Taiwan’s Opposition Picks Hou Yu-ih, a Moderate, for Presidential Race

Taiwan’s Opposition Picks Hou Yu-ih, a Moderate, for Presidential Race

Taiwan’s main opposition party, once a dominant political force, lost the last two presidential elections in large part because it championed closer ties with China. With voters alarmed by Beijing’s aggression on the island, the Kuomintang is now pinning its hopes on a new breed of candidate: a popular local leader with an unknown record on the thorny China issue.

The Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, on Wednesday nominated Hou Yu-ih as its presidential candidate, a 66-year-old, two-time mayor of New Taipei City and former police chief who has been trying to find a middle ground within the Kuomintang’s ties with China. Mr. Hou started his offer with an appeal.

“We must unite for victory, especially at this stage when our country is facing harsh and dangerous international circumstances,” Mr Hou said after announcing his nomination.

His candidacy sets the stage for a close race next January that could set a new course for Taiwan in the great-power conflict between China and the United States and reshape tensions around the Taiwan Strait, one of the world’s most dangerous trouble spots. Under the seven-year leadership of President Tsai Ing-wen of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Taiwan has come under increasing military and diplomatic pressure from China and has been pushed back by strengthening ties with the United States.

Within the Kuomintang, Mr. Hou is seen as an able administrator with broad appeal who “evokes the fewest intra-party controversies, is consistent with society’s broader expectations, and has the highest likelihood of winning the presidential election,” said Huang Kwei-Bo, a professor of presidential elections International Relations at National Chengchi University and former Deputy Secretary General of the Nationalist Party.

For his nomination, Mr. Hou will face off against Lai Ching-te, the ruling party’s nominee and current vice president. A win for Mr. Lai would likely mean a continuation of China’s policy of barring Taiwan from any high-level engagement, as well as Taiwan’s continued closeness to the United States. A victory by Mr. Hou and the Kuomintang could reopen lines of communication with China and ease military tensions, potentially easing pressure on Taiwan to strengthen ties with Washington.

Mr. Hou faced stiff competition from Terry Gou, founder of iPhone and electronics maker Foxconn, who failed despite holding rallies across the island to make his case for the nomination. Analysts said Mr. Gou’s lack of political experience and business interests in China made him an unsuitable candidate for the Kuomintang.

The Kuomintang has struggled in recent years to reconcile its pro-China leanings with the Taiwanese public’s negative sentiment toward Beijing. This act of juggling has been complicated by Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong in 2019 and its increased military drills around Taiwan. The ruling DPP positioned itself as a defender of Taiwan’s sovereignty and democracy, citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an example of the urgent threat of authoritarian expansionism.

But the Kuomintang has had major victories over the past year, winning nearly two-thirds of the municipal elections that have been held – races in which geopolitics counts less than bread-and-butter issues. Mr. Hou won his re-election as mayor comfortably and has since topped the candidacy in several party polls.

Unlike most politicians in Taiwan, Mr. Hou began his career as a police officer in the 1980s. Rising through the ranks, he was one of the key investigators in the 2004 assassination attempt on President Chen Shui-bian function was active.

Turning to politics in 2010, he joined Eric Chu, then mayor of New Taipei City. Mr. Hou served as deputy mayor under Mr. Chu and succeeded Mr. Chu as mayor in 2018. Mr. Chu is now chairman of the Kuomintang.

Supporters of Mr. Hou in New Taipei City say he is taking real action to improve residents’ lives. Jax Chen, a 28-year-old nonprofit worker, gave the example of Mr. Hou’s efforts to convert a huge, decades-old landfill into a green parkland.

“In Taiwan’s political scene, it seems like everyone just talks too much,” he said. “But if there is a person who is pragmatic and has the ability to enforce policy, I think that would be great and everyone would be willing to accept that person.”

Less established are Mr. Hou’s views on important geopolitical issues, such as how Taiwan should manage its relations with China and the United States. China claims Taiwan as its territory, to be annexed by force if necessary, and accuses the DPP of seeking formal independence. The Kuomintang has claimed it is the party with the best chance of attacking China and avoiding war.

In an apparent attempt to thread the boat, Mr. Hou said he opposed both Taiwan independence and China’s proposed “one country, two systems” formula for taking over Taiwan. The position avoids two extremes, but leaves open a multitude of possible viewpoints on the existential question of cross-strait relations.

The lack of clarity about his stance on China has already drawn criticism from some observers, a potential disadvantage for him in addition to his lack of foreign policy experience, said Paul Chao-hsiang Chu, a politics professor at National Taiwan Normal University who studies partisan politics and voter behavior.

At the same time, Mr. Hou’s reticence could make him more attractive to centrist voters, said Liao Da-chi, a professor emeritus of political science at National Sun Yat-Sen University. That contrasts with Han Kuo-yu, the Kuomintang’s 2020 presidential candidate, who made rousing speeches and promised to restore closer ties with China but lost in a landslide to President Tsai.

Overall, Mr. Hou has had very few contacts with the United States, said Bonnie Glaser, Taiwan expert and executive director of the Indo-Pacific program at the United States’ German Marshall Fund. Mr. Hou said he has met at least eight times with officials at the American Institute in Taiwan, the United States’ de facto embassy. But since Taiwan reopened, American congressional delegations have not been able to meet with him.

As Beijing stokes tensions in the Taiwan Strait, the Kuomintang’s contact with China sometimes puts it in a difficult position.

Earlier this year, just as President Tsai was traveling to the United States, Ma Ying-jeou, a former president of Taiwan and an influential leader of the Kuomintang, traveled to China on an unofficial trip. Mr Ma has been criticized in Taiwan for appearing to have kowtowed to China during an inappropriately timed visit. (In retaliation for Ms. Tsai’s visit to the United States, China sent a record number of military aircraft, as well as naval vessels and an aircraft carrier, to near Taiwan to conduct military exercises.)

“In order to win the election, it is imperative for the Kuomintang to persuade the people that voting for them is the safer and more promising choice for peace,” said Dr. Chu. “At the same time, how to persuade the Taiwanese people not to betray Taiwan or allow China to completely engulf Taiwan’s sovereignty poses a major challenge for the Kuomintang.”