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A plan to mount a joint presidential campaign by Taiwan’s two largest opposition parties looks to be in tatters Saturday, after the two sides could not agree on who should top the ticket.

Taiwanese voters will go to the polls in mid-January to select a successor to President Tsai Ing-wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party, who is term-limited from running again. While opinion surveys show voters are less than satisfied with the DPP, which has governed Taiwan since 2016, Ms. Tsai’s vice-president William Lai looked to be cruising to victory, with the bulk of opposition votes split between the Kuomintang and the Taiwan People’s Party.

After months of wrangling, former KMT leader and Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou announced this week the two sides would put forward a joint ticket featuring the KMT’s Hou Yu-ih and TPP candidate Ko Wen-je. The only thing left to be decided was who would run for the top job, with both sides agreeing to be bound by polling that was due to wrap up Saturday.

But hours before the expected announcement, it appeared the deal was off, with the TPP complaining about how polling had been conducted, amid reports the majority of surveys favoured a ticket led by Mr. Hou.

Speaking to reporters Saturday, Mr. Ko cast doubt on the quality of KMT surveys and suggested his supporters would not settle for anything less than a presidential candidacy. He claimed the KMT had pushed for a deal and he had only agreed for the good of Taiwan, but always worried such an agreement would be unfair to the smaller TPP.

Both parties said talks were ongoing and some kind of deal could still be reached before the official registration deadline on Nov. 24.

The collapse of talks makes the race Mr. Lai’s to lose again, said Lev Nachman, an assistant professor at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. Both the KMT and TPP will suffer “a big reputational cost,” he said, adding this could also affect planned co-ordination between the two parties in lower races.

Beyond the KMT and TPP, the opposition vote could be split further by the candidacy of Foxconn founder Terry Gou, who this month more than cleared the 290,000 signature requirement to get on the presidential ballot as an independent, submitting almost a million endorsements from across Taiwan.

Saturday’s drama was yet another example of how this election has centred on the mercurial Mr. Ko, a former doctor who has led the TPP to become a viable alternative to the DPP and KMT, the only two parties to govern Taiwan since the island democratized in the 1990s.

“Ko Wen-je has completely stolen the spotlight from both the DPP and the KMT, which is why the KMT had been forced to collude with him,” Prof. Nachman said.

Following the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, the defeated KMT retreated to Taiwan, which, along with a handful of nearby islands, became the last remnant of the Republic of China, leaving the Communists in charge of the mainland, which would become the People’s Republic of China.

Today, the KMT is the largest party in the pro-unification, “Blue” camp of Taiwanese politics, supporting improved ties with Beijing and seeing both sides of the Taiwan Strait as part of the same country, though neither the KMT nor the vast majority of Taiwanese voters support Communist rule over the island.

The DPP is the leader of the “Green,” pro-independence camp, whose members favour greater autonomy and a separate, non-Chinese identity, with some wanting to see the islands declare formal independence from China as the Republic of Taiwan.

Founded by Mr. Ko in 2019, the TPP positions itself as above this Blue-Green divide, though both he and his voters tend to be more aligned with DPP policies than the KMT. Mr. Ko has split the difference by attacking both parties equally, something which has made him popular with young voters.

Even this week, when talks were ongoing, Mr. Ko could not find anything nice to say about his prospective partners, telling supporters he still hated the KMT, “but I hate the Democratic Progressive Party even more.”

Prof. Nachman said it would have been a major struggle for the KMT to rein Mr. Ko in, particularly on topics like China and the United States.

“The KMT is so incredibly careful with how it talks about foreign policy,” he said. “Ko Wen-je is emphatically not careful in how he talks about anything.”

Whether this week’s debacle finally damages Mr. Ko, and leads voters to question if they would want him negotiating on behalf of Taiwan in future, remains to be seen. Already Saturday some DPP officials were urging TPP counterparts and supporters to defect, and even if the KMT-TPP joint ticket does come together, the chaos will bolster DPP claims that such an unsteady governing alliance would be dangerous for Taiwan as the island faces growing pressure from Beijing.

In the past year, China has conducted large-scale military drills around Taiwan and repeatedly flown sorties around Taiwanese airspace. Speaking to U.S. President Joe Biden this week, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said unification was “unstoppable” and urged Washington not to support Taiwanese independence.

Presidential elections are typically periods of particularly high tension, and in the past China has fired missiles around the island and been accused of attempting to interfere in the results through propaganda and cyber attacks. This cycle too has seen Beijing appear to put a thumb on the scale, announcing a series of investigations into Foxconn soon after Mr. Gou announced his candidacy, in apparent retaliation for him further splitting the anti-DPP vote.

Speaking to reporters Friday, Sarah Beran, U.S. National Security Council senior director for China and Taiwan, said Washington was cognizant of approaching a “sensitive period around the Taiwan elections.”

She said Mr. Biden had made clear to Mr. Xi the U.S. commitment to “peace and stability and the status quo” across the Taiwan Strait, and emphasized that Chinese “military coercion around Taiwan or associated with the election is absolutely unacceptable.”

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