Taiwanese flags during a campaign event in Taipei on June 1, 2019.
Daniel Shih | AFP
Taiwan is stepping into its election season with the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, currently holding its presidential primary ahead of general elections expected in January 2020.
The winner of the KMT race will be pit against incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, who recently rode on the tailwind from massive protests in Hong Kong to win her Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) primary. The victor of the opposition race is expected to be known by early next week.
As many around the world are tracking the elections, Beijing, in particular, will be carefully watching. The Mainland Chinese government views self-governed Taiwan as a province that has gone astray, and has been using increasingly aggressive rhetoric toward the island to push for a reunification after a civil war 70 years ago split the two territories.
China-Taiwan relations have implications for U.S. foreign policy. In May, the House of Representatives unanimously backed legislation supporting Taiwan as part of a sharper approach to relations with Beijing.
Relations across the Taiwan Strait ebb and flow depending on who holds power in Taipei — and tensions with Beijing have risen since independence-leaning DPP swept to power in 2016.
China prefers the KMT, which avoids talk of going it alone and stresses economic ties with the mainland, from which KMT troops fled in 1949 after defeat in the Chinese Civil War.
The opposition race
Front-runners in the KMT primary are populist Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu and Terry Gou, the founder of electronics manufacturer Foxconn, also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry.
The other KMT candidates are former New Taipei Mayor Eric Chu, political scientist Chang Ya-chung and former magistrate of Taipei County Chou Hsi-wei.
Although the KMT is seen to be more China-friendly than the DPP, the popular Han is the only serious challenge to Tsai, said Dane Chamorro, senior partner at Control Risks, a risk consultancy.
Han staged an upset against the DPP in local elections last year.
“If he runs, she’s going to have a genuinely difficult time as he is generally popular with people,” Chamorro told CNBC. “Han Kuo-yu is a disruptor.”
All other KMT candidates, in comparison, are far less “inspiring,” said Chamorro. Gou — who built his fortune as an Apple supplier with factories in China — may be perceived as having good relationships with both U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, but some may view him as too close to Beijing, said the Control Risks expert.
There may also be a wild card in the form of independent Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je, whom many expect to run although he has yet to announce a presidential bid.
Ko came under the spotlight recently when he met with head of the Taiwan Affairs Office in Shanghai during a regular forum between Taipei and the Chinese city.
At the meeting, Ko appeared to strike a conciliatory tone with the mainland when he said the two sides belonged to “one family,” the Taipei Times reported. Neither he nor the mainland side mentioned the “One China” principle — which stipulates that Taiwan is a part of China — the South China Morning Post reported.
“It remains to be seen whether Mayor Ko Wen-je could demonstrate himself as a viable alternative beyond the traditional two-color party line. He earned the support from many young voters by painting himself as a person both Washington and Beijing can trust, ” said Zhixing Zhang, senior East Asia analyst at geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor.
“The job is easier said than done, given the escalating competition between the two powers. His campaign for stable cross-strait ties could also expose himself to the ideological attacks once he declares the candidacy,” Zhang added in an email to CNBC.
Indeed, there are fears about mainland interference in Taiwanese politics.
“There is growing concern about (mainland China) meddling in Taiwan society and in its politics,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior advisor for Asia at Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There is evidence of disinformation, of money being funneled from mainland China to various groups in Taiwan and there’s interference in social media,” Glaser said in a YouTube video last week.
Sensitivities are running high.
Recently, a large crowd protested in Taipei against media outlets seen to be pro-Beijing.
So China is unlikely to overtly support a Taiwanese candidates because such a strategy would likely backfire, said Chamorro.
Despite flagging popularity since she was elected, Tsai now has “two powerful cards to play: democracy and sovereignty,” Stratfor’s Zhang said.
“The rise of populist politicians both in Taiwan and around the world has left President Tsai uniquely positioned to characterize the liberal value of democracy and freedom — a value that synchronizes with the West and aligns with the U.S. regional strategy,” Zhang added.
“In particular, concerns of China’s political and ideological infiltration reinforce the perception Tsai is holding Taiwan as ‘the last fortress of democracy of the Chinese-speaking world,'” Zhang added.