From ER doc to wild-card presidential candidate: Taiwan's Ko Wen-je

Ko, who appeals to youth with his outspoken style, recently pulled ahead in the opinion polls.
By Hsia Hsiao-hwa for RFA Mandarin
2023.12.03
From ER doc to wild-card presidential candidate: Taiwan's Ko Wen-je Ko Wen-je, chairman of the Taiwan People's Party (TPP) and presidential candidate, answers questions from foreign journalists after a speech in Taipei on Oct. 24, 2023.
(I-Hwa Cheng/AFP)

Just 10 years after trading his white coat for a place on the mayoral hustings, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, who also heads the four-year-old Taiwan People's Party, is looking increasingly like a potential challenger to Vice President Lai Ching-te in January's presidential election.

A recent poll of voters by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation showed Ko has an approval rating of 31.9% compared with 29.2% percent for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's Lai and 23.6% for nationalist Kuomintang candidate and New Taipei City mayor Hou Yu-ih.

Earlier polls had shown a healthy lead for Lai and running mate Hsiao Bi-khim, with Ko trailing in third place after plans for a joint Ko-Hou ticket foundered.

The foundation described Ko as "a terrible nightmare that the DPP must not ignore," adding that Ko's support is highest among well-heeled white-collar workers, but that he also has similar appeal to Lai among blue-collar voters.

Far from boosting the Lai campaign, the recent collapse of talks between Lai and Hou over a possible "blue-white" joint ticket actually appears to have damaged it, boosting Ko's approval rating by 6.3 percentage points and leaving Lai's half a percentage point lower, the foundation said.

With less than 50 days of campaigning left to go before the Jan. 13 election, the result suggests Ko is a wild card candidate who could sway the result in unpredictable ways, the poll of 755 people with a 3.57 percentage-point margin of error and a 95% confidence level found.

"This is likely to be the most unpredictable of all presidential elections so far," the foundation said. "We won't know who the winner is until it's over."

Pithy soundbites

Ko, a former emergency room doctor who gave up medicine for politics 10 years ago, has generally sought to position himself as an outsider capable of toppling the traditional parties.

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Ko Wen-je, chairman of the Taiwan People's Party and presidential candidate, and his running mate Cynthia Wu wave after registering for the upcoming 2024 elections at the Central Elections Commission in Taipei on Nov. 24, 2023. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

He has become known for his salty epithets and pithy soundbites, appealing to a broad cross-section of the island's 23 million population, particularly younger voters.

Yet his critics accuse him of dictatorial leanings, an emperor-complex, a too-relaxed attitude to the threat from China, and of flip-flopping on key elements of his political stance to please whoever happens to be listening at the time.

Ko has described the 1992 consensus between Beijing and the former Kuomintang government that sought to preserve Taiwan's de facto independence while never challenging China's territorial claim on the island as "basically getting down on their knees and surrendering."

"Failure is the norm – success is the exception," is another Ko-ism, as is his description of politics as "the search for a lost conscience."

Organ transplant doctor

Ko, 64, who has claimed an IQ of 157, has a fondness for medical metaphors on the campaign trail, and once referred to an opponent as "less capable than an amoeba." 

Born in Hsinchu, Ko began his working life as an emergency and intensive care physician at National Taiwan University Hospital, studying organ transplants in the United States before setting up a transplant team at his hospital, and significantly improving survival rates with his use of ECMO machines.

He quit medicine after an organ was mistakenly transplanted into a patient from an HIV-positive donor, announcing he would run for Taipei mayor in 2014, eventually winning the election with the second highest number of votes ever received.

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Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je listens to the media during the Taipei-Shanghai forum in Taipei, Aug. 23, 2016. (Chiang Ying-ying/AP)

According to veteran journalist Kang Jen-chun, Ko projects a professional, scientific and rational image, along with pragmatism and a sense of openness and transparency.

"A large proportion of Taiwanese are very eager to find something outside of the [traditional] blue and green [camps]," Kang said. "Voters want politicians to take more action – stuff that is closer to their lives."

"Ko Wen-je's seemingly nonsensical comments and jokey approach have gotten young people's attention."

Lawmaker Tsai Pi-ru, a nurse at Ko's hospital who later became his chief of staff in the Taipei municipal government, said: "He doesn't beat around the bush ... and if he says something wrong, he apologizes – the only person in Taiwan politics who does that."

"He apologizes, seeks to do better, and moves on," she said, adding that Ko also has a reputation for straight-dealing, and for a formidable work ethic that sees him taking the bus to work at city hall, starting his day at 7.30 a.m., before hosting a lunch party every day at noon.

He also has a reputation for dismantling bottlenecks in the city's infrastructure in record time, as well as making off-the-cuff, sometimes shocking comments to journalists as he goes about his day.

Kang said this gives him a distinct advantage over Lai and Hou when it comes to the electoral "dog-fights" in Taiwan's media, although his sharp tongue and whimsical remarks can sometimes get him into trouble.

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Supporters of Ko Wen-je, who was seeking re-election as Taipei’s mayor, wave their mobile phone torches during a campaign rally in Taipei, Nov. 10, 2018. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

When taken to task in the past, Ko has referred to himself as "a mortal,” describing his life as “a one-way street with no regrets.”

Nonetheless, by the time he fought his next mayoral election in 2018, his approval rating had plummeted from to 40% after three years in office, and he only defeated his opponent Ting Shou-chung by a narrow margin of some 3,000 votes.

Bully and schemer?

His New People's Party has been hemorrhaging political support, as his critics accuse him of being a bully and a schemer.

"His neutrality is a kind of nihilism that blows with the zeitgeist," Ed Lin, lead singer of Taiwan rock band Leather Lattice, wrote of Ko in a June 2023 article titled "Three Beautiful Misunderstandings of Ko Wen-je."

"He's good at dodging controversy and bullying the weak," Lin wrote. "The truth is that he is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideas and vote-counting schemes."

He said Ko stands for a restoration of authoritarian rule "that undermines democracy."

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Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je demonstrates how to cut rice during a tour in Taipei on July 21, 2018. (Daniel Shih/AFP)

A former Taiwan People's Party activist who asked to be identified only as A, had a similar view.

"The biggest issue is Ko's dictatorial personality," A said. "His idols include Mao Zedong and the Yongzheng Emperor [1722-35]."

"He often refers to himself with the royal 'we', as if he's the emperor," A said, adding that Ko favors divide and rule politics and "palace intrigue."

Ko also gives favorable treatment to his family members within the party, A said, describing them as "nobles of the court," while everyone else is expected to be "fans and believers."

Fascination with Mao

Ko had admitted to a fascination with Mao, and has visited Communist Party sites on a trip to China to learn about party history. He has been photographed by the media gazing at a portrait of Chairman Mao as a young man.

Ko has also raised eyebrows with his parroting of Beijing's claim that the people of Taiwan and China are "part of the same family," which it uses to underscore its territorial claim on the island.

"His emergence is very bad for democracy in Taiwan," A said. "It will set its development back for a long time."

Yeh, the office worker, said he doesn't trust Ko either.

"There's no problem with his intelligence," Yeh said. "But he lacks presidential gravitas, and his words don't mean anything – a president should keep their word."

"But I'm worried that he will be willing to trade it away in any future negotiations with [China]," he said.

Even as a doctor, Ko was no stranger to politics.

A staunch supporter of late former Democratic Progressive Party President Chen Shui-bian, he formed part of a committee that advocated for Chen's release on medical parole as he served his prison sentence for corruption.

But he later changed his tune, claiming in 2017 that Chen's illness "was feigned from the start," as he campaigned for opposition Kuomintang voters in his campaign for re-election as Taipei mayor.

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Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je celebrates his re-election with supporters in Taipei, Nov. 25, 2018. (Chiang Ying-ying/AP)

Ko's grandfather died in the Feb. 28, 1947, massacre of Taiwanese civilians by Kuomintang troops, an event that – much like the 1989 Tiananmen massacre – still carries a huge political and emotional weight in contemporary Taiwanese politics.

But asked to clarify whether he blamed former supreme leader Chiang Kai-shek for the killings, Ko evaded the question, saying he had suffered as much "persecution" by the Democratic Progressive Party, which emerged from the dissident movement that was the legacy of Kuomintang repression.

The island's pro-democracy movement – known as the Tangwai – started to fight elections against the ruling Kuomintang in the 1970s and 1980s, largely inspired by the 1947 bloodshed and subsequent "white terror" campaigns by the secret police.

Ko supported the 2014 student-led Sunflower Movement that campaigned against a trade deal providing for ever-closer ties with China, and has gone on record as likening the Kuomintang, who signed it, to "cockroaches."

Yet he also sat down at the negotiating table with former Kuomintang President Ma Ying-jeou, who was accused of undermining the island's current government on a recent trip to China, in a failed bid to form a "blue-white alliance" to fight the January elections.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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