As Elections Approach, the KMT Looks Increasingly Rudderless

Written by J. Michael Cole.

Image credit: 54519235 by inmediahk/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

The Kuomintang (KMT) began 2019 a seemingly reinvigorated party following its successes in the previous November’s nationwide local elections. Epitomising this new energy was Han Kuo-yu, the candidate who had scored an unexpected victory against his opponent from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Kaohsiung, Chen Chi-mai. No sooner had Han assumed his seat as mayor of the southern port city than the “wave” that brought him into office elevated him to even greater heights. In July, Han prevailed against established figures in the KMT and became the party’s candidate for the January 2020 presidential election.

Since then, Han’s political fortunes have changed trajectory. Polling well ahead of the incumbent, President Tsai Ing-wen, in early 2019, the KMT candidate has encountered serious headwinds—some due to a rapidly shifting context in cross-Strait relations, some to internal party politics, and others very much of his own making.

One key early development was the 2 January address to “Taiwanese compatriots” by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping, whose hard-line position on “one country, two systems” and unification may have reflected CCP hubris following the DPP’s defeat in the November 2018 elections. President Tsai’s firm response to Xi’s message had immediate effects on her poll numbers.

Another factor was the growing unrest in Hong Kong, which put a final nail in the coffin of the “one country, two systems” formula which Xi in January had made clear was the only mechanism for “reunification” on offer by Beijing. Although many analysts have arguably overstated the effects of the crisis in Hong Kong on President Tsai’s political resurrection, there is no question that the situation had some impact on perceptions among Taiwanese.

More significant is the split that has developed within the blue camp following Han’s selection as the KMT’s presidential candidate. Despite enjoying the support of influential actors within the party, such as the Huang Fu-Hsing and Hongmen secret societies, Han’s idiosyncratic style quickly alienated the “educated” mainstream members of the KMT. As the self-contradictions, lies, misogyny, racism and controversies surrounding his drinking habits piled up, his relationship with established figures within the party began to fray. Tensions were compounded by incidents in which his raucous base—predominantly from a lower-middle-class that has grown disillusioned with the “elite” in Taipei—showed disrespect toward party elders at Han rallies, including former president Ma Ying-jeou and former legislative speaker Wan Jin-pyng. As relations between Han and the party soured, more and more establishment figures in the KMT distanced themselves from the candidate. They could countenance the unusual politician as mayor of a city, but the idea of him representing the party on the presidential ticket was a different proposition altogether. In response, Han’s followers began attacking—and in some instances threatening—his critics within the blue camp. At some point, it was even rumoured that the party could engineer another eleventh-hour switch of its candidate, as it had done in late 2015 after it became clear that its initial candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, stood no chance of defeating Tsai.

In the end, the party did not embrace that option, probably due to the very bad optics that such a repeat would have represented. The KMT retained its candidate, but it became increasingly apparent that the strategy had changed: the party would ostensibly concede the presidency while focusing on making gains in the legislative elections with the aim of neutralising President Tsai in the Legislative Yuan (LY), as was done in Chen Shui-bian years (2000-2008).

Then, in November, the KMT unveiled its “safe” list of at-large legislators—legislators who assume the position based on the party vote. Following a series of revisions, the list included a number of problematic individuals who have professed their support for Beijing and unification. Among them was retired General Wu Sz-huai and the controversial Chiu Yi, who was subsequently removed from the list only to join the pro-unification New Party ticket. Besides completely misreading public sentiment and highlighting a failure to appeal to younger generations of voters, the list attracted criticism from within the party, including from former president Ma Ying-jeou, who remains an influential figure in the KMT. Speaking on condition of anonymity over fears of retaliation, a number of sources in the blue camp told this author they could not comprehend the logic behind the “safe” list. Some predicted that the list would cost the KMT even more seats in the LY, ensuring it continued to hold a minority in parliament.

Whatever the reason for that list, one fact remained: KMT Chairman Wu Den-yih had to put his imprimatur on it. Looking increasingly fatigued and confused at public events, Wu is evidently no longer in control of his party, which appears to have been hijacked by the very elements, presumably, that are gravitating around Han.

Facing abandonment by some of his most ardent supporters (including Want Want chairman Tsai Eng-meng) and trailing Tsai by a wide margin, Han has stated that polls “do not matter” and called on his followers to lie about their voting intentions so as to confuse pollsters. One month prior to the elections, the KMT strategy appears to be unravelling. Barring a major controversy, the blue camp appears to be heading for defeat in January. In many respects, this likely outcome is the result of the party’s failure to reinvent itself following its disastrous showing in the 2016 elections: today’s KMT remains old (blue academics in the mid-40s often jokingly point out that the elders regard recently retired individuals in their 60s as the party’s youth) and unwilling to empower those in its ranks who stand a better chance of appealing to voters. The generational divide between DPP and KMT voters could not be starker. As a consequence, Han, who scored a surprise victory in late 2018 against a qualified opponent who perhaps had grown a bit complacent, became the accidental candidate. The fact that Han so easily defeated his challengers for the party nomination should have served as a signal to the KMT that its base wants change. The problem for it, now, is that the candidate it ended up with is both unappealing to mainstream KMT supporters and has awakened forces that, as witnessed elsewhere around the world, are animated by populist and antidemocratic desires. The party’s likely defeat in January is largely of its own making. Taiwan needs a solid opposition that is in touch with current realities and followers of the party deserve better candidates.

J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Taiwan Studies Program at the University of Nottingham, the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, D.C., and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa. His latest book, Cross-Strait Relations Since 2016: The End of the Illusion, will be published by Routledge in March 2020. He tweets @JMichaelCole1

From December 16th 2019 till January 6th 2020, researchers from the European Research Centre on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) and Taiwan Studies Program (TSP) present a joint special issue on the forthcoming presidential election that will be held on January 11th 2020.

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