TAIPEI • The eccentric, popular mayor of Taipei is tipped to win a second term in Taiwan's local elections this Saturday, likely further shaking up the island's political establishment.
Dr Ko Wen-je, a renowned organ transplant specialist with no experience in politics before 2014, is expected to be re-elected, albeit with a reduced margin, four years after he won in the long-time bastion of the Kuomintang (KMT). The outcome of the Taipei race will have a bearing on the next presidential election due in January 2020.
"I think Ko Wen-je has a 90 per cent chance of winning the election," Associate Professor Francis Hu of Tunghai University told The Straits Times. "For a relative newcomer to politics, and an independent politician at that, he has done quite well," Prof Hu said, citing Dr Ko's success in pushing urban renewal projects in Taipei where his predecessors had failed.
Taipei resident Angel Lian, 40, agreed. "Ko Wen-je gets things done, unlike the usual politicians who talk more than they do," said Ms Lian, adding that both she and her husband will vote for the mayor.
In the 2014 election, Dr Ko trounced his rival, KMT's Mr Sean Lien, by 16 percentage points. He may not have such an easy time against the influential party's new flagbearer Ting Shou-chung, judging by recent voter surveys.
Dr Ting, a respected lawmaker who is as conventional a politician as Dr Ko is not, has closed the gap with the mayor to just a few percentage points by the time the final opinion polls were published last Tuesday. Taiwan's election rules require a blackout on opinion poll results in the 10 days before the vote.
Mr Chu Hao-wen, 55, is a Taipei voter who favours Dr Ting over Dr Ko. "If Ko Wen-je continues as Taipei mayor, we may end up like Kaohsiung because Ko does only the small stuff, not long-term planning," said Mr Chu, referring to the southern port city whose economy has stalled in recent years.
Dr Ko's record as mayor is mixed. He has slashed Taipei's debt by more than NT$40 billion (S$1.8 billion), hosted the 2017 World University Games, and cleared up some of Taipei's most congested motorways. But he does not have much to show in long-term plans for the city, despite vowing early in his term to surpass Singapore in eight years. He has also lost some pro-independence voters by appearing too close to China.
Prof Hu said that if Dr Ko wins, he will face the conundrum of whether to run for Taiwan's top job in just a year's time, and if so, the China issue that all presidential hopefuls have to grapple with.
He may also seek to form his own party to shore up support. Prof Hu noted that the lack of a party network has hobbled Dr Ko's work as mayor as few among Taipei's city councillors are in his camp.
But, first, the Taipei race. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which did not field a candidate in 2014 as it saw an ally in Dr Ko, nominated its own man, Mr Yao Wen-chih, after Dr Ko distanced himself from the party. But it has apparently deserted Mr Yao as he lags far behind in voter surveys. DPP bigwigs such as President Tsai Ingwen and Premier Lai Ching-te are choosing to stump for DPP's candidates with higher hopes of winning elsewhere in Taiwan.
"The 'strategic abandonment' is quite obvious," said Prof Hu, referring to the tactic used by parties to channel votes to an allied candidate at the expense of their own if the latter has no chance of winning.
Dr Ko is the obvious beneficiary. The Exchange of Future Events, whose predictions are often cited by Taiwan media, says he has a 73 per cent chance of being re-elected.
• Additional reporting by Brenda Wu