Ruling party presidential candidate Lai Ching-te leads Taiwan poll

The failure of a "blue-white" alliance last week looks set to split the opposition vote.
By Huang Chun-mei and Hsia Hsiao-hwa for RFA Mandarin, Alice Yam for RFA Cantonese
2023.11.28
Ruling party presidential candidate Lai Ching-te leads Taiwan poll Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party candidate Lai Ching-te announces his national project of Hope Aim in Taipei, Sept. 6, 2023.
REUTERS/Ann Wang

Taiwan’s incumbent vice president and ruling Democratic Progressive Party candidate Lai Ching-te is leading in opinion polls now that a proposed opposition pact has fallen apart, according to figures released on Monday.

Lai is currently polling at 31.4%, with Taiwan People's Party candidate Ko Wen-je at 27.3% and Kuomintang candidate Hou Yu-ih at 26.6%, with 14.7% undecided, according to the telephone poll of 1,084 participants from Nov. 20-22.

The figures come after an attempt by former Kuomintang President Ma Ying-jeou to broker an opposition pact between Ko and Hou fell through, and after Foxconn founder Terry Gou dropped out of the presidential race altogether, leaving just three candidates by the time formal registration closed on Friday.

Campaigning for the Jan. 13 election to replace Tsai Ing-wen will center around how to deal with growing military tensions with China and ties with the United States, as well as answering concerns about the domestic economy and the desire of Taiwan's 23 million people to maintain their freedoms and democratic way of life.

The poll – conducted by World United Formosans for Independence and the Taiwan National Security Institute – put support for the ruling party at 34.8%, with the Kuomintang in second place at 26.5%, compared with the Taiwan People's Party at just 18.7%.

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From left, Taiwan's Kuomintang Chairman Eric Chu, Hou Yu-ih, candidate for Taiwan's presidency from Kuomintang, former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou and Taiwan People’s Party Chairman Ko Wen-je hold hands as they pose for a group photo in Taipei, Nov. 15, 2023. Credit: Ann Wang/Reuters

Nearly half of respondents – 47.4% – were in favor of formal diplomatic ties with the United States, which switched diplomatic recognition to China in 1979, a condition of which was the derecognition of the 1911 Republic of China government in Taipei.

The poll, reported by the Taipei Times, had a 95% confidence level and 2.98 percentage point margin of error.

Ties to Washington

Nearly 30% thought the island's government “should definitely” work toward formal diplomatic ties with Washington, compared with 26.5% last year and 40.8% in 2021, the poll found, in a sign that Lai's running mate Hsiao Bi-khim, the island's former Washington envoy, was likely a strong choice.

Soon after talks broke down over a "blue and white" alliance ticket featuring Hou and Ko, Ko announced that he would campaign with lawmaker and Shin Kong conglomerate heiress Wu Hsin-ying as his running mate.

Current affairs commentator Wu Kun-yu said that Ko's move appeared to be largely financially motivated.

"Naturally, the need for funding is a very important reason," he said, adding that the pair would likely put up a strong fight in the media for the opposition vote.

He said the Kuomintang's Hou picked former lawmaker and talk-show host Jaw Shau-kong as his running mate to help him fight the battle of words in the media and online, known in Taiwanese election jargon as "air combat," while face-to-face contact with voters and in-person rallies and hustings are known as "land combat."

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Taiwan's Taiwan People's Party presidential candidate Ko Wen-je and his vice presidential candidate Cynthia Wu Hsin-ying wave to the media outside the Central Election Commission in Taipei, Friday, Nov. 24, 2023. Credit: Chiang Ying-ying/AP

The Hou-Jaw campaign will try to persuade voters that a vote for them is nothing less than a vote for peace over war with China, which Hsiao Bi-khim described last week as "not an option."

Announcing their ticket, Hou and Jaw told reporters that they had once more reached out to Ko before formalizing their partnership, but that he didn't pick up the phone.

Jaw is widely remembered as the politician who enabled the Democratic Progressive Party's first victory in the Taipei mayoral elections in 1994 by breaking with the Kuomintang and facilitating the political rise of the party’s first president, Chen Shui-bian, who served in the island’s top job from 2000-2008.

"But things have changed over the past 30 years, and now he is back calling for unity," Wu Kun-yu said. "It's a very funny situation."

Questions remain

Wu said the Lai-Hsiao ticket is looking in good shape, but questions remain over whether they can win over a substantial number of opposition supporters.

China has labeled the pair as "separatists," for not supporting the Chinese Communist Party's territorial claim on Taiwan, yet both have pledged a "pragmatic" approach to ties with China, and to work to maintain the status quo.

Lai's approach to cross-straits tensions echoes that of his current boss, President Tsai Ing-wen, who has angered Beijing by refusing to pay lip-service to its claims.

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Taiwan's Nationalist Party presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih and his vice presidential candidate Chao Shao-kang pose for the media outside of the Central Election Commission in Taipei, Friday, Nov. 24, 2023. Credit: Chiang Ying-ying/AP

"Taiwan is already an independent and sovereign nation and thus we do not have a need to further declare Taiwan independence," Lai told journalists when he took over as ruling party leader in January, in a reference to the 1911 Republic of China government that has controlled the islands of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu since the 1940s.

Former National Dong Hwa University professor Shih Cheng-feng said Hsiao's inclusion on Lai's ticket sends a message about how close voters might expect such an administration to be to Washington.

"Taiwanese diplomacy isn't only about the United States," Shih said. "Is Hsiao acting as a mouthpiece [for Washington] or its supervisor?" 

He said Wu Hsin-ying was a similarly gifted running mate for Ko, coming as she does from a financial background, with international experience at least the equal of Hsiao's.

He said the ruling DPP and its 'green camp' is seeing its support base shrink, yet the Kuomintang-led 'blue camp' is unlikely to benefit from this.

"Ko Wen-je is likely to win over 'light blue' and 'light green' voters from each camp," he predicted.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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