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James Soong turns on the charm, enlivening presidential race

James Soong's presidential bid will likely fail but could boost the parliamentary showing of his minority People First Party, possibly as a coalition partner.

TAIPEI -- The charismatic, China-friendly leader of the minority People First Party on Thursday officially entered the race for Taiwan's presidential election this coming January.

     Soong Chu-yu, better known as James Soong, also ran for president in 2000 and 2012, and for vice president in 2004.

     The 73-year-old maverick is not considered a serious challenger to runaway frontrunner Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the main opposition pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. But Soong could still have an impact on the parliamentary elections and affect the strength and stability of the new government. The presidential and parliamentary elections will be held the same day.

     A defector from the ruling Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, with ample government experience, Soong will pursue a moderate China stance to win over votes from Nationalists underwhelmed by their own Hung Hsiu-chu, a pro-Beijing deputy parliamentary speaker with little executive experience.

     "We have consistently advocated democracy and freedom, and the right of Taiwanese people to decide for themselves," Soong said on relations with China.

     "Any change to the cross-strait status quo should be based on the free will of the 23 million people in Taiwan," he said.

     Soong is remembered for efforts to boost infrastructure as governor of the now-defunct Taiwan Province in the 1990s. But he is also identified with authoritarian one-party rule by the Nationalists during that time.

     Following Taiwan's democratization and first direct presidential election in 1996, Soong left the Nationalists in 1999 to run as an independent in the 2000 election when the party did not nominate him. He placed second and later founded his People First Party.

     "Soong knows that he is unlikely to win the presidency, but he will use this opportunity to boost PFP's legislative campaigns," political commentator Chou Wei-hang said.

     The parliamentary elections will see 113 seats contested, and Soong is expected to try striking deals with both major parties.

     "It could work because the DPP may need to join hands with the PFP to secure the majority in the legislature, while the Nationalist Party may also collaborate with Soong because they don't want Soong to get too many votes and embarrass Hung," Chou said.

     In a small independent survey of 1,000 voters by Taiwan Indicators Survey Research this July, 42.1% of respondents said they would vote for Tsai, 22.8% for Soong and 15.5% for Hung.

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