Alexa
  • Directory of Taiwan

Will Hou Yu-ih be Taiwan's president in 2024?

He may be Taiwan's most popular politician, but a run would be harder than most imagine

  8444
File photo of New Taipei City Mayor Hou Yu-ih 

File photo of New Taipei City Mayor Hou Yu-ih  (CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — Every few days a question comes up about the 2024 presidential race. The question takes one of a handful of forms, generally a variation on “can anyone beat the DPP” or “could Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) win in 2024?”

As things stand now, these are not surprising questions. The main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT) in recent years has been clinging to an ideology of “one China” and supporting the “1992 Consensus,” both of which are deeply unpopular with the broad electorate.

In recent years the KMT has shown no inclination to make the sort of changes that would make them acceptable to the electorate for the presidency, including under current Chair Eric Chu (朱立倫) in spite of some of his reforms having some success.

This has left many with the sense that in the 2024 presidential race, as major Sunflower Movement figure Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆) once joked regarding the Tainan mayorship, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) could run a watermelon and win. Of course, quite a lot could happen between now and when the presidential race gets underway in earnest next year, and someone out of the blue could appear, but as of now who outside the DPP has a chance?

The obvious possibility is New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih, who in polling for several years now has consistently been ranked the most popular politician in the country, despite his being of the KMT.

The wide discrepancy between his popularity versus that of his party was highlighted neatly in one recent My-Formosa poll, which found that Hou had the confidence of 80.7% of the public, but only 30.2% had a favorable impression of the KMT and a strikingly high 60.2% had an unfavorable impression of the party.

Other possibilities outside of the DPP certainly exist, such as Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), Foxconn (Hon Hai) founder and political independent Terry Gou (郭台銘), Broadcasting Corporation of China Chair Jaw Shaw-kong (趙少康) of the KMT and others. Ko and Jaw have already declared they are running, and Terry Gou is certainly acting like it.

All three, and some others, have an outside shot at winning–but none are anywhere near as popular as Hou. Ko, though unpopular in Taipei, remains fairly popular nationally and probably has the best shot of the three–but more realistically he will be running to boost the chances of his party in challenging the KMT in the battle for legislative seats.

Hou is the only potential candidate at this point who draws support from across the entire political spectrum. It’s not entirely certain he even wants to run, as up to this point he has been very coy on the subject, but there is one big hint he just might.

In December he dropped a bombshell of a post on Facebook that took Taiwan’s political scene by storm that in effect laid out his political vision and all but declared war on not just his own party, but party politics in general. Curiously, in the English language media it was all but ignored, and my piece on the subject is my least read column, but his post is one of the most consequential and dramatic political manifestos issued in the recent past.

One would think that the most popular politician in the country who recently laid out a political vision that resonated widely would be an obvious presidential candidate. Even more, he’s a former police commander, widely considered an effective New Taipei Mayor, makes a point of working well with other government officials regardless of party, and is clearly one of the most gifted politicians in the country.

Any political party would be on their knees begging him to run, right?

No. It’s going to be very hard to pull off if he decides to run.

The most basic challenge he’s going to face is having to formulate where he stands on relations with China. Hou has made an art form of dodging national political questions by stating he is “just a mayor,” and that is his focus.

Unlike many other countries with a left and right wing political split, Taiwan’s politics are defined by what scholar Nathan Batto calls the ‘China cleavage’. Both the DPP and KMT have left and right wing elements, but the clear defining line between the parties centers around defining Taiwan’s relationship to China.

Since the Sunflower Movement the political center has shifted to a pro-Taiwan position that does not accept that Taiwan is a part of China. This has moved the DPP into the power position, put the KMT on the margins, and left the TPP trying to come up with a clear stance of its own.

No one knows what Hou’s stance on this is. Hou has been able to get away with letting people project their own ideas on him, some underscoring his Taiwanese roots and his rebuffing the KMT on flag ceremonies, while others note his social media posts featuring the ROC flag and his usage of Republic of China on the Double-Ten national day and his KMT membership.

If he decides to run for president, he’s going to have to formulate some sort of public stance on this. No matter which way he goes, he’s going to lose some support from one side or the other.

Hou is already widely distrusted within the KMT itself, and many have accused him of following the (pro-Taiwan KMT former president) “Lee Tung-hui path” that many feel caused the current weakness of the party by leading the public away from the true “one China” path. That Lee is Taiwan’s most popular former president does not seem to have made the slightest impact on their opinion of him.

If he decides to run under the KMT banner, he’s going to have to take one of two paths. Either he runs on the party’s current ideology–perhaps with some tweaks–or he has to try and seize control of the party itself and shift its direction and ideology.

Hou is popular enough that if he took a position relatively close to that of the current KMT line, he probably could win the primary. The party has been on the losing end of two landslide elections for president, and if he makes the right noises, enough of the party membership will likely fall in line to head off the inevitable challenges from more hardline challengers.

The problem then becomes winning the broad electorate. Much of his current support and popularity across the political spectrum would likely fade away, leaving him having to fight upstream against mainstream public opinion.

The other option would be to try to take on the KMT itself and force it toward a more popularly acceptable pro-Taiwan stance. There are two potential ways he could do this.

The first would be to try and become the party chair and launch reforms from there. He’s shown no interest in this route so far, and he did not run the last time around when a full four-year term was on offer.

He could theoretically still try this route if the KMT does not do well in the local elections later this year and current Chair Eric Chu is forced to step down. However, in a party that not long ago in an internal party poll showed over 80% of members support the “1992 Consensus” that could be a difficult route to take.

The other option would be to simply try to bypass the party and win the party primary directly, and then essentially dare the party to disagree with him. Previous primaries have followed different rules, but usually public opinion polling has played a major role.

The catch here is that the reason the rules have been different is that in the last two primary elections the party chair at the time managed to get the rules changed while the process was ongoing. In short, if Hou decided to take this route, he would have to be confident that the chair either supported him, or supported keeping rules that gave a high weighting toward public opinion polling–otherwise it is quite likely that the party will simply find a way to block him.

Another option would be to switch parties. The only viable options would be the DPP, TPP or the New Power Party (NPP), each of which can directly nominate presidential candidates due to the percentage of the vote their parties got in the last election.

The NPP seems like a long shot, though it would be interesting. The NPP’s ideology and the emphasis on youth would make this a very unusual combination–but it can not be totally ruled out.

The DPP is an almost certain no, barring some very unexpected developments. The party already has a stable of strong candidates and, like the KMT in the last primary election, also has shown the capacity to rig their primary rules, in that case to head off William Lai’s (賴淸德) insurrectionary primary challenge against Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).

Then there is the April 7, 1989 problem. Facing charges of insurrection for writing a proposed constitution for a Republic of Taiwan, democracy and free speech activist Nylon Deng (aka Cheng Nan-jung, 鄭南榕) barricaded himself in his office and immolated himself rather than be taken by the police pounding at the door.

The police at that door were led by Hou Yu-ih, who had been ordered to arrest Deng. Considering that the DPP has just gotten through a bruising internal battle over nominating incumbent Huang Wei-che (黃偉哲) as their candidate for Tainan mayor over allegations he was a snitch during the martial law era, it seems rather unlikely they would want the cop who was leading the charge during the martyrdom of a free speech icon as their presidential candidate.

The TPP looks like a better fit for Hou in the sense that it is not as clearly wed to a specific line on the China cleavage, in spite of in the last election having effectively just copied and pasted the DPP’s line as their official stance. In practice, members of the party–especially party Chair Ko Wen-je himself–keep toying with trying to come up with alternatives to the “1992 Consensus” that would allow for an improvement in ties with China, but without giving up the implied loss of sovereignty that comes with the “1992 Consensus,” in spite of the fact that Beijing has ruled any such possibility as out of the question.

The TPP could give Hou some room to breathe politically, and give him a chance to put his own stamp on a fairly new and not entirely ideologically well-formed party. There is one major obstacle in his way, however, and that is the towering ego that is Ko Wen-je and his loyal followers that dominate the party.

It is entirely possible that Ko could see the wisdom in coming to some arrangement whereby Hou runs for president, while Ko leads the party as chair. But this assumes that Hou wants a more pro-Taiwan line than the KMT currently offers (which again, we still do not actually know) and that Hou and Ko can play nice with each other.

The final option, which gives Hou the most flexibility, would be to run as an independent or even start his own party. He could then run on any positions he likes and put into practice many of the ideals he espoused in his manifesto.

That is a lot of hard work, however. To qualify to run for president from scratch requires an expensive and time-consuming signature drive, but it certainly could be accomplished if well planned.

And that may be his best bet.

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.