By Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee
TAIPEI (Reuters) -Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of major Apple supplier Foxconn, announced on Monday a bid to be Taiwan's president in January elections, saying he wanted to unite the opposition and ensure the island did not become "the next Ukraine".
Gou is the fourth person to throw his hat in the ring, but his poll numbers before his announcement put him well behind the front-runner, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) William Lai, who is currently vice president.
Gou, 72, stepped down as Foxconn chief in 2019 and made his first presidential bid that year, but dropped out after he failed to win the nomination for Taiwan's main opposition party, the Kuomintang KMT. The KMT traditionally favours close ties with China, whose government claims Taiwan as its own territory.
Earlier this year, Gou made a second bid to be the KMT's candidate for the presidential election, but the party chose instead Hou Yu-ih, the mayor of New Taipei City.
Gou has spent the past few weeks touring Taiwan and holding campaign-like rallies, fuelling speculation he was planning to run as an independent.
Speaking at a Taipei conference centre under two large Taiwanese flags, Gou lambasted the DPP.
"Under the rule of the DPP in the past seven years or so, internationally, they have led Taiwan towards the danger of war. Domestically, their policies are filled with mistakes," Gou said, adding "the era of entrepreneur's rule" has begun.
"Give me four years and I promise that I will bring 50 years of peace to the Taiwan Strait and build the deepest foundation for the mutual trust across the strait," he said in a plea to Taiwan voters.
"Taiwan must not become Ukraine and I will not let Taiwan become the next Ukraine."
The DPP champions Taiwan's separate identity from China, but the government it leads has repeatedly offered talks with China that have been rebuffed.
Gou's main theme in his pre-campaign events has been that the only way to avoid war with China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, is to get the DPP out of office.
Gou must gather close to 300,000 voter signatures by Nov. 2 to qualify as an independent candidate, according election regulations. The Central Election Commission will review the signatures and announce the results by Nov. 14.
Huang Kwei-bo, an associate professor of diplomacy at Taipei's National Chengchi University and a former KMT deputy secretary general, said Gou's candidacy risked further dividing the opposition vote.
"Any split on the non-DPP side would mean Lai's sure victory in January," Huang said.
Former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je of the small Taiwan People's Party has generally been running second in the polls, with Hou third. A poll last week by the My Formosa online newspaper put Gou's support at just 12%.
Gou reiterated a call for "unity" amongst opposition parties, urging Ko and Hou to sit down with him and discuss plans to join forces in order to win the election against the DPP.
The KMT however expressed its "extreme regret" over Gou's hid and urged him to support the party's candidate, Hou.
Hou told reporters his "attitude towards standing for president has never changed" and that he was concentrating on pressing forward with the mission given by the party.
Ko's party said it respected Gou's right to run but was working hard on Ko's own campaign.
The run up to the election is taking place at a time of increased tensions between Taipei and Beijing, as China stages regular military exercises near the island to assert its sovereignty claims.
When asked about the issue of conflict of interest with Gou being a major shareholder of Foxconn, which has massive investment in China, Gou said he's willing to "sacrifice" his personal assets in China in the event of a Chinese attack.
"I have never been under the control of the People's Republic of China," he said. "I don't follow their instructions."
Foxconn said in a statement that Gou was no longer involved in day to day management of the company having "handed over the baton" four years ago.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee; Editing by Michael Perry and Lincoln Feast)