Written by Nathan Batto.
Eric Chu 朱立倫 was elected KMT party chair on Saturday in a surprisingly contentious race. When Chu announced his entry into the race, the former New Taipei mayor, vice premier, presidential candidate, and KMT party chair was the favourite to win. However, most people expected his primary competition to be the incumbent party chair Johnny Chiang 江啟臣 rather than Chang Ya-chung 張亞中, an intellectual from the extreme unification wing of the party.
Chiang assumed the chair after the KMT lost badly in the 2020 presidential and legislative elections, its second straight defeat. There is one dominant political cleavage in Taiwan – the China Cleavage – which involves national identity, preference for the future status of Taiwan, and how to deal with the PRC on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately for the KMT, which stands for Chinese identity, One China, and closer integration with the Chinese economy, there are simply not enough voters on the pro-China side of the spectrum. Chiang sought to address this structural problem facing the KMT by moving the party more to the middle of the spectrum. Soon after taking office, he proposed four pillars to guide the KMT’s stance on cross-strait relations: ROC sovereignty; safeguarding freedom, democracy, and human rights; prioritising Taiwan’s security; and creating win-win situations and shared prosperity. Notably, this proposal did not mention the 1992 Consensus (One China, each side with its own interpretation), which has guided KMT policy for the past two decades. Influential people in the party, led by former President Ma Ying-jeou, quickly quashed this proposal, showing Chiang to be an ineffectual leader. In this party chair election, Chiang stuck to the orthodoxy of the 1992 Consensus, never even hinting that a year ago, he had suggested it might be obsolete.
During the last month of the campaign, a series of dubious polls indicated that Chang Ya-chung had surged into second place or maybe even the lead. Chang is an old-style KMT voice, urging people to return to the spirit of Sun Yat-sen, resolutely oppose Taiwan independence, and be proud of being Chinese. He has come up with several proposals for pushing forward unification, and he has regular interaction with people in China.
Chu responded to Chang’s surge by launching an assault. Up to this point, the race had been relatively tame. The candidates all slammed the DPP, praised the 1992 Consensus, and refrained from attacking each other. To the extent they had disagreed, it was over minor things such as whether it was appropriate for the party chair to run for president. Now Chu slammed Chang as a “red unificationist scholar” 紅統學者 who advocated unacceptable positions such as One China, Same Interpretation 一中同表 and One Country, Two Systems 一國兩制. Chu wondered whether the KMT under Chang would turn from a blue party to a red party, and he worried that Chang might cause the party to splinter.
This was a stunning attack for two reasons. On the one hand, someone in the KMT was calling someone else in the KMT “red.” For years the KMT has complained that the DPP unfairly paints them as red. To them, this is outright slander. But now, this attack is coming from inside the KMT, not from some wild-eyed independence radical. This effectively gives the DPP permission to repeat the accusation in the future: even the KMT admits that a large faction is outright red.
On the other hand, the attack is stunning because it comes from Chu. Chu has built a reputation as a mild, affable, cautious politician. Within the KMT, he has been someone who everyone can agree on. He may not have been everyone’s first choice, but he wasn’t anyone’s last choice. So, it was startling to see Chu, of all people, blasting a fellow KMT member.
The most likely explanation for Chu’s actions is that he wanted to turn the race into a two-way race between himself and Chang. Most observers assumed that Chiang’s supporters strongly preferred Chu to Chang, so they would face considerable pressure to vote for Chu in a two-way race instead of wasting their vote on the sure loser Chiang. Unfortunately, the absence of any polls of even minimal quality makes it difficult to assess whether Chu’s strategy worked. Nevertheless, several observers claimed to see anecdotal evidence of strategic voting. The result is consistent with what we might expect to see if some of Chiang’s original support had defected to Chu.
Results of the 2021 KMT Party Chair Election
Now that the race is over, what kind of chair will Chu be? Chu was chair once before, taking over as acting chair in January 2015 following the 2014 local elections debacle. It was Chu’s first time on the national stage, and his inexperience showed. He went to China in May 2015, where he went beyond the usual formula of “One China, each side with its own interpretation” to support “both sides belong to the same China” 兩岸同屬一中. He seemed surprised that this statement aroused concerns back home. Chu steadfastly refused to contest the KMT’s presidential nomination even though polls consistently showed him to be the party’s strongest candidate. Instead, he insisted on following the existing rules, which led to the disastrous nomination of Hung Hsiu-chu 洪秀柱 from the extreme pro-China wing of the party. In September, facing Hung’s dismal polls and rumours of a party split, Chu engineered the retraction of her nomination and replaced her with himself. He would have led a united party and had a full year to prepare if he had run at the outset. Instead, his vacillating led to a hastily organised campaign, feelings of betrayal inside the party, and several months in which the KMT sent out a harsh pro-China message to the general electorate. As a result, Chu was humiliated in the January 2016 presidential election, getting only 31.0%. He immediately resigned as party chair.
Chu’s first term as party chair was marked by indecisiveness and a lack of a clear vision for the country. Now, after five years as one of the party’s top national leaders, perhaps Chu will be more successful in his second stint as party chair. However, he faces some challenges. Inside the party, he will have to make amends with the extreme wing of the party. During the campaign, he essentially called Chang – and by extension, all the party members who agreed with Chang – an enemy of the ROC. Chu will likely try to paper over this attack, saying it was merely the passion of an electoral campaign. However, it remains to be seen if those party members will be forgiving. On cross-straits policy, Chu’s campaign rhetoric opened the door to modifications. His emphases on the ROC and national security could be consistent with a much stiffer attitude toward China’s continual attempts to suppress ROC sovereignty and threaten Taiwan’s security.
However, Chu does not seem interested in walking through this door. His first act as party chair was to write a conciliatory letter to Xi Jinping. He positioned the KMT and CCP as allies resisting the DPP and Taiwan independence and reiterated the primacy of the 1992 Consensus. He seems dedicated to opposing the DPP at every possible opportunity in domestic politics, starting with recalls and referendums. In short, he appears to think that the KMT should keep doing all the same things it has been doing, just more energetically. The KMT has decisively lost the last two national elections. Doing the same thing might not be the wisest approach.
Nathan F. Batto is Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Political Science, Academia Sinica and the Election Study Center, National Chengchi University. His blog is Frozen Garlic (frozengarlic.wordpress.com).
This article was published as part of KMT’s Chairman Election special issue.