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Hou Yu-ih's hard road to Taiwan's presidency

One recent poll showed him the frontrunner in the presidential race, but his path is harder than it looks

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KMT Chair Eric Chu and re-elected New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih at a rally thanking supporters. 

KMT Chair Eric Chu and re-elected New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih at a rally thanking supporters.  (CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — The latest Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF) poll has New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) of the Kuomintang (KMT) far and away the frontrunner in a hypothetical presidential race, garnering 38.7% of the vote versus 29% for the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Vice President Lai Ching-te (賴清德) and 17.8% for outgoing Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).

Considering that Hou has consistently been ranked Taiwan’s most popular politician in many polls for the last several years, clearly he’s the obvious choice for the KMT to run as their candidate as he will have an easy path to the presidency, right?

Not so fast. There are a lot of challenges Hou would need to overcome on that road.

For starters, TPOF tends to produce results that lead to juicy headlines and plenty of press attention for TPOF Chairman You Ying-lung (游盈隆), who revels in the limelight. TPOF, for example, is the only poll that periodically shows support for the TPP higher than that for the KMT, when no other polling outfit shows them even close.

The latest My-Formosa poll, which incidentally is also led by a publicity hound, but tends to have less dramatic poll results, paints a more nuanced picture. While My-Formosa has consistently shown Hou as the country’s most popular politician, it has never shown him as the frontrunner in hypothetical presidential matchups.

However, in spite of being far behind Lai in previous polls, in the November poll, Hou has nearly caught up, getting 33.8% support to Lai’s 34.3% and Ko’s 13.5%.

That should make Lai and Ko nervous, in June in the same poll, Lai was at 41.5%, Hou at 28% and Ko at 19.6%. Clearly, Hou’s star is on the rise.

Whether Hou can hold on or increase his support will bear watching. It’s unclear if this is a temporary bump in the wake of the recent KMT victory or not.

Previous polls had him at least 8% behind Lai or more as recently as October. Interestingly, it appears that Hou’s support jump appears to be partly at Ko’s expense, as Ko’s support showed a marked drop in November from earlier polls.

The “reluctance game”

If he decides to run, he will need to deal with the issue of him only just having won re-election as New Taipei mayor. However, he might be able to save face in two ways. First, he would likely play the typical Taiwanese “reluctance game,” as I have dubbed it.

The typical pattern goes like this: First, supporters come out and call for him to run, the politician initially declines, supporters up the pressure, and then the politician “reluctantly” joins the race so as to not let his supporters down and to fulfil some vague “obligation” that is somehow never portrayed as personal ambition.

Having already served for over four years as New Taipei mayor and eight years as vice mayor, he would say he’s put in his time in service of the city, unlike Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), who in 2019 starting running for president only months after being elected to his first term of office in Kaohsiung.

Opposition within the KMT and the potential Eric Chu threat

Then, he’d need to become the KMT’s nominee. In theory, that should be easy because in any public primary (held by opinion polling in Taiwan) he would easily win.

There are, however, two possible obstacles in his path. First, many in the KMT do not trust him, especially the party elites from 49er families that fled the Chinese Civil War.

They have considerable power in the party, and they fear Hou may be another Lee Tung Hui (李登輝) and sell out the party and also turn out to be a secret “pro-independence” supporter. The truth is, nobody has any clear idea of where Hou stands on these issues, other than having given rather bland statements supporting the ROC, which makes them nervous.

The biggest obstacle he may face is KMT party Chair Eric Chu (朱立倫), who ironically launched Hou’s career by bringing him into politics by appointing him as one of his vice mayors in New Taipei City. It is widely rumored that communications between the two have broken down, in spite of both denying that is the case.

Chu does have some reasons to be upset with Hou, including when Hou issued a long Facebook manifesto that went viral and got lots of press attention calling on people to “use their own minds” when deciding on how to vote in the referendums held last year. Chu and the KMT were campaigning heavily on this, and ended up losing on all four, delivering Chu a humiliating defeat — but it was a masterful move on the part of Hou to generate national attention and win over independents and even potentially some pan-green voters.

With the local elections just finished, and Eric Chu’s stature in the party now secure, he may try once again to run for president (he lost in a landslide in 2016). If he does, and it is customary for the party chair to be the party’s candidate, he could make things very difficult for Hou.

For example, if he were to change the primary rules to limit the voting to party members, that might give Chu a leg up. Party elders like former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the influential Huang Fuhsing veteran’s organization (roughly a quarter of the party vote) would no doubt line up against Hou.

Still, Hou could pull it off even if limited to party members because the deep blue vote might well be split. Media personality and founder of the growingly influential Blue Fighters (戰鬥藍) Jaw Shaw-kong (趙少康) has already announced he’s running.

Hou’s appeal

If he manages to get through that gauntlet and win the party’s nomination, then he’s going to have to appeal to the public. To start, he’s in good shape, regularly getting 70-80+% approval in polls.

He’s viewed as hardworking, diligent, honest, modest, and as a moderate with some independent tendencies. He’s considered loyal to duty and service, but with enough principles to buck the KMT when it suits him.

He also works well across party lines, always taking the stance that no matter what party the central government or that runs neighboring cities, for the good of the people, good relationships and cooperation must be the priority. Naturally, he’s popular across party lines and won re-election in November in a landslide that included cross-party and independent voters.

True, there would be questions about his lack of diplomatic or international experience, but he could help address that with a carefully chosen vice presidential pick. He’s also from a Chiayi family that has been in Taiwan for generations and is a native speaker of Taiwanese and speaks Mandarin with a strong Taiwanese accent, giving him (for many people) a common man appeal.

Threading the needle with an elephant

But ultimately, the thing most likely to trip him up is the elephant in the room: China. Eric Chu has been trying hard to push the KMT closer to mainstream public opinion with some success, but he’s also had to climb down on some key things under internal pressure in the party.

Chu simply has not been able to make a dent on moving away from the 1992 Consensus or the KMT’s One China stance, as they are both simply too popular among KMT members and are firmly backed by the party’s power brokers. They are also deeply unpopular with the public.

That is why the roughly one-third of independent voters who swing between the parties in elections broke for the DPP in the last two national elections. It’s also why, for a long time in the My-Formosa polls, Hou might be the most popular candidate, but when asked who should be the next president consistently gave Lai Ching-te the top spot.

Hou will have to make his stances clear on these issues, but to reach those independents, he’d have to distance himself from the 1992 Consensus and One China. Here’s the problem with that: his party will continue holding that ideology regardless of what Hou says, which is a trap for Hou.

Worse, he would struggle to hold on to the KMT base, who might vote for a deep blue independent or simply stay home. Plus, his move toward independents in the middle will likely be complicated by Ko Wen-je, meaning he would need to convince those voters that Ko cannot win, so they must vote for him as “dump-save” (棄保) strategic voters to block a DPP win.

Lai Ching-te is popular in the DPP, so Hou knows he is not likely to get too much support from pan-green voters. He can pivot to the independents and risk losing the KMT base, or he can shore up the base and risk losing independents who will trust the DPP more when it comes to China.

All of this is a tough needle to thread, especially straddled with the KMT’s ideology whether he wants it or not.

There is one other option, and that is to run as an independent (or far less likely as the TPP candidate), which would be interesting to say the least.

This is part of an ongoing series on potential presidential candidates. For background on Lai Ching-te click here, for the current state of a potential Lai run click here, and for background on Hou Yu-ih click here.

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. Follow him on Twitter: @donovan_smith.