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Taiwan Billionaire’s Presidential Bid Adds Uncertainties to Upcoming Election

FILE - Chief Executive Officer of Hon Hai Precision Industry (Foxconn) Terry Gou delivers a speech during a media event in Taipei, Taiwan, April 30, 2023.
FILE - Chief Executive Officer of Hon Hai Precision Industry (Foxconn) Terry Gou delivers a speech during a media event in Taipei, Taiwan, April 30, 2023.

Taiwan is expecting an unusually competitive presidential election in January 2024 after Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of main iPhone manufacturer Foxconn, announced his bid to run for the top office as an independent candidate.

Analysts say his entrance will add more uncertainties to the presidential race and further divide votes among the China-friendly opposition parties.

"Gou's entrance into the race will further divide the opposition’s votes," Wen-ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University, told VOA in a phone interview.

While opposition parties continue to explore possibilities of joining forces in the presidential race, Sung thinks Gou's bid to run as an independent would increase the difficulties for the opposition camp to find common grounds.

Gou's lost in the main opposition party Kuomintang’s (KMT) presidential primary in 2019. After KMT chose New Taipei City Mayor Hou Yu-ih, a police chief-turned-mayor, as its 2024 presidential candidate in May, Gou began to campaign around Taiwan and made several high-profile overseas trips to the U.S. and Japan.

During a news conference announcing his presidential bid on Aug. 28, Gou said his candidacy is aimed at facilitating an alliance among opposition candidates because that’s the only way to defeat current Vice President Lai Ching-te, who is the presidential candidate for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

"We must take down the corrupt and incompetent DPP in order to realize the transition of power and put the future of the Republic of China back on the right track," Gou said during the presser. "My candidacy is to facilitate alliance-forming among opposition forces and that is the only way to win the election."

However, several opinion polls show that his entrance to the race will weaken support for the two main opposition presidential candidates, Ko Wen-je from the Taiwan People's Party (TPP), a doctor-turned-mayor, and Hou from KMT.

Several opinion polls show Lai leads the race with around 35% of the support while Hou and Ko rank second and third with support rates between 15 and 20%. Gou currently trails behind in the four-way race scenario, with a support rate of around 15%.

Even though opposition parties say attempts to form an alliance continue, some experts say the possibility of an opposition alliance remains slim. "I'm not too optimistic about opposition parties' attempts to join forces, because each camp has its own agenda and calculation," Chen Fang-yu, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taiwan, told VOA in a phone interview.

However, since Gou has two months to collect 290,000 signatures to officially qualify as a presidential candidate, Chen said all scenarios remain possible.

Mixed views from Taiwanese voters

Highlighting his track record as a successful businessman, Gou promised not to let Taiwan "become the next Ukraine" and vowed to make Taiwan the richest place in Asia.

"Give me four years, and I promise I will bring peace to the Taiwan Strait for the next 50 years," he said during the presser. "Give me four years, and I will develop technology and economy so that Taiwan will overtake Singapore in 20 years."

Gou's campaign promises received mixed responses from Taiwanese voters. "As the international situation gets more and more dangerous for Taiwan, we need a leader who can fulfill promises and who has a track record of achieving great success, and Gou's business success proves he is the best candidate to be Taiwan’s next president," Judy Huang, a 52-year-old housewife in Taipei, told VOA in a phone interview.

Other voters say the billionaire failed to offer concrete plans to back up his "flashy" campaign promises and that his business interests in China make him the candidate with the highest possibility to "sell Taiwan out to Beijing."

"He is making all kinds of empty promises, but he doesn’t say how he plans to fulfill those pledges," Wayne Lai, a 46-year-old engineer, told VOA in a phone interview. "He only sees the power that presidents hold but has never thought of the huge responsibility that comes with the position."

Some analysts think Gou is trying to gain support from voters who are nostalgic about Taiwan’s economic success between 1990 and 2000. "Based on the policies he has proposed, including doubling the rate of Taiwan’s economic growth, Gou is trying to attract voters who got rich during the same period as him," Austin Wang, an expert on Taiwan politics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told VOA in a phone interview.

He adds that since Gou was once the richest man in Taiwan and he helped Taiwan acquire vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic, voters who are tired of the longstanding competition between the two major political parties or who value Taiwan’s economic success may find Gou more attractive.

Limited prospect of winning the election

However, there is still a level of public suspicion about how Gou may handle the growing pressure from Beijing, which views Taiwan as part of its territory and has vowed to reunite with the island through force if necessary. "I have never been under the control of the People's Republic of China," Gou said on Aug. 28. "I don't follow their instructions."

In an announcement on Sep. 2, Foxconn, which has huge business interests in China, said Gou has resigned as a company board member due to "personal reasons" and reiterated that the billionaire had handed over the role of chairman four years ago.

Even though his presidential campaign is driven by "a sense of mission," Wang from UNLV said Gou lacks political resources and a stable support base that other presidential candidates have. In his view, these factors could limit the prospect of Gou’s candidacy.

"If he doesn’t form his political party, Gou's campaign may look like an avocation and he may only attract politicians who see the short-term benefits of following him, which will not be good for Gou either," Wang told VOA.