The divide and rule strategy that will define Taiwan’s presidential election

Both DPP and KMT need unity to win, but Ko Wen-je and his Taiwan People’s Party may ultimately prove decisive

Flickr User - Studio Incendo -

Flickr User - Studio Incendo -

KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) -- Divide and rule is a political strategy that can be traced all the way back to Niccolò Machiavelli and Renaissance Italy, but it is ass relevant and effective today as it was then.

For Machiavelli, divide and rule was about empowering sovereigns to keep control of their citizens, many of whom had competing interests. In modern two-party democracies, it is more about uniting your own side while seeking to divide the other.

It is a strategy that looks likely to be central to Taiwan’s forthcoming presidential election. The country is increasingly polarized along party lines, especially regarding relations with communist China.

As a result, the presidential election looks increasingly likely to be a de-facto referendum on cross-strait ties. Both sides will need to unite their respective factions behind a single candidate to stand any chance of success.

Can the DPP unite the pro-independence side?

For the DPP, this means uniting a party that showed clear division during the controversial primary battle between incumbent Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and challenger William Lai (賴淸德).

It also means convincing pro-independent factions to back President Tsai's bid for a second term of office. News this week that the Taiwan Friends Association will be backing her candidacy is a step in the right direction.

Perhaps more important is the decision of prominent New Power Party (NPP) legislator Freddy Lim (林昶佐) to leave his party and run as an independent backing President Tsai. Lim's statement made it clear that he understands the need for independence-leaning candidates to unite behind a single candidate, with Tsai offering them their best chance of success.

The NPP's subsequent crisis suggests that many of his former colleagues may soon be following his lead. They should.

As Lim noted in his announcement, the biggest threat to Taiwan is not President Tsai -- it is the KMT. Defeating their candidate, Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), has to be the number one priority.

Can Han take the KMT with him?

For the KMT's part, their party has also been split between those swept up in the so-called "Han Wave" and the more conservative party members who would have preferred a more traditional candidate.

They also need to unify Taiwan’s various pro-China factions if they are to have a genuine chance of success. The announcement that the pro-CCP, gangster party, the Chinese Unification Promotion Party (CUPP), is backing Han suggests that they too are making strides to this end.

Between now and polling day, maintaining party unity will be vital to both parties. It will not be easy, but the side that has the most success will find itself in a much better position in January.

There will, of course, be twists and turns in the road between now and then. President Tsai still has to govern, and that means she will have to handle various political developments and the inevitable hostile Chinese intervention in Taiwanese affairs effectively.

She will need the whole DPP side to unite behind her decisions and actions, and then effectively communicate the reasoning behind those decisions to the people, to give her the best chance of winning.

Han’s brash, outspoken style means he will inevitably put his foot in his mouth a few times over the coming months. How effectively he deals with these gaffs and who he offends will certainly play a role in determining his chances of success.

He will be hoping that the KMT side will support him regardless of what crass and stupid things he says and regardless of any undeliverable promises he makes.

The Ko Unknown

But there is still one big uncertainty that neither side can control: the new Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) of Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲)

Ko has succeeded in winning twice in Taipei, a notoriously pro-KMT city. During his time in office, he has been on something of a political journey, from enjoying the tacit support of the DPP during his first election to issuing a flurry of pro-China comments in more recent times.

This could be a carefully crafted strategy to secure victory in the KMT heartland, having lost the DPP endorsement that so helped him the first time around. But most Taiwanese see it as Ko's true political colors starting to shine through.

A run for president has been seen as the logical next step for Ko's political career for some time. Forming his own political party would be a natural step to this end, but the truth is that we still don't know Ko's intentions.

If the Taiwan People’s Party does run a presidential candidate, the identity of this person could prove decisive in the overall outcome, even if that candidate is unlikely to secure an outright victory on their own.

There has been some speculation that Terry Gou (郭台銘), rolled out to great fanfare by the KMT and then humiliated by Han in the primaries, could be persuaded to run under Ko's party banner. If he does, Gou would almost certainly split the KMT vote and hand victory to President Tsai.

Ko may decide to run himself. His impact is less clear-cut.

His pro-China stance is still likely to appeal to some KMT voters, especially those not sold on the myth of Han. But he will also be an attractive option to those DPP supporters who are less than enamored by Tsai's performance in her first term of office.

Ko the Kingmaker

Of course, the Taiwan People’s Party will have to produce some sort of manifesto before it contests any election, and this will give a better indication of where it stands on the crucial issues.

It may choose not to field a presidential candidate at all. If that is the case, the race will remain a straight DPP/KMT fight.

But the Taiwan People’s Party will almost certainly field candidates in the elections for the Legislative Yuan. They are likely to win a good number of seats there as well.

An overall majority is unlikely but they could end up determining the balance of power under the next administration.

The DPP and the KMT need to unite their factions and supporters to win. They will be working hard to divide their opponents too.

But at the end of the day, whether the TPP decides to run a candidate for president or not, it is Ko Wen-je that may end up being kingmaker in 2020.