Simon Chang could prove a bigger threat to Tsai than Han Kuo-yu

Han’s new running mate has the potential to change the dynamic of this election


(CNA photo)

KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) — Taiwan’s presidential election continues to heat up, with the big news this week being the announcement of the running mate for KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜).

Simon Chang (張善政) looks to be a pretty shrewd appointment by a party which has not fared well in the polls of late and has seen its candidate embroiled in a series of gaffes.

Unlike Han, who despite being a career politician, likes to portray himself as a businessman, Chang does have genuine business experience. He spent 10 years at Acer as the vice president of the e-Enabling Service Business Group and a further two years as director of Google’s hardware operations in Asia.

He also brings the sort of high-level political experience that Han can only dream of. He was vice premier between December 2014 and February 2016 and premier until May 2016 in addition to two subsequent ministerial posts.

This stands in stark contrast to Han, who has been a low-level legislator and ran a regional vegetable marketing board before his election as mayor of Kaohsiung, a role he has arguably never really taken up.

The political neutral

All of Chang’s positions were in the Ma administration, but despite this, he has managed to retain the veneer of political neutrality. In February, he announced his own plans to run as an independent presidential candidate, and he has been vocal in his criticism of the ongoing political wrangling between the KMT and DPP parties.

This is important because these are concerns held by a great many voters in Taiwan who are sick of politicians opting for partisan politics rather than acting in the best interests of the country. As such, Chang has the potential to attract swing voters and exploit the low personal ratings of the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).

The problem for the KMT is that Chang is only the running mate, not the candidate, and few voters switch sides on the basis of who will become vice-president.

The KMT candidate remains Han Kuo-yu, and he is still just as toxic as ever to a huge number of voters. For many Taiwanese, it is irrelevant who Han’s running mate is — they could never vote for a candidate who is so prone to lies and exaggeration and whose election would place the very future of their country in peril.

Especially with James Soong (宋楚瑜) in the race, the KMT’s chances of success appear slim. If Tsai continues to succeed in uniting the pan-green side behind her (and the expected appointment of William Lai (賴淸德) as her running mate would certainly help with that), a DPP victory still appears the most likely outcome.

But could Chang be a tool to change that?

Is Chang a replacement candidate-in-waiting?

There has already been much talk that the KMT could opt to ditch Han as its candidate in the wake of his sliding poll ratings. It was muted that Terry Gou (郭台銘) could be asked to come back, but he has ruled himself out after the public humiliation he was subjected to by the KMT during the primary.

But in Simon Chang, the KMT might just have stumbled across a credible alternative.

Chang is evidently now firmly back in the KMT fold, despite his earlier statements about the ill-effects of partisan politics in Taiwan. At the announcement that he would be running mate, Chang was as forthright with his rhetoric and invective as Han was.

If Han were to be pushed to one side, Chang could prove to be an extremely dangerous opponent for Tsai to face off against.

He brings charm and charisma, a business background, politician experience, and that veneer of neutrality. He is far more likely to attract swing voters to his cause than Han is, and these votes could ultimately prove to make a difference.

But make no mistake: he may come across as being more professional and competent, but Simon Chang is every bit as much of a threat to Taiwan as Han. They share similar pro-Beijing philosophies, but Chang’s historic links with the USA allow him to mask them better.

There is a real danger that Simon Chang could fool both the US government and the Taiwanese people into thinking he is far more anti-China than he actually is, something there is little chance of Han doing no matter how many lies he spins.

Chang’s appointment should be a reminder to the DPP that despite consistently positive polls, this election has a long way to run. And while Han Kuo-yu is easy to mock, the KMT still carries a potent and sizable threat.

It is just possible that in Simon Chang, the KMT has unearthed its knight in shining armor.