China-friendly Taiwan mayor beats Foxconn's Gou in opposition's presidential primary

TAIPEI (Reuters) - A China-friendly mayor in Taiwan on Monday won the opposition party’s nomination for the 2020 presidential election, beating Foxconn founder Terry Gou and issuing a direct challenge to President Tsai Ing-wen who is seeking re-election.

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The opposition Kuomintang (KMT) said Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu beat four other contenders in a national tally for its primary race, including the billionaire founder of Apple supplier Foxconn.

The self-ruled island is set to hold its presidential election in January amid heightened tension with China, which considers Taiwan a wayward province and has never ruled out the use of force to bring the island under its control.

Han gained island-wide popularity after winning a mayoral election in November in the southern port city of Kaohsiung, formerly a stronghold of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

“The past three years under the rule of Tsai Ing-wen have been too disappointing,” Han told reporters at the KMT’s headquarters in Taipei after the results.

“DPP supporters should open their eyes and think it over.”

The China-friendly mayor triggered controversy after meetings with several senior officials in China this year, including Wang Zhimin, director of the Liaison Office of the People’s Government in Hong Kong.

Han has said both sides are part of “one China”, a cherished principle for Beijing, and has previously described Taiwan independence as being “more scary” than syphilis.

Han led a seven-day phone survey of more than 15,000 people across Taiwan, winning 44.8% support, compared with Gou’s 27.7%, who came second.

It was not immediately clear if Gou would run as an independent candidate or drop out of the campaign.

A person familiar with Gou’s thinking told Reuters that Gou was still consulting people on the matter and had not decided his next move.

Gou, who launched an extensive primary campaign including banners on buses and online advertisements, thanked supporters and congratulated Han.

“I will never change my passion for the Republic of China. I will never give up my dedication to the Republic of China,” Gou said in a statement, using Taiwan’s official name.

Another factor that could complicate Tsai’s bid for re-election is Taipei city mayor Ko Wen-je who could join the 2020 race as an independent, a senior adviser to Tsai told Reuters.

“There are many uncertainties ahead,” the adviser, Yao Chia-wen, said. “If Ko runs, he would pose some threats to President Tsai. If Gou runs, Han will take more of a hit.”

Tsai’s administration suffered a defeat in local elections late last year amid mounting criticism over her party’s reform agenda and the rising pressure from China. [nL3N1Z81JR]

Reporting By Yimou Lee; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel