Taiwan’s presidential election is still more than two months away but its decisive battle is being fought now — in Taipei’s political back rooms.

The two leading opposition candidates in what is currently a four-way presidential race are wrestling over a deal to join forces that could reshape a January 13 election of crucial significance for regional peace and stability.

For months Hou Yu-ih, nominated by the main opposition Kuomintang, and Ko Wen-je, founder of the small centrist Taiwan People’s party, have been neck and neck in opinion polls, behind vice-president and frontrunner Lai Ching-te from the ruling Democratic Progressive party. Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Apple supplier Foxconn, trails in fourth place.

The election to choose a successor to Tsai Ing-wen, the current DPP president, will have far-reaching implications for relations with China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory and threatens to attack if Taipei refuses unification indefinitely. Taiwan has become the biggest driver of increasing tensions between the US and China in recent years.

Whereas China has denounced Lai as a separatist, Hou and Ko have pledged to restart dialogue with Beijing, which cut off talks across the Taiwan Strait when Tsai took office in 2016.

A floodlit billboard at a night market
A Hou campaign billboard promotes the Kuomintang candidate’s campaign in Taipei © Alex Wong/Getty Images

Hou and Ko appeal to different pools of voters, but for both the only prospect of victory appears to be to team up, in a single-round, first-past-the-post election where backing for the DPP appears only lukewarm.

“I think chances of co-operation are pretty likely because the strategic logic is compelling,” said Kharis Templeman, an expert on Taiwan politics at Stanford University. “If they co-operate, they have a chance of winning. If they don’t, Lai wins.”

According to a weighted poll of polls compiled by local media, Lai’s support stands at almost 32 per cent, with 23 per cent for Ko and 20 per cent for Hou. According to Formosa, a leading pollster that has published the most granular and consistent data, Hou is tied with Ko at just over 20 per cent, about 12 percentage points behind Lai. Gou trails far behind on 6.3 per cent.

With the deadline to register presidential candidacies three weeks away, Hou and Ko’s camps have started frantic negotiations.

On Monday, the KMT and TPP said they had agreed to “support each other to maximise the number of parliamentary seats” they can win at the legislative election that will be held alongside the presidential vote.

Gou waves from inside a lift
Terry Gou, billionaire founder of Apple supplier Foxconn, is trailing in the polls © Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg

They also said they had reached consensus on policy direction regarding relations with China, energy, national security, public health and fiscal issues.

But negotiations are deadlocked over the most important issue of all: who would lead a joint presidential ticket.

At 11pm on Tuesday, Hou and Ko emerged from the offices of a company close to the KMT in an alley on the outskirts of Taipei, without having reached agreement.

“The challenge here . . . is that Taiwan has a presidential system with the president wielding a large amount of power,” Templeman said. “Ko can get all kinds of promises from the KMT before the election, but they are not credible unless he has a way to enforce them.”

Political observers said Ko had a lot of leverage. The former surgeon launched his political career on the back of a student protest movement a decade ago against the policies of the then-KMT president Ma Ying-jeou, who sought closer economic integration with China.

Ko was elected mayor of Taipei with the support of the DPP, but has since become a fierce critic of the ruling party, espousing positions that often align with the KMT.

The bedrock of his support is a growing bloc of often younger swing voters. “There is a very large section of the voters who are alienated from both mainstream parties, and they are likely to be the decisive factor in who wins,” said Dafydd Fell, director of the Centre of Taiwan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Ko’s campaign aides fear that if he acquiesces to being Hou’s running mate, many centrist voters will abandon him and the TPP in disgust.

“This is where our strength and our leverage lies,” said one of the party’s politicians, who added that voters younger than 30 could end up backing Lai or decline to go to the polls at all.

On a recent visit to the US, Ko told analysts he believed he would get more support from Hou’s core supporters than Hou would get from his base.

That means the former Taipei mayor would need to demonstrate major concessions from the KMT to keep his supporters on board.

“We think that includes some kind of cross-Strait policy formula that reassures young voters sceptical of China that a coalition government would not be too close to Beijing,” said a person familiar with the talks.

“It also needs to include a deal under which the KMT refrains from nominating candidates in certain legislative districts so the TPP nominee can win.” Political analysts believe that for the KMT, such concessions would be more palatable than ceding the presidential slot to Ko.

That calculus gives the legislative election, often overlooked internationally, unusual weight.

“I see the parliamentary election as being as important as the presidential election. Even if the DPP wins the presidential election, retaining its parliamentary majority will be much harder,” Fell said, adding that this could limit the incoming administration’s room to manoeuvre.

Templeman said that a Lai victory with a hung parliament would give China an added incentive to work with Taiwan’s opposition, while cold-shouldering the DPP president. “Beijing is going to be watching this closely,” he said.

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