What Strategy will the KMT Take Next? What Are the Odds of Reform Under Chu?

Written by Brian Hioe.

Image credit: IMG_4826 by Jimmy Yao/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

Eric Chu was the winner of the KMT chair election that took place on Saturday, September 25th, triumphing over incumbent chair Johnny Chiang and Sun Yat-Sen School director Chang Ya-chung. Chu was the undisputed winner, taking in close to half the vote share. At the same time, Chang Ya-chung took in 32.59% of votes to Chu’s 45.78%, while Chiang trailed far behind with 18.86% of votes.

The spectacular rise of Chang Ya-chung from being a little-known figure in the KMT to one able to surpass the incumbent chair of the KMT in terms of vote share should be worrisome for Chu. In particular, this means that Chu is likely to face continued challenges from deep Blue members of the KMT. If Chu strikes as too moderate in his course of action, Chu will be stymied by the deep Blues.

This will be a significant obstacle if Chu is contemplating anything like reform of the KMT. During his victory speech, Chu expressed support for efforts by young people at party reform. When Chu sought the KMT’s presidential nomination for 2020 elections, competing with Han Kuo-yu and Terry Gou, Chu was the candidate that distinguished himself with more strident calls for party reform.

Nonetheless, Chu’s political background in the KMT is primarily a party insider—Chu previously served as KMT chair in 2015, was the KMT’s presidential candidate in 2020, and has served as New Taipei mayor and Taoyuan magistrate. Chu’s background is not as an outsider.

Chu’s lengthy background in the party may make him less likely to pursue reform. Or precisely because he is known and trusted within the party, this could lessen resistance to reform. And, either way, Chu is still likely to face opposition from the deep Blues. The KMT appears to have shifted further toward the deep Blue end of the political spectrum after Han Kuo-yu’s 2020 presidential run. Han leaned heavily into ROC nationalism and deep Blue calls to defend the ROC against the efforts of the DPP to realize Taiwanese independence.

Chu has not yet taken up his post as KMT chair, with Johnny Chiang to continue as chair until a date decided by the KMT’s central committee. Chu has indicated that he will comply with the standard procedures and regulations for a transition of power, while both he and Chiang have at least publicly sought to demonstrate amity, rather than enmity, toward the other.

All candidates in the KMT chair race pledged party unity after the election, that once the election was over, they would work together to strengthen the party. Notably, all candidates also stated that they did not have any plans to run for president. Instead, they would try and cultivate the strongest possible presidential candidate for the KMT. While the party chair and presidential candidate are traditionally the same person, the two positions have diverged since 2014, with the party formalizing that the party chair and presidential candidate would not be the same individual in July 2019. It is to be questioned whether Chu will comply with this consensus or whether he has plans to run again for president, something that his competitors for KMT party chair accused him of doing.

But so far, Chu had taken the opposite tack as Johnny Chiang when Chiang first became chair of the KMT. That is, Chiang began his term by openly proclaiming the reforms he intended to conduct within the KMT, which may have been to his detriment.

That is, it was perhaps ultimately a mistake of Chiang’s to make his program for changing the KMT known too early, with Chiang initially advocating that the KMT drop the 1992 Consensus to help change the KMT’s pro-China image. Chiang also advocated that the US formally establish relations with the ROC, pushing the KMT legislative caucus to pass such a resolution, which the DPP also signed onto in a rare show of bipartisanship.

Chiang likely provoked blowback from party heavyweights such as former president Ma Ying-jeou and others of his cohort by threatening their political legacy, the 1992 Consensus, by openly suggesting that it should be dropped. Indeed, for a former president, Ma took an unusually proactive role in the KMT during Chiang’s tenure, something that Chiang himself may not have helped. After all, though Chiang made headlines as the youngest chair in party history, this also meant that Chiang was a relatively junior politician. Moreover, Chiang may have become chair of the KMT, winning in a by-election race, because more established party heavyweights were declining to throw their hat into an election that would only have gained them one year as party chair.

Chu has done the opposite, suggesting no real break from the status quo in his early days in office. Unlike Chiang, Chu was congratulated by China, which referred to Chu as “sir” or “mister” in address, rather than using the formal or informal form of “you.” Chu also sent a letter to China, in which he asserted the 1992 Consensus as his baseline for conducting cross-strait relations and vowed to combat the efforts of the DPP at realizing Taiwanese independence.

This letter indicates that Chu is angling for support from the CCP, perhaps hoping that his previous meetings in China with Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials will lead to goodwill. To this extent, Chu will probably continue to try and pursue electoral success for the KMT with the claim that it is the only party able to maintain stable cross-strait relations with China–and this is the reason why the KMT should hold political power in Taiwan.

Chu has indicated that the KMT intends to focus on a strategy of attacking the DPP using referendums and recalls. Apart from that, Chu’s victory speech indicated that the KMT would be focusing heavily on the recall campaign against Chen Po-Wei of the Taiwan Statebuilding Party in Taichung. Chu also asserted that the KMT would seek to attack the DPP on key issues in the national referendum.

The KMT is likely hoping to repeat its successes in the 2018 elections, in which the KMT was able to successfully use the referendum for the sake of electioneering, winning several key mayorships–including the surprise capture of Kaohsiung by Han Kuo-yu. Since then, the KMT has sought to try its odds in southern Taiwan, traditionally seen as firmly pan-Green territory; it is unknown if Chu will continue this policy. That being said, the referendum no longer takes place on the same date as elections following changes passed by the DPP in July 2019. So, the KMT may have less success in using the referendum to build election momentum.

Chu has indicated backing the recall campaign against heavy metal singer turned politician Freddy Lim in Wanhua. Targeting young pan-Green politicians that entered politics after the Sunflower Movement, even those who are not DPP members, will probably be framed as a referendum on the governance of the Tsai administration.

The future direction of Chu’s policy is set, then. While Chu may intend to reform the party and simply has not played his cards yet, he is at least indicating adherence to the Ma era status quo for now. It is to be seen how successful this will be. This is considering that the status quo already provoked a backlash from the public in the past, as observed in the successive crises experienced by the KMT since 2014. This remains to be seen.

Brian Hioe is one of the founding editors of New Bloom. He is a freelance writer on social movements and politics, and occasional translator. He tweets @brianhioe

This article was published as part of KMT’s Chair Election special issue. All articles in the special issue can be found here.

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