Lin Shu-hui normally takes little interest in politics. The 45-year-old mother of two is far too busy managing her husband’s motorcycle repair shop and selling steamed buns at a roadside stall.
But on Saturday, she took time off to protest against Han Kuo-yu, the mayor of Kaohsiung and China-friendly candidate for president in Taiwan’s January 11 election.
“He hasn’t kept a single one of his promises to Kaohsiung, and I fear for Taiwan’s future if he becomes president,” Ms Lin said, marching in a crowd tens of thousands strong demanding the recall of Mr Han as mayor less than a year after he took office.
The demonstration shines a spotlight on a stark reversal of fortunes in Taiwan’s presidential election. It is all but certain that Tsai Ing-wen, who has enraged Beijing by resisting China’s efforts to undermine Taiwan’s de facto independence, will lead the country for four more years.
When the opposition Kuomintang picked its presidential candidate this spring, many thought Mr Han would easily defeat Ms Tsai. Voters were upset by the incumbent’s painful economic reforms while Mr Han enjoyed rock star status after grabbing a landslide victory in the mayoral election in Kaohsiung, a traditional stronghold of Ms Tsai’s Democratic Progressive party.
But over the past seven months, the 62-year-old Mr Han’s poll ratings have melted from almost 50 per cent to just 20 per cent, while Ms Tsai has soared from 34 per cent to more than 50 per cent. In the past few weeks, her lead over Mr Han has widened to almost 30 percentage points.
“It is very unusual to have that much movement that late in the race or even over the course of the campaign overall,” said Nathan Batto, an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica in Taipei. “Generally, poll figures would move only a few percentage points over the whole campaign.”
China is the reason behind the huge shift. Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory and threatens to invade if Taipei resists unification indefinitely.
The protests in Hong Kong have played a pivotal role in the Taiwanese poll, Mr Batto added. “They highlighted the threat that China’s ‘One Country Two Systems’ formula would pose if it were applied to Taiwan.”
Ms Tsai repeatedly uses the turmoil in Hong Kong as a warning to Taiwan’s voters that there is no room for ambiguity if one agrees with Beijing on “One China”. The Hong Kong model, she said, would spell doom for democracy in Taiwan.
DPP politicians and many independent researchers say that the Kaohsiung mayor owed his rapid rise to a China influencing campaign.
“Anything Han said on social media was shared, liked or commented on in the hundreds of thousands immediately, numbers way beyond the levels normal for other politicians,” said Puma Shen, an assistant professor at National Taipei University, who researches online influence operations.
Prof Shen added that the vast majority of the accounts that showed such activity were in a handful of Chinese provinces.
But Mr Han’s popularity on social media has collapsed. “Over the past few months, his online numbers are down to normal levels,” said Prof Shen. “To me, it looks as if China has abandoned him.”
Taiwanese voters appear to have deserted him, too. When the Kuomintang put several politicians with close relations to China’s Communist party in top spots on its candidate list for the legislative election to be held alongside the presidential vote, Mr Han’s ratings went into a tailspin.
They dropped further when a Chinese fugitive in Australia who claimed to be a spy alleged huge interference by Beijing in helping getting Mr Han elected mayor — a claim he denies.
While fears over China have undermined the opposition candidate’s campaign, they have boosted Ms Tsai’s chances. The president has been able to focus voter attention on China instead of domestic problems. Taiwan is also benefiting from the US-China trade war, as local technology companies move some manufacturing back home.
“The economy is doing relatively well, and we are getting to the point where some people acknowledge that,” said Shelley Rigger, a Taiwan expert at Davidson College in the US.
In Kaohsiung, the declining heartland of Taiwan’s heavy industry and the country’s third most populous city, Ms Lin said she doubted that the economy was improving and was not impressed by Ms Tsai’s economic record.
“But right now we are not talking about money,” she said. “We are talking about Taiwan’s security.”