Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party and the opposition Kuomintang have begun selecting their presidential candidates, setting the stage for a showdown between the self-ruled island’s pro-independence and pro-unification camps.
The independence-leaning DPP on Monday announced the start of its primaries to choose between President Tsai Ing-wen and former premier William Lai Ching-te to contest the January election.
“Whoever wins the primaries being held from Monday to Friday will represent the party and run in the 2020 presidential poll,” DPP spokesman Chou Chiang-che said, adding the primaries would be based on public opinion surveys and the results would be announced on June 19.
The mainland-friendly KMT meanwhile announced five candidates for its primaries, based on public opinion surveys to be held between July 5 and July 15, with the results to be made public on July 16.
The KMT candidates are Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu, Foxconn billionaire chairman Terry Gou Tai-ming, former New Taipei mayor Eric Chu Li-luan, former Taipei county magistrate Chou Hsi-wei and Chang Ya-chung, president of the Sun Yat-sen School in Taipei.
“The five candidates are required to attend a KMT meeting on Tuesday to discuss the rules and other details concerning the primaries,” said Huang Hsin-hua, a spokesman for the KMT.
Former legislative speaker Wang Jing-pyng withdrew his interest late last week, saying he believed the KMT was unfairly favouring another presidential hopeful, without naming that person.
Local media reports said the person was believed to be Han, a former businessman who won the seat of Kaohsiung, a traditional pro-independence stronghold, in a landslide in November’s local polls.
His popularity was seen by many as the catalyst for the KMT’s winning 15 of the 22 city and county seats up for grabs in the elections.
In most opinion polls, Han is ahead of other potential candidates, including Tsai, by a wide margin. He is also leading against the four other KMT contenders, including Gou and Chu.
Han’s huge support was seen in two mass rallies early this month – in Taipei and Hualien – that drew tens of thousands of supporters, calling on him to run for president.
Analysts said given Han’s support for the 1992 consensus and his calls for friendly relations with Beijing, if he emerged as the KMT candidate to run against Tsai or Lai, the election would become a face-off between pro-unification and pro-independence politicians.
The consensus refers to an understanding that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait can continue official exchanges as long as they recognise that there is only “one China”.
The KMT has insisted that each side could have its own interpretation of what constitutes “China”, and for the KMT it represents the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official title.
Beijing tolerated this ambiguity until Tsai took office in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle, after which relations deteriorated.
Presidential candidates would have to be clear about their cross-strait stance and show how they would manage affairs with Beijing, according to analysts.
“It now appears voters will have to take sides in next year’s presidential elections as there is no more grey area or ambiguity when it comes to cross-strait policy during the polls,” said Yu Chen-hua, a political science professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
Yu said Beijing was no longer willing to compromise on the one-China issue.
“This means both camps have to be specific when it comes to cross-strait policy, and voters will have to choose from independence or unification rather than maintaining the status quo,” Yu said.
Next year’s poll is also a battle between the US and Beijing, according to analysts, with Washington favouring Tsai for a second four-year term given her support for its Indo-Pacific strategy that views Beijing as a threat militarily and economically.
Meanwhile, Han appears to have strong support from Beijing, after meeting the directors of Beijing’s liaison offices in Hong Kong and Macau in February, and the Communist Party chief in Shenzhen.
He has also said he sees only the economy but not politics, in relation to the suppression of pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong and the mainland.
Shelley Rigger, a senior fellow in the Asia programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, expressed concern over the possible showdown looming in Taiwan’s presidential race.
“Until now … I have been confident that worst-case thinking was unjustified, and the chances of open conflict were low. Until now, but no longer,” she wrote in an article published by the institute last month.
“At this moment, as Taiwan’s political parties battle over their presidential nominations, I am more worried about the future of the Taiwan Strait than I have ever been,” she said, adding that there were ominous signs that it could result in conflict.
“It is by no means inevitable, or even the most likely future,” she said. “But for the first time in decades, I can see a plausible path to disaster in the Taiwan Strait.”
More from South China Morning Post:
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This article Taiwan’s DPP and KMT launch primaries for 2020 presidential elections first appeared on South China Morning Post