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Could there be a shock upset on Taiwan's election day?

Though Lai is presumed frontrunner, there are multiple paths to victory for Hou and Ko

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Taiwan News image

Taiwan News image

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — Before the government-mandated polling blackout on Jan. 3, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate William Lai Ching-te (賴清德) was the favorite to win on election day on Jan. 13, with Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) most often tipped to come in second, though others indicated that Taiwan People's Party (TPP) candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) had the edge over Hou.

How could this play out in practice, and could there be an upset?

In the ten days between the blackout and election day, a lot can happen. People’s opinions can still be swayed and shifted, and it is still possible that one of the campaigns or the press has a bombshell in reserve to drop last minute that could shake up the race.

The mudslinging and looking for anything to get the edge is rife in the legislative races, and KMT legislative candidate Hsieh Lung-chieh (謝龍介) and former KMT lawmaker and deep-blue political commentator Chiu Yi (邱毅) are alleging that Lai has an illegitimate child being hidden away through collusion with gangsters, without any proof to back it up. Lai has laughed off this allegation and it smells like desperation and attention-seeking by Hsieh and Chiu, but if they managed to provide hard proof it could shift a few percentage points.

All three candidates have been trying to turn their various property issues against each other and make them out like major scandals, with the Hou campaign even commissioning rappers to make a video about the little house that Lai inherited from his family that exists in legal limbo. None of these are more than minor issues that are widespread across Taiwan, and it is doubtful they will be an issue for voters on election day, though as long-time political commentator Michael Turton astutely pointed out, the KMT’s attacks on Lai may have inadvertently “beatified” him by showing just how poor and hardscrabble a childhood Lai rose to success from.

Aside from a scandal, two other situations could impact the race: natural disasters and increased aggressive behavior by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The weather appears to be shaping up to be fairly nice, so that will probably not be a factor in turnout.

In the remaining days, the CCP may try to influence the election beyond all the methods they are currently using, such as misinformation, psychological warfare, and hostile intrusions into Taiwan’s ADIZ. Today (Jan. 9), the Ministry of Defense had to apologize for an alert sent to everyone’s cell phones warning of a Chinese satellite launch that may or may not have been over Taiwan and was mislabelled “missile” in English. It must have caused Lai to cringe and opposition parties justifiably criticized the government.

If there had been a missile flying over Taiwan, or missiles being shot just off the coast as they did before the 1996 election, these actions could have caused some impact on the electorate, though more likely it would have helped the Lai campaign than Hou’s. The CCP does not understand the Taiwanese electorate very well and could make yet another big mistake.

Lai’s challenges to win

As the presumed frontrunner, Lai’s main enemies are not the other candidates, but apathy and complacency. Pan-green-leaning voters were neither in 2016 nor in 2020.

In 2016, following the Sunflower Movement and then-President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) highly unpopular second term, voters were highly motivated to both punish the KMT and to find new hope in a DPP administration. In 2020, pan-greens deeply disliked and distrusted that year’s KMT candidate Daniel Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), and were highly motivated to ensure he did not get elected.

This time around is different. There is fatigue among voters after eight years of DPP rule, and Lai is campaigning on more of the same, which is safe but hardly inspiring and motivating.

Hou is not widely disdained and distrusted the same way as Han was, and he does not inspire the same level of fear among the pan-green-leaning voters. While hardcore pan-green voters will turn out, the Lai campaign has to be concerned that voters who might lean pan-green are neither inspired nor motivated to show up.

Worse, in combination with voters' complacently assuming he is going to win, not only might those voters not show up, they might show up and vote for Ko. This is what happened in 2018 to then-Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) of the DPP in his re-election bid against the KMT’s Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕). Everyone seemed to assume Lin was a shoo-in, so some voters stayed home, and others voted for Lu as a protest against the national DPP administration even as they had no issue with Lin himself. Everyone was surprised when Lin lost, and Lu was unpopular in her first year as mayor, and voters expressed regret at her win, though she eventually did win over the public.

No doubt Lai is well aware of this.

Hou’s challenges to win

To overtake Lai and win the presidency, Hou has to attract more voters. There are more than enough voters out there to make that happen in the form of undecided voters and Ko supporters, but he has some strong challenges in appealing to them.

In his previous mayoral campaigns in New Taipei City, Hou held solid appeal for independent voters and even had some support from pan-green-leaning voters. However, in this presidential election through to late November, Hou’s support from pan-blues was low, and many of the independents who might have backed him in the past were gravitating more towards Ko.

In late November, the Hou campaign changed its strategy and brought in former Kaohsiung mayor and the 2020 KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) to top the KMT legislative party list to put him in line for the speaker position, and brought in media personality and Broadcasting Corporation of China Chair Jaw Shaw-kong (趙少康) to be the vice presidential candidate. Both have strong followings among the pan-blue base. It worked, as the pan-blue base was consolidated, and Hou’s support among self-identified KMT supporters skyrocketed (see this previous column for more on this subject), and the gap between his support and Lai’s shrank significantly.

However, the pivot to the deep blues strategy is a double-edged sword as it makes him less appealing to the independent voters and Ko supporters he needs. By consolidating the blue base, it raised Hou’s minimum voter support floor, but it may also have added a ceiling at the same time.

The Hou camp was likely hoping that with the boost in support from the base, the "dump-save effect" (棄保效應) of strategic voting would entice a chunk of Ko’s supporters to switch to Hou. Before the blackout, there was no sign of that, and Ko’s support was rising.

Still, the KMT and Hou himself are appealing to Ko supporters to “dump” Ko and “save” Hou to beat out Lai. Many of the popular political pundits making the rounds on television talk shows think this is what is going to happen.

I do not. As explored in a recent column, because of the nature of his supporters and how Ko and the TPP target them with social media, I doubt very many Ko supporters will “dump” him.

I could be wrong, however. If Hou succeeds in getting a fair number to switch to his ticket, and he does well with undecided voters, Hou could win.

Hou has the advantage over Lai in that his base is more motivated. They very much want to take down the DPP, and many believe the “war or peace” framing the KMT has campaigned on and are genuinely afraid. Fear of war is a strong motivator.

The KMT also has a strong get-out-the-vote machine that they have built up over decades which is probably better than the DPP’s and is leagues ahead of the TPP’s. These things matter in elections and sometimes can make the difference between winning and losing.

Ko’s challenges to win

Prior to the blackout depending on the outlet, support for Ko ranged from narrowly behind Lai in second place to a distant third with no hope of winning. Unlike Lai and Hou, who have clear bases, support for Ko is more mercurial and harder to gauge.

Ko also faces the challenge of having to convince voters to turn their backs on both the KMT and the DPP and trust him and his new party. There is a constituency for this out there, as his two victories in winning the Taipei mayorship show.

Independents usually outnumber supporters of any political party, but they are also less predictable in how they vote. If he could manage to capture the majority of them and drive Lai and Hou to only their core bases of support, Ko would have a good shot at winning.

How well his appeal to independents translates to a national election with significantly higher stakes than a mayor is hard to determine. However, three out of four of Taiwan’s democratically elected presidents had previously been Taipei mayors, so voters may view being mayor of the capital as being good training for the presidency. Or it could just be that the mayor of Taipei gets a lot more press exposure.

A big plus for Ko is that his supporters are passionate, and may work hard to get their friends and family to get out and vote. His YouTube channel just surpassed a million subscribers, far more than his rivals. An organization of Terry Gou (郭台銘) fans also just endorsed Ko, though so far Gou himself has remained silent on his preference.

A big negative for Ko is that his voters are young, and he has very few supporters over the age of 50. Ko has stated that if 85% of voters under the age of 30 voted, he would win.

That is very unlikely to happen. Normally that demographic has low voter turnout because often they study or work in different cities than their household registration, requiring them to find both the time and money to make the trip to vote.

However, their enthusiasm may well increase their voter turnout this time. To bring it up to 85% is unlikely, however. A big jump in 20-29-year-old voters did happen in 2020, but was only up to a little over 72%

They are also a fairly small demographic. Only 2.85 million are eligible to vote, which is only larger than voters over the age of 70. All demographic groups between age 30 and 69 are well over 3 million, and age 40-49 voters outnumber them by over a million.

Possible outcomes

If Lai can keep pan-green-leaning voters from deciding to stay home with the cats and watch Netflix rather than vote, chances are he will win. I think the most likely outcome is he wins with a limp plurality by a handful of percentage points.

Hou can not be ruled out, however. A strong showing by his base, and if I am wrong about Ko supporters standing by Ko, then Hou wins with a limp plurality of a handful of percentage points.

Ko is the wildcard and I could see him doing very well, or worse than expected, and it is hard to determine which. He has the longest shot at winning, but it definitely can not be ruled out, if independents and undecideds break en masse for him on polling day, he will be the winner.

A strong second-place showing for Ko would also be something of a victory by showing his new party has strength. Plus, government subsidies are given per vote in both the presidential and party list legislative elections, and a strong showing in those would put the TPP on much stronger footing financially to compete with the two bigger parties.

Almost certainly the next president will not win an outright majority, and it is also possible no party wins an outright majority in the legislature. Things are going to look much more muddled politically going forward.

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 X (prev. Twitter): @donovan_smith.