After former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) brokered a deal allowing the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) to join forces in Taiwan’s 2024 elections on Wednesday, questions over whether teaming up with the KMT represents a smart move for TPP presidential candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) have intensified.
Having built up political support among young people based in part on being non-partisan in pan-green and pan-blue debates, some analysts believe young voters will begin to fall away now that Ko has, in one very tangible sense, picked a side. No doubt sensing an opening, the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) response to the TPP-KMT union has repeatedly emphasized Ma Ying-jeou’s role in proceedings, and this could become awkward for Ko. He initially emerged as a powerful political figure in direct opposition to Ma during the latter’s time as president, between 2008 and 2016.
With little time for new polling to test them out, these pessimistic takes carry the weight of some anecdotal evidence. There have been reports of Ko fans asking for refunds on donations. There are videos of street interviews with young people saying they’ll move away from Ko, particularly if he is number two on the ticket, behind the KMT’s Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜). But there is a case to be made that if any candidate can hold together a bunch of apparent contradictions to make them work for him, it’s Ko.
As we have described previously, Ko’s support base is known to be attracted to him for his self-professed “pragmatism.” This could add two layers of insulation against the challenge of working in coalition with the KMT. On the one hand, appeal to “pragmatism” logically allows for room to maneuver among supporters attracted to that as a value in and of itself. Ko has always said he’ll work with different groups, so his supporters won’t be surprised by that, even if a full coalition is a step further than he’s gone before.
“This trait indeed allows Ko the flexibility to justify his decisions as being in Taiwan’s broader interests, even if not all of his supporters agree with a collaboration with the KMT,” Dennis Weng (翁履中), associate professor of political science at Sam Houston State University, told me via email.
On the other hand, as author of “Social Forces in the Re-Making of Cross-Strait Relations” Andre Beckershoff described to Domino Theory, “pragmatism” as a core value also means his support base can be quite wide, ranging from light blue voters to light green. Which means it’s hard to imagine any one electoral tactic simultaneously alienating all of them at once. This may explain why previous polling has consistently suggested Ko’s support will not drop off hugely should he join up with the KMT.
Then there is the awkward link with Ma, who the DPP say is potentially attempting to act as puppet master to pursue policies that the majority of Taiwanese voters have turned away from at various points — at the last election in 2020, when President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) heavily defeated the KMT’s Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), and now, when they have failed to generate a plurality of support for current KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih. Tomorrow, the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation will announce which of Hou or Ko will be the TPP-KMT presidential and vice presidential candidate. This means Ko has gone from participating in a sit-in that helped block Ma’s free trade pact on services with China during the 2014 Sunflower Movement to publicly shaking hands with Ma on a deal that could make him president in coalition with Ma’s party — and could potentially pave the way for an expansion of Ma’s trade agreements with China, the antithesis of what the Sunflower Movement sought to achieve.
But again, perhaps he does have ways to make it all add up. Earlier this year when Ko was linked with the idea of reviving Ma’s failed Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, his response was to emphasize that his original objection was based on the opaque process around negotiations, not the agreement itself. In other words, despite some evidence that doesn’t fit the claim, and despite initially being endorsed by pan-green camp during the 2014 mayoral elections, Ko has already put in some work to suggest his objection to Ma’s trade agreement was procedural, not principle.
What’s more, the majority of Ko’s supporters are aged between 20 and 39. True, the older half of that demographic are most associated with the Sunflower Movement, which worked against Ma. But Ko’s support is strongest with the younger end of that spectrum, which wasn’t politically conscious during the Sunflower Movement, and thus doesn’t carry it around as a key political touchstone.
Does this all mean he’s free to maneuver in any direction at any time? Probably not, and there are a lot of moving parts in this election that can change quickly. Most obviously, as Stephen Tan (譚耀南), managing director of the International Policy Advisory Group, put it to me last Friday (November 10), “it’s a bit easier” to pull it all off if he’s top of the ticket.
However, it’s at least worth considering this lens alongside some of the more catastrophizing ones available for Ko’s tactical moves, which see young people abandoning him in droves and his party being absorbed by the KMT in the manner of the People’s First Party after the 2004 presidential election. There are even ways to see the deal as being to Ko’s long term advantage.
From Dennis Weng’s perspective, with “a significant majority of voters (about 60%) desiring a change in power [away from the pan-green DPP government] in the 2024 elections,” Ko’s decision is about looking at enhancing the the TPP’s organizational capacity by “gather[ing] more resources and attract[ing] talented, passionate politicians.” From a position of limited resources and manpower right now, “This can most effectively be achieved by winning executive power and offering significant government positions,” he said — noting that this advantage remains in place even if Ko is number two on the ticket.
Looking at it this way, even the seemingly awkward connection with Ma could work to Ko’s advantage. “I’d like to highlight how President Ma’s approach to maintaining dialogue with China provides Ko with a unique opportunity to appeal to pan-blue supporters,” Weng said. “Essentially, President Ma’s political image and stance indirectly endorse Ko and alleviate concerns about his pro-Taiwan independence leanings, at least in many KMT supporters’ view.”
Joining forces with the KMT, then, can be seen as reminiscent of a logic Ko set out in an interview shortly after being elected mayor of Taipei for the first time. Asked how he’d deal with high expectations, he said: “People should think of it like the stock market. The stock market goes up and down every day but all you need to really pay attention to is the general market trend. What’s there to be nervous about? … Why not just look at the broader market trends?” Anyone making predictions should keep in mind that Ko’s been quite good at observing “broader market trends” up until now.
Image: Ichiro Ohara/The Yomiuri Shimbun via Reuters Connect