The 2020 Taiwan presidential elections is one of the most unpredictable elections in Taiwan history. Final opinion polls released on 31 December 2019 — before a polling blackout took effect — showed that incumbent president Tsai is in a 20-30% lead ahead of the Kuomintang (KMT)’s Han Kuo-yu. Yet, each of Han’s rallies is packed to the brim with Han’s diehard supporters. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) cannot be complacent just yet.
Following a crushing defeat in the 2018 local elections, Tsai strategised a comprehensive presidential campaign designed to win. She successfully turned tensions with mainland China over “one country, two systems” for Taiwan to her advantage. Netizens approved, calling her “hot Taiwanese girl” (辣台妹). Six months later, she stood with Hong Kongers in response to the Hong Kong protests. Moreover, with the US’s clear support for Taiwan over the past year, she miraculously made a strong comeback and even utilised the administrative resources at her disposal as incumbent president to roll out various popular policies — childcare subsidies, agricultural subsidies, long-term care upgradings, railway projects, just to name a few — ahead of the elections.
On the other hand, at the risk of ruining his reputation, KMT’s Han fulfilled grassroot expectations by running for president just a few months after he was elected as mayor of Kaohsiung. In doing so, he faced down a divide within his own political party, obstacles put in place by Tsai’s government, and a series of personal attacks from cyber warriors and the media. His ability to stand firm amidst the attacks on all fronts is no mean feat.
Pan-Green coalition: opinion polls may be misleading
With Tsai’s overwhelming support demonstrated in public opinion polls, her re-election dream may just come true. Various political commentators have even said mockingly that Han was just putting up a meaningless fight.
When the final opinion poll results were released on 31 December 2019, You Ying-lung, chairman of the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, pointed out that Tsai, and her running mate, William Lai, have garnered 52.5% of support, while Han and his running mate, Chang San-cheng, garnered 21.9% of support. The People First Party’s James Soong, and his running mate, Sandra Yu, received 9.5% of support. You thus boldly predicted, “Tsai Ing-wen could break the record 7.65 million votes won by Ma Ying-jeou in the 2008 elections, and Han Kuo-yu could lose by more than 3.08 million votes, which was the gap between Eric Chu and Tsai Ing-wen in the 2016 presidential elections.”
Yet, according to various political commentators, including DPP’s Julian Kuo, it is “impossible” that Tsai is in a 30% lead ahead of Han. Globally speaking, extremely few presidents running for a second term can garner the same amount of votes as when they were first elected into office. It’d already be impressive if Tsai could win 6.89 million votes.
“If we only looked at the public opinion polls, Tsai Ing-wen would have already won,” Shih Cheng-feng, former secretary-general of the World United Formosans for Independence and professor at the National Dong Hwa University’s Department of Indigenous Affairs and Development, tells Lianhe Zaobao.
“Yet, if we looked at various opinion polls from different media sources, 20% of voters are still undecided. If Tsai was really so steady, why would she need to ask William Lai to be her running mate? If she was really in the lead by such a big margin, we wouldn’t be voting with teary eyes.”
Han draws flak from the media and the internet
Han openly criticised some media for “having zero conscience” in a televised debate, which drew high praise from his supporters but brickbats from his opponents for being disrespectful to the journalists.
Professor Shih says, “... journalists are just following the orders of the higher-ups. A TV host at Sanlih Entertainment Television (《三立》) got transferred for defiance; Next TV (《壹电视》) and Much TV (《年代》) apparently sold some of their airtime to politicians; some media have already been bribed… When we criticised the anti-infiltration law, we were attacked by netizens for siding with the Communist Party of China.”
Apart from a minority of blue-camp media sources, Han and his family have been attacked and defamed on all fronts by various media and netizens. The attacks have been so extensive and grave that a TV host of The Night Night Show (《博恩夜夜秀》) said last month during an interview with Han, “From last year (2018) up until today, the livelihood of Taiwan news agencies, including our TV station, depends on him (referring to Han).”
Han distorts the picture
Lin Chia-cheng, former minister of examination during Chen Shui-bian’s reign, tells Lianhe Zaobao that Han was once his student. And when Lin was in cabinet, Han was a legislator. “He isn’t that bad. Outsiders are too harsh on him,” he says. Lin estimates that even if Han is defeated, it’d be on a margin of approximately 15-20%.
Lin adds, “Tsai’s strategic engagement with international parties is a very successful move. Young people below the age of 35 have a strong sense of crisis, and are deeply afraid of losing democracy.” However, Lin does not approve of the way the Tsai government disregards financial discipline in its eagerness to win the election. “They push all blame to their predecessors, and are not good examples of responsible leadership.”
To avoid the manipulation of the media and cyber warriors, Han has resorted to unconventional tactics. He has been confusing pollsters by asking supporters to either skip the polls, or lie that they would vote for Tsai. Since then, public opinion polls are increasingly lopsided, with Tsai taking the lead and Han “practically plunging to the bottom”.
Japanese observers: gap between Tsai and Han approximately 5%
In a speech delivered in Tokyo on 22 January 2019, Mikio Numata, Japan’s representative in Taiwan, gauged that the gap between Tsai and Han stands at approximately 5%. He predicted that the DPP may only secure less than half the total number of seats (less than 57 seats), and that the KMT will become the largest party in the Legislative Yuan. As Japan is known for their meticulous assessments, the DPP, who is on friendly terms with Japan, doesn’t take this warning lightly.
“The DPP has never had a rally that’s as well-received as Han’s rallies. The DPP must not think that being in the lead by 20% will guarantee a win,” says Chen Chin-jun, former secretary-general of the Executive Yuan and mayor of Sanchong District (currently located in New Taipei City). He observed at one of Han’s rallies at Sanchong District's Xingfu Shuiyang Park held in September 2019 that the crowd was so overwhelming that “there was no way to squeeze your way through”.
Chen, who was suspended for one year by the DPP for supporting Ko Wen-je’s re-election campaign as Taipei’s mayor, said on the TV programme The Winner (《我要当选》) that, during the legislative elections prior to 2000, supporters of the DPP flocked to the rallies voluntarily. The KMT, on the other hand, depended on mass mobilisation. During the later periods, the DPP relied on mass mobilisations, but even then, the masses lacked enthusiasm. “Many left before the halfway mark. The 2008 presidential election is a classic example,” he said. On the contrary, people flock to the KMT’s rallies voluntarily. Chen predicts that Tsai and Han are only apart by 5-8%.
Han’s political prowess
Since taking a leave of absence from mid-October 2019 to focus on his presidential campaign, Han has walked the ground, picking up sentiments from the people. He boldly faced the young people who oppose him, time and again displaying his incredible political prowess and resilience.
Though he was mocked by the green camp as a “blockhead”, Han has put up an impressive performance over three election hustings and a debate. Not only was he charismatic, his witty responses and ability to think on his feet drove the eloquent Tsai to go off script, forcing Tsai to give hurried and defensive replies before she could even articulate her political standpoint. It did not seem like Tsai was the one in the lead at all, once again testifying to the amount of pressure Han has placed on Tsai.
Han’s Taichung rally a wake-up call to the Green camp
Following the presidential debate held on 29 December 2019, Tsai and Han both made plans for a Taichung rally. A heavy downpour lasted seven hours, and seemed to have dampened the spirits of Tsai Ing-wen and Tsai Chi-chang, nominated legislator of Taichung. The DPP cancelled the rally subsequently. Over on the other side, Han’s rally amassed a whopping 300,000 people who did not let the rain douse their enthusiasm. The crowd waited patiently for their hero to appear. This joyous and teary-eyed rally not only shocked the DPP, but also surprised supporters of the green camp.
Supporters posting on the Green camp's Facebook fan page "justadullan", noted that the strong showing of Han supporters amidst a heavy downpour at the Taichung rally sends out a clear warning: they must not let what happened at the 2018 Kaohsiung mayoral elections happen again. They must not underestimate the power of Han and his fans. They believe: “If we don’t vote next year (2020), we may not need to vote ever again.”
According to their calculations, Tsai has the support of 43% of the electorate. However, if only 60% of their voters turn up, the DPP can only secure 26% of votes. On the other hand, even if Han only has 28% of support, diehard supporters of Han will ensure a turnout rate of 100%. In this way, Han will secure 28% of votes, putting Tsai in a precarious position.
Victory a possibility for Han
Han’s fans are unwavering in their support; there’s no turning back once they’ve decided to follow Han, and this is all thanks to the perception of him being sincere and charismatic.
On 1 June 2019, Han supporters were seen braving the rain at a huge rally on Ketagalan Boulevard. Their loyalty eventually helped Han win his position as a presidential candidate of the KMT. On 8 September 2019, although inconvenienced by transportation woes, his rally at Sanchong Xingfu Shuiyang Park still drew a crowd of 350,000 people.
21 December 2019 saw the battle between the anti-Han and pro-Han camps at Kaohsiung. Han supporters had already rallied 350,000 people within half a month. Although the figure given by rally organisers could be exaggerated, none of Tsai’s rallies have ever come close to the scale of Han’s rallies.
Yen Chen-shen, researcher at the National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations says, “The overall atmosphere of dislike for the DPP that started in 2018 is still present. Ko Wen-je, a candidate that Tsai Ing-wen was worried about, is also not running for president. And although James Soong could possibly compete with Han Kuo-yu for some proportion of the votes, the impact will not be great.”
“According to experience from the 2016 US presidential election, Tsai is very similar to the “cold” Hillary Clinton. Han, on the other hand, is very warm, like Trump. Hence, although Tsai has an edge over Han, Han’s possibility of emerging victorious cannot be completely ruled out.”
Yen points out that while Han may not seem like a competent presidential candidate, Tsai’s portrayal of support from international powers and her so-called vow to safeguard Taiwan’s sovereignty remain extremely abstract. No results were seen from the legislature, and should Tsai be re-elected, diplomatic and cross-strait relations will only worsen. Although not to the point where Taiwan is declared independent, the economy will not improve. Moreover, people are also deeply disturbed by the recent cyber warriors incident, the anti-infiltration law, and the police who utilised the Social Order Maintenance Act to interrogate an old lady who shared a LINE image.
“Last year, the referendum was killed. Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill protests have subsided. Young voters are no longer desperate to return home to cast their votes like in 2016, acting under the influence of the Sunflower Movement. These are all of Tsai’s deep worries,” he says.
Perhaps acting under an urgent sense of crisis, Tsai led her team of legislative nominees to rally for votes in an unprecedented move near the Taipei Arena on 2 January 2020. However, due to security considerations, they were only there for 15 minutes.
Professor Shih says, “Doesn’t this feel very similar to the 2018 local elections?”
The chilling effect of the anti-infiltration law
In order to maximise votes, the DPP disregarded opposing voices from various sides and forcefully passed the anti-infiltration law. This act not only declares the DPP’s determination in safeguarding Taiwan’s sovereignty, it also marginalises other minor political parties.
On 31 December 2019, You Ying-lung, chairman of the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, said at a “one country on each side”* opinion poll press conference that the DPP passed the anti-infiltration law 11 days before the elections because of the upcoming elections. The law would help the DPP consolidate its share of apportioned votes in the legislative council elections by marshalling support from minor pan-Green political parties who support the “one country one each side” proposition.
Taiwanese political scientist, pollster, and politician Hsu Yung-ming thinks that, while the passing of the anti-infiltration law may greatly boost the DPP’s confidence before the elections, the DPP should also “be careful of its repercussions.''
Apportioned votes a major uncertainty
Luo Wen-jia, the DPP’s party secretary, assesses that the general outlook of the DPP in this electoral season is stable and optimistic for both the presidential and legislative nominees. However, the final apportionment of the proportional representation votes will decide if the DPP can win more than half the number of seats in the legislature.
He points out that the DPP had originally expected to win 14 legislator-at-large seats out of the total of 34, and its district legislators to win 57 to 58 seats, thereby occupying over half the number of seats in the legislature. However, internal opinion polls forecast that the number of legislator-at-large seats they expect to win may have been reduced to 12. This is due to a “dispersal of apportioned votes of proportional representation”.
Hsu Yung-ming says that the DPP is resorting to what it did in 2016 again: compete for the votes of minor pan-Green political parties. “The DPP claims to be on good terms with the Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP), and the TSP did have a role to play in the anti-Han rally held last month. The reason why Luo Wen-jia thinks that the DPP can only win 12 legislator-at-large seats is because it feels that the TSP will take away one or two of the DPP’s seats.”
The KMT is optimistic about Han’s run for presidency, based on apportioned votes as well. It evaluates that 43 seats could be won by the district legislators, while 14 legislator-at-large seats could be taken, possibly achieving its goal of occupying 57 seats, successfully obtaining over half of the total number of seats.
The New Party, which also has affiliations with the pan-Blue coalition, has already openly expressed its support for Han, even though the potential seats they can make up is just a handful.
*Under Chen Shui-bian’s DPP government, “one country on each side” was articulated as an approach to Taiwan’s status where Taiwan and China would each be country on each side of the Taiwan strait.