Internal Divisions, Regardless of the Outcome: The KMT’s Troubled Candidate Decision-Making Process

Written by Brian Hioe.

Image credit: 朱立倫/ Facebook.

At this stage in the election, the KMT has already announced some of its planned legislative candidates. In addition, the KMT is slated to announce its presidential candidate sometime this month, with a party congress planned in July.

But the KMT’s process to decide both the presidential and legislative candidates that the party will field in the 2024 elections has already been controversial. Moreover, the primary outcome threatens to further divide the party at a time when the pan-Blue camp is already plagued by in-fighting. Likewise, the controversies that have already occurred reflect the party’s unresolved internal divisions at a time when the party likely needs unity if it hopes to prevail in the 2024 elections. 

First, one might begin with the controversy that occurred regarding the KMT’s election strategy committee in March. With the KMT set to decide candidates and campaign strategy by way of a committee, this led to backlash from those excluded from the committee.

Particularly strident in criticisms was Taipei city councillor Hsu Chiao-hsin, who is part of a younger cohort of KMT city councillors that are seeking to oust older, more established members in the course of the primary process. Hsu alleged that the election strategy committee did not represent young people in the KMT when the party struggled with youth recruitment–a report from Al-Jazeera two years ago stated that the party has less than 9,000 members under 40 years old. However, the party claims that recruitment has been up by 40% since then. Likewise, Hsu suggested that the election strategy committee favoured individuals from politically influential families in the KMT, such as how recently elected Taipei mayor Chiang Wan-an is the son of former legislator John Chiang and is the purported descendant of Chiang Kai-shek. Taipei city councillor Chung Pei-jun, one of the younger members of the committee, resigned in response to criticisms.

A large part of the controversy hinged upon the presence of Hualien legislator Fu Kun-chi on the election strategy committee. Fu Kun-chi has, in past years, consistently been one of the most polarizing figures in the party, due to longstanding allegations of corruption against him on charges including graft and paying off the media, for which he has previously served imprisonment. Most infamously, before a jail stint on corruption charges during his time as Hualien magistrate, Fu divorced his wife, Hsu Chen-wei, to name her as deputy county magistrate so that she could continue to rule Hualien in his stead when he was in jail. Hsu is still currently the county magistrate of Hualien.

Fu was previously kicked out of the KMT over these charges but was brought back into the KMT on the initiative of current chair Eric Chu as part of efforts to consolidate the pan-Blue camp ahead of elections. This was seen as important, seeing as Fu is consistently able to win elections despite his checkered record. Yet corruption charges have continued to dog Fu since then, including suspicions raised that he and Hsu have finished unusually high in central standing committee elections. As such, this is not the first time that Fu’s presence on a key committee of the KMT has provoked a backlash.

Following the backlash, it was later announced that the KMT would suspend the election strategy committee and return to its previous way of deciding candidates. But despite this controversy in March over the election strategy committee, shortly afterwards, in April, the KMT announced that it would not be deciding its presidential candidate through an open primary but through a selection process.

This was widely interpreted as a move by Eric Chu aimed at preventing New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi from running, with Chu seen as having presidential ambitions himself–even though Chu was defeated as the KMT’s 2016 presidential candidate and unsuccessfully sought the KMT’s 2020 presidential nomination.

Polling indicates that Hou You-yi is the KMT’s most popular local politician and a frontrunner for the 2024 presidential candidate. However, Hou was distrusted by members of the KMT establishment. Namely, Hou is a benshengren and was close to the DPP in the past during the Chen administration, during which the DPP attempted to recruit him.

Hou has also been moderate on cross-strait issues, refraining from overly pro-unification statements or support for the 1992 Consensus. While this is a key factor as to Hou’s electability for the general public, this likely contributes to distrust of him in the KMT. Namely, the KMT remains existentially terrified of another Lee Teng-hui figure rising to the top of the party and turning out to be a convert pan-Green turncoat. Some in the KMT establishment may fear that Hou could prove to be another such figure.

Such accusations have also been slung against young politicians within the party, such as Hsu. Hsu eventually succeeded in narrowly ousting five-term KMT legislator Alex Fai in the KMT’s primary process, but in the process of their competition, Fai frequently alleged that she could be a pan-Green turncoat.

Since then, however, Chu seems to have been marginalized after FoxConn founder Terry Gou announced that he intended to seek the KMT’s presidential nomination; Chu has since stated that he will not run for president. Gou apologized for leaving the party in anger after he failed to secure the KMT’s presidential nomination in the lead-up to the 2020 elections and stated that he would support the party’s eventual candidate if he did not win, making clear that he would not run as an independent that might split the vote if he failed to win the nomination.

The ball was in Chu’s court as to whether to let Gou back into the party by making an exemption, since he would be making way for a rival. The same situation occurred in the lead-up to 2020, though allowing him back into the party was then less controversial. But with the KMT deciding its candidate through a closed process, this would increase the odds that Gou could secure the nomination, perhaps as a compromise candidate among the KMT’s major stakeholders, even if Gou would have a more difficult challenge defeating Hou in a free and fair primary process.

Regardless of who the KMT settles on, the pan-Blue vote will likely be divided. Former Taipei mayor and TPP party chair Ko Wen-je intends to run for president–even if this will split the political vote, with no formal position at present, Ko is more or less obligated to run to keep politically relevant. Although Ko polls well, as a third party, his party does not have the mobilization network or resources that the KMT does, and so Ko is unlikely to win. Nevertheless, Ko is likely to split the vote, and Ko is not likely to be persuaded to set aside his run for the sake of broader unity since this is the way to maintain political salience for himself and his party.

Ahead of the elections, pan-Blue candidates are beginning to moderate their cross-strait stances. Despite being the iconic taishang entrepreneur that owns factories in China, recent comments by Gou warned against economic overreliance on China. Ko himself has started to suggest that Taiwan should prepare for war with China while maintaining dialogue, even if Ko claimed in the past that both sides of the Taiwan Straits were a single family. This process of moderation will likely continue to take place. However, the KMT candidates are more likely to moderate themselves after securing nominations, as they need to cater to the party leadership beforehand. Afterwards, they will be making appeals to the broader public. At the same time, the broader framing of the pan-Blue camp will be to frame the DPP and pan-Green camp as warmongers, provoking China through facilitating too close ties to the US while positioning the KMT and pan-Blue camp as only seeking peace.

In this way, though avoiding a primary, the KMT’s selection process for legislative and presidential candidates is likely to be contentious. As a result, fractures already existing in the party will likely deepen, with generational splits, ethnic divides, and varied cross-strait stances within the party continuing to be polarizing. To this extent, the pan-Blue vote will see splits between KMT and third-party candidates, such as Ko, even if the pan-Blue camp would otherwise need unity if it hopes to boost its odds of overcoming the DPP.

Brian Hioe is one of the founding editors of New Bloom. He is a freelance journalist, as well as a translator. A New York native and Taiwanese-American, he has an MA in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University and graduated from New York University with majors in History, East Asian Studies, and English Literature. He was Democracy and Human Rights Service Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy from 2017 to 2018 and is currently a non-resident fellow at the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Studies Programme. 

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s