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Who should the KMT pick as their Taiwan presidential candidate?

Everything voters should know about the main opposition party's prospective presidential candidates

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Image by Jono Thomson for Taiwan News

Image by Jono Thomson for Taiwan News

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — Who should Kuomintang (KMT) Chair Eric Chu (朱立倫) pick to be the party’s presidential candidate? In yesterday’s column we looked at this from Chu’s strategic perspective, but which candidate would be better for voters?

The answer depends on where a voter is on the political spectrum. Many voters will hope that the more qualified candidate is put forth, while Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) supporters will hope the worse candidate is put forth in order to boost their own candidate’s chances, and deep blue KMT supporters will be looking for the candidate most aligned with their thinking.

Since yesterday’s column, a new ERA poll has come out showing that if Foxconn founder Terry Gou (郭台銘) is the candidate, 1.7% more voters would choose him than if New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) was the candidate. Interestingly, 12.5% more pan–blue voters support Hou over Gou, but Gou gets a whopping 30% more of the pan-white (pro-TPP) voters support, putting him only 7.9% behind TPP Chair Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), which is pretty remarkable.

The first two polls in May showed higher voter support for Hou than Gou, but the two most recent polls have seen Gou garnering more support. It appears that Gou’s recent campaign efforts have borne fruit.

The two men are very different characters. Assuming that Chu does not surprise everyone with an out-of-the-blue pick like Taichung Mayor Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕), which of these two men Chu picks will lead the party on a very different trajectory.

Previous columns have profiled the backgrounds of both Hou (here) and Gou (here) in detail. Both have interesting and colorful pasts.

The controversial cop

Hou’s background is as a policeman, eventually being appointed by then-President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) as Director-General of the National Police. He was involved in some of the most high-profile cases in Taiwan over the years, including the dramatic Chen Chin-hsing case in the 1990s.

His police career made him enemies among both deep-green and deep-blue supporters. On the pan-green side, he is hated for having joined the police in an era when they enforced martial law, especially because he was the police officer leading the charge to break down the door when democracy advocate Nylon Deng (鄭南榕) decided to self-immolate rather than be arrested by the police.

Deep pan-blues are suspicious of his friendly relations with Chen Shui-bian. Some deep greens and deep blues are both deeply suspicious of the results of his investigation into the 319 incident, which involved the assassination attempt on Chen Shui-bian and then Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) while they were riding in a campaign truck during the 2004 election.

Some deep greens, including Lu herself, believe that the assassination attempt was orchestrated by Beijing, while many deep blues believe that the DPP orchestrated it to garner voter sympathy in a tight race that saw Chen re-elected by the narrowest of margins. I don’t believe either theory, since if anyone was orchestrating it, the person would not have armed the assassin with an unreliable homemade gun and definitely would have waited until the targets were stationary at a campaign rally rather than in a moving vehicle.

Eric Chu later tapped Hou to be one of his vice mayors when he was mayor of New Taipei in 2010, kicking off Hou’s political career, and Hou eventually took over the mayorship himself. Judging by opinion polls of his constituents and that he was recently re-elected in a landslide, it appears voters in New Taipei think he has been doing a good job running the city.

Hou is highly disciplined and chooses his words carefully and with political awareness, but at times can show fire (especially under city council questioning) and an independent spirit. Like some other politicians whose families have been in Taiwan for hundreds of years, he is a master at subtle political maneuvering and delivering coded messages or insults, like former President Lee Tung-hui (李登輝) and former speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) before him.

The ruthless businessman

In spite of Terry Gou being the son of a policeman who fled the Chinese Civil War, he has little in common with Hou. Starting from making plastic knobs for television sets, he built the largest electronics contract manufacturing company in the world and, for a time, was the richest man in Taiwan.

He is famously — or notoriously depending on your perspective — ruthlessly effective in business, so much so that he gained the nickname “Genghis Khan.”

Gou is a swashbuckling, bigger-than-life character who likes to boast about his achievements and his charitable works. This, however, has led at times to him having made promises he ended up never delivering on, giving him a bit of a dodgy reputation in some quarters.

He has been gaffe-prone and has made multiple sexist remarks, questioned democracy, and expressed opposition to buying American weapons. There are also considerable concerns on the pan-green side, and even among independents and some light blues, about his ties to China.

Xi Jinping (習近平) has reportedly called Gou an “old friend” and it is no secret that building a business empire as large as Gou’s in China requires being on very good terms with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is deeply alarming to many voters, though a source of optimism in the deep blue camp that he would be successful in negotiations with China and bring peace.

It was alleged that 80% of his assets are in China. Gou said he is looking for a good opportunity to explain the situation, but has not so far.

Gou has only ever run in the 2019 KMT primary and has no experience in a general election. He is, however, very smart and a fast learner.

Recently, he held his first-ever major mass campaign rally, and it was a bit of a disaster. However, by his fourth rally, he was holding his own and doing a pretty good job.

"CEO president"

Gou is campaigning to be Taiwan’s “CEO president,” a promise that alarms those that worry about his commitment to democracy but sounds promising to those looking for an effective government that can boost the economy.

He likes to tout his business experience and promises to turn Taiwan into a self-confident “technology island.” No one doubts his extensive experience and knowledge in both business and technology, having mastered both like few others in the world, though some question to whose benefit he might direct these skills.

He also highlights his extensive experience doing business, including with governments around the world, in a way that does not directly challenge Hou’s lack of international experience, but it is obvious that is the conclusion he is hoping people will draw.

He also likes to tout the fact that he met with former U.S. President Donald Trump while he was in office, and pokes fun at President Tsai for being unable to do so. He neglects to mention that the reason he was there was a promised major investment in Wisconsin, a promise he broke.

Hou is clearly patriotic, but generally confines his expressions of it to appropriate moments and concentrates his comments on city business-related topics. Gou, by contrast, is aggressively nationalistic, always wearing a ROC baseball cap, singing the national anthem at his events, and frequently raising the topic.

Comparisons to Trump

Many like to compare Gou with Trump. There are definitely some things in common, as both are larger-than-life, nationalistic, prone to making promises they can not keep, and boastful billionaires.

There are crucial differences, though. Gou is a better business person, for one.

He also apologizes for mistakes and gaffes when appropriate, something his American counterpart notably never does. Though prone to exaggeration, Gou does not give fact-checkers heart attacks, as Trump does.

In the next column, we will explore their stances on the two big issues in this campaign so far: China and national defense.

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. For more columns by the author, click here. Follow him on Twitter: @donovan_smith.