This post will be a bit parochial for readers outside of Taiwan. But let us jump in anyway.
Ko Wen-je is a fairly popular mayor of Taipei. He is independent of any party—or at least he was until earlier this month, when he announced he was creating a new political party of his own. Ko seems to hope that voter anger with the established parties will give him (or the person he selects as the party candidate—there is a lot of speculation over who that might be, with most people giving Terry Gou good odds) a chance to steal victory. With Han Kuo-yu and the KMT going too “far blue” on the China question and Tsai Ing-wen having lost most of her popular support, there is a plausible place for a party that represents something closer to the median Taiwanese voter.
If you want a bit more background on Ko and his new party, I recommend this piece in the News Lens and these two blog posts at Frozen Garlic. I am going to go out on a limb and make a prediction here: unless Terry Gou enters the race, Ko and his party will fizzle out long before election day.
I have had conversations with half a dozen ardent Ko Wen-je supporters this week. I should use the word “ardent” carefully; most were not especially political. This is half the reason they like Ko Wen-je so much. They are less in love with Ko the man than Ko the idea: injecting something new into a political scene they strenuously try to avoid every time it pops up in their news feeds. Key to understanding these voters is how stressful they find politics. Partisanship grows vicious in this country; normal people who do not want to define their identity with words like “green” and “blue” grow tired of it. They want someone who stands outside the old partisan blood feuds. Thus Ko Wen-je.
So why my doubt? Simple: I was personally able to convince each potential Ko voter to change their vote.
I am still a bit flabbergasted by this, actually. Normally it is really, really hard to convince anyone, in any country, to flip their vote. Yet the first three times I did it on accident! (The last few were experiments, all successful).
How did I do it? All I did was say this: “This is my opinion: a vote for Ko Wen-je is actually a vote for Han Kuo-yu. If you look at the polling for the last few months we see a pattern. When it is just two people, Tsai wins. When it is three, Han wins. Tsai gets second, and Ko gets third. A few months ago Ko was getting second and Tsai was getting third, but I have not seen a poll yet where Ko wins.” I then show them the polling. I conclude by saying: “I am not satisfied with Tsai Ing-wen myself. I think she is a terrible leader. But the question that matters is not ‘do I want Tsai Ing-wen or Ko Wen-je?’ but ‘Do I want Han Kuo-yu to win?’ That is the question you need to consider.”
It works. It has worked every time. Why? The answer is pretty simple: there are few Taiwanese who like Ko more than they hate Han.
The distaste the potential Ko voter has for the two candidates is not equal. They are disenchanted with Tsai Ing-wen, but they detest Han Kuo-yu. Ko’s people are not Han’s people. Understand: those who do like Han do not just like him. They are fanatically enthralled with him. This disgusts the relatively non-partisan, non-politico Ko-leaners. Han speaks language carefully targeted at melting the heart of a 55 year old Taiwanese woman. This rhetoric has no resonance with the potential Ko voter, who is almost always of the younger half of the electorate. They want displays of intelligence, competence, and fresh thinking; Han, for all of his strengths, can deliver none of that. Han Kuo-yu is everything a 60’s something Taiwanese thinks a good Taiwanese man should be; he is also the one thing Taiwan’s 30-somethings hope they never grow to be. In their eyes he is a national embarrassment. And all of that before they consider Han’s position on the China question, which is far out of line with the median voter’s.
What was most interesting to me in these discussions was that none of these self-declared Ko voters had ever heard the argument I offered. They had never thought what the actual consequences of a vote for Ko might be. Once they were aware of these consequences, their change of heart was immediate. “I might vote for some of his party members in the Legislative Yuan,” one said, “but if it looks like Han Kuo-yu will win I guess I do not really have a choice on the presidential vote, do I?”
Ko’s party has only existed for a few weeks. If Ko throws his hat in the ring, the facts I spelled out to these potential Ko voters will be universal knowledge. The clearer it becomes that a vote for Ko is a vote for Han, the less and less people there will be willing to give Ko anything. I do not see a way for Ko and company to survive that.
Well, I do see one way. They could choose Terry Gou as their presidential candidate. As a former KMT candidate he could plausibly pull in a much larger number of the moderate Blues than Ko can manage. That would defang the “a vote for Ko is a vote for Han” line before its bite ever begins to sting. I have also found that among the Taiwanese there is a certain sort of popular irrationalism when Gou comes up. This is based in the implicit affinity Taiwanese believe Terry Gou shares with Donald Trump. Donald Trump was a wildcard who was not supposed to win, but he did. Trump did not have a plan to make the American economy better, but with his business sense, it has happened all the same. Donald Trump is a force that defies expert explanation and careful reasoning altogether! Terry Gou, his supporters hope, will be the same sort of inexplicable force that breaks all the rules (and polling data) Taiwanese usually use to understand what is politically possible.
Given her the data, and a Ko voter will understand what her vote really means. I have no such confidence with potential Gou voter! Gou lives outside the world of polling, data, and normal politics. That perception will prove useful to Ko and company, if they can swallow their pride and trust Gou with the future of their movement.