A populist mayor who favours closer ties with China was announced as the presidential candidate for Taiwan’s opposition on Monday, posing a challenge to President Tsai Ing-wen in upcoming elections.
Han Kuo-yu won the primary for the opposition Kuomintang party (KMT), comfortably seeing off a challenge from Taiwan’s richest man, billionaire Foxconn founder Terry Gou.
His victory sets up an unpredictable clash as Taiwan goes to the polls in January in a contest that will be dominated by relations with China.
The self-ruled island is set to hold elections amid heightened tension with China, which considers it a wayward province and has never ruled out the use of force to return it to the fold.
Last week, China slammed the US for a potential arms sale worth $2.2bn to Taiwan.
President Tsai has said the island faced threats from “overseas forces”, in a veiled reference to China, days after the weapons deal with Washington.
Han, 62, gained island-wide popularity after winning the mayoral election in November in the southern port city of Kaohsiung, formerly a stronghold for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
“The past three years under the rule of Tsai Ing-wen have been too disappointing,” Han told reporters at KMT’s headquarters in Taipei after the results. “DPP supporters should open their eyes and think it over.”
Han won 45 percent of votes cast in the KMT’s primary – which polls members of the public by telephone – compared with Gou’s 28 percent, a setback for a man who made his fortune assembling iPhones and other key electronic devices in Chinese mainland factories.
The 62-year-old has enjoyed a stunning rise in the last two years, journeying from relative obscurity to his party’s presidential candidate in a phenomenon that has been dubbed the “Han tide”.
Some have likened him to US President Donald Trump and other populist leaders who hail from outside establishment circles and command a fervent voter base buoyed by lofty promises of resurrecting their fortunes.
The China-friendly mayor triggered controversy after his meetings with several senior officials in China earlier this year, including Wang Zhimin, director of the Liaison Office of the People’s Government in Hong Kong.
Han has said both sides are part of “one China”, a cherished principle for Beijing, and has previously described Taiwan independence as being “more scary” than syphilis.
Gou, who launched an extensive primary campaign including banners on buses and online advertisements, cancelled a press conference originally scheduled for later on Monday and was not immediately available for comment.
Tsai’s administration suffered a defeat in local elections late last year amid mounting criticism over the party’s reform agenda and rising pressure from China.
Earlier this month, Tsai won her party’s nod for re-election.