Despite the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) agreeing to a joint ticket for next year’s presidential election, many of the issues that previously prevented such an agreement linger on. On the one hand, without cooperation between the two, it looked quite clear from polling that Democratic Progressive Party Candidate (DPP) Lai Ching-te (賴清德) would become president. On the other hand, for both the KMT or Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) TPP, conceding some power to the other party represents a risk, even beyond the first problem of who ends up as the second name on the ticket. Can they trust each other in power? Can they afford to be seen relying on an outside political force? Do they really match up on policy?
Perhaps the most difficult factor to add into any such electoral calculation is this: Friction between the two groups’ supporters suggests acceptance of a joint ticket shouldn’t be taken for granted. Not everyone in either camp is happy about the prospect of joining up, even as polls show an overall majority favors a change of government. And for Ko this problem is particularly stark, given the nature of his candidacy.
How does a third-party candidate, whose potential voter base is built up of young people looking to break away from the stronghold of the two traditionally largest parties, maintain that support if he joins up with one of those parties? How does the anti-status quo candidate line up with the party that ruled Taiwan as an authoritarian regime for decades and not have those outsider credentials fundamentally undermined?
Some of that potential difficulty comes out in polling. A recent My Formosa poll showed that a ticket with Ko at the top and the KMT’s Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) as vice presidential candidate would attract more support than the reverse. A Hou-led joint ticket would hypothetically beat Lai by 46.1% to 36.8%, but a Ko-led joint ticket would win 47.4% to 35.3%. This gap seems to suggest that Ko fans are more skeptical about him joining up with the KMT than KMT supporters are skeptical about their party joining with Ko.
However, the overall takeaway from those numbers might well be that, from both sides, there does seem to be a willingness to tolerate what Ko himself has called “a forced marriage.” Even with Ko as hypothetical number two on the ticket, his supporters don’t appear to abandon him.
One explanation for why this might be is that while part of Ko’s appeal is as an outsider to partisan politics, another part is as a self-identifying “pragmatist.” As Andre Beckershoff, author of a new book on “pragmatism” in Taiwanese politics put it to Domino Theory last week: “It is hard to pin down Ko Wen-je politically and this is also some of his effectiveness to voters. … Someone who says he is pragmatic and can attract people who identify as Taiwanese, and even Sunflower [Movement] veterans and those who want to have some pragmatic relations with China on a lower level.” Ko’s supporters come from different parts of the political spectrum, which in some cases may already mean they have an alignment with the KMT, and in others may mean they are drawn to his political flexibility.
It’s important not to overstate this case. The implications of a joint ticket still ultimately represent an unknown. “If Ko agrees to a joint ticket with Hou, some of his supporters — particularly young constituents — may be frustrated and thus choose not to vote or vote for Lai instead,” Stephen Tan (譚耀南), managing director of the International Policy Advisory Group said on Friday (November 10) via message. “This however has been in Ko’s calculus. What he is debating himself now is what to do (or not to do) to maximize his (and his party’s) political influence post election.”
Should the KMT arrangement not have come to fruition, other options were available. Political analyst Courtney Donovan-Smith described in a recent column that in a number of ways an arrangement with independent candidate Terry Gou (郭台銘) would have been easier to slot together for Ko, for instance. If Gou had dropped out and successfully pushed his supporters toward Ko, KMT supporters intent on ousting the DPP may have been more inclined to vote for Ko than Hou as the former’s polling position would be strengthened. They will now no longer face this decision.
Nevertheless, for some, the calculations have always remained quite simple. Sam Huang (黃詠恩), a 19-year-old student we interviewed recently about young people’s views on Taiwanese politics, still sees supporting Ko as an easy choice. “I will definitely vote for Dr. Ko whoever he teams up with,” he says by message. “My opinion is to pull [the] DDP from the shelves, so I will seize the opportunity even if it is not shaped perfectly.” Within this, he’d prefer Ko top of the ticket and believes others like him would too, even if he doesn’t relish Ko working with the KMT. He’s also taken particular displeasure at the older party’s attitude to negotiations with the TPP, but ultimately his support for Ko is defined by pragmatism. A word that follows Ko around wherever he goes.
Note: This article was amended to reflect that a deal between the TPP and the KMT has now officially been struck.
Photo: I-Hwa Cheng/AFP