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Taiwan’s opposition fields rival presidential candidates after unity talks fail

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Taiwan’s political opposition has put forward two candidates for presidential elections in January, setting the stage for a close three-way race that is likely to determine China’s stance on the country.

Hou Yu-ih, a former criminal police chief running for the Kuomintang, Taiwan’s largest opposition party, and Ko Wen-je, a surgeon and former Taipei mayor who appeals to swing voters, both registered for the polls on Friday.

That move, which risks splitting the opposition vote to the benefit of the ruling party, came after weeks of wrangling to form a joint opposition ticket collapsed in an acrimonious quarrel live television broadcast on Thursday night.

Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Apple supplier Foxconn who announced his intention to run in September, dropped out of the race on Friday.

The divided opposition is likely to help Lai Ching-te, the candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive party who has been the frontrunner for months. But polls show that a majority of voters want a change from the DPP and worry about China’s increasingly aggressive stance against Taiwan, which Beijing claims as part of its territory and has threatened to seize by force.

Taiwan’s national elections have for decades been shaped by the divide between the DPP, which refuses to define Taiwan as part of China, and the KMT, which embraces Chinese identity though it rejects the People’s Republic of China’s claim over the island.

The candidates’ biggest task will be to position themselves as the safest pair of hands to handle the growing tensions with China, analysts said.

“This election will be determined by concerns over peace,” said Lev Nachman, a political scientist at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “It will hinge on who can convince voters that they are the ones who can lead Taiwan in a safe direction and conduct cross-Strait relations in a responsible way.”

Lai Ching-te, left, Taiwan’s vice-president and candidate for the ruling Democratic Progressive party, and his running mate Hsiao Bi-khim, right, Taiwan’s former quasi-ambassador to the US, in Taipei on Tuesday
Lai Ching-te, left, Taiwan’s vice-president and candidate for the ruling Democratic Progressive party, and his running mate Hsiao Bi-khim, right, Taiwan’s former quasi-ambassador to the US © I-Hwa Cheng/Bloomberg

China has portrayed the poll as a choice between peace and war. Beijing cut off official communications with Taiwan’s government after incumbent Tsai Ing-wen took power in 2016, and has denounced Lai, currently the vice-president, as a separatist.

The Chinese Communist party has also continued to hold exchanges with the KMT, its former adversary in the Chinese civil war.

“Beijing would prefer to have stable Taiwan Strait relations which it seems only Hou can be a trustworthy person to work with,” said James Chen, assistant professor at Tamkang University, who is advising the KMT candidate. Chen added that Ko and his party lacked experience in dealing with high-level Chinese officials.

The DPP, on the other hand, has stressed its record of navigating the increasingly volatile relationship with China over the past seven years.

It also highlighted the international experience of Lai’s running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim, who was until recently Taiwan’s quasi-ambassador to the US. She warned on Friday that Taiwan could not afford chaos and experimentation in government.

The rapid rise of Ko has disrupted Taiwan’s political landscape in recent months, however. The candidate for the smaller Taiwan People’s party has focused on low entry-level salaries, high property prices, inflation, energy shortages and funding shortfalls in the national health insurance — bread-and-butter issues feeding many voters’ dissatisfaction with the DPP.

An opinion poll on Friday by Formosa, one of Taiwan’s most reliable pollsters, showed Lai narrowly leading Hou at just over 31 per cent, while Ko’s support stood at 25.2 per cent.

Ko and Hou had sought to agree a power-sharing deal to challenge Lai, but negotiations faltered over who would head the ticket. The opposition talks broke down during an eleventh-hour televised meeting on Thursday night with Gou and KMT senior officials.

Although Ko has made passing references to tensions in the Taiwan Strait in criticism of the DPP and has advocated for a resumption of talks with Beijing over a trade-in-services agreement, he has also not outlined his vision for relations with China.

“Amid the tensions that are rising day by day between China and the US and in the Taiwan Strait, we all agree that preserving the status quo and striving for peace is the greatest common denominator between the US, China and Taiwan,” Ko said on Friday.

Hou on Friday also unveiled his running mate, Jaw Shaw-kong, a hardline Chinese nationalist who has promoted anti-American content on his talk show and advocated unification with China, albeit not with the PRC.

The choice — intended to appeal to the KMT’s base — could alienate swing voters, the largest segment of the electorate, political experts said, and raise concerns in the US.

“This choice will trigger questions in Washington over how close a Hou administration might get to China and how committed they are to the US,” said a foreign diplomat in Taipei.

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