The Kuomintang has nominated popular New Taipei City mayor Hou Yu-ih as its official candidate for the presidential elections in 2024. Who is he and what are his chances?
On May 17th, the standing committee of the Kuomintang (KMT) announced its official candidate for the 2024 presidential race. It went to Hou Yu-ih, who just recently had been reconfirmed as New Taipei City mayor at last November’s local (“nine-in-one”) elections. Hou prevailed against the popular entrepreneur and Foxconn founder Terry Gou in what has been viewed as an unofficial primary ahead of next year’s presidential race.
Despite Hou having been a popular mayor, his nomination was contested within the KMT. In addition, his public approval rates have dropped continuously, lying 18 percentage points behind Ko Wen-je from the China-friendly Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) and Lai Ching-te from the currently ruling China-averse Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). To top it all, Terry Gou, who had pledged support to Hou Yu-ih, has not stopped his local campaign tours after he lost the nomination, thus further undermining Hou’s chances in the presidential race.
Hou is no stranger to Taiwan’s electorate. Off the island, however, few know him and his background. He was born into a modest family in Puzi in Chiayi County in 1957. Both his parents recently passed away. According to media reports and Hou Yu-ih’s own public statements, his father had been drafted by the KMT to fight against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the second phase of the civil war (1945-1949). After his discharge, he worked as a food seller until retirement.
Hou’s framing of his father’s military services and his later life caused wide speculations in Taiwanese media. It was said that Hou keeping a low profile suited strategic considerations within the KMT about better addressing the less privileged parts of Taiwan’s society. At the same time, Hou was constrained in creating a too heroic image of his father’s military services, as the contemporary KMT’s efforts are geared towards forging friendly relations with the PRC, rather than continuing its historic anti-communist battle.
While the background of Hou’s father was subject of vivid discussions after his passing in late 2021, that of Hou’s mother, Lyu Hsiu-lian, who carried the same Chinese name as the former DPP vice-president Annette Lu, was unsurprisingly passed over. Taking the same line of narrative, Hou stated that she had come from a “simple and honest family” and “invested all her energy into her children.”
Hou gained the reputation of a rising star already during his early career in Taiwan’s police force. Upon graduating from high school, he embarked on a career in law enforcement and signed up for the Central Police University, where he belatedly obtained a doctorate in crime prevention in 2005. He quickly rose through the ranks, taking his first leadership role as captain of the criminal police at the Taipei Police Department in 1980. In 2006, he earned the denomination of “youngest Director-General of the National Police Agency” when he was entrusted to head the central coordinating law enforcement agency of the Taiwanese police system.
Hou became both infamous and famous for his involvement in two cases that garnered broad international attention. As squad leader he was involved in the self-immolation case of the democracy activist Chen Nan-jung (Nylon Deng). In April 1989, Chen set himself on fire to avoid arrest by the police squad led by Hou. From the Green-coalition and more independent-leaning camp, Hou therefore faces accusations of having made his career by serving the former authoritarian regime’s central enforcement agency. However, he should receive widespread recognition for his pivotal role in the spectacular arrest of the dreaded murderer and kidnapper Chen Chin-hsing. Chen had taken a South African diplomat and his family hostage in 1997. Hou negotiated the release of the hostages and Chen turning himself in together with Frank Hsieh, a human rights attorney and later mayor of Kaohsiung (Hsieh would act as Chen’s defense attorney).
In 2010, the KMT’s would-be bearer of hope, Eric Chu, invited then Director-General of the National Police Agency Hou Yu-ih to become his deputy-mayor of the newly founded municipality New Taipei City. Hou took full interim mayor responsibilities in 2015, when Chu furloughed his position to run against Tsai Ing-wen at the presidential elections in 2016. Chu continued as chairman of the KMT after he lost that election to Tsai, clearing the way for Hou in the municipality elections in 2018. Hou came out on top against his contender, the DPP heavyweight Szu Tseng-chang, further expanding the KMT’s vote share in New Taipei City. He was reconfirmed in 2022.
When the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) announced its official candidate Lai Ching-te after an uncompetitive ballot in April of this year, the KMT leadership came under pressure to follow suit. The KMT too abstained from competitive primaries to avoid open factional competition but was less successful in keeping factional leaders at bay. Hou was openly challenged by the self-made millionaire Terry Gou and former president Ma Ying-jeou embarked on a tour to China in April after party vice-chairman Andrew Hsia had met with high-ranking PRC politicians and Taiwanese overseas associations in China in February.
While Hou sought to maintain a modest and nativist image, the more outspoken and self-confident tycoon Gou invested heavily in his own nomination bid. In addition to traveling extensively through Taiwan to garner the support of KMT party members and the broader population, Gou also embarked on international journeys to the United States and Japan where he met with lawmakers, overseas associations, and local audiences. In doing so, Gou aimed at demonstrating his international profile, which Hou clearly lacks.
Despite all efforts and Gou’s undisputed popularity among certain segments of the KMT and its electorate, Hou prevailed. The reasons for that lie for once in the KMT’s habit to choose popular mayors of big municipalities like Taipei, Kaohsiung, and New Taipei City as its presidential candidates. High approval rates at home and political and administrative experience as mayor of New Taipei City are generally viewed as an asset with the KMT hoping for a spillover effect to the entire electorate. More importantly, Hou has close and longstanding relations with KMT chairman Eric Chu. He is therefore more familiar to the current KMT leadership and is probably also regarded as a politician who toes its line. Finally, Hou’s rather self-restrained attitude might have been another reason why the KMT party committee saw him more suitable for the position. Terry Gou often attracts attention with his peculiar public performances, similar to the former presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu, who often appeared rather clumsy and provoked public laughter. (He eventually lost the presidential bid against Tsai Ing-wen in 2020).
Eric Chu and his head of party affairs, Lin Kuan-yu, were keen on pointing out that the central committee’s decision to nominate Hou was based on “scientific numbers” and a consensus among KMT lawmakers and county mayors. Two surveys purportedly commissioned by the party center resulted in higher approval rates for Hou. Nevertheless, Hou is not an uncontested candidate within the KMT. He primarily lacks experience in national politics, where cross-strait relations and foreign policy constitute key areas. Further, some within the KMT a wary about his nativist image. While some hope he will appeal to the high share of non-partisan voters (and maybe disgruntled green voters) others remain suspicious for ingrained fears about “turncoats rising to the top of the party establishment and revealing their true political views”, as happened with the late KMT-president Lee Teng-hui.
In public debates, Hou repeatedly emphasizes his loyalty to the ROC constitution and rejects both “Taiwan independence” and “one country, two systems”, the latter being a formular presented by the CCP for Taiwan’s unification with the PRC. However, he remains guarded over the “1992 consensus” that has been a central pillar of the KMT’s cross-Strait policy since 2008. The consensus implies that both the PRC and ROC agree that there is only one China but both sides have their own interpretations. (The PRC has never endorsed the second part of the consensus.) The recognition of the consensus is Beijing’s purported precondition to resume official communications with Taiwan after the DPP government under Tsai Ing-wen refused to do so and even raised doubts about its existence.
Analysts point out that the KMT, to win the elections, needs an unequivocal and convincing policy on cross-Strait relations. This also includes a stance on the controversial “1992 consensus”,
By the time of writing this article, all major parties in Taiwan had officially nominated their candidates for the 2024 presidential elections, and selections of nominees to run for the Legislative Yuan are in full sway. The biggest surprise in the presidential race so far is TPP presidential candidate Ko Wen-je. He presents himself as a politician unburdened by ideology and with a pragmatic mindset and working style, an alternative to the two traditional camps that have long divided Taiwan’s political spectrum. Moreover, Ko proposes a new form of collaborative or “coalition” government in which political appointments would be made according to competence, not party affiliation.
Three months ago, most observers did not think that Ko has a realistic chance of winning the elections. However, to everybody’s surprise, he is currently leading public opinion polls. Hou Yu-ih, on the other hand, struggles hard, ranking third after Lai Ching-te from the DPP, while maintaining a negligible margin over Terry Gou. However, the current atmospheric picture is volatile, and the outcome of Taiwan’s presidential elections remains unpredictable.
According to election laws, the candidate and his deputy who combine the most votes will be elected. If current polls stay as they are, Taiwan will have a president whose legitimacy is based on merely one third of the voting population. More importantly, his governing capacities will depend on the distribution of seats in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament. A hung parliament or an executive that does not hold a concurrent majority in the Legislative will most probably result in political paralysis. It would need a charismatic leader, able to consolidate the political forces, to overcome this impasse.
Cover photo: Facebook/Hou Yu-ih