TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — In a stunning move, the Kuomintang (KMT) on Wednesday (May 18) named former vice-presidential candidate and ex-Premier Simon Chang (張善政) as its candidate for mayor of Taoyuan City. They also announced he had finally joined the party.
No one saw this coming, and the backlash has been intense. The internal warfare in the KMT over the Taoyuan nominee was already spectacularly intense and bitter, which we explored in a previous column.
The presumed candidates included KMT legislators Lu Yu-ling (呂玉玲) and Lu Ming-che (魯明哲) as well as former Taipei City Councilor Lo Chih-chiang (羅智強). All expressed shock at the party’s pick.
The previous day, pan-blue (pro-KMT) media had been abuzz with stories that an unnamed KMT financier was launching former Kaohsiung Mayor and 2020 presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) into the race. Instead, it turned out to be his former vice presidential candidate Chang.
Both Lu Yu-ling and Lo Chih-chiang had invested heavily in the race. Lu had gotten the endorsement of 486 of the city’s 504 borough chiefs (里長), almost all of her party’s city councilors, and the powerful city council speaker.
Lu had been banking on comments by top leaders in the party that they would choose someone who was doing well in the polls and was acceptable to local leaders. Though she was lagging in the polls compared to Lo Chih-chiang, party brass had already told Lo they weren’t going to choose him as their candidate.
These leaders included KMT Chair Eric Chu (朱立倫), who reportedly flat out said, “I just don’t want you” and “I’ll fight you to the death” to keep Lo from being nominated, regardless of what the polls might say.
Lo, however, persisted and essentially declared war on Chu’s leadership in a showdown that can only be described as epic. He resigned from his Taipei city council seat recently and purchased a home in Taoyuan to move his household registration there in order to continue his run.
Lu spoke to the press, expressed her shock, and said, “I can’t accept this.” She said she had been notified of the decision by Chu at the very last minute and felt very disrespected.
Worse for Chu, Lu has told the press she’s “considering” leaving the party and running anyway. Her biggest backer, the Taoyuan city council speaker, has resigned from all working groups and committees in the KMT in protest of Chu’s nomination.
Lo has invested everything in this race and previously said he’s thought about leaving the KMT, adding he wouldn’t at that time. It’s still possible that he may decide to do that now, though both he and Simon Chang are proteges of former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) — who reportedly gave Chu the nod to pick Chang — and this could cause conflicting loyalties.
If both Lu and Lo decide to run, that will split the KMT vote three ways in what was already shaping up to be a complicated race. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will choose their candidate in June, and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) has already nominated Lai Hsiang-lin (賴香伶), who has just announced she will be reaching out to Lo.
The vitriol so far has all been directed at Chu and is coming from party members across Taiwan, including some who are demanding he step down. While within Taoyuan, the problem is that he didn’t choose one of the active candidates, nationally the main complaints were about the method and timing of the announcement.
Many have called the nomination opaque or even illegitimate. Chu bypassed the standard primary process, which usually involves either negotiation between the candidates or selecting the candidate based on polling results, choosing to simply just go ahead and nominate Chang.
The party has the right to do this, and both the KMT and the DPP have been using this method a fair bit in this election cycle. However, many view it as unfair and lacking in transparency. In this case, Chu chose to use it in an already very contentious contest, making no one happy.
Chu’s task now is to put out the fires, soothe a mountain of egos and, most importantly, keep Lu and Lo in the party and onboard. If he succeeds at this, the KMT does have a chance to win Taoyuan.
Simon Chang isn’t necessarily a bad candidate. Though associated with the pan-blue camp for years, his role as a political independent has largely kept him off the radar in this political cycle. The only mention I’ve seen of him was some chatter of him maybe being recruited to run for Kaohsiung mayor.
The Ma administration plucked him out of the tech world where he worked for companies like Acer and Google, with much of that time spent working and living in Taoyuan. He served in various high-ranking positions in the administration before ultimately being appointed premier to serve out the lame duck period of Ma’s presidency between Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) election and inauguration in 2016.
In the 2020 race, he was chosen as Han’s running mate, mostly seen as a more moderate and technocratic counterweight to Han’s deep blue nationalism and tendency to propose ideas that weren’t technically feasible. That Han chose an independent had precedent since President Tsai’s first vice president was also an independent at the time.
High tech direction
Chang has now joined the KMT and will be running in a city he knows fairly well. Taoyuan for years had been led by the KMT (including for two terms, by Eric Chu himself) and the party tends to do fairly well there, such as in the most recent referendums, in spite of twice electing a popular DPP mayor.
Chang has more experience in executive roles in government than either Lo or Lu, and his business background ties in well with the high tech direction Taoyuan is moving in. He is fairly unknown as a campaigner, however, with his run for vice president not making much of an impact.
Much will depend on three factors. First, Chu needs to keep his own camp from fracturing and sell his party on Chang as their candidate, which will be no mean feat.
Second, the DPP candidate will have a big impact on the race. Suggested names include various legislators and even Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中).
Third is the impact of the TPP candidate, who is lagging in the polls but is pulling enough support she could throw the race to the DPP by syphoning off pan-blue voters or could even pull ahead if voters view both the KMT and DPP candidates as lackluster.
No one knows at this point how much support Chang has among Taoyuan voters. He was so far off the radar that no polls have included him (and many in the KMT have demanded that Chu show proof that Chang has enough support to justify his nomination). It will be very interesting to see how Taoyuan voters rate him when he’s finally included in polling.
Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw) and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce.