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Taipei’s Straight-Talking Mayor Aims to Hold Balance of Power

Ko Wen-Je (left) pictured on the side of a Taipei bus with Zhang Xing-Song, a candidate for the Taiwan People’s Party

SNA (Taipei) — Opinionated, outspoken and gaffe prone, Taipei’s Mayor Ko Wen-Je is a favorite of students and other young people, who flock to his rallies as if he were a rock star.

The former organ transplant surgeon and medical professor ran a successful campaign playing up his non-political background to become the first independent mayor of Taipei in 2014. Now he’s created his own political party that has ambitions to transform Taiwan’s political landscape, starting with Saturday’s legislative elections.

Only five months old, the Taiwan People’s Party is fielding the third largest number of candidates for the 113-seat Legislative Yuan. Ko says his goal is to prevent either of the two main parties—the China-friendly Nationalist Party (KMT) and the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)—from gaining a majority, and thus himself hold the balance of power. He wants to forge a middle ground in politics, but he has generated controversy with a perceived shift toward the KMT camp, and increasingly supportive comments about China.

Incumbent President Tsai Ing-Wen is expected to win a second term in the presidential election on this coming Saturday, but if her DPP party loses its majority in the legislature she will face a struggle getting her policies through, including reducing Taiwan’s economic dependence on China and developing the renewable energy sector.

During his time in the spotlight, Ko has amassed support from particularly young voters for his plain-speaking style and keen use of social media, unlike many other politicians. They call him Ko-P.

That is, P for Professor.

“I think most of the time he just speaks from the heart, says directly what he feels, rather than what he should say to get votes,” said Taipei resident Liao Yi-Wei, 28.

Ko-P wants to offer voters an alternative to Taiwan’s only two political camps: the Pan-Blue Coalition led by the KMT, which favors closer links with China, and the DPP-dominated Pan-Green Coalition, which leans towards formal Taiwan independence. His party includes members from both camps.

“There are a lot of people that are tired, I think, of the partisan divide in Taiwanese politics, and they see Ko as potentially representing something new,” said Brian Hioe, editor of New Bloom magazine, which covers politics in Taiwan.

While his policies are vague and defined in opposition to the DPP and KMT, “Ko really does benefit from the fact that a lot of people are fixated on his personality as a politician, so sometimes they’re not actually looking at his concrete policies,” said Hioe.

Ko launched the Taiwan’s People’s Party on his 60th birthday in what commentators have seen as a vanity project intended to prop up his image for a 2024 presidential run. The party is fielding 45 candidates (compared to the DPP’s 102 and KMT’s 107), but it is the image of Ko, the party chairman, that adorns canvassing leaflets, placards and balloons. “Ko Wen-Je Thanks You,” say the balloons.

He was believed to be considering running for president this year, but a series of gaffes put paid to that. Many of his gaffes are directed at women; in one example, he called Chen Chu, the highest-ranking official in Tsai’s office and a prominent figure in Taiwan’s pro-democracy movement forty years ago, fat. In another, he said that Taiwanese women who go out with no makeup on “scare people.”

He has also come in for criticism for shifting from one side of Taiwan’s political spectrum to the other.

During his first campaign for mayor, while he stood as an independent, he was supported by Tsai’s DPP. To get elected, he rode the wave of anti-China sentiment that followed the Sunflower Movement, which saw mostly young protesters occupy Taiwan’s legislature to oppose a trade pact with China.

In the years since, he has undergone a surprising turnaround, expressing pro-China comments and conducting controversial exchanges with Chinese cities. He has reached out to heavyweight KMT figures asking for support for his party—people who would have opposed his original supporters back in 2014.

His increasingly pro-China stance has flummoxed many. It may turn out to be a big political miscalculation as the past year has seen a growing distrust and fear of Chinese influence on Taiwanese society amid more threats from the Chinese Communist Party to annex Taiwan and the Hong Kong protests.

Some of Ko’s earlier supporters stand firmly behind him.

“I think he’s matured, because if you always say, ‘Oh, I hate China, I don’t want to work with you,’ nothing will improve,” said Lin Shiau-Chi, 39, who was a student of Ko’s as an undergraduate. “Maybe everyone thinks he likes China. This is not about ‘like’ or ‘dislike.’ You need to know your friends and enemies. You need to communicate with them and then you know what’s the next step.”

Ko the doctor also taught a course on philosophy at Taiwan’s most prestigious university. It was called “The Art of Life and Death.”

“He taught everyone how to be calm and how to judge things correctly without our emotions,” remembers Lin of her time in the packed lecture hall.

“Every student thought the way he talks was very interesting and could inspire us. He could give us a different point of view.”

Whether or not his different vision for Taiwan politics will inspire voters, his everyman political style has already left a mark. Hioe, the New Bloom magazine editor, said it was used as a template by a later populist, Han Kuo-Yu, Tsai’s opponent for the presidency.

Han presented himself as someone with no political experience when he successfully stood for Kaohsiung mayor in 2018, even though his experience as a legislator goes back twenty years. 
“(Han also has) this much more direct manner of speaking in which you don’t worry about saying the wrong thing and offending political correctness,” said Hioe.

Taiwanese voters will cast two ballots in the legislative elections, one for a district candidate and the other for a political party. Only parties that obtain at least 5% of the votes in the latter are eligible for a share of 34 seats up for grabs in that vote. Polls have suggested Ko’s party will get the largest share of the vote of the record nineteen small parties that are standing, and win five seats. No polls have estimated how many seats parties will win in the constituency vote.

Even if it achieves just a handful of legislators in parliament, Ko’s party can make some noise and look to expand the party.

And could Ko appeal to a wide enough range of people to have any chance of winning the presidency in 2024?

“I think the most important thing is he’s not just a politician, he’s a doctor,” said Lin, his ex-student. She says Ko is the only non-KMT politician her mother has ever supported. “My mother is not against him, because he saved people. A doctor is always good so he has that kind of image.”

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