Taiwan’s Voters Show How to Beat Populism

Mobilization and national identity proved key to Han Kuo-yu’s defeat.

Han Kuo-yu  joins his supporters after losing the presidential election in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on Jan. 11.
Han Kuo-yu joins his supporters after losing the presidential election in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on Jan. 11. Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

In 2016, political scientists began to examine a worrying hypothesis: Global support for democracy was declining. The four years since then have seen the rise and continued support of Donald Trump in the United States, the growth and success of Brexit and the election of Boris Johnson, and the continued power of authoritarian populists as far flung as India and Hungary. But one democracy in East Asia, Taiwan, has resisted populism’s appeal—for now.

Han Kuo-yu, the presidential candidate for the pro-China Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), took Taiwan by storm when he won the mayoral election in Kaohsiung, a stronghold of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), in 2018. Just months after his mayoral victory, Han’s popularity continued to snowball, making him the most popular pro-China politician in Taiwan. Despite being only months into his term as mayor, Han won the KMT nomination to run against incumbent DPP President Tsai Ing-wen.

The political scientist Nathan Batto describes Han’s strategy as presenting politics as a “moral choice between himself, the representative of the shumin [ordinary people], and a corrupt elite who control the DPP and sap the country of its vitality.” During his mayoral run, Han’s main campaign slogan was simply “get rich”—something that he claimed could not be done under the corrupt DPP. But Han mirrored other populist politicians in his use of racist rhetoric toward domestic workers from the Philippines, whom he referred to by a racial slur, and in his regular controversies over sexist and misogynistic comments toward women.

Han, like most KMT politicians, is adamantly pro-China. He endorses the 1992 consensus, supports strengthening ties with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and waxes fondly of an era in Taiwan’s history when economic growth was easy under an authoritarian government. In March 2019, Han went to Hong Kong, Macao, and Shenzhen to negotiate trade deals for Kaohsiung and . Taiwanese were upset with his visit and closed-door meetings with CCP officials, but Han insisted he was just there “to sell fruits.”

In May, Han’s approval rating was at 50 percent, while Tsai, still recovering from a defeating midterm and presidential primary challenge, was below 35 percent. A month before the election, their fortunes had completely reversed: Tsai was at 51 percent and Han at 29 percent. This last Saturday, Tsai ended up with a historic win, defeating Han by more than 2.6 million votes. How did Taiwan overcome its populist challenger, when the United States and United Kingdom did not?

Mobilization was the secret behind Taiwan defeating its populist threat. Tsai’s victory was a numbers game, not necessarily an ideological victory. Tsai and the DPP managed to mobilize 2 million more voters this election than last—a turnout rate difference of 66 percent to 75 percent. In 2016, Tsai won 6.9 million votes, KMT candidate Eric Chu received 3.8 million votes, and former KMT politician James Soong received 1.6 million votes. This election, Tsai won with 8.2 million votes—a sizable increase—but Han also received 5.5 million votes. Soong received only 600,000 votes, meaning his votes likely returned to the KMT. Even with Han’s abysmal polling numbers, he still finished this election significantly stronger than Chu did in 2016 and even had a bigger increase in party votes from last election than Tsai. Tsai’s secret was convincing enough new voters—likely young voters—to vote this election.

The role Hong Kong played this election as a whole is debatable, but it was certainly the key behind the DPP’s youth voter mobilization strategy. The dominant political cleavage in every Taiwanese presidential election is independence versus unification, and the DPP beat on the drum of Hong Kong at every opportunity to push young voters into the idea that this was a life-or-death struggle. Rejecting “one country, two systems” was an effective way for Tsai to simultaneously articulate her support for Taiwanese sovereignty.

Han needed no help making himself look bad; his personal image itself made Tsai seem infinitely more competent, whether it was his poor leadership during city council meetings or his drinking problem that resulted in KMT politicians asking Han to quit drinking before the election. But most critically, he was incredibly unsuccessful at convincing Taiwanese voters he could defend Taiwan’s sovereignty better than Tsai. Han unsuccessfully tried to match Tsai’s enthusiasm about defending Taiwan’s democracy. He was also supportive of the Hong Kong protests, at one point infamously declaring, “One country, two systems—over my dead body!” But his history of contact with the CCP made his words feel empty. Han’s nostalgic nationalism did little to make young Taiwanese voters feel safe. His brand of old-school nationalism was about reliving Taiwan’s glory days rather than protecting the new Taiwan that young people wanted to see. It was an effective strategy for mobilizing older, pro-China voters, but for young voters, it felt like a warning sign about a politician who did not value the Taiwan of today.

Tsai’s return to popularity was also contingent on a number of domestic factors, including her revamped image as a relatable politician to young people. Tsai’s public relations team worked relentlessly last year to boost her image from a lame-duck president to the coolest politician in Taiwan—and one more ready to defend the country, and protect its self-image, than the sellout Han. A year ago, no one was excited to vote for Tsai. After doubling down on her image as the “Iron Cat Lady,” along with hundreds of cat memes and YouTube appearances, Tsai became the hippest politician in Taiwan, winning back the hearts of young voters.

One other number from Saturday’s results further shows the total rejection of Han as a candidate but not the KMT as a party. For Taiwan’s proportional representation vote, the DPP and KMT both received a near-identical share of votes with 34 percent and 33 percent respectively, despite the DPP’s overwhelming success in district council elections. When Taiwanese voters go to the ballot box, they vote three times: first for the president, then for their local district representative, and finally for which party they want to support. Thirty-four out of Taiwan’s 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan go toward the proportional representation party vote. Typically, the party vote matches the presidential vote. This year, however, the DPP and KMT were practically tied despite Tsai’s strong lead over Han. This tells us that when it comes to party support, Taiwanese voters see the DPP and KMT to be on a similar standing. Yet Tsai still won by a large margin despite her party tying with the KMT for party votes. This shows that the pro-China voter base has rejected Han as a candidate but not the KMT as a party. Simultaneously, pan-green candidates support Tsai as president but do not endorse the DPP nearly to the same degree.

When faced with a populist candidate, Taiwanese voters did not simply stay home. Despite Trump’s numerous populist tactics during his 2016 campaign, the U.S. voter turnout rate was practically the same as 2012. In the U.K., Johnson’s 2019 victory had a lower voter turnout rate than 2017. Young voters in particular were the lowest voting cohorts in both the United States and the U.K. Taiwanese youth, however, were far more mobilized. In the end, Han was an easy target for the DPP to mobilize voters over. His populist appeals failed, and Hong Kong gave the DPP an infinitely stronger appeal to those concerned over an encroaching China. A strongman politician, it turned out, is vulnerable to being beaten by a stronger woman—especially when she undercuts him on the key issue of national identity.

Han and his populism have not disappeared. He will now return to his position as mayor of Kaohsiung, where he will continue to have formal political power and a major platform with which to continue to grow his dedicated base of support. Taiwan’s pan-blue base still had more than 5 million voters who bought into Han’s appeal. How the KMT’s future leadership responds to Han’s support, and whether or not Han can maintain his support in the future, will tell whether Taiwan can win the long-term war against populism.

Lev Nachman is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of California, Irvine.

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