The Rise and Fall of a Populist Leader

Written by Po Lin.

Image credit: _DSC4512 by leeyu_flick/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On 11 January 2020, the Republic of China (ROC), known as Taiwan, will hold its most important elections, determining its 15th President and 10th Legislature. This election will also decide whether domestic reform will continue and the nature of the ROC’s policies towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the next four years. The later will directly affect the ROC’s role in balancing the PRC as directed by the US. The importance of this election is without question.

The most significant mystery for this presidential election is: why the Kuomintang’s (KMT) presidential candidate and political star, Han Kuo-yu, is steadily losing the battle when he began from a dominant position in the polls? I explore three possible answers to this question. First, Han’s populist support has collapsed. Second, domestic affairs in the PRC have made it less appealing to Taiwanese. Third, the influence of US grand strategy on the ROC’s presidential campaign.

The rise of Han is undoubtedly one of the greatest surprises of the ROC’s political history. Han once emotionally said that after he first left politics, he was unemployed for 17 years before returning and briefly serving as the manager of the Taipei Agricultural Products Company. In the public eye, Han is not a member of the traditional political elite and nor is he a well-known person.

In 2018, Han entered the Kaohsiung city mayoral elections as the KMT’s candidate as the candidate of the National Party. With warm and simple slogans, Han focused his campaign strategy on civilians. To the surprise of many, he won the election and became mayor of Taiwan’s third most populous city. Han’s popularity also helped the KMT win the concurrent midterm elections and it seemed inevitable that the KMT would go on to win the 2020 presidential election. However, this mirage did not last for long. One of the key supports for the ‘Han wave’ that swept across Taiwan was the structure of its populism, and this collapsed during his presidential campaign.

The rise of a populist leader is rooted in confrontation between groups. During the 2018 campaign, Han continuously stressed his civilian identity to consolidate his untraditional image as a non-elite. For populist leaders, political support is not based on the leader’s abilities, policies, or credibility, but instead the leader’s representativeness. For instance, both the current US President and the UK Prime Minister are not traditional political elites; they represent a certain group of people whom oppose regional integration or globalisation. No matter how unpredictable President Trump is, his supporters will not be shaken as long as he still leads the group in domestic politics. However, if the representativeness of the leader decreases, support for the leader will also recede. The lost of representativeness is exactly what happened to Han Kuo-yu. During the presidential campaign, Han’s civilian identity was seriously challenged by media. Han’s financial record and his real estate assets become serious of scandals. His civilian identity was crushed and so the structure of his populist support collapsed.

Han’s second challenge came in the form of human rights issues in the PRC. The cross-Strait relationship between the PRC and Taiwan is derived from the Cold War and the ROC’s China policy directly influences regional stability. For the ROC, human rights issues and democratic progress in PRC frame discussions of China. Ever since Xi Jinping abolished term limits to the PRC’s most senior position, suppressed Uighurs in Xinjiang and the human rights crises in Hong Kong, people in the ROC became increasingly skeptical of the PRC and thereby the political party which bandwagons with the PRC – Han’s KMT.

Han’s third challenge came from the international system. Since US Vice President Mike Pence announced the US grand strategy towards the PRC in 2018, the US has aimed to balance the PRC in order to maintain dominance in the system. Examples of such US tactics are the regulation of Huawei and the US-PRC trade war. If the ROC does not follow the logic of this system, punishment and a system change could cause the ROC lose its US support. In the end, the ROC might have no choice but to cooperate with the PRC’s cross-Strait policy. Under this structure, the political party which supports engagement with the PRC will lose its voter attraction.

These three challenges, the collapse of a populist structure, human rights issues in the PRC, and the systematic changes in the international system all impacted Han Kuo-yu’s presidential campaign. These reasons explain why Han will be swamped in the trench fight during this presidential campaign. Han’s rise was unexpected and the outcome of his current political journey will be revealed on 11 January. The result of ROC’s presidential election will influence the stability of the region and the US’s Asia-Pacific grand strategy.

Po Lin is a former policy analyst and currently a full-time political science PhD student  at State University of New York, focusing on international relations, global governance, and global security.

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