Taiwan elections: Rivals strike deep in front runner Lai’s stronghold Tainan

DPP campaign staff told Taiwanese media that there is a risk that supporters might feel that DPP presidential candidate Lai and the DPP candidates are sure to win and thus decide not to vote.

Ho Ai Li

Ho Ai Li

The Straits Times


KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih taking a wefie with supporters at a market in Tainan on January 8. PHOTO: THE STRAITS TIMES

January 11, 2024

SINGAPORE – Cab driver Wang Yong-li from Taiwan’s oldest city, Tainan, is a bit hesitant when asked who he would vote for in the Jan 13 presidential election.

“The candidate I vote for would not win anyway,” he said.

Then, after a pause, the 54-year-old lets on that he supports the main opposition party, Kuomintang (KMT).

If Mr Wang sounds pessimistic, it is because Tainan is not only a stronghold of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), but also where DPP presidential candidate Lai Ching-te, 64, made his mark as a politician. He was first a lawmaker representing the southern metropolis of about 1.8 million people, and then its mayor.

A popular travel destination famous for its ancient fortresses and local snacks, Tainan was founded by the Dutch in 1624 and was the capital of Taiwan until 1887.

The coastal city, dominated by Minnan-speaking Taiwanese whose ancestors had moved there from China’s southern Fujian province as early as the 1600s, has traditionally supported the pro-independence DPP rather than the China-friendly KMT.

At the 2020 presidential election, nearly 68 per cent in Tainan voted for the DPP’s Ms Tsai Ing-wen and her running mate, Mr Lai, who won with a record 8.17 million votes or 57.1 per cent of the vote.

But the odds have not stopped Mr Lai’s presidential race rivals – Mr Hou Yu-ih of KMT and Dr Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) – from making incursions into the city in an attempt to snatch votes from Mr Lai’s power base.

On Jan 8, Mr Hou, 66, went around two districts in the city in a motorcade and also visited temples and an evening market. Dr Ko, 64, spent two days in the same week campaigning, drawing a snaking queue of young people lining up at a night market to take a picture with him.

Tainan might not be the iron-clad “warehouse of votes” for the DPP as people assume it to be, said political analyst Shih Cheng-feng, who retired from Taiwan’s National Dong Hwa University in 2023.

While Mr Lai made his start in Tainan as a politician, local corruption scandals such as one involving the illegal dumping of industrial waste have tarnished the reputation of the DPP in the city, Dr Shih told The Straits Times.

Current DPP Tainan Mayor Huang Wei-che won by a margin of less than 5 percentage points over his KMT rival in the 2022 municipal elections, the analyst noted.

The DPP won only five out of 21 city mayor and county chief seats, while the KMT won 13. The TPP won one seat, with the remaining two won by independents.

This is perhaps why Mr Lai, considered the favourite to win the presidential election, according to opinion polls, is also stepping up campaigning in the city.

Embarking on a motorcade tour that would take him from the south of Taiwan to the north, he was in Tainan on Jan 8 to greet voters and is scheduled to appear at a rally there on Jan 12, the eve of the election.

DPP campaign staff told Taiwanese media that there is a risk that supporters might feel that Mr Lai and the DPP candidates are sure to win and thus decide not to vote. One DPP legislative candidate, for example, is a shoo-in as his KMT rival has been disqualified.

Dr Shih said the DPP hopes that votes from the south would make up for a shortfall in votes in the north, where its support levels are weaker. “But what if others come here to snatch their votes?”

The KMT team certainly had votes in mind as Mr Hou walked around a meat and vegetable market on the afternoon of Jan 8, shaking hands and taking photos with hawkers and shoppers.

“Hou Yu-ih in person, Hou Yu-ih in person,” party volunteer Hong Yu-feng, 75, repeated in the Minnan dialect on a loudhailer. She also sang his praises as someone who can relate well with the stall owners as he is the son of a pork vendor.

Ms Huang Hui-mei, 55, a braised food stall vendor, says she supports Mr Hou, a former police chief with a distinguished career as he stands for law and security. “I think he will help to clamp down on scams,” she added.

But not all at the market, where stalls sell items from meat to eggs and chestnuts, looked happy to see Mr Hou, with some giving him the cold shoulder.

One woman even scowled and shouted, “Crazy!” in Mr Hou’s direction before getting onto her scooter parked outside the market and riding off.

On Jan 8, all three presidential candidates campaigned in the city, with the motorcades of Mr Lai and Dr Ko reportedly passing by each other at one point.

Many Tainan residents, proud to see their former mayor, lined up along the streets and greeted Mr Lai with shouts of “Hello, President!”

Tainan resident Chang Hui-hsiung, 61, who runs a student hostel and other properties, says he will vote for Mr Lai and the DPP. “From his years in politics, you can see that he is a person of good character. I trust him more than I trust the two other candidates.”

Residents say Mr Lai has done well in helping to improve infrastructure and bringing investments to Tainan, which became a special municipal city in 2010.

Mr Lai, who served as Tainan mayor from 2010 to 2017, was so popular that he was re-elected in 2014 with 72.9 per cent of the vote – the highest in the city’s history.

Still, with the 2024 presidential race more competitive than the 2020 contest, Mr Lai can expect his share of the votes to be lower. Opinion polls have found that young voters tend to prefer Dr Ko, who has promised to provide an alternative to the DPP and KMT, Taiwan’s two main parties.

At a mini-rally for Dr Ko on the night of Jan 8, a crowd of about 2,000, many of them young people, spilled out of the grounds of Tainan’s Fengshan Temple to the adjacent lanes and alleys.

“Tainan does not belong exclusively to the DPP!” the rally’s host declared as the crowd cheered and waved white and light blue flags – the TPP’s colours. Outside the temple, souvenir stands sold T-shirts, caps, hoodies, light sabres and even balloons with hand-drawn caricatures of Dr Ko.

Mr Lin Chian-te, 39, who works in the service industry, said most people in Tainan support Mr Lai as “his image is good”, but he felt that Mr Lai did not have much to show for as mayor.

Referring to Dr Ko by his nickname, he said: “I have decided to vote for Ah Pek (“uncle”) as he is not corrupt.”

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