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Eric Chu engineers boost for Taiwan presidential candidate Hou

KMT chair outmaneuvers rebels into submission and delivers successful party Congress

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Former KMT presidential candidate Daniel Han Kuo-yu embraces current candidate Hou Yu-ih. Image courtesy of the Hou Yu-ih campaign provided to Taiwan ...

Former KMT presidential candidate Daniel Han Kuo-yu embraces current candidate Hou Yu-ih. Image courtesy of the Hou Yu-ih campaign provided to Taiwan ...

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — With a well-orchestrated Kuomintang (KMT) National Congress, Chair Eric Chu (朱立倫) has pulled off another victory against rebellious elements in the party and in a big show of unity, pulled together to formally anoint New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) as the party’s official presidential nominee.

Aside from the Hualien County Commissioner failing to show up, and instead staying home to receive a visit to the county by Terry Gou (郭台銘), there were no signs of disunity in the ranks at the event and all the major KMT politicians known to support replacing Hou were there.

Even more impressive, a big display by Hou and the party’s 2020 presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) of warmth and friendship, complete with hugs, holding hands and whispering into each other’s ears like intimate buddies very publicly displayed that they had buried the hatchet and the party was unified, though a small group of regular people outside the event calling out “President Han” when he arrived marred things slightly image-wise. Han even followed up with a late-night Facebook post supporting Hou, underscoring the message of unity.

A reunion of Han, Hou, and Taichung Mayor Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕) recreated the famous tableau of the highly successful 2018 local elections that featured the three campaigning together as a power team as “swallow,” (燕子, the meaning of the “yen” in Lu’s name), “baldy” (禿子, referring to Han’s baldness) and “man” (漢子, referring to Hou’s "manly" police background). While it sounds awful on several levels in English, “swallow, baldy and man” sounds way more catchy and cute in Mandarin.

Eric Chu delivered an event that was a resounding success for the KMT. It also displayed Chu’s formidable political skills.

Slightly goofy grin

Chu is typically pictured with his unique, slightly goofy grin that makes him seem harmless. Look at his eyes, however, and it is clear he possesses strength, considerable willpower and is not a man to trifle with.

Of course, his counterparts as chair at the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) also both look rather harmless as well. The DPP’s Lai Ching-te (賴清德) looks placid, even serene, but in his shock primary challenge to Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in 2019 showed he can be ruthless, and his political experience makes him a match for Chu. The TPP’s Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) has used his frumpiness and habit of scratching the top of his head like a monkey to great humorous effect in his two campaigns for mayor of Taipei, while his famously high IQ and political sense appear to have made up for his lack of political experience.

While all three are formidable, the July 23 party congress was Chu’s day to really shine. It was obvious the meticulous planning and thought that went into the event, and the political symbology at every step, and what photo ops to create.

What is most impressive is what went on behind the scenes politically. We cannot know everything, but some key things are clearly apparent.

Absolute surrender

Prior to the congress, rebels were openly talking about collecting signatures demanding that Hou be replaced. If they had collected 100 and submitted them prior to 10 a.m. on the day of the congress, the motion would have had to have been put on the agenda and put to a party vote.

To counter them, Chu and his team reportedly worked the phones, contacting delegates to get their support for Hou. It clearly worked.

The rebels clearly either came to the conclusion they could not get the 100 signatures required, or else that it would have failed when put to a general vote. We do not know which, but either way, Chu clearly outmaneuvered them.

So they decided to cut their losses. They showed up to the congress, stood on the stage, chanted slogans in support of Hou and in the end confirmed Hou as the party’s candidate unanimously.

Chu had not only defeated them, their surrender was absolute and very public. Chu had skillfully managed to get his fractious party to come together and present a face of absolute unity. That was impressive, very impressive.

Shot in the arm

They may have been partially influenced by Han’s coming back on board, considering how much sway he still has in the party. Without his supporters on board, it would have been harder to get the numbers for a motion to pass.

It’s unclear if it was Chu’s personal efforts, working through intermediaries, or both to get Han back in the fold and in Hou’s camp. Regardless of how he engineered that breakthrough, he deserves credit for making it happen.

The success of the congress and Han’s very public endorsement of Hou will be a shot in the arm for the Hou campaign. Polling varies widely on candidate support within each party’s partisans, likely due to different framing of the question of party identification, but Hou’s support by KMT supporters is on average about 20 to 25 points lower than his DPP and TPP rivals.

That key weakness of being unable to consolidate the base has kept his poll numbers below 20% in almost every recent poll. A big question now is how much of the fabled “Han army” will now follow Han’s lead and support Hou.

It’s possible that it is too late, and many have already decided against Hou, or maybe not. Han supporters were famously loyal in 2019 and 2020. It may be that it is too late for some, but not others. We will have to wait and see in the upcoming polls.

Regardless, Hou’s poll numbers are likely to rise by a few percentage points thanks to Chu’s efforts. The question will then be if his campaign will be able to build on that momentum.

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.