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Letter to the Editor: Is Ko Wen-je a game changer?

How many votes will Ko Wen-je take away from the other two candidates?

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Ko Wen-je tries on campaign merchandise in Sept. (CNA photo)

Ko Wen-je tries on campaign merchandise in Sept. (CNA photo)

Taiwan is faced with a somewhat unusual choice in its 2024 election, with a “third” candidate, Ko-Wen-je (柯文哲) rocking the boat, in which the two principal candidates, the Kuomintang's (KMT) Hou You-yi (侯友宜) and the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) Lai Ching-te (賴清德), also sail.

Third choices have appeared before in two-party political systems (not least in Taiwan), and they have run a gamut from not making any difference in elections whatsoever, to influencing them significantly. Most readers no doubt know about Taiwan’s 2000 election, when James Soong (宋楚瑜), an independent third candidate (not unlike Ko, possibly importantly), took upwards of 37% of the vote, tipped the election away from the KMT’s Lien Chan (連戰) and handed the presidency to Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

The question in many people’s minds now is simply: How well will Ko perform (is there any chance he could win?), and even more pertinently, how will his candidacy impact the results—in short, assuming he does not win, how many votes will he peel away from the others?

The U.S. has faced this before. In 1980, John Anderson, a “liberal Republican,” with his 7% of the vote had almost no impact on Ronald Reagan’s victory. In 1992, the business-minded and very grassroots Ross Perot’s almost 20%, obtained across an ideological and partisan continuum, did have a significant impact, favoring Bill Clinton.

And so, Taiwan is faced with this again in 2024. We wonder, what will the results be? In a word, assuming that the two-party system holds (as it virtually always does), then which way will Ko “tip” the vote—toward Lai or Hou?

Though he has had his share of missteps and inappropriate statements on various topics, Ko has proven to be relatively popular with the wider populace, and his poll numbers have been moderately high. His status as a former Taipei mayor does elevate his standing (Hou can say the same, while Lai looks to be a bit hobbled in this respect, his mayorship of Tainan aside).

Ko was relatively popular with the DPP earlier in his career, during his first years as Taipei mayor, and he had endorsed Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) more than once in her campaigns. Truth be told, however, this DPP support may be due to the simple fact that Ko was “not KMT,” and his “independence” had favor with that side of the populace.

To be sure, Ko was never seen much in the KMT camp, although this shifted for a time with his half-done (and some say half-witted) effort to combine forces with Hou and run a combined ticket. This did not come to be, and the two sides separated rather heatedly.

Ko also has not been favored by the DPP in recent times, and both other sides have expressed quite a substantial amount of dissatisfaction with Ko of late. And so, Ko looks to be outed by both camps, but the reality of his obtaining votes from one side or the other remains. That is the question Taiwan is asking right now.

It appears that Ko will probably tip the balance in favor of the KMT (whatever level and percentage of actual votes that might be; it might be slight or more substantial). It seems that DPP-oriented voters would favor Ko (and certainly not Hou), despite doubts about his commitments, and his seemingly “pro-China” stances (which may sway KMT voters to his side).

At a basic level, Ko is essentially in favor of the current “status quo,” which does not distance him from many voters in Taiwan, and his general preference for closer economic relations with China is also something of a balanced view and may bring him votes from the business community as well. His apparent “pro-Green” stance of his earlier years and his support of Tsai could sway DPP voters now.

And so, in sum, his views seem to align him, if slightly, with more pan-Green voters, and will thus sheer votes away from Lai—though again it may be only a slight amount, as was true in the 1980 U.S. elections with Anderson (though certainly not in the 1992 election, and most certainly not in the 2000 Taiwan election). In a nutshell, voters are wondering if Ko can match James Soong’s 38%, and that might not seem wholly impossible, given Ko’s prominence. Is he a game-changer? We shall all wait and see.

Dr. David Pendery graduated from San Francisco State University with a BA in International Relations. He relocated to Boston and received his MS in Journalism from Boston University. He moved to Taipei, Taiwan in 2000, and has worked as an English consultant, editor and teacher. He received his PhD in English from National Chengchi University in 2010 and is now teaching at National Taipei University of Business.