A populist mayor who favors closer ties with Beijing was named on Monday as the presidential candidate for Taiwan’s main opposition party as it looks to unseat President Tsai Ing-wen in upcoming elections.

Han Kuo-yu won the primary for the Kuomintang (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.

Han, 62, has enjoyed a stunning rise in the last two years, journeying from relative obscurity to become 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.

Han won 45% of votes cast in the KMT’s primary – which polls members of the public by phone – compared with Gou’s 28%, a setback for a man who made his fortune assembling iPhones and other key electronic devices in Chinese mainland factories.

Han was a relative unknown until he seized the Kaohsiung mayoralty in local elections last year in a shock win in the southern city that has long been a heartland for Tsai’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

He has been able to muster huge, enthusiastic crowds during campaigning, where he has vowed to restore warm ties with Beijing and kickstart the economy.

“Taiwanese people have been living difficult lives in the past three years,” he told reporters after the result was announced.

Gou, who had previously hinted he might run as an independent if he lost, issued a statement congratulating his opponent.

An ‘earthen steamed bun’

Relations with Beijing have soured since Tsai came to power in 2016 because her party refuses to recognize the idea that Taiwan is part of “one China”.

Since her election Beijing has cut official communications, ramped up military exercises, poached diplomatic allies and ratcheted up economic pressure on the island.

Taiwan has been a de facto sovereign nation since the end of a civil war in 1949 but China still views it as its territory and has vowed to seize it, by force if necessary.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen inspects an anti-invasion drill on May 28, 2019 on a beach on the island’s southern coast. Photo: Handout

Tsai has described the 2020 presidential election as a “fight for freedom and democracy”, setting herself up as someone who can defend Taiwan from an increasingly assertive Beijing.

Under her administration, relations have warmed with Washington, which recognizes Beijing over Taipei but remains the island’s primary diplomatic and military ally.

Supporters see Han as a plain-talking maverick but detractors are unnerved by his efforts promoting warmer China ties.

He has shown a knack for using the criticism to his advantage.

When a spokesman for Tsai dismissed Han as something of a country bumpkin by calling him an “earthen steamed bun” he responded by presiding over a steamed bun cooking competition.

He has also embraced nicknames like “bald guy” and “vegetable man”, the latter a reference to a previous job as general manager of the Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing Corporation.

“He’s a charismatic campaigner and he drummed up lots of enthusiasm for his mayoral bid,” Shelley Rigger, an expert on Taiwan at Davidson College in North Carolina, said.

“He’s struggled a bit with substance, especially on cross-Strait relations, where his position has bounced around,” she added, referring to ties with Beijing.

While a large number of older people favor a warmer relationship with the mainland, many younger Taiwanese are now adopting an increasingly wary view towards China and a staunchly independent identity.

A bellicose New Year speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping and the recent political chaos in Hong Kong has further inflamed fears in Taiwan over what the future holds if Beijing has its way, with Tsai seeing her previously moribund poll ratings rise.

AFP