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FEATURE/Could a prospective opposition joint ticket block Lai's path to the presidency?

11/04/2023 10:09 AM
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Vice President and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nominee Lai Ching-te (center) high-fives a supporter as he leaves Zhenxing Temple in Changhua Friday. CNA photo Nov. 3, 2023
Vice President and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nominee Lai Ching-te (center) high-fives a supporter as he leaves Zhenxing Temple in Changhua Friday. CNA photo Nov. 3, 2023

[Editor's Note: This is the last of a multipart series taking an in-depth look at the main presidential candidates in Taiwan's 2024 election. Read part onepart two, and part three here]

By Teng Pei-ju, CNA staff reporter

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nominee Lai Ching-te (賴清德) looks set to ride a plurality to victory in Taiwan's 2024 presidential election, but he could yet be derailed if the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Taiwan People's Party (TPP) form a joint opposition ticket.

Lai, the incumbent vice president and DPP chairman, has remained ahead in most opinion polls since securing his party's nomination in April, leading by approximately 10 percentage points, according to Wang Yeh-lih (王業立), a political science professor at National Taiwan University.

However, the polls also show 60 percent of the public favor a change in government after eight years of DPP rule, said Wang, who specializes in Taiwan's politics and elections.

A joint ticket is one permutation Taiwan's fractured opposition could use to stop Lai from riding a plurality to victory, setting the stage for negotiations between the campaigns of KMT nominee Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) and the TPP's Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), Wang added.

While both sides have realized that collaboration is their best chance of defeating Lai in January, such an endeavor will not be easy, Wang said.

For months, support for Hou of the main opposition KMT and Ko, a former Taipei mayor and founder of the fledgling TPP, has "spiraled without any of them being able to get ahead steadily, making them averse to relinquish the top billing," Wang said.

With this in mind, Wang declined to predict whether the two would reach a consensus before the Central Election Commission's (CEC) Nov. 24 deadline for candidate registration.

"It is really difficult to make an assumption," Wang said of the issue that has attracted much media attention since early September.

Kuomintang (KMT) nominee Hou Yu-ih (front center) holds out his hand to greet representatives of public interest groups at an event in Taipei Thursday. CNA photo Nov. 2, 2023
Kuomintang (KMT) nominee Hou Yu-ih (front center) holds out his hand to greet representatives of public interest groups at an event in Taipei Thursday. CNA photo Nov. 2, 2023

Nevertheless, a Hou-Ko or a Ko-Hou ticket stands a good chance of winning against Lai and his presumed running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), who currently serves as Taiwan's top envoy to the United States, Wang added.

Lev Nachman, an assistant professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei, said Hou and Ko agreeing to a joint ticket was unlikely due to personal incompatibility and time constraints.

"I don't think they're going to be able to get their act together," Nachman told CNA, despite taking note of a possibility for the KMT and the TPP collaborating in the legislative elections held concurrently with the presidential vote on Jan. 13, 2024.

"There's no way they're going to be able to decide on who's president [and] who's vice president in such a short amount of time," he said. "I really think egos are going to get in the way."

Ko has also repeatedly tried to bring presidential aspirant and tech billionaire Terry Gou (郭台銘) back into the fold and thus further complicated his negotiations with the KMT, according to Nachman.

Gou, the founder of Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. (Foxconn), declared his candidacy in late August, months after failing to win the KMT's nomination for the second election cycle.

If Hou and Ko are unable to form a joint ticket and four candidates make it on the ballot, "it is Lai's election to lose," Nachman said, alluding to a situation where Gou also successfully collects enough petition signatures to qualify as an independent contender.

On Thursday, Gou's office said it had submitted 1,036,778 signatures -- three times more than the required number -- to the Taipei City Election Commission, which will announce the petition result on Nov. 14 after going through all the signatures.

Presidential aspirant and tech billionaire Terry Gou (front left) and his running mate Tammy Lai (front, in white) speak to reporters outside the Taipei City Election Commission Wednesday. CNA photo Nov. 1, 2023
Presidential aspirant and tech billionaire Terry Gou (front left) and his running mate Tammy Lai (front, in white) speak to reporters outside the Taipei City Election Commission Wednesday. CNA photo Nov. 1, 2023

Wang echoed this, saying the likelihood of Lai winning the election and the DPP government getting an unprecedented third consecutive term would be "very, very high" should the two opposition parties fail to reach a deal.

If neither Hou nor Ko drops out of the race, they will have to compete for each other's supporters, convincing those people to vote strategically for themselves to prevent Lai from being elected, Wang added.

Nonetheless, it will be difficult for such strategic voting to work out, Wang said, a view shared by Liu Jia-wei (劉嘉薇), a professor at the Department of Public Administration and Policy at National Taipei University.

It is unlikely that Ko will be able to absorb diehard supporters of the KMT, who would rather stay at home than vote tactically for the TPP candidate, said Liu, who has previously served as a member of the CEC.

Similarly, it will be unimaginable that those who support Ko because of his lack of affiliation with Taiwan's two main parties, the DPP and the KMT, will back Hou, she added.

Another concern for Lai is his struggles to win the youth vote, the experts observed.

Wang noted that the vice president's approval rating among those in the 20-30 age group had lagged behind Ko markedly, having suffered from general "discontent" among young people over the DPP government's performance after nearly eight years in power.

Liu also took note of Ko's unrivaled ability to engage young people through social media, such as Instagram.

Ko is capable of presenting himself as honest and candid within seconds while putting the ruling party in a bad light by pointing to its supposed mistakes and improprieties, she added.

Taiwan People's Party (TPP) presidential candidate Ko Wen-je talks about his energy policy at a press conference held at his campaign office Wednesday. CNA photo Nov. 1, 2023
Taiwan People's Party (TPP) presidential candidate Ko Wen-je talks about his energy policy at a press conference held at his campaign office Wednesday. CNA photo Nov. 1, 2023

Nachman, meanwhile, said Ko would certainly obtain some "protest votes" from young people who hold the belief that "big parties are bad."

Compared to Ko's "cult of personality" approach, Lai's "low-key" campaign, designed to avoid close public scrutiny, has been "underwhelming," Nachman said.

In a bid to court swing voters, Lai has publicly begun to adjust his stance on Taiwanese independence, a "reflection of him being a president," according to Nachman.

Lai, 64, first exhibited his presidential ambitions in 2019, when he challenged President Tsai Ing-wen's (蔡英文) re-election bid in the DPP's presidential primary.

Following his failed attempt, Lai served as Tsai's deputy in her second term beginning in May 2020, paving the way for a comeback this year as Tsai is restricted from running again due to term limits.

In recent years, Lai has sought to soften his image as a strong supporter of Taiwanese independence for voters and observers at home and abroad, pledging to continue Tsai's moderate stance on the issue and her foreign policy.

Once describing himself as a "pragmatic Taiwanese independence worker," the vice president dismisses his past comments by saying "Taiwan is already an independent sovereign country" and that there is "no need to declare Taiwan independence."

Lai has also embraced "the Republic of China, Taiwan," a nomenclature first used by former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the KMT and later adopted by Tsai throughout her two terms, to appeal to moderate voters who may have concerns over his past pro-independence comments, Nachman said.

Vice President and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nominee Lai Ching-te (center) speaks during a visit to Zhenxing Temple in Changhua Friday. CNA photo Nov. 3, 2023
Vice President and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nominee Lai Ching-te (center) speaks during a visit to Zhenxing Temple in Changhua Friday. CNA photo Nov. 3, 2023

The use of the ROC on formal occasions by Lai, which had been rare until recently, is also intended to overcome Washington's doubt about him, reassuring it that he would follow in the footsteps of Tsai, the Taipei-based American political scientist added.

Lai's national security strategy, dubbed the "four-pillar plan," was also built on Tsai's policy, which emphasizes the need to bolster Taiwan's defense capability and economic resilience while fostering partnerships with other democracies to better safeguard Taiwan and deter China.

He has told foreign envoys and business representatives that he would strive to maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and seek to engage in dialogue with Chinese leaders, an endeavor pursued by Tsai over the years without achieving significant breakthroughs.

In the meantime, Lai has presented himself as the most competent and experienced candidate of all, with a diverse political portfolio.

Born in 1959 in New Taipei, Lai practiced medicine until he was elected to the now-defunct National Assembly in 1996.

He then served as a legislator from 1999 before being elected as Tainan mayor in 2010, a role he occupied until September 2017, when he was appointed by Tsai to be the premier.

Lai took up the chairmanship of the DPP from Tsai at the start of 2023, at a time when the ruling party had just suffered a dismal defeat in the local government elections and was in urgent need to get back on its feet.

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