Taiwan elections: from landslide win to uphill task in a year – presidential hopeful Han Kuo-yu battles backlash

“Reset Kaohsiung, defend Taiwan! Step down, Han Kuo-yu!”

The rallying cry from the thousands on the streets of Kaohsiung on December 21 did not stop at opposing Han’s campaign to win the Taiwanese presidency in January 11’s elections. It was a call to recall Han as the southern city’s mayor, only a year after he was elected in stunning style.

A colourful procession’s call-and-response chanting bore a similarity to a slogan from Hong Kong’s anti-government protests – “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” – with both using the Chinese word guangfu, meaning “liberate”, “reclaim” or “reset”.

Four kilometres north, another crowd, clad in the red, white and blue of Taiwan’s flag, chanted in support of Han, who organised the counter-rally to coincide with the protest against him. “Elect Han Kuo-yu! Kuo-yu, Kuo-yu, Han Kuo-yu! Elect, elect, elect!” they roared.

Thousands hit the streets of Kaohsiung to protest against KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu. Photo: EPA-EFE
Thousands hit the streets of Kaohsiung to protest against KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu. Photo: EPA-EFE

The scenes on the streets ahead of the presidential and legislative elections reflect the polarising nature of a populist figure who became the first in 20 years from the mainland-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) party to lead a city that had been a stronghold of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

But despite his victory in November 2018, helped by an ardent fan base known as the Han wave, he has fallen behind in major polls for the 2020 presidential race against incumbent Tsai Ing-wen, even prompting Han to try to confuse the pollsters by asking his supporters to lie and say they would vote for Tsai.

Critics have called Han a “runaway mayor” for embarking on his presidential pursuit only months after his election in Kaohsiung, but his supporters maintain that the 62-year-old is the right candidate.

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Analysts say Han has struggled in a national election campaign dominated by security and democracy issues rather than the economy, and has been hampered by the KMT’s internal fractures.

Born in Taipei County – now known as New Taipei City – on the outskirts of Taipei to parents from Henan province in mainland China, Han rose to prominence from relative political obscurity with his landslide win in Kaohsiung, with little help or resources from his party.

The self-styled “Bald Guy” cultivated a grass-roots image while advocating closer ties with the mainland, seeking to export more goods and attract more people to the island to spend money. A former local legislator and general manager of an agricultural marketing group, Han has built his campaign on economic slogans such as “Taiwan is safe, the people have money” and “let the goods be sold and the people come in, so together we can make fortunes”.

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As relations with the mainland have deteriorated during the confrontational Tsai’s presidency, Beijing and Taipei have ceased official contact and Beijing has applied economic pressure such as banning visits to the island by individual travellers from the mainland.

In the Kaohsiung election, Han’s working-class appeal to those eager for the revitalisation of a port city in decline had been boosted by his down-to-earth online persona: on one occasion he live-streamed himself washing his head.

Han Kuo-yu supporters attend a counter-rally organised to coincide with the protest against him. Photo: EPA-EFE
Han Kuo-yu supporters attend a counter-rally organised to coincide with the protest against him. Photo: EPA-EFE

Five men in Kaohsiung who became known as his “five tiger general” supporters included Wu Yu-chuan, an almond tea stand owner known as Almond Brother who gained tens of thousands of followers on YouTube and Facebook with his posts about switching allegiance from the DPP.

“I stuck with the DPP for 20 years and believed in them, but after Tsai was elected and the DPP also had the legislative majority, we felt the economic outlook was becoming more bleak for everyday people, the farmers, fishermen and us stall sellers,” he said by his stand at Kaohsiung’s Liuhe Night Market, in between posing for photographs with locals. “Han’s words woke us up.”

Wu said Han had been hampered by the KMT’s internal fissures and criticised unfairly for incidents such as his visit to Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong in March – prompting claims that he was “selling out” Taiwan.

Taiwan campaigners get recall ball rolling against mayor Han Kuo-yu

But Aaron Yin, head of Wecare Kaohsiung, which organised the protest demanding Han be recalled, said Han was “betraying” Kaohsiung’s residents by launching his presidential campaign a year into his mayoral term.

Since Yin launched the campaign in June, a petition to recall him has been signed by more than 300,000 people, roughly half the number needed to trigger a recall vote, which could take place from May or June. The December 21 march was 500,000-strong, Wecare claimed.

“The Han Kuo-yu phenomenon represents a pro-Beijing path, an internet celebrity brand of politics, someone without any plans for our country,” Yin said.

“But the most important reason to recall him is that he ran away as Kaohsiung mayor, betraying Kaohsiung.”

Han’s critics have labelled him a “straw sack” for his verbal gaffes and blunt delivery, and derided him for espousing Beijing-friendly views. Beijing claims the self-governed, democratic Taiwan as part of its own territory, and has not renounced the use of force to bring it into its fold.

Kaohsiung councillor Lin Chih-hung, of the DPP, said his party had faced pressure from constituents for criticising Han, including in a widely discussed televised exchange in the city council’s legislature in April, in which Lin grilled Han about his stance on “one country, two systems”, the model of partial autonomy in existence in Hong Kong and proposed by Beijing for Taiwan, which Han has said he rejects.

Beijing ‘interferes daily’ in Taiwan’s election, says Tsai Ing-wen

From Tsai’s re-election campaign office in Kaohsiung, Lin said the original Han wave had risen locally because of desire for change and a surge in online support that he believed was coordinated outside Taiwan. The turning point came when Han ran for president, compounded by the KMT’s internal crises, he said.

“When you cast a vote, it’s a four-year contract, so for anyone leaving office without completing the term there would be a backlash,” said Lin, who has received death threats for his criticism of Han. “When Han says Kaohsiung will ‘make fortunes’, every side wants this, but we need to think about how to do it.

“Han says there is only one path, which is to be closer to China, but over the past decade the Chinese Communist Party has made politics the prerequisite for coming here to spend money,” Lin said, referring to pressures from Beijing such as the tourist ban.

Besides being assumed to be Beijing’s preferred candidate, Han and his running mate Chang San-cheng have had to endure disunity in their party under the chairmanship of Wu Den-yih.

Eric Huang, a KMT adviser, maintained that Han had the KMT’s full backing, despite speculation to the contrary, and represented the concerns of blue-collar voters. He said waning support in the polls was caused largely by party disunity and the Hong Kong factor – mass anti-government protests that, in Taiwan, amplified many people’s views on the mainland.

“Han is not a traditional KMT candidate, so his thinking and image are different,” Huang said. “But in this election, everyone in the KMT wants the DPP out. The seeming lack of support for Han from the party comes from Wu.”

Taiwanese president Tsai denies ‘using’ Hong Kong protests for election

There has been strong criticism of Wu’s selection of legislator nominees to be elected via Taiwan’s party list system. The nominees excluded younger, more progressive members such as Jason Hsu Yu-jen, but included Wu himself and controversial candidates such as retired lieutenant general Wu Sz-huai, who divided opinion by standing for the Chinese national anthem at a 2016 event in Beijing, and Yeh Yu-lan, who openly supported the Hong Kong police’s handling of the city’s protests.

Kharis Templeman, a Taiwan politics expert at Stanford University in the United States, said Wu’s leadership had been a “disaster for the party” and Han’s campaign had been disorganised.

“The fractures in the KMT got wider in the past year, partly because of Wu, and it really hurt their election chances,” he said. “[Han] has really struggled in the campaign to address concerns about being Beijing’s favoured candidate, and he hasn’t had much help from his party. As chairman, Wu should have stepped in and forcefully criticised Beijing over Hong Kong, given the KMT’s vulnerability on that issue. But he didn’t.”

By contrast, the DPP united around Tsai and her pick as vice-presidential candidate, William Lai Ching-te, despite him having challenged her for the party’s presidential nomination. The other major KMT presidential nominee, Foxconn founder Terry Gou Tai-ming, deserted Han after losing out to him for the nomination, leaving the KMT before appearing in public with another presidential candidate, People First Party chairman James Soong Chu-yu.

Austin Wang, an expert on Taiwan and voting behaviour at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said Wu’s presidential ambitions had undermined Han’s campaign.

“He controlled the list of party nominees and hoped those chosen could help him control the KMT after 2020,” Wang said. “The KMT list provoked serious protests from young members, but Wu doesn’t care. Many young members left and joined Gou’s camp.”

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen says talks with Beijing could resume

Meanwhile, on the policy front, the DPP adopted a more moderate position regarding relations with the mainland, closer to what the KMT offered, Huang said.

“The KMT was offering status quo, peace and stability without war, but Tsai has taken this position,” he said. “That is the KMT’s niche, as the more moderate, practical party.”

Back on Kaohsiung’s streets, angry residents sang and held fliers branding Han a liar and a cheat. Some had voted for him as mayor 14 months earlier. Local tutor Tracy Chen, 38, said she was “so disappointed” in the man she had supported, for his brashness and failing to transform Kaohsiung as he had promised.

On the other side of the city, Han fans including Wu Yu-chuan – Almond Brother – chanted about the “fortunes” that would come from a Han presidency. Even as the camps disagreed vehemently on Han, they agreed on the need to vote.

“I want to turn Taiwan around, I want it to change,” Wu said. “The highest value of democracy is people’s will being expressed.”

The next instalment in the series will look at how turmoil in Hong Kong has had an impact on the Taiwan election. Read the first part in the series, on the crucial role young and first-time voters are expected to play, here.

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