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Business News/ Politics / China’s Best Hope for the Taiwan Presidential Election Just Fell Apart
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China’s Best Hope for the Taiwan Presidential Election Just Fell Apart

wsj

Opposition parties failed to unify ahead of a registration deadline, in a boon to U.S.-leaning candidate Lai Ching-te, the current favorite.

A supporter of the opposition Nationalist Party waves a Taiwanese flag outside the Central Election Commission. Premium
A supporter of the opposition Nationalist Party waves a Taiwanese flag outside the Central Election Commission.

TAIPEI—A last-minute effort by Taiwan’s opposition parties to combine forces in a coming presidential election has crumbled in spectacular fashion, increasing the likelihood that the island democracy will continue as a central flashpoint in ties between the U.S. and China.

Taiwan’s main opposition Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang, struck a surprise deal last week with the Taiwan People’s Party to unite in a coalition ticket favoring friendlier ties with China that political analysts said had a real shot of coming out on top in the island’s presidential contest in January.

The agreement began to unravel almost immediately after it was announced and appeared to fully fall apart at a press conference on Thursday evening, during which the parties’ candidates traded veiled insults with each other and another opposition candidate, Foxconn founder Terry Gou, before walking out in front of several dozen reporters.

The Kuomintang’s nominee, Hou Yu-ih, and Ko Wen-je, the TPP candidate, separately registered with Taiwan’s Central Election Commission within an hour of each other on Friday—the last day for officially declaring a candidacy—confirming the death of the deal.

“Things have evolved to this point today, it’s like ‘brothers climbing the mountain each in their own way,’" Ko said Friday, quoting a popular saying about two people separately pursuing the same goal. He also apologized for what he called the “absurd comedy" of the previous night’s meeting.

The failure of the opposition candidates to coalesce changes expectations for an election that has weighty implications for security in the Asia-Pacific region as well as strained ties between the U.S. and China.

Both Hou and Ko favor a friendlier posture toward Beijing, which regards Taiwan as part of China. Both have trailed in the polls behind Vice President Lai Ching-te, the nominee of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. A seasoned politician and campaigner, Lai is seen by Beijing as a more aggressive advocate of Taiwan independence than his boss, President Tsai Ing-wen, who is scheduled to leave office in May due to term limits.

Lai has said he would continue Tsai’s policy of maintaining the status quo in relations with China. He formally registered for the election on Tuesday with his running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim, who has served for the past several years as Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to Washington.

In one development that is likely to please Beijing, Gou’s spokeswoman said Friday that the billionaire didn’t have plans to register, meaning he would drop out of the race and avoid diverting votes from either of the other two opposition candidates. Foxconn, one of the world’s top assemblers of iPhones, is facing an investigation of some of its China operations for alleged tax and land-use violations in what political analysts said was a move by Beijing to force Gou to withdraw from the election.

Still, with Gou polling last among the major candidates, his decision isn’t expected to have a major impact on the dynamics of the race, political analysts said.

“The presidency is the DPP’s to lose," said Wen-ti Sung, who teaches Taiwan studies at Australian National University. He said, however, that the ruling party could struggle to hold on to its legislative majority, resulting in a split government that would complicate relations with both Washington and Beijing.

The deal between the opposition parties fell apart as they fought over how to decide which of their candidates would lead the combined ticket. In announcing the deal on Nov. 15, the two sides said they would rely on a panel of experts to choose the order based on recent public opinion polls and internal polling conducted by both parties.

Political analysts expressed surprise at how much Ko had given up in the deal, with some speculating he would lose. The sides failed to agree on final terms before their self-imposed deadline, and Ko publicly criticized the negotiations as unfair.

“Next time I definitely won’t negotiate with them on my own because I say ‘OK, OK’ too easily," he said at a press conference. “That catchphrase of mine was used by the other side to deceive me."

The chaos reached its climax on Thursday night, when Gou hosted a public meeting with the other opposition candidates at the Grand Hyatt in Taipei. The bickering began almost immediately, with the host chastising the KMT’s Hou for bringing along the KMT chairman and former president Ma Ying-jeou, whom he described as one of the event’s “distinguished uninvited guests."

With cameras rolling and reporters watching, one candidate protested as another read out private text messages they had exchanged. A fierce argument then ensured over the margin of error in polls before the KMT faction finally walked out of the room.

“This day will go down as one of the most dramatically silly moments in Taiwan’s history since democratization," Lev Nachman, a political scientist at Taipei’s National Chengchi University, wrote on X, the social-media site formerly known as Twitter.

The fracas marked a contrast with a press conference held by the ruling DPP earlier in the day to introduce Hsiao as its vice-presidential pick. Seated on stage, she calmly fielded a series of questions, including one from a Wall Street Journal reporter about how she navigated political divisions in the U.S. while serving in Washington.

“We cannot afford to let Taiwan become an issue of partisan difference in American politics," she said, referring to herself as a “cat warrior," a nickname meant to evoke her constant need to walk with delicate balance. “Everything we do, we do it in a bipartisan way."

Write to Joyu Wang at joyu.wang@wsj.com

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