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Ko Wen-je's presidential run and TPP's legislative chances in 2024 Taiwan election

Ko's presidential run depends on KMT and formulating China strategy, but party has potential to be legislative power broker

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Ko Wen-je's presidential run and TPP's legislative chances in 2024 Taiwan election

Taiwan People's Party Chair Ko Wen-je campaigning for Ann Kao

(CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — There are so far only two declared presidential candidates in the 2024 race, deep blue media figure Jaw Shaw-kong (趙少康) and outgoing Taipei mayor Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) Chair Ko Wen-je (柯文哲).

Ko has reportedly already set up and decorated an office and is scouting for a campaign team for his run.

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 Ko Wen-je (柯文哲). The latest My-Formosa poll, which tends to produce less dramatic results than TPOF, shows Hou getting 33.8% support to Lai’s 34.3% and Ko’s 13.5%.

Ko and the TPP have had a rough few months. Ko had been polling as high as 19.6% in June in the My-Formosa poll, and earlier this year TPOF had the TPP’s support higher than that of the KMT more than once, but the party is now around 7 points down on both the DPP and KMT.

The TPP’s star legislator Tsai Pi-ru (蔡壁如) resigned in a plagiarism scandal, and the TPP’s Hsinchu City Mayor-elect Ann Kao (高虹安) is currently out on bail in a fraud and embezzlement case. Potentially even worse, there are allegations that the entire TPP caucus engaged in the same practices as Kao, which if true would be devastating to the party’s reputation.

In the just concluded local elections, the TPP had set the goal to try and be able to win at least three seats in every city and county, which would allow them to form a caucus, but only succeeded in doing so in Taipei, where they won four seats. Of the 90 candidates they ran nationwide, only 14 won.

Following his recent re-election as party chair, Ko admitted things were not going very well for the party. He said that being Taipei mayor meant he did not have much time for party affairs, but would now work hard as party chair. Considering the state of the party, it needs it.

The national legislative and presidential election is just 13 months away and, if the party does not go down in flames due to scandals, the TPP has a chance to make a decent-sized dent in local politics. Especially in the legislature, the party could become a force.

The TPP has a chance to be a force in the legislature

The legislature is comprised of 73 first-past-the-post districts, six reserved for Indigenous communities and 34 party-list proportional representation. In the six indigenous seats, to win any of them, the TPP would need to find someone already well-known there, perhaps flipping an independent to their side, but there have been no signs of the party attempting to do this seriously so far that I am aware of.

In the local districts, the TPP has a lack of well-known candidates with good local connections, weak campaign financing resources and not much of a ground game. In 2020, all 17 of the TPP’s candidates lost, and the poor results in the city councillor races last month do not bode well, but it’s not impossible: The New Power Party (NPP) in 2016 managed to win some seats and even the Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP) won a seat in 2020.

Winning two or three district seats would be a big triumph for the party, but it’s the party-list seats where the party has the biggest chance. Last time, the TPP won just over 11% of the party vote, entitling them to five seats, the ability to form a caucus and take their place as the third-largest party.

The TPP is now more well-known and more popular than it was in 2020, and if they can make a strong appeal to independents, they will likely top 15% and could go as high as 30%. If the TPP can take 10 or more seats, then there is a fairly high chance that the DPP and those that caucus with them will have lost an absolute majority, giving the TPP far more leverage.

This is why the TPP has to run a presidential candidate, even if it is a long shot. The news coverage and attention that a presidential run brings to the party is very valuable in brand-building for downstream candidates running for the legislature and especially for the party list vote.

Ko’s chances at the presidency depend a lot on the KMT

As the two polls cited at the beginning of the article make clear, with Hou Yu-ih the race, Ko has a massive uphill battle on his hands. Hou is popular among many of the same cross-party and independent voters as Ko, and the My-Formosa polls show that even TPP supporters would vote for Hou over Ko by 46.8% to 41.5%.

However, that same poll posited a different hypothetical matchup with Eric Chu (朱立倫) as the KMT candidate, and the picture shifted dramatically. In it, Lai Ching-te got 42.2%, Ko Wen-je 23.6%, Eric Chu only 11.1% and crucially 23.2% “unclear answer” (presumably mostly undecided).

While still a hard climb, this looks much better for Ko. If he can keep his gaffes to a minimum and come up with a good campaign that appeals to voters, he will have the edge on getting the undecideds.

If his campaign is looking strong and Eric Chu’s is floundering, then he may also have a shot at peeling off some KMT voters, who may decide to “dump-save” (棄保) Ko and strategically vote for him to stave off a DPP win.

That poll shows him 13 points ahead in the 20-29 demographic and only two points behind in the 30-39 demographic, though his popularity plummets with older voters. The older voters have higher support for the KMT and more undecideds, so he still could have some significant upside potential there even if he does not win them outright.

An unformed party and the China problem

Coming up with that good campaign could be a big problem, however. The TPP, while it has been making progress, is still in many ways an unformed party ideologically and without a strong brand image beyond being “beyond blue and green.”

Ko and the party have been pitching themselves as the “rational” party, but that does not mean much without clear ideas and principles to bring to voters. Ko seems to understand this, however, and he is already preparing to set up a foundation, which could help bring the party more specific proposals and ideological heft.

But the big issues in national elections and how to handle China and Taiwan sovereignty. In 2020, the party essentially ran with a vaguer version of the DPP’s platform.

The party’s website studiously avoids the issues, but that is not going to wash in the election. The party will have to form, articulate, and communicate clear stances on these issues.

Like the KMT, Ko has stood by keeping open lines of communication with China, such as his city government continuing to hold the Shanghai-Taipei Forum, though he did chide the Chinese side this year over the military exercises and cut the event short and did it virtually.

Unlike the KMT, Ko and the TPP do not support the 1992 Consensus nor “one China,” but Ko has tried to come up with some other variation that might appeal to the Chinese in place of the 1992 Consensus. For example, referring to the two sides of the Taiwan Strait as “one family” or a “community of common destiny,” though at the latest Shanghai-Taipei Forum he did not use either.

In short, Ko sounds like he is light blue and closer to the KMT position than to the DPP’s more mainstream views on the issues. However, he also said in April, 2021, which I translated in my notes at the time this way: “The confrontations over the decades between groups that support independence and those backing unification with China are meaningless, and the TPP takes the middle road.”

Ko’s problem is that is not possible, China has made it absolutely clear: Either accept the 1992 Consensus or no national-level dialogue, period. Once you accept the 1992 Consensus, you accept “one China,” and then the TPP is little different than the KMT.

The days when China allowed some wiggle room are over. They hear “one family” and “community of common destiny” as weasel words, and so will many Taiwanese voters.

Ko and the TPP will be forced to take stances that either make them clearly on the side of the KMT, or much closer to the DPP. There is no middle road.

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