Is the KMT’s Future Brighter under Eric Chu?

Written by Lev Nachman.

Image credit: 中國國民黨臺南市委員會,外牆懸掛中國國民黨主席朱立倫賀歲廣告布幔 by Sun Taro/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

The results are in: Eric Chu, a former KMT presidential candidate, will be the new KMT party chair. This race was not supposed to be dramatic, but it ended up becoming an exciting spectacle that revealed far more characteristics about the current state of the KMT than any observer could have anticipated.

First, descriptively Eric Chu won by a comfortable margin. He came in first with over 45% of the vote, Chang Ya-chung, the strongly pro-unification contender, came in second with over 32%, and former party chair Johnny Chiang came in third with almost 19% of the vote. The turnout rate for this election was also higher than the last party chair election, reaching over 50% turnout of registered KMT party members. From just these statistics alone, we can see that Eric was the clear favourite, Chang has a small but meaningful base of support, and Johnny Chiang, the once hyped reformist, does not have a strong footing left in his party. The high turnout also shows the KMT base is still energized despite the party’s recent electoral struggles.

But why was this a dramatic election? Because the 32% that Chang secured is a somewhat shockingly high turnout. As of a month ago, Chu’s victory was seen as a sure thing. But in the last few weeks, some dubious polls showed Chang was suddenly on the rise. Unfortunately, people bought into the hype around these poorly done polls, and Chan manufactured support for himself overnight. While there is something to be said about media-manufactured support and needed public literacy over opinion polls, the results showed that Chang has enough of a base that the KMT cannot entirely ignore.

What is the difference between Chu and Chang, and why does it matter? These two KMT politicians offer different approaches to unification. Just like how there are different approaches to Taiwanese independence, unification is also a spectrum. Chu is an ROC nationalist who supports a kind of “blue unification,” whose priority is the continued existence of the ROC and does not want unification into the PRC even if he sees a common bond between the ROC and PRC. Chang, on the other hand, emphasizes unification with the PRC, or “red unification.” This difference between “blue unification” and “red unification” is essential for KMT voters. Blue unification KMT voters, just like many on the pan-green side, want nothing to do with the PRC and have no interest in unifying with China so long as the CCP is in power. On the other hand, red unification supporters, such as Chang, see unification with the PRC as a good thing. The KMT then has to strike a balance between appealing to as many variations on unification as possible to gain the most votes. As a result, the DPP must appeal to as many different approaches towards independence as it can to secure votes.

Had Chang won, it would have been a truly monumental moment in Taiwanese politics. With such a strong red unification supporter in power, the KMT would likely have seen a major split in the party. KMT voters and supporters would have left the party in droves and joined a different or new pan-blue party that can offer a more moderate pan-blue platform than Chang. If that happened, it would be a disaster for blue politicians for years. Given most district seats and the president is decided through a first-past-the-post voting, if there are two blue candidates and one green candidate, the green candidate will almost always win. For example, consider Chen’s first presidential victory in 2000 that resulted from a split between the KMT and the People First Party (PFP). Chen did not win because he had the most support but because two blue candidates split their vote. To put it simply, if Chang had won the KMT party chair, it would have led to years of electoral victory for the DPP. The pan-green party must certainly be slightly disappointed Chang did not win.

However, the vote results show that the KMT supporters are far more moderate and side more with Chu’s ROC nationalism than any sort of PRC nationalism. But the red unification minority cannot be entirely ignored by the party. Therein lies the KMT’s challenge: how to appeal to its whole voter base while also doing more to reach young voters who are less likely to identify with either the ROC or PRC.

The KMT needs to teach itself new tricks, but it seems reliant on its same tactics so far. Chu had formal correspondence with Xi Jinping; he’s attacked the DPP for doing a poor job; he’s condemned what he calls “cultural independence,” and he’s attacking young pro-independence politicians. These tactics work for appealing to the KMT’ current voter base but do very little to win the hearts and minds of those undecided or green voters.

People may wonder why Chu continues to use the same typical KMT talking points, but it is worth remembering that despite the KMT’s troubles, it does have a solid voter base that does enjoy hearing these types of appeals. Despite his disastrous campaign, Han Kuo-yu was able to win 5.5 million votes, almost 2 million more than Eric Chu won in 2016. For the party vote where Taiwanese voters select the party they most closely support, the KMT tied the DPP 33% to 33%. Many Taiwanese still support the party, and given the high turnout for the party chair, that base is mobilized.

But that voter base is old. Few young people support the party, and if the KMT wants to survive in the future, it needs to find ways to appeal to people under the age of 40. That is Eric Chu’s most significant challenge and something he will struggle with if he relies on the same traditional talking points like the 92 consensus. Instead, Chu needs to make the KMT seem younger and more pro-Taiwan while still maintaining its connections to China to appeal to its traditional voter base. Some might argue that this is a contradictory task, but if the KMT wants to win a presidential election, it needs to think of some new tricks.

Looking forward, the KMT does have one strong politician in their arsenal: Hou You-yi. The New Taipei Mayor is polling particularly strongly with moderate voters, and even pan-green voters have favourable opinions of him. If Chu wants electoral success in 2024, it would be wise to promote Hou in a way that doesn’t require him to lean into some of Chu’s pro-China talking points that isolate moderate and pan-green voters. But, whether or not Chu supports Hou for president in 2024 is still a distant decision. Former Foxconn CEO Terry Gou may also contend for the KMT presidential nomination after his re-entrance into politics by helping secure vaccines for Taiwan along with TSMC. Until then, the KMT is focusing on the upcoming referendum vote and then will need to shift their attention to the 2022 midterm. If the KMT does well in the 2022 midterm, the momentum could be enough to see a more redeeming 2024 presidential and legislative election than they saw in 2020.

Until then, the KMT has its hands full handling an increasingly difficult pro-ROC versus pro-Taiwan balancing act. If Chu can reform some of the KMT’s talking points like the 92 consensus in a way his predecessor Johnny Chiang was unable to, he might have success at winning over moderate voters. But, if he simply falls back on the KMT’s traditional talking points and relies only on their existing voter base, then the party’s base will not grow. Given his language in his correspondence with Xi, Chu does not seem to be in any rush to reform. If the party does not want to change, then it will not change. But neither will its electoral results.

Lev Nachman, PhD, Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. He tweets @lnachman32

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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