If a presidential election were to be held in Taiwan today, former premier William Lai could beat his boss, incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, as well as candidates fielded by other political parties.

In a new survey of voter sentiment, respondents picked Lai over other potential hopefuls, even in a hypothetical three-way race that included Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je.

The island state will select its new president in 2020, with the Democratic Progressive Party seeking to cling to power and the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) party eager to wrest back the presidency.

The recent poll of more than 1,000 voters by local think-tank Taiwan Brain Trust showed Lai leading Tsai by 20 percentage points, with more than half of respondents supporting the former premier, compared with just 29% for Tsai. Lai and Tsai are set to face off in the DPP’s presidential primary.

Taiwanese Premier William Lai. Photo: Handout
William Lai is viewed by supporters of the DPP as a viable candidate to replace the embattled Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Handout

Indeed, Lai, still riding a wave of popularity, particularly among the “deep green” electorate that is not interested in reunification with China, is likely to win in any scenario, even when big-name KMT candidates and other well-known independents join the race.

Meanwhile, the embattled Tsai is facing a revolt within her own party after the DPP was routed in November’s mayoral elections, with the hardcore pro-independence factions openly demanding that she should not seek re-election.

Lai, on the other hand, said during a press conference on Monday that, were the DPP to lose its ruling status and parliamentary seats to the KMT, this could place Taiwan’s sovereignty at risk.

“Taiwan must not become a second Hong Kong, a second Tibet” under Beijing’s suzerainty, Lai said when announcing his presidential bid, adding that cross-Strait relations would be the most important agenda for next year’s election.

Asked whether his decision would cause division in the DPP now that Tsai is also determined to defend her presidency, Lai said the DPP primary to be held in mid-April would produce a candidate for the whole party to unite and rally behind him or her.

“If Tsai wins the primary, she will have my full support, but I believe she would do the same if I win,” Lai added.