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Hou Yu-ih's puzzling Taiwan presidential campaign launch

More effort is put into average dinner party than Hou appears to be putting into presidential campaign

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Hou Yu-ih's puzzling Taiwan presidential campaign launch

(CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — The Kuomintang (KMT) on May 17 formally nominated New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) as their presidential candidate, but judging by his actions, you would not know it.

He has had only one campaign event. He has not announced any policies, has not done any talk shows, released campaign materials or slogans, or even done a heavy-duty round of visiting party heavyweights to ensure their support.

Since his peak when he was leading in all the polls last December, Hou’s poll numbers have slumped. Most polls have him in second, and there have even been a couple of outliers with him in third behind the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲).

Many in the KMT are growing concerned about Hou, not only because he is slipping in the polls, but even worse, his apparent lack of concern or taking any action to reverse the trend. There has even been concern that a replay of 2016 might be unfolding where the candidate slips so far in the polls that the party replaces the candidate.

There is considerable tension in the KMT right now between those who had expected Foxconn founder Terry Gou (郭台銘) to be nominated, Hou supporters, and especially Chair Eric Chu (朱立倫) over the non-primary nominating process. One would have expected Hou to be working overtime trying to heal the rift and rally the party to his side.

Presidential runs not dinner parties

Yet, he is barely trying. He has reportedly placed phone calls to former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), Nantou County Commissioner and famed Wonder Woman impersonator Hsu Shu-hua (許淑華), and former presidential candidate and former Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) expressing hope to meet up with them. Hou will visit Kaohsiung this weekend, but the word is that Han will not meet with him.

He has had one meeting with the former head of National Taiwan University and a meeting between his team and central party officials to coordinate took place. His team reportedly has held one focus group with people under age 30.

He is personally planning to meet with the KMT legislative caucus on May 31 to exchange ideas, which is a good idea. However, the most prominent Gou supporter in the caucus, Chen Yu-chen (陳玉珍) has already said she will not attend because she felt Hou’s efforts to restore party unity were still insufficient.

And that is it. This is not a presidential campaign getting off to a running start: More effort is put into organizing the average dinner party.

Meanwhile, Terry Gou is having meetings with local politicians, sparking rumors of an independent run or work with the TPP, in spite of him previously promising he would do neither. There have been no reports of Hou attempting to reach out to Gou since his nomination.

All of this is frustrating KMT politicians. KMT lawmaker and Hou supporter Hung Meng-kai (洪孟楷), lamenting on Hou’s sliding poll numbers said “right now, Hou is deficient in everything” and said he hoped Hou in the short-term would release policies, outline the direction forward, and take on the attitude of a president.

HoHoGPT

Prior to this year, Hou had consistently been ranked the most popular politician in the country. Recently, however, his evasiveness on key questions has led to repeated attacks by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and considerable frustration within the KMT.

His robotically evasive answers have begun to lead to widespread mockery. His most common answer to questions is “doing things well” (好好做代誌), which in English a politician would probably say something like “I’m just concentrating on doing my job well.”

Hou’s nickname in many quarters has become “HoHoGPT” which references his robotic answers and is a double pun. The first two characters in that stock phrase are pronounced “ho ho” in Taiwanese and also Hou’s surname.

His repeated dodging of questions leaves huge questions about where he stands. On crucial issues like whether he supports the official KMT stances in support of the “1992 Consensus” and the related “One China Principle” have remained unanswered.

In fact, it was only recently that he even said anything at all on these subjects. In January, he made a cryptic reference to Taiwan being a chess piece between great powers.

What does Hou stand for?

This month he made it clear he is against Taiwan independence due to a lack of legal basis for it, he is for the Republic of China and he is against “One Country, Two Systems.” In other words, the stance of the KMT, the TPP, and in practice the stance of the DPP.

He has expressed support for freedom and democracy and a strong national defense, though without any specifics and again echoing the stances of all three parties. When asked about Taiwan’s reporters getting kicked out of the World Health Assembly, he dropped the foreign policy bombshell that he supports getting support from more friendly nations.

As New Taipei mayor in the past, he opposed restarting the fourth nuclear power plant project. Being in Taichung, I am not sure what his stances have been as mayor on housing unaffordability, the low birthrate, water, and power shortages or other issues that mayors have some influence over, but I have not heard of him doing anything out of the ordinary that other mayors are not doing as well.

So, nobody has really any idea what he stands for or what he’s planning to do for the nation. The aforementioned KMT lawmaker Hung expressed that this is “making the pan-blue camp anxious” and urged Hou to start making his policy stances clear.

What is going on?

So, what is going on? For one thing it’s worth keeping in mind that the campaign is only just over a week old and he does have a busy job running Taiwan’s most populous city.

However, it does seem puzzling that a lot of these things were not prepared well in advance. He has had plenty of time to consider things and consult with people before winning the nomination. Reportedly, an unspecified KMT think tank is coming up with some policy ideas for him, but it’s not clear how closely he is working with them, if at all.

It’s possible he does not have many, or even any stances on many of these issues and is planning to take the time to consult widely across the party and perhaps even outside the party to craft something well thought-out to release when the process is complete. Or perhaps his own personal stances he knows might be unpopular, so again, a broad consultative process to build a popular platform to appeal to voters would make electoral sense.

Another possibility is he fully intends to remain vague because it’s worked for him so far. However, voters rightfully put presidential candidates under far more scrutiny than mayoral candidates, so it will not work this time.

He may also feel he has plenty of time between now and election day in January, and that voters will not be paying as much attention until the fall anyway. However, that is a risky attitude to take and if his poll numbers continue to slide further, talk of revolt will only grow in the party and the chances that the party replaces him like it did in 2016 would rise.

Clock is ticking

Sliding poll numbers could also change the narrative if he drops far behind Ko. If the perception is he’s a loser with no hope, voters will not bother to seriously check him out in the fall.

Taiwanese voters are politically more aware than their counterparts in many other countries, and most are likely following it at least loosely at this point. If Hou fails to change the perception that he is just robotic HoHoGPT with zero substance, that will lead to his poll numbers dropping, which further re-enforces the idea that he will lose, leading to a downward spiral that gets harder and harder to reverse the longer it goes on.

Voters will also take note of the disunity and weak support for Hou within the KMT, so unless he also addresses that, that will further weaken his public image. If his own party is not fully behind him, why should the public back him?

Hou has been a very successful politician so far, and one would assume he is aware of all of this. But puzzlingly, he has yet to act in any meaningful way to address all the problems that even his supporters are pointing out.

The announcement that he was the KMT's nominee was the perfect opportunity to make a splash and seize the initiative. He did not, and two polls taken in the last week have shown his support slumping further.

If he waits too long, it will be too little, too late.

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.