Written by Dafydd Fell.
In a recent article I was sceptical of the Kuomintang’s (KMT) chances of taking back power at the local level in 2018 and national level in 2020. I argued that so far there have been no signs that the party has taken any concrete steps towards learning the lessons of defeat and contrasted this to how the KMT and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had attempted to adjust in responses to setbacks in the past.
When I made the initial presentation that served as the basis of the earlier paper, I was asked what I would do if I were advising the KMT. Before doing so, it is important to ask why this is something worth writing about. Many recall the slogan in 2014 that “If the KMT doesn’t fall, Taiwan won’t be alright” (國民黨不倒 台灣不會好). Although Taiwan’s democratic transition occurred while the KMT was in power in the 1990s, for many, the party is first associated with Taiwan’s four-decade-long martial law era, known as the period of White Terror.
Nevertheless, democracies need strong opposition parties. At least in the short term, it is unlikely that another party will be able to break the domination of the DPP-KMT party system.
Many studies have looked at how the DPP and KMT have reacted to electoral setbacks in the past. In a previous article I argued that the KMT gradually learned lessons of the defeat after 2000 by looking in particular to changes in its leadership image, handling of the China and national identity issue, domestic issues and organizational change. I argued that this gradual learning process was the basis for its return to power in 2008. Of course it is possible that the KMT might be able to regain power without radical change, just relying on the unpopularity of the DPP government. However, in this essay I will make a case to show how past experience might guide the KMT in how to become competitive again.
Since Taiwan will soon be preparing for the 2020 presidential elections, the KMT needs to establish a new leadership image. Following severe electoral defeats switching leadership can contribute to boosting party popularity. The rise of Chen Shui-bian in the late 1990s, Ma Ying-jeou after 2005 and Tsai Ing-wen after 2008 are all cases of fresh leadership reinvigorating defeated parties. Thus far the KMT appears to have been looking back rather than forward when it comes to its leadership.
After the 2016 defeat the party membership elected Hung Hsiu-chu as its chairperson. Although Hung has a passionate following among some dark blues, she is just too out of step with mainstream public opinion to be electorally viable. This had already been made clear from the party’s decision to replace her as presidential candidate in 2015. Her later replacement by Wu Den-yih in 2017 as party chair has prevented the party falling apart. However, Wu remains a symbol of the past, as he was Ma’s former premier and vice president. The fact that there have even been rumours of Ma standing again for the presidency reveals the degree that the KMT is looking backwards. Instead the party needs a fresh leadership image; someone that is not too closely associated with the Ma era.
The second area that the party will need to address is relations with China and national identity appeals. Academic studies of voting behavior particularly stress the importance of this issue in explaining voting behavior in Taiwan. Moreover, there is a consensus that this issue was critical in why the KMT lost popularity during Ma’s second term. Since its defeat in 2016 there have been no signs of any attempt to adjust the party’s positions closer to the median voter. If anything we saw the opposite, as Hung is associated with Chinese identity appeals and closer political integration with China. Her successor Wu appears to have taken the party back to a position equivalent to the blueprint laid down by the Lien-Hu (Lien Chan and Hu Jintao) agreement in 2005 and implemented by the Ma administration. In other words, there has been no learning from defeat so far.
So how can the KMT regain support on national identity related matters? Once again past experience has shown how adjustment can be critical in electoral success, such as the DPP’s moderation in the run up to the 2000 and 2016 elections.
The KMT under Lee Teng-hui was actually remarkably successful at beating the DPP on Taiwan identity appeals, such as new Taiwanese discourse in 1998. Similarly, the KMT has tended to be more successful when it has been able to project dual identity appeals that overlap with large numbers of voters.
We saw these employed by the KMT in the 1990s but also in the run up to Ma’s election in 2007-8. Part of Lee’s success was that he made the KMT a de facto Taiwan KMT. Although it is unlikely the party will change its name to the Taiwan KMT, a start would be to drop the Chinese KMT and simply become the KMT. A precedent is the way Britain’s Labour Party rebranded itself as New Labour as it rose to power in the 1990s under Tony Blair’s leadership. The KMT can still make the case that it is the best party equipped to deal with cross-Strait relations, but will need to be able to avoid the accusation that it will sell out Taiwan through its alliance with the CCP against the DPP. Thus it should end its CCP-KMT dialogue and try to avoid the impression it is coordinating attacks on the DPP with the CCP. Instead could propose a consensus seeking conference to seek domestic agreement on how to handle relations with China.
One potential risk is that such moves could alienate some KMT core voters and politicians. However, if some switch to pro-unification parties such as the New Party (NP) or China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP), it could actually make it easier to attract moderate floating voters. We saw in the 1990s that the KMT was able to continue to dominate elections despite such defections as the NP. In contrast, in recent years the party has developed an alliance relationship with some of these hard-line unification parties and movements. It would be much better off making a clean break from such groups; as such semi alliances have led to the accusation that the KMT was being taken over by the NP.
A final area where the party needs to adjust is on domestic issues. In numerous studies I have tried to challenge the assumption that Taiwanese elections are only determined by national identity and instead have argued that parties need to address a broad range of issues.
I have suggested that this has applied to a number of presidential elections such as 2000, 2008 and 2016. Thus far the KMT again appears to be looking backwards and appealing to its base in the post 2016 period. We have seen this in how it has handled LGBT issues, pensions reform, as well as transitional justice. We have seen cases in Europe where conservative parties have been able to challenge leftist parties on issues such as same-sex marriage and even environmental protection.
There should be opportunities for the KMT to broaden its vote base by challenging DPP ownership of issues or at least showing itself to be a serious party deserving consideration for national government. For instance, with the DPP taking such a cautious approach on same sex marriage, the KMT could take a leading role in pushing through legislation. In Britain we saw how the Conservative Party gained credit for legalising same-sex marriage in the face of much internal opposition. When it comes to pensions reform, by engaging with the reform process rather than joining the often violent protests, the KMT could defuse the issue and potentially protect the interests of its core supporters by making these pensions schemes sustainable.
As Julian Kuo showed us in his 1998 book DPP Pain of Transition (民進黨 轉型之痛), such adjustments can be painful. However, numerous examples in Taiwan and beyond show that learning the right lessons from defeat can serve as the basis for party revival.
Dafydd Fell is the Reader in Comparative Politics with special reference to Taiwan at the Department of Political and International Studies of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and Director of the SOAS Centre of Taiwan Studies. This article was first published on Taiwan Sentinel and was republished with the permission of the editors. Image credit: CC by Office of the President of the Republic of Taiwan/Flickr.