Analysts say the decision by Taiwan’s biggest opposition party, the Kuomintang or KMT to pick a popular home-grown politician as its candidate in the island’s upcoming presidential election is a departure from its past practice but something the party sees as its best hope to return to power after eight years and improve relations with China.
The former head of Taiwan’s National Police Agency, and well-liked mayor of Taiwan’s New Taipei City, 65-year-old Hou Yu-ih is considered a novice in China or international affairs. But he is also seen as someone, analysts say, who can appeal to a broader range of voters at a time when Taiwan faces increasingly hostile threats from China and international concern that the island could become the next Ukraine.
“Especially at this stage, the international situation is fierce and dangerous for our country, the domestic political situation is conflicting and confrontational, and a lot of things are waiting to be done, young people cannot see the future,” Hou said, speaking at a news conference after his party confirmed his candidacy.
“We must make a big overhaul and return to power. … Only by changing the political parties can we save the country and save Taiwan!” he said.
To do that, the KMT is counting on ways that Hou is different from many of its previous candidates for president, analysts say.
In the past, many of the party’s candidates had ties to China and were part of family’s that fled to Taiwan after the KMT lost a civil war there, fighting against the communists.
Hou’s family roots on the island stretch back for centuries. His father sold pork and Hou worked for years as a police officer to rise to become head of the National Police Agency, helping solve some of Taiwan’s biggest crime cases, including murders and kidnappings.
He eventually became deputy and later mayor of New Taipei City, Taiwan’s most populous metropolis, winning reelection by a landslide last year.
“The uniqueness of Hou is mainly that he’s a benshengren (native Taiwanese). He doesn’t give people the feeling he’s close to China,” said Simon Chen, an associate political science professor at National Taiwan University.
That background was different from Hou’s main competitor for the candidacy, Terry Gou. Gou, the founder and retired chairman of iPhone assembler Foxconn, has 80% of his assets in China where most of his factories are located. His family also came from China with the KMT.
“Hou doesn't have this problem. His past statements or actions are moderate, not like the ones from the pro-unification camp. He can fight for the middle-of-the-road voters who voted for President Tsai (Ing-wen), who see what the DPP has done in the past eight years, don’t think it’s done well, fear a war will happen, and don’t want it to govern anymore,” said Chen.
Managing the perception of not being seen as too close to China – which has ratcheted up military pressure toward Taiwan over the past year - while easing tensions as well is what the KMT hopes Hou can do.
For now, it is too early to say how that will go.
Hou has voiced opposition to Taiwan independence, something Beijing demands. But he has also spoken out against One Country, Two Systems, China’s proposed model for unification with Taiwan.
Instead, Hou has advocated using “peace to protect (Taiwan's) democracy.”
How Hou Compares to DPP’s Candidate
In the elections, Hou will face off against the DPP’s candidate William Lai, who currently serves as Taiwan’s vice president and has also been mayor of southern city of Tainan. His other contender is former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party, the island’s third largest party.
So far, Lai has been leading in the polls by about five to 10 percentage points, according to polls in Taiwan. Although analysts say it's too soon to tell given Hou has only just been named a candidate.
Analysts note that unlike Lai and Ko, Hou rarely travels overseas and doesn’t speak English.
Now that he’s been nominated, he’s expected to soon travel to the U.S. and meet with think tank scholars and others.
Lin Chin-chieh, a New Taipei City councilor who knows both Hou and Gou well, said many KMT voters hope Hou will pick Gou as his vice-presidential running mate. Gou built up a major multinational company from scratch, employing around 1 million workers in China alone and can help Hou on the economy as well as relations with Beijing and other foreign countries.
But regardless of who Hou picks, Lin said, the party has learned from its mistakes of being divided in the past. Even Gou, who immediately quit the KMT after he lost in the party primary in 2020, has vowed to give his full support to Hou.
“The whole party will definitely unite behind him to help him win the election,” said Lin. “Taiwan’s main problem is cross-strait relations. If we don’t handle cross-strait relations well, we might even have war. … Hou will definitely have no problems handling cross-strait relations.”