BY KO SHU-LING | http://www.japantimes.co.jp
TAIPEI – Six months ago, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s approval ratings were so low many wondered if she would be nominated to run for re-election in January.
Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party suffered a huge defeat in the 2018 local elections, and few gave her much chance against the main opposition Nationalist Party candidate Han Kuo-yu, who was riding a wave of popularity that began the year before when he won the Kaohsiung mayoral election as part of the DPP rout.
Today, however, polls show Tsai leading Han by over 10 points, with most in agreement that, barring a major scandal or economic downturn, Taiwan’s fourth elected, and first female, president is headed for a second term.
Tsai’s rebound is widely attributed to two main causes, both involving China.
The first is the pro-democracy unrest in Hong Kong, which has filled local media with the kind of news guaranteed to increase support for the independence-leaning DPP among voters long wary not only of China, but of the China-friendly opposition party widely known as Kuomingtan (KMT).
The second is Taiwan’s economic health, which the U.S.-China trade war boosted in recent months as foreign businesses seek alternate sources for goods once manufactured on the mainland.
Yet Tsai’s biggest break may not have involved China, but rather her opponent’s decision to accept the KMT nomination only a few months after assuming his duties as Kaohsiung mayor.
Han began his political career in the legislature, where from 1993 to 2002 he earned a reputation for combativeness and heavy drinking. This was followed by a series of minor political appointments and a failed 2017 bid for KMT chair, after which he agreed to represent the party in Kaohsiung, a DPP stronghold that Han was expected to lose.
Instead, he took 54 percent of the votes, astonishing everyone and initiating a “Han wave” of supporters who immediately began touting him as presidential material.
Lifting a page from the populist playbook, he campaigned as a humble everyman, replying to complex questions with slogans, or dodging them outright, especially when they involved China. Han focused on local grievances, notably the economy, blaming the DPP for regional stagnation and the exodus of young people forced to move north to find work.