Balancing and partnering – Why we should pay attention to Taiwan’s vice-presidential candidates

Balancing and partnering – Why we should pay attention to Taiwan’s vice-presidential candidates

Last November, adding further suspense to Taiwan’s gripping election campaigns, presidential candidates presented their running mates and registered as pairs with the national election authorities. The presidential candidates based their choices on very different considerations.

Presidential front-runner Lai Ching-te (賴清德), from the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was the first to reveal what many had been expecting for months: his vice-presidential running mate would be the de facto ambassador to the United States, Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴). Several days later, while on his way to the Central Election Commission’s main office, contender Ko Wen-Je (柯文哲) from the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) named Wu Hsin-ying (吳欣盈), a former business executive and recently turned politician, as his running mate. At the very last moment, Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜), the presidential candidate of the biggest opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), informed the public about the party’s decision to pick the popular media anchor Jaw Shau-kong (趙少康) as Hou’s best man in the presidential office. Foxconn founder and business tycoon Terry Gou (郭台銘) provided yet another jaw-drop moment, although many had expected it. He said he would not be running for office as an independent candidate, despite his submission a short while earlier of enough valid signatures that he had collected with actress Tammy Lai (賴佩霞) for their presidential bid.

On December 15th, the central election authorities confirmed the eligibility of all political aspirants, issuing the official list of electable candidate pairing from which the Taiwanese public will choose next Saturday, on January 13th.

In presidential systems, the vice president is usually regarded as uninteresting, lacking power, and assuming a purely symbolic function. The image of a non-entity, a bag-carrier for the president, is further exacerbated when political parties have no formal election mechanisms in place so that there is an open competition for the vice-presidential post. Indeed, that duty is frequently relegated to presidential candidates and their strategic advisors or, depending on the party structure, to a consensus within the party’s higher echelons. This is why media attention routinely quickly abates after the formal nomination of vice-presidential candidates. And once they hold office, many either become mere shadows of their benefactors or engage in their work reluctantly or with outright or latent hostility towards the president.

Taiwan’s semi-presidential democracy is a case in point. According to the Presidential and Vice-Presidential Election and Recall Act of the Republic of China (Taiwan), presidential and vice-presidential candidates are recommended by their political parties or by the joint signature of supporters (as was the case of Terry Gou). Once confirmed and published, neither the candidates nor their parties can relinquish this registration. The irreversibility of this act is one but not the only reason why parties and their presidential candidates tend to wait until the very last minute, after pondering different strategic options, to announce the pairing.

As explained in a Brookings commentary by Elaine Kamarck, the decision of who will second the head of state democratic systems similar to that in Taiwan, is grounded in two considerations. One is a “balanced ticket”, so picking a vice president with a different political profile or complementing qualities, such as geographic orbit, ideological alignment, gender, and/or ethnic background. The goal is to appeal to a larger swathe of voters and party members. The other is the presidential candidate’s search for a “partner” to address “ever more complex governing processes.” This goal is to improve policy outcomes rather than merely gain legitimacy. Kamarck concludes that in an ideal world, the two can be complimentary; in realpolitik, however, one consideration often outweighs the other.

Looking at the three vice-presidential candidates in Taiwan’s current elections, we can observe that at least two candidates have prioritized one model over the other for different reasons.

Lai Ching-te, of the DPP, is widely believed to be following in the footsteps of his current boss, president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), in foreign policy, particularly Taiwan-US relations, which he identified as an absolute priority. His vice-presidential candidate, Hsiao Bi-khim, battled the stormy waters during the high tide of Chinese wolf warrior diplomacy, thereby gaining considerable popularity among political circles in Washington. As a result, by choosing Hsiao, the DPP opted for a vice president who can offer professional support in a policy that ranks top for the party, instead of balancing power distribution among political factions. This choice is all the more intriguing as Tsai had previously chosen Lai as vice-president in a previous election to appease factional skirmishes within the DPP.

Hou Yu-ih and the KMT, on the other hand, who experienced a rough start in the early months of the election campaign, preferred a “balanced ticket” that sought to increase its appeal among both the electorate and party members. They persuaded the charismatic media anchor Jaw Shau-kong to return to politics. Hailing from a family that immigrated to Taiwan during the KMT’s retreat from the mainland in the late 1940s, Jaw complements Hou, whose difficulties in gaining support from party members and the traditional KMT electorate have been attributed, among other reasons, to his Taiwanese family background. At first glance, the strategy paid off. According to a mnews (鏡新聞) survey, public approval rates jumped to 28.7 percent, up 8 percentage points, two days after Jaw’s nomination as vice president, and approval rates among KMT supporters rose from 64.4 percent to 82.6 percent. Nevertheless, Taiwan expert Dafydd Fell sees reasons to be cautious. Not only had Jaw’s appeal peaked in the late 1990s, but his outspoken pro-unification stance could potentially “put off some voters at a time when the political climate has shifted dramatically in Taiwan.”

As a young party without a consolidated party structure and voter base, the TPP’s choice is less restrained, yet not less strategically important. Kou Wen-je, the candidate that arguably intrigued foreign observers the most, promises a pragmatic alternative to the ideology-driven politics of the two main political parties, the DPP and the KMT. Picking up on the dichotomic rhetoric used by the other two candidates—the choice between peace and war and the choice between democracy and autocracy—he recently described this year’s election as a “showdown between old and new politics”. Despite, or probably because of his previous misogynous comments, which sparked wide criticism, Kou named a female vice-presidential candidate. Wu Hsin-Ying was born in the United States into a wealthy banking family. Similar to her current boss, who worked as a surgeon for most of his adult life before changing into politics, Wu made a career as a business executive abroad and in Taiwan. Choosing more of the same, Kou thus aims to emphasize his and his party’s pragmatic politics performed by educated professionals rather than career politicians.

The three freshly nominated vice-presidential candidates have, rather unusually, drawn a good deal of public attention, and the media have sounded out their views on various policy issues. Is this increased attention a sign of media saturation of an already very long-lasting three-legged race, in which there has been no conclusive indication of which candidate will emerge victorious nor whether he will be able to govern effectively—a president without a majority in the Legislative Yuan will likely face a political stalemate during his tenure. Or is it a sign for a changing role of vice-presidents in Taiwan’s political system? Who knows! Much will depend on the outcome of the elections and how the next presidential pair will shape the role of the vice-president. Either way, (prospective) vice-presidents are worth to be kept a close eye on in the future.


Julia Christine Marinaccio
Julia Christine Marinaccio

Research Fellow

Key Topics

Democratic Progressive PartyDPPelectionKMTKuomintangPresidential and Vice-Presidential ElectionTaiwan People’s PartyTPPTaiwan


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