TAIPEI – Six months ago, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s approval ratings were so low many wondered if she would be nominated to run for re-election in January.
Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party suffered a huge defeat in the 2018 local elections, and few gave her much chance against the main opposition Nationalist Party candidate Han Kuo-yu, who was riding a wave of popularity that began the year before when he won the Kaohsiung mayoral election as part of the DPP rout.
Today, however, polls show Tsai leading Han by over 10 points, with most in agreement that, barring a major scandal or economic downturn, Taiwan’s fourth elected, and first female, president is headed for a second term.
Tsai’s rebound is widely attributed to two main causes, both involving China.
The first is the pro-democracy unrest in Hong Kong, which has filled local media with the kind of news guaranteed to increase support for the independence-leaning DPP among voters long wary not only of China, but of the China-friendly opposition party widely known as Kuomingtan (KMT).
The second is Taiwan’s economic health, which the U.S.-China trade war boosted in recent months as foreign businesses seek alternate sources for goods once manufactured on the mainland.
Yet Tsai’s biggest break may not have involved China, but rather her opponent’s decision to accept the KMT nomination only a few months after assuming his duties as Kaohsiung mayor.
Han began his political career in the legislature, where from 1993 to 2002 he earned a reputation for combativeness and heavy drinking. This was followed by a series of minor political appointments and a failed 2017 bid for KMT chair, after which he agreed to represent the party in Kaohsiung, a DPP stronghold that Han was expected to lose.
Instead, he took 54 percent of the votes, astonishing everyone and initiating a “Han wave” of supporters who immediately began touting him as presidential material.
Lifting a page from the populist playbook, he campaigned as a humble everyman, replying to complex questions with slogans, or dodging them outright, especially when they involved China. Han focused on local grievances, notably the economy, blaming the DPP for regional stagnation and the exodus of young people forced to move north to find work.
As J. Michael Cole, senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, put it, Han positioned himself against governing elites of the DPP and the KMT, whom he characterized as “technocrats who do not understand the needs of ordinary hard-working people.”
But what worked running for mayor has not in the race for president.
Taiwanese leaders cannot dodge questions on China, and Han, in the words of Stanford University political scientist Kharis Templeman, “has struggled to convince voters that his cross-strait policy would not compromise Taiwan’s security, threaten its democracy, and undermine its sovereignty.”
This struggle became harder in recent days as news broke that a Chinese spy confessed to Australian authorities that he helped funnel money into Han’s mayoral and presidential campaigns.
Nicknamed “straw dumpling” for his lack of policy expertise, Han now has KMT experts feeding him content.
But explaining proposals clashes with his plain style, and clumsy rollouts have “reinforced the impression that he’s not a competent manager,” said Nathan Batto, a scholar at Taipei-based Academia Sinica’s Institute of Political Science.
Even Han’s everyman persona has collapsed as reports surface that he long drove a Jaguar and lived in a NT$60 million ($1.97 million) Taipei home. How he afforded this lifestyle has not been made clear.
By contrast, the incumbent’s campaign has hit all the right notes.
While as president Tsai avoided talk of sovereignty so as not to provoke Beijing, she reassured constituents this spring when she categorically rejected Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s demand that Taiwan accept the same “one country, two systems” formula used for Hong Kong.
Assuming control of the DPP after its crushing defeat in the 2008 general elections, Tsai is largely responsible for unifying a party long divided from within.
Losing herself in 2012, she sharpened her message and capitalized on KMT errors to take the presidency in 2016, winning by 25 percentage points and securing a majority of legislative seats.
Tsai used this majority to advance an ambitious domestic agenda tackling difficult issues such as pension reform, which while much needed, cost her dearly in last year’s local elections.
Tsai’s government scored points this year when it turned the trade war into more than an economic windfall with an incentive program to encourage Taiwanese businesses that once relocated to China to repatriate, bringing with them jobs and growth.
Yet success has left Tsai and the DPP grappling with new problems, like overconfidence.
As Batto notes, with the election nearing, wayward KMT supporters will likely be drawn back into the fold.
Political commentator Ku Ling also warns that if Tsai underestimates the forces Han awakened in Kaohsiung, “history could repeat itself.”
The second problem involves the legislature, where experts say the DPP will likely lose seats, possibly threatening its majority.
In a close race, smaller parties could wind up holding the balance of power, a prospect that will keep DPP leaders stumping for their candidates right up to election day.