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Ex-President Ma gallops into unity fray on side of TPP's Ko

In bombshell move, Ma has openly moved against KMT Chair Chu and nominee Hou

Ex-President Ma gallops into unity fray on side of TPP's Ko

(CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — The press across party lines uniformly described it as a “bombshell.”

No one saw it coming. Jaws dropped. Taiwan’s armies of political analysts and talking heads scrambled to make sense of it as microphones crackled on and studio lighting blazed into action to lap up their every word on this breaking development.

On Friday morning (Nov. 10) former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) dispatched his spokesperson Ma Ying-jeou Foundation Director Hsiao Hsu-tsen (蕭旭岑) to announce on a popular radio talk show that Ma supported using “entirely opinion polling” to determine whether Taiwan’s opposition should run with the Kuomintang’s (KMT) presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) or the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) at the top of the ticket against a hypothetical Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ticket of Lai Ching-te (賴清德) and current representative to the U.S. Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴). The highest winning presidential/vice presidential ticket of either Hou-Ko or Ko-Hou against Lai-Hsiao would lead an opposition unity ticket.

In the KMT party elders are highly respected and continue to command considerable power, and none more so than former President Ma. This towering figure in the KMT and life-long party stalwart had just aligned himself with the negotiating position of the TPP’s Ko. It was indeed a bombshell.

Not long after this news broke, another hugely influential party elder, former KMT presidential candidate and Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) expressed his support on social media. Within an hour KMT legislative candidates and local government heads joined in expressing their support.

While no more than around one-quarter of these KMT politicians openly expressed support, the silence of the rest was deafening. Aside from figures directly involved in the Hou campaign or from the team of KMT Chair Eric Chu (朱立倫), not one single important voice in the KMT expressed any opposition to Ma’s proposal.

While the KMT and TPP had achieved some success in negotiating cooperation on legislative races in tight districts, there had been little progress in forming a unity presidential ticket. Both sides had insisted on methods of choosing the top of the ticket that favored themselves.

Unity theater

Of the two sides, Ko had put forth the most risky proposal to himself, though it still favored him. In most opinion polls he leads, but not in all, and some polls including the influential Formosa polls have Hou with a sizeable lead. Ko even offered that if he won, but only within the margin of error, he would accept Hou at the top of the ticket.

The KMT’s proposals have up to now been structured to have almost no risk to getting Hou at the top of the ticket. More recently they have been promoting “German” or “Japanese” models that would include input from all the district legislative candidates, of which the KMT has 69 and the TPP has 11. Ko commented it was pretty obvious what the result of that would be.

Ko retorted that they should use the “Taiwan Model” by pointing out that both of the major parties have been using multiple opinion polls to determine the candidate for years. Why not continue to use that?

Eric Chu threw out some ideas that included adding in opinion polling of the parties' popularity, not just the candidates. Of course that favors the much bigger KMT.

With time running out before the Nov. 20 to 24 deadline to register presidential tickets, it was looking like it was not going to happen. According to some reports, both Hou and Ko had already decided on their own separate vice presidential candidates and were just keeping up the pretense of negotiating to keep their respective bases eager to “take down” the DPP with a “sure to win” joint ticket happy.

Ma on Mount Olympus

In one fell swoop Ma has turned much of the party toward supporting a polling-only primary, thereby isolating Chu and Hou and exponentially increasing the pressure on Chu and Hou to make a deal. Ma outranks Chu as an elder residing on KMT’s Mount Olympus, Chu is simply a functionary down below grunting away in the trenches who lost his one and only presidential run following Ma’s two terms.

Hou said he “respects everyone’s opinion,” but one can almost hear his teeth grinding. Hou’s team then turned their ire on Ko for commissioning three polls that showed him ahead by on average eight points, calling them into question.

Chu is clearly squirming, and is now calling for polling only, but focusing on “three comparisons,” and so leaving the details vague. Not only is Ko unlikely to agree to that, but there is little time to organize the logistics involved in conducting such extensive polling on multiple topics.

Ko, for his part, has thanked Ma profusely and called for an “immediate return to party negotiations.”

What is Ma’s strategy?

The burning question is why did Ma do this? He has undermined the leadership of his own party and thrown his support behind the chair of the TPP. This is not normal behavior for someone who has devoted their life to the KMT.

Of course, wanting to form a winning ticket to defeat the DPP is a significant reason. But Ko’s proposal has been on the table for a while now, Ma has been out campaigning with Hou and Chu, and yet Ma sent out an emissary to announce his abrupt conversion to Ko’s stance.

The political power plays and strategic maneuvering behind all this are fascinating. There is far too much to it for one column, so tune in to the next column for an examination of those topics.

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 ( and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce. For more columns by the author, click here. Follow him on X (prev. Twitter): @donovan_smith.