Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, who heads the Taiwan People’s Party, is emerging as a potential challenger to Vice President Lai Ching-te in the January presidential election. A recent poll by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation showed Ko’s approval rating at 31.9%, compared to 29.2% for Lai and 23.6% for Kuomintang candidate Hou Yu-ih. Ko’s support is highest among white-collar workers but also has similar appeal to Lai among blue-collar voters. The foundation described Ko as a “terrible nightmare” that the DPP must not ignore.
The collapse of talks between Lai and Hou over a “blue-white” joint ticket has boosted Ko’s approval rating by 6.3 percentage points, leaving Lai’s half a percentage point lower. With less than 50 days left before the Jan. 13 election, Ko could potentially influence the outcome.
Ko, a former emergency room doctor who gave up medicine for politics, has generally sought to position himself as an outsider capable of toppling traditional parties.
The individual, known for his salty language and soundbites, appeals to the island’s 23 million population, particularly younger voters. Critics accuse him of dictatorial leanings, an emperor-complex, a relaxed stance on China, and flip-flopping political stances.
Ko Wen-je, a 64-year-old organ transplant doctor, gained fame after an organ was mistakenly transplanted into a patient from an HIV-positive donor. After a career in emergency and intensive care, he quit medicine after an organ was mistakenly implanted into a patient. In 2014, he ran for Taipei mayor, winning with the second highest number of votes ever received.
Veteran journalist Kang Jen-chun believes Ko projects a professional, scientific, rational image, along with pragmatism and a sense of openness and transparency. A large proportion of Taiwanese are eager to find something outside of the traditional blue and green camps, and Ko’s seemingly nonsensical comments and jokey approach have gotten young people’s attention.
Lawmaker Tsai Pi-ru, a nurse at Ko’s hospital who later became his chief of staff in the Taipei municipal government, said that Ko doesn’t beat around the bush and apologizes if he says something wrong. He has a reputation for straight-dealing and a formidable work ethic, which gives him a distinct advantage over Lai and Hou in Taiwan’s electoral “dog-fights” in Taiwan’s media.
Ko has referred to himself as “a mortal” and described his life as “a one-way street with no regrets.” However, by the time he fought his next mayoral election in 2018, his approval rating had plummeted from 40% to 40% after three years in office.
Taiwanese President Ko Wen-je has been criticized for his New People’s Party, which has been losing political support. Critics argue that Ko is a bully and schemer, deeply rooted in patriarchal ideas and vote-counting schemes. They believe that Ko stands for a restoration of authoritarian rule that undermines democracy. A former Taiwan People’s Party activist, identified as A, also believes that Ko’s dictatorial personality favors divide and rule politics and “palace intrigue.”
Ko has admitted to a fascination with Mao Zedong and has visited Communist Party sites in China to learn about party history. He has also parroted Beijing’s claim that the people of Taiwan and China are “part of the same family,” which it uses to underscore its territorial claim on the island. A said that Ko’s emergence is very bad for democracy in Taiwan and will set its development back for a long time.
An office worker, Yeh, said he doesn’t trust Ko either. Yeh believes that Ko lacks presidential gravitas and his words don’t mean anything, and he is worried that he will be willing to trade it away in any future negotiations with China. Ko was no stranger to politics, having supported former Democratic Progressive Party President Chen Shui-bian but later changed his tune, claiming that Chen’s illness was feigned from the start.
Ko’s grandfather died in the 1947 massacre of Taiwanese civilians by Kuomintang troops, which still carries a huge political and emotional weight in contemporary Taiwanese politics. He evaded the question of whether he blamed former supreme leader Chiang Kai-shek for the killings, saying he had suffered as much persecution by the Democratic Progressive Party. The island’s pro-democracy movement, known as the Tangwai, started fighting elections against the ruling Kuomintang in the 1970s and 1980s, inspired by the 1947 bloodshed and subsequent “white terror” campaigns by the secret police.
Ko supported the 2014 student-led Sunflower Movement, campaigning against a trade deal providing for ever-closer ties with China. He has gone on record as likening the Kuomintang to “cockroaches.”