What is happening?
The ongoing campaign ahead of the presidential elections in Taiwan assumed a more unequivocal shape as last Friday, November 24, marked the candidacy registration deadline. The opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) failed to overcome a deadlock in their negotiations to form a joint presidential ticket, while business tycoon Terry Gou (郭台銘) withdrew from the race. Consequently, the upcoming election will be a three-way race between William Ching-te Lai (賴清德) of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) and Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) of the KMT and the TPP, respectively. The dramatic negotiations, which lasted until the eleventh hour ahead of the registration deadline, exposed considerable disunity among Taiwanese opposition parties, which clearly contrasts with the message of cross-factional accord embodied in the Lai-Hsiao (Bi-Khim Hsiao, 蕭美琴) ticket of the DPP.
What is the broader picture?
Following a long period of speculation, the KMT and the TPP announced plans to run a joint presidential ticket on November 15. The parties vowed to reach a decision on whether Hou or Ko would lead the ticket by analyzing the results of the latest opinion polls. As the eight-year period of DPP rule could be coming to an end, Ko said it was “imperative” that the opposition joined forces to achieve the common goal of defeating the ruling party. Nevertheless, their negotiations eventually collapsed over disagreements on how to interpret poll results.
On Thursday, on the eve of the candidacy registration deadline, the KMT, the TPP, and independent candidate Gou organized a dramatic public negotiation among the three presidential hopefuls and two senior KMT leaders, former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and party chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫). While the domestic and international press was in attendance, Hou and Ko failed to conceal the seemingly irreconcilable differences between their parties and effectively embarrassed each other in a very public manner. In the end, it led to the official collapse of the deal. This failure also effectively undermined the reputation of both candidates. In the assessment of Nathan Batto, Academia Sinica research fellow and an expert on elections and political behavior in Taiwan, “It showed that Ko is an inept negotiator. That the KMT doesn’t trust Hou to act on his own without a chaperone.”
Earlier during the week, the DPP officially announced that Bi-khim Hsiao, who until November 20 served as Taiwan’s envoy to the United States, would become the running mate of Lai. Hsiao is widely praised for her diplomatic savviness and successful management of Taipei’s relations with Washington, arguably its most important informal diplomatic partner. The appointment of Hsiao as the vice presidential candidate also implies that Lai is committed to upholding continuity with the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration in his foreign policy orientation. During the 2020 presidential race, Tsai and Lai, representing different internal factions within the DPP, faced off as they competed for the DPP nomination. As Hsiao is considered to be a key member of the Tsai faction within the party, her nomination as Lai’s “right-hand woman” clearly signals that he is willing to put internal party squabbles behind to consolidate a message of unity. This approach clearly diverges from the frictions which surfaced in the opposition camp.
Why does it matter?
The recent developments have important implications for Taiwan’s domestic politics and the nation’s foreign policy posture. Internally, the public conflict between the opposition parties, which failed to overcome their differences to commit to the bigger mission of defeating the DPP, is likely to undermine the trust of their supporters, who will be less likely to vote strategically and concentrate their votes on the leading candidate in January. Externally, the DPP effectively consolidated its foreign policy orientation as they are likely to remain focused on diversifying Taiwan’s foreign relations beyond cross-strait ties. Notably, this includes Tsai’s flagship New Southbound Policy and the ongoing process of deepening Taipei’s ties with Europe.