The curious figure of Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je

The current mayor of Taipei is an interesting figure, and one that may be setting Taiwan's political future in a new direction

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Mayor Ko dressed as anime character Naruto.

Mayor Ko dressed as anime character Naruto. (Wikimedia Commons photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), the current mayor of Taipei is an interesting figure, and one that may be setting Taiwan's political future in a new direction.

Many might say that global politics these days has more than enough interesting figures, or they might remark that Mayor Ke is currently just a mayor, and therefore has not quite yet stepped onto the global stage. However it is worth noting, the position of Taipei mayor has historically been a pretty good starting point for future bids at the Taiwan presidency. With the exception of Tsai Ing-Wen, every president since 1988, has first served as the mayor of Taipei.

So in consideration of the all the “political outsiders” that seem to be making quite an impact in global politics recently, along with the rather peculiar character that Mr. Ke Wen-je presents on the political landscape of domestic Taiwanese politics, it's probably worth learning a bit about the man.

For starters, he is an accomplished organ transplant and trauma surgeon, who also reportedly has Aspergers syndrome. He is also an alum and former professor of the NTU Medical School, where he gained his nickname KP (Professor K). He was elected to the position Taipei Mayor in the 2014 election, and is expected to run again in the upcoming 2018 election.

He is also difficult to categorize politically as he has no political official affiliation. Even though he won the mayor-ship with the support of the DPP, and is at times very critical of the KMT, he has recently lost favor with DPP politicians. This has developed because Mr. Ko's recent comments have been seen as too friendly towards Beijing.


(Associated Press image.)

Mr. Ko Wen-je is well respected for his medical experience and expertise. He even saved the wife of the former Taichung mayor, Jason Hu, while also introducing a state of the art transplant procedure in Taiwan to do so.

He is known for his unpolished, straight-faced, no-nonsense attitude, which has proven quite useful over the last few years of his political career. Quite unlike more boisterous or flamboyant political leaders, Mr. Ko is more remarkable for his lack of intensity. He tends to deliver most messages with a straight-faced unaffected manner, regardless whether cracking jokes or delivering more serious political messages.

Mr. Ko Wen-je has also been immortalized in some of the nerdier regions of the internet for the time he appeared at the opening of the Calla Lily Festival in 2017 dressed as the famous Japanese anime character Naruto.

The most noticeable thing about Ko's public appearance is just how out of place he seems among other politicians. In Asia, people are accustomed to the political spotlight falling on happily gesticulating leaders with large false smiles plastered on their faces, and hair lacquered to a heavy sheen (ala Xi Jinping or Ma Ying Jeou). But Ko Wen-je provides none of that. Instead he seems the type of person who has just swallowed a sobering dose of reality, and one who is too weary to engage in false pleasantries.

And for some reason here in Taiwan, much of the media and public seem to respect that kind of attitude and manner in a leader. Some people often remark that the domestic news sphere in Taiwan is often rather dull, so simply by virtue of being out of the ordinary, Ko Wen-je has some how captured the attention, and maybe even the hearts of reporters.


(Wikimedia Commons image.)

In recent exchanges he has defended Tsai Ing-Wen and the office of the Taiwanese presidency when Chinese leaders sought to refer to her as simply the “leader” of Taiwan in a political forum.

However, despite originally coming to office with strong DPP support, a recent trip to China and statements that “China and Taiwan are members of a family” and are like “a couple reconciling after an argument,” his position on China is unpalatable for many in the DPP.

From a strategic perspective it seems Ko may be carving out a political space between the old party dogmatism of the KMT and the discourse of the DPP that has grown accustomed to appealing to pro-independence elements of Taiwanese society. His commitment to remaining an independent candidate at this point seems to be worth considerable political capital.

Regardless of opinions concerning Mayor Ko's political positions, if we gauge his current popularity in Taiwan, along with the increasing number of upsets, reversals, and rise of ostensibly “non-traditional” leaders that are popping up across the globe, then Mr. Ko is certainly a figure to watch in the coming years. Could Ko Wen-je indicate a new political era in Taiwanese politics, one where the “1992 Consensus” or the “status quo” are no longer the primary concerns defining Taiwan's relationship to the People's Republic of China? Only time will tell.