Gou drops out

Today is the deadline to register a petition drive with the Central Election Commission to get on the presidential ballot as an independent candidate. Neither Terry Gou nor Ko Wen-je registered. Neither did Wang Jin-pyng, for that matter.

[The only person who registered was former vice president Annette Lu, who is running from the “deep green / feminist who is insanely jealous of any other woman who might outshine her” corner of the political spectrum. Let’s try our best to ignore her.]

Not many people expected either Ko or Wang to register, but most observers, including myself, seem surprised that Gou did not. Heck, just a few days ago, I confidently told a room of important people and media reporters that there was a 95% chance that he would run. Oops. Well, I can only say that I don’t consider predicting the future to be my responsibility. Predictions are fun and all, but no one has a working crystal ball. We might have some theoretical guidance, but every situation is unique. Prediction is a reasonable goal for people, such as rocket scientists, looking at simple problems, such as whether an o-ring on the space shuttle will fail in a given situation. However, in the complex contexts facing social scientists, there are simply too many variables to have much hope of making accurate predictions. Also, o-rings don’t learn or act strategically the way humans do. They definitely don’t learn your theoretical prediction and then deliberately do the opposite, the way stock market investors might. For social scientists, prediction is a fool’s errand. My responsibility to society, as I understand it, is to explain what the hell just* happened. So, why the hell did Terry Gou decide not to run?

[*”Just” is used in the social science sense, roughly meaning something that has happened since the beginning of the French Revolution.]

According to the accounts I’ve heard so far, this was not a decision that Gou made in advance. According to both an in-depth piece in Up Media and one of his inner circle who appeared on a talk show, Gou made the final decision the day before the deadline. He had planned to give a press conference on the day of the deadline, but news leaked and he had to make a statement that evening. The point of this is that this decision was not inevitable. I will give a few reasons that I think might have motivated his choice, but he could have just as easily gone the other way.

In his statement, Gou said that he felt he would be unable to change the political culture. He had hoped to get beyond regular politics, overcome populism, and build unity among the people, but events had convinced him this was unlikely. Let’s read a bit into that statement. It was a bit jarring for me to hear Gou say that he wanted to overcome populism. After all, he is the one who would have been running as an outsider trying to dismantle establishment party politics. On reflection, however, I don’t think he understands populism the way I do. I think that might have been a code word for Han Kuo-yu or for Han’s threateningly fanatic followers. There are rumblings that Han’s fans have bullied opponents online, and Gou might have been taken aback by the intensity of electoral politics.

More generally, however, I think that Gou is probably surprised and disappointed at his inability to shatter the established coalitions. In business, people switch sides as soon as someone offers them a better deal. Politics is not like business. In a strong party system, such as Taiwan’s, politicians rarely switch sides. To leave one’s party is to repudiate one’s entire career; it is the kind of dramatic move that only desperate politicians attempt. Most party switching does not end well. Gou probably underestimated the power of party loyalty. Consider the case of Ma Ying-jeou. It is no secret that Ma doesn’t think highly of Han. In fact, most people believe that Ma encouraged Gou to run precisely to deny Han the KMT nomination. Moreover, Gou donated a large amount of money to Ma’s personal foundation. Gou might have thought that he would have Ma’s tacit support, or at least Ma would stay neutral. That was never going to happen. Ma was never going to turn his back on the KMT. Even though Ma and Han still don’t particularly like each other, Ma enthusiastically went on stage at Han’s big rally last week to show his loyalty to the party. He didn’t say anything nice about Han – his speech was focused on criticizing Tsai – and the crowd showed a shocking lack of respect for him by chanting for Han during his speech, but Ma sent a clear message to everyone that he will remain loyal to the KMT. I’m sure Ma was not alone in this. Gou’s VP search might have been a similar case. The Gou campaign reached out to New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi’s brother, but the scheme wilted as soon as the media caught a whiff of the story. Parties always close ranks in election campaigns, and many of Gou’s erstwhile close friends would have told him that they couldn’t support him against the official KMT nominee. Gou thought that he was offering to save the KMT from itself, but the KMT didn’t seem interested in that offer.

Gou might also have started to realize the depth of the organizational challenge facing him. The DPP and KMT have massive networks of people working for their cause. This includes professional politicians, such as county councilors and neighborhood chiefs, media surrogates on all the TV talk shows, people who know how to influence social media or put together an advertising campaign, people who know how to organize six small events and two major events on Tuesday and then again on Wednesday and Thursday before things really start heating up on the weekend, and the countless numbers of volunteers who help get voters to the voting booths on Election Day. Gou didn’t have any of that. He had a handful of people who work for his foundations and who are not experienced at running electoral campaigns. His alliance with Ko wasn’t much help on this point, since Ko has even less organizational prowess than Gou. Ko offered to donate his trusted aid, Tsai Pi-ju, to Gou’s campaign. However, Tsai is already busy trying to put together Ko’s Taiwan People’s Party; does she have the time, energy, or capacity to build both a political party and a presidential campaign from the ground up in a hundred days?

The ballyhooed alliance between Gou, Ko, and Wang may have been another problem. The three continually sent signals to the media that they were willing to work together, but there isn’t much evidence that they actually did cooperate very much. One photo op is not an adequate substitute for a common platform or a concrete agreement on how they would work together. Ko, in particular, seemed to be an unreliable partner. Even though Ko was pushing Gou to run, Ko never seemed to understand the need to subordinate himself to the presidential candidate. He constantly sought the limelight for himself, making statements that did not help Gou’s campaign. He also declined to make any sacrifice for the Gou campaign. One report said that Gou’s last straw was that Ko refused to accept the VP slot on the ticket. Gou may simply have concluded that Ko was never going to be a trustworthy ally.

Wang presented a different, but no less vexing, set of challenges. For one thing, Wang is still insisting that he is going to be president; never mind that there is no reasonable path for this to happen. KMT supporters do not like Wang. Wang dropped out of the KMT primary claiming it was unfair, but his fundamental problem is that KMT supporters would have chosen almost anyone else over him. In the current polls, when the question stipulates that Ko supports Gou, Gou’s numbers go up a few percentage points. However, if the next questions states that both Ko and Wang support Gou, Gou’s numbers go back down. That is, the polls say that Wang is a drag on Gou. Who wants Wang to be president? His strongest support is among DPP identifiers, but they won’t actually vote for him. Wang is almost no one’s first choice, and he isn’t very many people’s second choice, either. He dropped out of the KMT primary and he isn’t registering a petition drive for and independent candidacy, but he also isn’t ceasing all campaign activities.  Instead, he continues to operate under the delusion that he will somehow get on the ballot and win the election. Oh, and Wang and Ko don’t seem to get along very well. These are Gou’s top two political allies. You might see how these two didn’t fill Gou with confidence.

I have written elsewhere about the difficulty Gou might have with his China policy. The plan to ignore China, insist that China will work with him, and also not accept a conventional One China policy seems a bit iffy. Let me quote from a May interview with Commonwealth Magazine. “I will not say ‘1992 Consensus.’ I will talk about ‘1992 Consensus, One China, Each side with its own interpretation.’ Under the framework of One Chinese ethnicity, there is one ROC, and one PRC. This is what I insist upon.” 我不會講「九二共識」,我要講的是「九二共識、一中各表」,一個中華民族底下,一個中華民國,一個中華人民共和國,這是我堅持的理念。This is not One China as the PRC understands it. In fact, it is Two China’s; something that is anathema to the PRC. Would China agree to government-to-government meetings if President Gou took this position? I doubt it. (Admittedly, Gou has not repeated this statement since May, but neither has he repudiated it. His statement in the presidential debates, that “each side with its own interpretation” is the essential part of the 1992 Consensus is only marginally more palatable to Beijing.)

Now, I doubt Gou thinks his formula is as logically flawed as I do. Most people think their position makes perfect sense. However, he may have gotten an inkling that Beijing wasn’t happy with him. About a week ago, Chinese regulators issued a technical ruling that prevented investors in Shanghai from purchasing shares of the Foxconn subsidiary listed in Hong Kong. The price of the Hong Kong stock immediately fell 5%. Was this a message to Gou? When I saw the story, I immediately concluded that Beijing was sending a clear warning. Given the timing – right before Gou was set to formally announce his presidential bid – it seemed inconceivable that it wasn’t intentional. However, the Taiwanese media confined the story to the business section. The political editors ignored it. The only account I have seen claiming it was a political message from Beijing to Gou was from a DPP legislator on his Facebook page. The Taiwan Affairs Office issued a statement denying any connection; you’d expect them to deny it, but the denial didn’t sound like an insincere denial that we were all supposed to see through. If it was intended as a message, it seems strange that the Taiwanese political world didn’t understand the message. Maybe this was nothing. But it sure looked like something to me. And he did just drop out of the presidential race. Am I just imagining things?

 

The Gou campaign denied that poor polls led Gou to withdraw, and this claim seems credible. Gou was doing fine in the public polling. He wasn’t winning, but he was close enough that there was a clear possibility of winning. Gou’s campaign insisted that they were in a clear second place in their internal polls, eight points behind Tsai but five points ahead of Han. Not many public polls are showing a 13 point spread between Tsai and Han, but plenty are showing Gou in second or a close third. Lots of politicians have gambled on far less promising polls.

 

One final thought: The media has immediately begun speculating that Gou, Ko, or Wang might still run as the PFP candidate. By passing the 5% threshold in the previous legislative elections, the PFP (along with the KMT, DPP, and NPP) earned the right to directly nominate a candidate without going through the petition process. Indeed, there was a story a few weeks ago that the PFP had discussed giving their nomination to Ko until he founded his own party. The deadline for registration is November 22, so we might have another two months of these speculative stories.

However, my first reaction is that Gou, Ko, and Wang have probably missed their best chance. If they wanted to run, they should have done it now. Unless the PFP makes an announcement very soon, the media focus will concentrate on Tsai and Han. Over the next two months, every news story will be about those two. No one will be talking about Gou’ position on military weapons purchases, high speed rail extensions, or agricultural development. If he does try to jump back in two months from now, the obvious question will be whether he is taking the presidency seriously enough. The news cycle is very fast, and we are about to move on from Gou. In two months, he will be an afterthought. People – both ordinary voters and potential campaign workers – will take sides, and most of them won’t be willing to reconsider those decisions come December. You can’t postpone things forever; I think September 17 was the real deadline.

One Response to “Gou drops out”

  1. Red Says:

    Fabulous write-up, as always. This has long been my go-to site for commentary about Taiwanese politics. It’s like cutting through several meter-thick layers of trash that is Taiwanese and Western media and finding the gold nuggets of valuable info and analysis.

    My only regret is that you don’t have 10 million readers.

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