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Two parties dominate Taiwan. This brash surgeon-turned-politician is shaking that up

Ko Wen-je, presidential candidate from the Taiwan People's Party (TPP), takes part in a campaigning event in Taipei on Aug. 11, 2023. (Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

His name was enough to sell out a concert hall in less than five minutes at $280 a head — as much as the best seats at a BlackPink concert.

But far from a global K-pop phenomenon, the headline act was a graying, bespectacled father of three, who failed music class when he was in middle school — and now hopes to become the next president of Taiwan.

As in the United States, political candidates from outside the two major parties in this island democracy of 23 million people rarely stand a chance. But four months out from what promises to be a highly contentious presidential election, Ko Wen-je appears to be rewriting that script.

The 64-year-old doctor-turned-politician has won over many of his compatriots by tapping into growing discontent with the political establishment and signaling a desire for middle ground on how Taipei should manage its relationship with Beijing amid the worst tensions in decades.

“He’s actually more like a philosopher,” said Lin Fu-guo, a 56-year-old tech worker who drove about two hours to attend Ko’s concert in Taipei in late July, at which the would-be president warbled Chinese-language classics and danced woodenly among other performers. “Unless something unexpected happens, I’ll vote for Ko Wen-je. The others I feel are just your average politicians.”

Known for his social media savvy and a penchant for courting controversy, Ko has bolstered his brand as a “third force” in Taiwanese politics, a viable alternative to the island’s two historically dominant parties and their opposing stances on China.

Over the last few decades, power has passed between the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, which leans toward independence for Taiwan, and the Kuomintang, or KMT, which favors closer relations with the mainland.

The DPP has prevailed in the last two presidential elections with landslide victories, in large part because the KMT’s stance has alienated many younger voters who have grown wary of China and consider themselves purely Taiwanese.

An August poll by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation showed Vice President William Lai, the DPP candidate, leading the presidential race, with 43.4% support. Ko, running for the Taiwan People’s Party, which he founded in 2019, stood in second with 26.6%, far ahead of KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih at 13.6%.

“I often say, ‘Sometimes getting elected is not because people like you — it’s because people hate your opponent,’” Ko said in an interview at his campaign office in Taipei. “I think that’s going to be a large part of this election.”

Ko, who served two terms as mayor of Taipei, is soft-spoken and slightly impatient, with an inclination to doodle on loose-leaf paper while trying to illustrate a point. He likes to emphasize his pragmatism and rationality and, without providing many policy specifics, describes himself as the best contender to balance open communication and firm deterrence with Beijing, which has stepped up military pressure on the island. He criticizes the DPP for being too confrontational, the KMT for being too deferential, and both for being corrupt.

“He always says that the two political parties are equally bad, so he is the one who can change this,” said Chen Fang-yu, assistant professor of political science at Soochow University in Taiwan. “Theoretically, he is not new anymore. But he still labels himself as the new guy.”

For his first mayoral race, in 2014, which he won handily, Ko ran as an independent but had the endorsement of the DPP in the absence of the party’s own candidate. Since then, he has distanced himself from the ruling party and started his own, which now holds a handful of seats in the island’s legislature and some local offices.

From the start of his political career, much of Ko’s appeal has stemmed from his status as an outsider. His first career was as an emergency room surgeon and specialist in organ transplants. His supporters refer to him affectionately as Ko P — P for professor — in a nod to his old teaching position at the National Taiwan University College of Medicine.

Ko has pushed for more affordable housing, subsidies for renters and higher taxes on owners of multiple properties. He wants to increase voluntary military service and supports raising Taiwan’s defense budget to 3% of GDP, up from the 2.5% — a record $19 billion — earmarked for 2024. In energy, he supports the continued use of nuclear power plants and aims to quintuple the number of electric vehicles in the next decade.

Among young voters, Ko has a leg up thanks to his deft use of social media. He’s the sole candidate on TikTok, and has more Instagram followers than President Tsai Ing-wen. His short videos, which feature Ko participating in TikTok dance trends, playing on arcade claw machines and explaining his views on mandatory military service, help fortify his image as an endearingly awkward abei, or uncle.

By comparison, Ko said, his competitors are “boring, predictable, traditional.” For Ko, the key to social media is easy: create something unexpected. Amid a tight reelection contest in 2018, he released a viral music video on YouTube, in which he chanted “Do the right thing” in English and “Strange” in Chinese from behind a paperwork-laden desk as a local rapper took on more complex verses. He won that race by less than 1%, serving a maximum second term as mayor of Taipei before stepping down in 2022 to run for president.

He also has a knack for stirring controversy. His concert, during which he emerged from a cloud of fog wearing a doctor’s white coat, was disparaged by other politicians as a way to evade campaign finance laws by not being billed as a political rally. Ko’s office defended the event as “ordinary commercial activity.”

Most often, Ko has drawn backlash for his comments on gender, such as criticizing women who do not wear makeup, saying a female politician looks more suited to sit at a reception desk and more recently declaring that #MeToo allegations have become “trendy” in Taiwan. When asked about attacks against him, Ko strikes back, disparaging Taiwanese media as biased and under DPP control.

Polls show that such remarks have done little to endear him to female voters. But supporters have called them the product of a refreshing bluntness, and further proof that he offers something different from politics as usual.

“His answers focus on responding to the questions. Other politicians like to keep it vague, talk in circles, say something besides the point, and in the end they don’t even answer the question,” said Wang Yu, a 29-year-old software engineer who sees little difference between the DPP and KMT. “We’ve been gambling on them for so long. Why not bet on someone else and see?”

Given Ko’s anti-establishment appeal, some analysts credit his popularity partly to a broader populist wave around the world, which has led to the embrace of nonconformist politicians such as former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and former President Trump.

Ko rejects such comparisons, despite his showmanship and firebrand reputation.

“I’m not like Trump. I am a scientist,” he said. His background in science and medicine, he explained, is what separates him from populist leaders. His elite education has also drawn mostly university graduates as his primary supporters, polls show.

Voter opinion is far from set, with months to go before the Jan. 13 election. Analysts say that if Ko is able to maintain his edge over the KMT’s Hou, he could attract more KMT voters who would rather elect a third-party candidate than see another DPP president.

But voters under 40, Ko’s strongest support base, are traditionally the least active on election day. Terry Gou, the founder of major Apple supplier Foxconn, also declared his intention to run for president, which could further splinter support among the trailing parties.

In eight years under Tsai, Taiwan has bolstered defense spending and strengthened ties with the U.S. But a contentious relationship with Beijing has raised the specter of war, and voters have expressed displeasure with the ruling party on issues like stagnant wages, high housing prices and complications importing vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For a lot of young voters, it’s very easy to say housing is expensive, it’s hard to get a job and the DPP has been in power for eight years, so I’m going to rebel against the DPP, who I see as ‘the man,’” said Lev Nachman, a political science professor at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.

Homemaker Wang Chen-wei said she has been disappointed after voting for the DPP in past elections. Previously, she had hoped the party could help Taiwan formally declare independence. Now Wang, 42, will be satisfied if the island can continue simply to exist in peace.

While she is unsure Ko has the prowess to manage the complicated relationship between China, Taiwan and the U.S., she doesn’t mind giving him a chance.

“Things are already this bad,” she said. “Let Ko P try it and see. It might be different. After all, it can’t get much worse.”


© 2023 Los Angeles Times

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