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Politics

Gou exit from Taiwan presidential race brings relief to opposition KMT

However, President Tsai still has upper-hand ahead of January election

Foxconn founder Terry Gou gestures during a press conference at the company's headquarters in Taipei earlier this year.   © AP

TAIPEI -- The helter-skelter run up to Taiwan's presidential election took another dramatic twist late on Monday when Foxconn founder Terry Gou unexpectedly dropped his bid for office.

Gou's bombshell is a relief for the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) as analysts saw the tech billionaire taking votes from its candidate, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu. Even so, the China-friendly party still faces an uphill battle to beat from incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen in the January election.

The announcement came the night before the deadline for independent candidates to register presidential bids, and just days after Gou fueled speculation he would run by severing his ties with the KMT.

"I've decided not to initiate my petition to run for presidency. I don't want to be part of the political farce, and I feel bad when my supporters are being bullied," Gou said in a video clip released on Tuesday morning. "I will always be there when the Republic of China needs me," he added, using the formal title for Taiwan.

A Foxconn executive told the Nikkei Asian Review said that the move was typical of Gou. "You never know what the big boss will do until the very last minute," the person said on condition of anonymity.

After losing the KMT ticket to Han in July, speculation that Gou would run as an independent created a stir in party headquarters. More than 30 KMT heavyweights, including the tycoon's friend former President Ma Ying-jeou, went as far as taking out newspaper advertisements to urge the tycoon not to compete.

Sean King, a scholar at the University of Notre Dame Liu Institute for Asia & Asian Affairs, said Gou's decision will be a relief for Han and the KMT as it won't split the conservative vote.

However, Han still faces an uphill battle against Tsai, King told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Tsai can't run on public sympathy for Hong Kong forever, but until further notice, this election is hers to lose."

The latest poll has Tsai maintaining her lead, with an approval rating of 33.7% versus Han's score of 28.9% in an Apple Daily survey published on Sept. 10. Gou backed by Taipei city Mayor Ko Wen-je would have scored 25.6%. The China-skeptic president has been helped by growing concern in Taiwan over Beijing's iron fist as unrest continues in Hong Kong.

China-skeptic President Tsai Ing-wen has been boosted in the polls by growing concern in Taiwan over Beijing's iron fist as unrest continues in Hong Kong.   © Reuters

Ian Tsung-yen Chen, an assistant professor at National Sun Yat-sen University, said there was little in common between the political bases of Gou and Han.

"Gou's supporters are not deep blue [KMT] voters and they were not Han fans from the beginning... I don't think votes for Gou will significantly swing to Han," Chen told Nikkei. "Unless Tsai Ing-wen makes major mistakes, she has the upper-hand in this election."

Ko said after Gou's decision that he would still work with his political ally to win legislative seats for his new Taiwan People's Party.

"I will still collaborate with Terry Gou in the future," Ko said. "Gou's decision came all of a sudden... If he had decided not to run a month earlier, I could have planned ahead [to see if I would run myself] but now it's a bit late."

However, Ko did not rule out seeking endorsements from other small parties to run for president, saying "this is another story."

Taiwan's election laws state that a presidential candidate needs to find a party with sitting legislators to back a bid no later than the end of November. To run as an independent, an aspirant needs to launch a petition no later than Sept. 17 and get support from more than 280,000 people.

Chang Teng-chi, professor of political science at National Taiwan University said it was too early to dismiss the possibility that Gou or Ko will seek other ways to participate in the election.

"They will still pay close attention to developments to see if there is room for a 2020 presidential bid," Chang said.

Chang added that Gou's supporters won't necessarily turn to Han. "It really depends on Gou's next move... the drama will continue for a while before it settles down."

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