Populist China-friendly mayor to face President Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan election clash

A populist China-friendly Taiwanese mayor has won the hotly contested opposition party nomination to challenge Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen in the 2020 election. 

The opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party said on Monday that Han Kuo-yu, mayor of the southern city of Kaohsiung, had won the presidential primary with an approval rating of 44.8 per cent, higher than that of rival Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of technology company Foxconn, which manufactures the iPhone. 

The results were announced after a week-long nationwide telephone poll which included both KMT members and non-members. The party’s central leadership is expected to officially confirm the nomination later this week, and Mr Gou has not ruled out an independent run. 

In a straight race between Mr Han and Ms Tsai with no outside contenders, voters would in broad terms face a choice over whether Taiwan, a self-ruled island democracy of 23 million, should align itself more closely with China or the United States.  

Mr Han rose to prominence last year in a surprise win in local electionsCredit:
Daniel Shih/AFP

Critics of Mr Han, a charismatic but polarising figure who has gained island-wide popularity after rising  from nowhere to a surprise win in November’s local elections, accuse him of being too close to Beijing, while his supporters believe he can foster better economic ties with China without ceding political control. 

Ms Tsai, on the other hand, has strong relations with Washington, where the Trump administration sees her as a trusted pair of hands. She is a solid Indo-Pacific ally to the US amid a bitter trade dispute and ongoing tensions with China over its claims on the South China Sea. 

The president used a two-day transit in New York last week to warn that democracy in her homeland faced renewed threats from "overseas forces," in a statement that appeared to be levelled at China.

The incumbent, who came to power in 2016, has been viewed with deep suspicion in Beijing, which does not trust her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party.

Frozen relations with Beijing under Tsai’s premiership has led some voters to worry about the impact on the island’s economy. 

China seeks to annex Taiwan and has threatened to do so by force if necessary. However, Taiwan, the seventh largest economy in Asia, operates like any other democratic nation with its own government, currency and military.

Tsai Ing-wen, the incumbent president, is to run for re-electionCredit:
Jean Marc Herve Abelard/REX

In a survey earlier this year by the Mainland Affairs Council, a Taiwanese government agency handling affairs with China, 79 per cent of Taiwanese respondents rejected the “one country, two systems” policy that Beijing advocates to unify peacefully with the island. 

The survey showed that 87.7 per cent believed Taiwan’s future should be decided by its own population. 

These questions have become all the more relevant as Taiwan’s public closely monitor protests in nearby Hong Kong where demonstrators are struggling to defend their rights and freedoms under the one country, two systems framework. 

Ms Tsai’s strong public defence of Hong Kong protesters’ pro-democracy stance has given her a bump in public support after struggling last year to push through her unpopular reform agenda, and some polls suggest she currently leads over Mr Han. 

Although his social media savvy persona as the “bald guy” with a common touch has won him a large following of die-hard “Han fans”, he has also triggered controversy by meeting with several senior officials in China earlier this year and describing independence as “more scary” than syphilis.   

President Tsai attends a welcome banquet held by overseas Taiwanese in New YorkCredit:

Until last year Mr Han – who had a brief political career before managing an agricultural corporation – had no public profile and his foreign policy skills still remain largely untested despite the so-called “Han wave” sweeping Taiwan in recent months. 

President Tsai, who has a more introverted style, will no doubt use her respected international status as a selling point to win votes. 

In a statement on Sunday, her office said she had spoken by telephone with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi while she was in New York, and met with senators and members of Congress to forge closer ties and pledge a strong partnership in the Indo-Pacific. 

Beijing has strongly objected to her stopover diplomacy and to the US State Department’s approval last week of a potential sale of more than $2 billion in tanks and anti-air missiles to the Taiwan military.

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As Ms Tsai arrived in New York on Friday, China said it would impose sanctions on US firms involved in the arms sale. "Please believe that Chinese people stick to their words," stressed a foreign ministry spokesperson.

On Sunday, the Chinese defence ministry said it had carried out air and naval drills on its southeast coast which faces Taiwan across the narrow Taiwan Strait. 

Asked on Monday about President Tsai’s US visit, a foreign ministry spokeperson in Beijing warned that "backing yourselves up with Western forces will not just lead to the loss of dignity but also to a doomed end."

Additional reporting by Yiyin Zhong in Beijing