TAIPEI • A populist mayor who commands huge crowds and wants closer relations with China has thrown his hat in the ring as a candidate for Taiwan's presidential election next year.
Mr Han Kuo-yu, who seized the mayoralty of southern Kaohsiung city from the ruling party in a shock victory last year, was among five candidates announced by the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party yesterday for its primary election.
Confirmation of Mr Han's entry shakes up an opposition list that had until now been dominated by Taiwan's richest man, Foxconn billionaire Terry Gou.
Taiwan goes to the polls in January.
Mr Gou and Mr Han are seen as the front runners in the KMT primary, which will end on July 16.
Under current president Tsai Ing-wen, relations with Beijing have soured because she and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) refuse to recognise the 1992 Consensus which contains the "one China, different interpretations" principle.
Since her election, Beijing has cut official communications, ramped up military exercises, poached diplomatic allies and ratcheted up economic pressure on the island.
The KMT is urging warmer ties with Beijing - a stance that appeals to older voters but rattles the nerves of many Taiwanese youth.
Mr Han shot to political stardom after ending the DPP's 20-year rule in its traditional stronghold of Kaohsiung in local polls last November, with the media describing his rising popularity as the "Han tide".
Earlier this month, tens of thousands of his supporters gathered in Taipei for a rally that was seen as a show of strength before he announced his candidacy.
Supporters see him as a plain-talking maverick and political outsider who has shaken up the staid politics of the KMT - but detractors are unnerved by how favourably he speaks of China.
The 61-year-old took the unusual step of meeting the head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, among other Chinese officials, during a trip to the mainland in March.
Observers say the KMT race is largely between Mr Han and Mr Gou, who has been actively campaigning since announcing in April that he has secured the backing of the Chinese sea goddess Mazu for his presidential bid.
Mr Gou, 69, has vowed to balance Taiwan's relationship with both the United States and China, but his huge factories in China have led to concerns about possible conflicts of interest.