Taiwan's Kuomintang picks New Taipei City mayor as presidential candidate

By Sarah Wu and Yimou Lee

TAIPEI (Reuters) -Taiwan's main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party picked New Taipei City mayor Hou Yu-ih on Wednesday to be its presidential candidate for an election next year, with China tensions set to top the election agenda.

The run-up to the vote in mid-January is taking place at a time of increased tensions between Taipei and Beijing, which has staged regular military exercises near Taiwan to assert its sovereignty claims over the democratically governed island despite Taiwan's strong objections.

The KMT favours close ties with China while the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) champions Taiwan's separate identity.

"Internationally, our country faces fierce troops and the danger of war," Hou told reporters at the party's headquarters in Taipei after his candidacy was announced.

"Within the country, there are conflicts over divisions and countless things to be fixed, making it hard for young people to see their future," he said, vowing to lead the KMT to victory.

Outside KMT's headquarters, dozens of people stood behind barricades, some waving Taiwan's flag. A big banner saying "oppose war, want peace" was on display.

KMT chairman Eric Chu said the decision was made based on polling data and the opinions of senior party members.

Polls commissioned by the KMT, as well as surveys conducted by other organizations, showed Hou had a better shot at winning than Foxconn founder Terry Gou, who was also in the fray. The majority of county chiefs and lawmakers supported Hou's candidacy, the party said.

"For the future of the Republic of China and cross-strait peace, the Kuomintang must return to office," Chu said, using Taiwan's official name. The KMT last held office between 2008-2016 amid warming ties with China.

Hou will run against the DPP's William Lai, Taiwan's vice president, who was leading the KMT pick by about five to 10 percentage points, according to three Taiwan polls released this week.

Formerly the head of the National Police Agency, 65-year-old Hou was thrust into the limelight after a landslide re-election win in New Taipei city late last year in a local election in which the KMT trounced the DPP.

Gou, who stepped down as Foxconn's chief in 2019, congratulated Hou on Wednesday for winning the nomination and called him the "best candidate" for the party.

"I will keep my promise to do my best to support Mayor Hou's election campaign in order to win the 2024 election and to remove the incompetent government," Gou said in a Facebook post.

The KMT denies being pro-Beijing, although it supports maintaining good relations with China as well as the proposal that both are part of a single China though each can have its own interpretation of the term.

Despite its differences with China, the DPP has repeatedly offered talks with Beijing that have been rebuffed.

While the KMT has framed the 2024 vote as a choice between war and peace, DPP's Lai has urged voters to choose democracy over authoritarianism.

The Taiwan People's Party, the island's third-largest party, announced on Wednesday that former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je would be its presidential candidate.

The KMT's poll data showed Hou trailing Lai by 4.97 percentage points, and beating Ko by 0.16 points.

(Reporting by Sarah Wu and Yimou Lee; additional reporting by Ann Wang and Fabian Hamacher; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Raju Gopalakrishnan)