Socially Awkward Outsider Is Surprise Contender to Lead Taiwan

(Bloomberg) -- If it weren’t for the bodyguards swarming him, it’d be easy to mistake Ko Wen-je for someone’s socially awkward uncle and not a man who could soon be managing one of the world’s most dangerous geopolitical flash points as Taiwan’s next president.

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The 64-year-old former trauma surgeon entered politics just a decade ago and is running as a third-party candidate in an election that’s usually a race between the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and the opposition Kuomintang. Ko has few aides, little money and admits he doesn’t enjoy meeting people.

Yet he’s proven surprisingly popular. A poll published by broadcaster TVBS in early September, less than five months before the election, had Ko in second place with 23% support. That’s 7 percentage points behind Vice President Lai Ching-te and 4 points ahead of the KMT’s Hou Yu-ih. Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Foxconn Group who’s running as an independent, trailed with 14%.

“I think it’s fair to say that as a third-party candidate he has outperformed expectations,” said Jennifer Welch, Bloomberg Economics’s chief geoeconomic analyst who was formerly director for China and Taiwan on the White House’s National Security Council.

A Ko victory would thrust a relative unknown in Washington and Beijing into the middle of an increasingly tense superpower rivalry. With China pledging to take control of the island it sees as its territory, and the US long guaranteeing the democracy’s security, the stakes are high.

Underscoring the risks, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said this week that it expects China to continue ratcheting up military pressure on the island. That view was delivered just as the Chinese navy sent a record 20 warships into waters near the island.

It also follows Beijing ordering major military drills around Taiwan twice since August last year because President Tsai Ing-wen met senior US lawmakers. The US has criticized Chinese exercises as “provocative,” and President Joe Biden has said the US will defend Taiwan if it is attacked.

See: Why Taiwan’s Status Risks Igniting a US-China Clash: QuickTake

While most analysts who study the region believe the risk of war is low, they also warn that it isn’t zero and worries have been sharpened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Handling Taiwan’s relationship with China is the biggest issue facing the island’s voters before the presidential election in January 2024.

In that race, Ko is an untraditional candidate — and one who can be uncomfortably blunt. Upon arriving for the first of several interviews last week and meeting someone he’d not seen in years, Ko greeted them with: “You’ve gotten really fat.”

That frankness has endeared him to supporters, who see him as unlike Taiwan’s traditional politicians. His stance on China is another example of his appeal. While stressing that he won’t embrace Beijing wholesale, Ko has separated himself from Lai by saying he wants dialogue.

Lai has pledged he will continue the China policies of the incumbent, Tsai, who cannot run again because of term limits. That means increasing defense spending and strengthening ties with the US, Japan and other “like-minded democracies” as a deterrence.

What Tsai has been unable to do since she became president in 2016 is talk to Beijing. The stumbling block is the “92 consensus,” a tacit agreement that says Taiwan is a part of China.

Beijing insists that Tsai, like her predecessor, must affirm this notion before talks. Tsai and Lai have made clear they won’t do that, offering instead to hold talks as equals, which suggests a chill would continue under Lai.

Refusing to accept the 92 consensus is an increasingly popular position in Taiwan, unsurprising given many of its 23 million people identify as Taiwanese instead of Chinese. While Ko agrees that the 92 consensus is “stigmatized,” he wouldn’t reject it outright.

When asked what he’d say to Beijing about it, Ko says he’d answer: “There doesn’t seem to be a market for this in Taiwan. Shall we change the name?”

Ko says that kind of answer would let him both reject the 92 consensus while also keeping the door open to discussions with Beijing. “A really important principle is we have to think of a way to have dialogue with China, and not just always tell them ‘no,’ because after ‘no,’ there is no other step,” he says.

Ko says he would begin with talks on cultural and sports exchanges, areas that are “not contentious,” then move onto economic matters, if possible. Political issues would be raised last.

TSMC Plants

Ko has also appeared a bit suspicious of Washington. That can be seen in his differences with Lai on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp., the crown jewel of the island’s economy. The chip firm’s $40 billion plans to build capacity in Arizona have led many in Taiwan to wonder how much influence Washington had on those decisions.

Lai sees TSMC’s expansion outside Taiwan as a positive. Taiwan’s advantage in producing advanced chips means it has “a responsibility to give back to the international community,” he said in a July interview with Bloomberg Businessweek.

Ko is less enthusiastic. Asked if he’d support TSMC building more plants abroad, Ko says any part of the company’s operations that are crucial to US national security should be ring-fenced. Otherwise, decisions on plant locations should be dictated by the market, not politics.

Ko does recognize how crucial Washington is to Taiwan’s security. He’s considering the second second trip of his campaign to the US in the coming months, giving political figures there a chance to get to know him.

‘Wild Card’

Ko says his overriding principle for dealing with Washington is ensuring “no surprises” crop up, though his brief political career has had its share of those. During Ko’s eight years as Taipei’s mayor — the only public office he has held — he created plenty of controversy, most notably for comments about women that prompted accusations of misogyny.

He once described a female candidate for office as attractive and young enough to be a receptionist. Last month, his Taiwan People’s Party was criticized for sexualizing flight attendants after having women in short skirts dance at one of their events.

Ko says the insensitive comments are a problem from years ago that he’s already addressed and insists he is not a misogynist. He says his campaign has reworked its “standard operating procedure” so incidents like the dancing women won’t be repeated. What he doesn’t do in the interview — and hasn’t done publicly — is apologize for the event in August.

His past musings that he has a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome have reportedly led a Taiwanese lawmaker to ask him to stop bringing up his self diagnosis out of respect for families of those actually recognised as having the disorder.

The episodes suggest Ko could inject a level of unpredictability as Taiwan’s next leader that won’t make the US-China relationship any easier to manage.

“Ko would be a wild card as a president,” said Kharis Templeman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “There is greater uncertainty in Washington about what he would do than if Lai or Hou were elected.”

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