, it's possible he could gather 1 million signatures," Shen suggested, adding that the dissatisfaction among the grassroots with Hou and the KMT leadership should not be underestimated.
Still, Hoover Institution research fellow Kharis Templeman cannot understand what is driving Gou at this point.
"It seems obvious to me he has no chance of winning, and his run only helps the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)," Templeman said in an email to CNA.
"He is a smart guy, so he should be able to see that he has no realistic path to victory. It seems he believes he can become the consensus candidate for all the anti-ruling party DPP voters, but he hasn't shown any signs of being willing to compromise and negotiate to build a broader coalition," Templeman said.
Shen was also skeptical of Gou's prospects and wondered if it was not just another case of a billionaire satisfying their ego.
"We don't understand wealthy people. Maybe he's in the race to prove himself," he said.
An anonymous source within the KMT contended, however, that Gou was motivated by a desire for "revenge" and "to disrupt," stemming from the tycoon's previous unsuccessful attempts to secure the KMT's presidential nomination.
In 2019, he stepped down as Foxconn chairman to compete in the KMT's presidential primary, claiming he was instructed by the sea goddess Mazu to do so. But he lost to Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) and then left the KMT later in the year without offering support for Han.
Gou again sought the KMT nomination this year against Hou, pledging to support whoever won. Gou went back on that promise after Hou emerged victorious, and is now on his own.
If the former Hon Hai boss sticks it out, it will be a challenge to climb back into the race.
Lev Nachman, a political scientist at National Chengchi University in Taipei, told CNA that Gou believes he is uniquely positioned to engage with Beijing and assist in rebuilding Taiwan's economy.
That closely aligns with the KMT's talking points, however, and there is little to distinguish Gou from Hou in terms of policy, making their positions quite similar, Nachman said.
Gou has made a stronger push than Hou for signing a peace agreement with Beijing to establish peace across the Taiwan Strait, arguing that his strong contacts in China from his time heading Foxconn would give him an edge in dealing with cross-strait issues.
But Ogasawara said signing a peace agreement with China was not necessarily consistent with the consensus shared among most Taiwanese on valuing democracy and maintaining their way of life.
Indeed, Gou's former ties with China have even raised concerns that having amassed much of his fortune through Hon Hai in China could leave him susceptible to allegations of being influenced by the Chinese Communist Party, Templeman argued.
Gou himself insisted in August that he would not give in if Chinese authorities applied pressure to Hon Hai, but it is just another issue that the billionaire will have to contend with as he continues to navigate the unfamiliar world of mass politics.
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