Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has won her party’s nomination to run for a second four-year term after a fiercely fought primary that threatened to divide the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
Tsai defeated former premier William Lai Ching-te by about 9 percentage points to emerge as the winner on Thursday in the two-way race determined by public opinion surveys carried out between Monday and Wednesday.
“The results show that the president received a support rate of 35.67 per cent versus Lai’s 27.48 per cent,” DPP chairman Cho Jung-tai said.
The remainder of the more than 16,000 randomly selected voters surveyed by phone were undecided or chose neither candidate.
A few hours later, in what analysts saw as an attempt to reunite the party, Tsai called for cooperation with Lai to ensure that the DPP could remain in power.
“I always say that one plus one is bigger than two ... and I will find a day to sit down and talk to [Lai] about the plan to win the election amid unity, and that day will not be far off,” she said, hinting that she might ask Lai to be her running mate.
“There are always ups and downs in the primaries and after the dust settles it will be time [for the party] to return to unity.”
Tsai added that a united front could safeguard the DPP’s power, the island’s sovereignty and the reforms she had steadfastly promoted during her first term as president.
Lai conceded defeat, saying he accepted the result. “I will honour my commitment to support the winner of the primaries,” he said.
Asked if he would consider being Tsai’s running mate, Lai said only that it was important “for all of us to unite to win the election next year”.
Lai, a former confidant of Tsai’s, shocked the party in March by announcing his intention to seek endorsement for a presidential run.
Lai had support from the hardline pro-independence heavyweights within the DPP and was seen as a serious challenge to Tsai. His bid threatened to divide the party, which has struggled to win back voters since a crushing defeat in local elections in November.
Wang Kung-yi, professor of political science at Chinese Culture University in Taipei, said Tsai’s win was expected, given her political resources and general support.
“A fierce fight was unlikely to divide the DPP,” Wang said, noting the party’s record of patching up differences after hotly contested primaries. “Some party stalwarts might quit but no one would follow suit.”
Hou Han-jun, a professor of public administration and policy at National Taipei University, said Tsai’s rebuff of Chinese President Xi Jinping and her support for opponents of Hong Kong’s controversial extradition bill propelled her through the primary.
“This has helped promote her image and win her the support of the public,” Hou said.
He said Tsai had two other tailwinds: fears that a disunited DPP would lose the 2020 poll and the inclusion of mobile phone users in the public opinion surveys. Tsai is popular among young voters and previously the surveys were restricted to landline phone users, who tend to be older.
Tsai popularity plunged to less than 20 per cent after the DPP’s local election defeat last year but it has risen since she rejected Xi’s proposal in January for the two sides to hold unification talks under the “one country, two systems” model being adopted in Hong Kong and Macau.
Beijing considers Taiwan a wayward province that must return to the mainland fold by force if necessary. It has suspended official exchanges with Taipei since Tsai took office in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle.
Wang said Beijing would prefer Tsai to Lai, who has publicly declared that he is a “practical pro-independence worker”. “Beijing would find it better to deal with her than Lai, given that she has not ventured to cross the independence ‘red line’,” Wang said.
The DPP will officially name Tsai as its presidential nominee during a party meeting on Wednesday.
The main opposition Kuomintang party will select its candidate in a similar public opinion survey primary to be conducted over 10 days from July 5.
Tsai’s opponent in January is most likely to be the KMT’s Han Kuo-yu, a popular mayor of the southern port city of Kaohsiung, or billionaire Foxconn chairman Terry Gou Tai-ming.
Most public opinion polls have shown Han ahead of all the presidential hopefuls. But the DPP primary surveys put Tsai in front, with support for Han at just 24.51 per cent, 10 percentage points behind Tsai.
The surveys also show Tsai ahead of Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je on 22.7 per cent. The independent Ko has been seen as a wild card in next year’s poll, given the general support for him from young voters in Taiwan.
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