Battle for the KMT: For election or ideology?

Written by Adrian Chiu.

Image credit: 朱立倫/ Facebook.

It was generally thought that political parties are either election-based or ideology-based, depending on the factions dominating the party. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), having lost two presidential elections in a row, are now at crossroads to decide which they are for. As a mainstream party in a two-party system, the KMT is generally assumed to be aimed at winning elections. But as a former authoritarian party, adapting to electoral politics has always been tricky for the party. The increasingly vocal ‘deep blue’ faction within the party also seemed to suggest otherwise. As the general elections draw near, the temperature is rising for the battle for the party.

Candidate selection is often the best indication of power distribution within the party. In contrast to the DPP’s crowning the sole candidate William Lai as the presidential candidate, the KMT remained fractious about its primary process of selecting presidential candidates. The initial proposal by the party leadership to establish an Election Strategy Planning Committee was mired in controversy after the involvement of figures like Fu Kun-chi and Li Chuan-jiao, who previously faced corruption charges and punishment. But the replacement after the dissolution of the committee was not democratic either. So instead of holding primary elections, the party decided to select candidates through the central standing committee. It was interpreted as a move that allows party chairman Eric Chu to manage factional interests caused by the potential candidacy of the popular but moderate KMT politician New Taipei Mayor Hou You-yi. While the straightforward and strategic thing for the party is to select candidates with the strongest opportunity to win, that is not always the case for the KMT. This struggle between electoral and ideological concerns is nothing new for the KMT.

Political parties generally attempt to find the right balance between appealing to swing voters and their base in every election. Parties often learned from their electoral defeats by changing that balance, and candidate selection is crucial to that process, which shows how parties’ leadership assess their previous performances. The KMT has lost two national elections since 2016, but the party did not seem to learn the right lessons. As a result, the candidate selection process remained problematic for the party. In the 2016 election, Hung Hsiu-chu was the only candidate to participate and thus became KMT’s candidate for the general election without a primary election. Hung was seen as a deep blue candidate with strong pro-unification views that appealed to the base of the KMT but not to the general public. But in the final months of the campaign, Hung was replaced by then chairman Chu due to the unpopularity of Hung’s campaign, though he finally lost as well. For the 2020 election, the party adopted a primary process based on national polls to select presidential candidates. Han Guo-yu, the populist who enjoyed remarkable success in the 2018 local elections in the DPP stronghold Kaohsiung, became the most popular candidate in the polls and thus became KMT’s candidate. Nevertheless, his inability to respond in the wake of the anti-extradition movement in Hong Kong and his perceived close links with China meant that the electorate once again rejected the KMT.

Indeed, the KMT has always struggled between the conservative and moderate factions pretty much since the transformation in response to democratisation, from the Mainstream-non-Mainstream struggle in the 1990s to the struggle between Ma Ying-jeou and Wang Jin-pyng between the late 2000s and the early 2010s. The primary division between the factions is ethnic and ideological. The conservative faction (deep blue) consists mostly of Mainlanders and their second generations who favour the 1992 Consensus and eventual unification and stress the symbols of ROC and Chinese nationalism. The moderates, on the contrary, are mostly Taiwanese and are much less vocal about Chinese nationalism. But the primary battle this time revealed a fundamental division regarding the party’s primary purpose, which is in serious political plight. As more of the Taiwanese electorate gradually moved towards being Taiwanese and rejected unification, the battle within the party became desperate as the market for conservative ideas became less viable for the party electorally. Although the wise thing for the party to do is to follow the electorate and reform, the scale of change required becomes fundamentally unacceptable to some in the party, which hardened their resistance to reform. In other words, while it seems natural for the party to select a popular candidate like Hou, some factions see them as embattled and refused to compromise without a fight.

Unlike other political parties, the KMT conservative faction is particularly suspicious of those perceived as revealing their true colours after gaining power at the top. The Lee Teng-hui experience in the 1990s alarmed the conservative faction to guard against any ideological dilution. Moderate almost become a dirty word for some. This was why Hou was not given a favourable process to become the presidential candidate despite his public popularity. He is considered a moderate on cross-Strait issues but generally avoided the issue during his time as New Taipei Mayor. His long-time friendship with former DPP president Chen Shui-bian, who appointed him as director-general of the National Police Agency, did not help his reputation within the party. He was even at one point invited to join the DPP. From the conservatives’ perspective, their concern is a valid one. A fundamental contradiction between the logic of the election and the logic of the party seems to be emerging for the KMT. In short, the more popular among the public and thus more likely to perform well in elections, the more unpopular and untrustworthy within the party.

The factional divisions within the KMT are evident in the selection of presidential candidates and increasingly apparent as a generational divide within the party, particularly during parliamentary elections and throughout Taiwanese society. While it was previously believed that young people were hesitant to join the KMT, many young politicians have become members since the Sunflower Movement, driven by their determination to transform the party’s pro-China image. But they too encountered the same party establishment that is resistant to attempts to reform and suspicious of ‘Green infiltrators’. The arguably most famous of whom is Taipei City councillor Hsu Chiao-Hsin, who just won the members’ vote of the primary election by one vote to become the parliamentary candidate for the KMT in a Taipei constituency. But she fought an acrimonious campaign against five-term legislator Alex Fai, who accused her of being a Green turncoat. In addition, she was active in exposing vote-buying within the ranks of the party’s central standing committee and yet party chairman Chu revealed her whistleblowing. She also criticised the election strategy planning committee before its dissolution, declaring that the KMT is not a party for young people. These comments certainly did not contribute to party unity before the elections.

Against this backdrop, the special issue ‘KMT primaries battle’ will explore the infighting of the KMT that is at crossroads, battling for its purpose. The articles will also ask what it means for the party’s prospects in the 2024 general elections. The special issue begins with Brian Hioe’s article explaining the troubled candidates’ selection process of the KMT. In particular, the article will argue how it revealed the internal divisions within the party. It was followed by two articles focusing on selecting KMT’s presidential candidates. Both articles will agree that Hou You-yi remained the most likely candidate. While Mingke Ma’s piece stresses the strategic value of Terry Gou for the party, Jasper Roctus’s analyses the wider integration of the pan-blue camp, not least with Ko Wen-je of the TPP. Next, the article by Andrew LaRocca takes a step back to highlight the generational divide that plagues the party. The final piece by Chieh-Ting Yeh will revisit the fundamental contradiction of the KMT exposed in this article, namely, the two sides of the party and the increasing unelectability of the ideologically conservative faction.

Whoever the presidential candidate for the party will be, as the traditional KMT ideology continues to be squeezed by the shifts in the electorate, the factional and generational divide between the party will be more acute. More KMT drama is expected as the stakes increase in the election season. This special issue hopes to be a prologue to a series of special issues in the coming months that explores the different perspectives to understand and analyse the important set of elections.

Adrian Chiu is a PhD candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies of SOAS, University of London. His PhD project’s working title is “The dynamics of party interactions between Hong Kong and Taiwan in post-handover years: An ontological security perspective”. He is also interested in Taiwan’s party politics and the intersection between comparative politics and international relations. He is also an editor of Taiwan Insight.

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘KMT primaries battle‘.

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