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Leadership and Crisis in Taiwan’s Oldest Political Party

This party has a glorious history, but our legacy cannot be undone by the current generation,” pleaded Taipei City Councilor Lee Hsin, one of the four candidates for in the race for the Chairperson of Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT), in his opening statement. The party is in dire straits after it suffered landslide defeats in the 2014 Local Elections and the 2016 presidential and parliamentary elections at the hands of the opposition party DPP, whose leader Tsai Ing-wen is getting ready to assume the presidency two months from now. The KMT’s defeat heralded the end of the KMT’s eight-year rule under President Ma Ying-jeou and led to the resignation of former party chairman Eric Chu. It has also ushered in a desperate search for new leadership and a period of serious soul-searching for the KMT on issues ranging from having to reconcile ideological differences between party factions to handling allegations about illegal party assets. Externally, the party must win back the support of younger voters, who have gained considerable influence in Taiwanese politics and whose allegiance mainly lies with the DPP. To do so, the KMT should shift its focus away from cross-strait relations and propose domestic reforms with a focus on employment and welfare.

There is certainly more than one reason behind the sorry state of the KMT in terms of electoral popularity. For one, the incumbent Ma administration’s ideological disconnect with voters on the issue of Taiwanese identity has become a major obstacle, contributing to a dismal approval rating of 9.2 percent. In its dealings with cross-strait issues, the administration has steadfastly held on to the so-called One China principle formulated at a meeting between Chinese and Taiwanese officials in 1992, with the support of only a meager 15.4 percent of the Taiwanese population. After a historic meeting with China’s president Xi Jinping in late 2015, President Ma faced a barrage of protests and criticism -some going as far as to call for his impeachment– accusing Ma of attempting to bolster his personal legacy at the expense of Taiwan’s future. Another factor contributing to public dissatisfaction with the current government is a sluggish economy due to tepid exports and rising house prices in Ma’s second term.

Besides ideological issues that are embodied in the discontent over cross-strait policy and the economy, the internal strife within the KMT and the lack of unity between its factions has become increasingly dramatic and detrimental to the party’s political success. Factions within the KMT range from the unapologetic Chinese Nationalists (known as deep-blue), to the more moderate faction which does not reflect Chinese unification so strongly in its ideology. KMT’s rout in the 2014 municipal elections widened the ideological rift between the two factions. It then came to a head during last year’s debate over the party’s nominee in the 2016 presidential elections as deep-blue faction members of KMT nominated then-deputy legislative speaker Sophie Hung Hsiu-chu, whose views on cross-strait identities of Taiwan and China alienated moderate KMT supporters and stood little chance of gaining popular support.  Hung’s “One China, Same Interpretation” ideology not only upholds the One China principle, but would hypothetically “force” the People’s Republic of China to recognize the Republic of China as the only China, a step up from the “One China, Separate Interpretations” policy of President Ma.

"When the KMT needs urgent change, those who have the power to enact it are also the least likely to do so."

The reason Hung was nominated despite her lack of appeal to the wider electorate is the KMT’s problematic process for selecting presidential nominees. After obtaining 15,000 signatures, nominees must receive over 30 percent support in polls conducted by various newspapers and internal party polling, weighed equally. This process is susceptible not only to deep-blue bias (since internal polling is only open to registered KMT members, who tend to be deep-blue), but also to the manipulation of newspaper polling by DPP voters, many of whom intentionally vote “yes” to the KMT candidate’s nomination to inflate the candidate’s perceived popularity. A few months after Hung’s nomination, her poor performance in polls led then-to her replacement by then-Chairman Eric Chu.

This is what Justin Chen, vice president of the Cross-Strait Policy Association, calls the ‘Hung Hsiu-chu phenomenon,’ which entails a discrepancy between party members and public opinion. Extending Chen’s point, those with the power to reform the direction of the party tend to be those who hold steadfastly to deep-blue ideals that are at odds with the publicly prevalent, more moderate pan-blue opinion. To add injury to insult, on Saturday, Hung was elected KMT chairperson, making a political comeback. She handily defeated three opponents: Huang Min-hui, a moderate and Southerner (an area where the DPP is strong), Apollo Chen, member of the Legislative Yuan who survived an incredibly tough election cycle for the pan-blue coalition, and Lee Hsin, who has heavily and vocally criticized the establishment’s resistance to reform in the face of electoral losses. Hung’s success despite her far-right ideologies stemmed from the fact that her beliefs likely turned out the vote for deep-blue voters, the KMT-hardliners most actively involved in internal party matters. Again, when KMT needs urgent change, those who have the power to enact it are also the least likely to do so.

In the past, those unsatisfied with KMT’s establishment leadership and its inability to reform itself have tended to create splinter parties, as happened in 1993 and 2000 with the founding of the “New Party” and the “People First Party,” respectively. As these splinters mostly attracted members on the ideological extremes of the KMT, those who stayed with the main party held more centrist views. Whether a third split occurs in the wake of the current leadership crisis depends on Hung’s ability to de-emphasize her cross-strait ideology for the sake of more important objectives.

The issues Hung should address immediately are the KMT’s NT$16.6 billion (USD $510 million) assets. Not only have critics from the DPP questioned the legality of these assets, but they have also claimed that the figure of their value is an underestimate of the actual number. Moving forward, the KMT should make information about these assets available to the public and return any illegally obtained items to the rightful owners. The difficulty lies in determining the legality of the assets, which range from media corporations to plots of land where ownership definitions have been blurred since Japanese exodus from Taiwan after fifty years of colonial rule.

Other long due reforms include lowering the hefty registration fee for the chairperson election and expanding youth participation. Youth participation has been KMT’s weak point since the rise of the DPP in the political scene in the 1990s; this problem was aggravated by the China-skeptical Sunflower movement that attracted college students across the country in the spring of 2014 in response to government’s attempt to pass the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement, a treaty that would liberalize cross-strait trade in the service sector with China. As Taiwanese youth are raised in a culture that increasingly articulates Taiwanese identity in opposition to a Chinese one, many of them find it hard to align themselves with the KMT’s cooperative stance with the mainland.

Further splintering is a potential concern. It is important to note that neither of the two KMT splinter groups have had significant influence in Taiwanese politics. So although the ‘Hung Hsiu-chu phenomenon’ favors extremism over centrism, the KMT should stop catering to the ultraconservative factions of the party. Instead, the party, even Hung herself who personally identifies as deep-blue, should focus on catering to the larger public and especially the youth by shaping its cross-strait policy around youth-focused issues like employment and education. In order to avoid being stigmatized as a “sell-out” party, KMT should create business opportunities for small businesses rather than large corporations who lobby for cross-strait economic collaboration. This job may prove difficult for the new chairwoman, whose own ideology lies to the far right of the mainstream electorate. Yet, KMT’s public perception will improve only if reforms are made from within to challenge the stereotypes and power structures that plague the electability of its candidates.

Photo by Rico Shen – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3760894

About the Author

Nelson Chou '17 is a World Section Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.