Written by Jasper Roctus.
Image credit: 侯友宜/ Facebook.
After its victory in the 2022 local elections over the pan-Green coalition led by the Democratic Progressive Party (民主進步黨, DPP) of incumbent Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, the Chinese Nationalist Party (中國國民黨, KMT), which heads the opposition pan-Blue coalition, started its preparations for Taiwan’s general (legislative and presidential) elections scheduled for January 2024. However, as of early May, while the DPP has already selected William Lai as its presidential contender, the KMT is much less unified.
Over the last several months, a three-cornered struggle unfolded within the KMT between Hou Yu-ih, the popular incumbent New Taipei City mayor; Terry Gou, the billionaire founder and CEO of microchip giant Foxconn; and the party’s leadership represented by chairman Eric Chu, the KMT’s presidential candidate in 2016 who, despite no longer being in contention for 2024, is attempting to safeguard a “true Blue” policy platform for the eventual nominee.
The results of the KMT’s ambiguous drafting (徵召) procedure of its presidential nominee, which commenced after its leadership took control of the process, should be announced by May 20. The KMT’s selection committee nevertheless already appears reluctant to accept Terry Gou’s eccentric rhetoric and, most prominently, fears electoral outfall over his close China ties. Gou himself also frequently alludes to his extensive bonds with the Chinese mainland by boasting about the leverage he holds in solving the hostile status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Considering that the KMT is still reeling from the landslide defeat of Han Kuo-yu in 2020, its last maverick businessman presidential nominee, the selection of the softer-spoken Mayor Hou as its candidate for 2024 appears to be a foregone conclusion. By early April, the KMT had allegedly already reached an internal consensus on its candidate – a clear reference to being ready to select Hou.
The KMT’s leadership realizes that inner-party consensus does not guarantee a successful presidential run. Eric Chu has therefore decreed to not only unite the KMT but also to “unite the entire pan-Blue camp” and, eventually, “unite all non-Green friends” (“要團結所有泛藍、非綠朋友”). Beyond those two goals, the KMT will also have to convince the general public that Hou Yu-ih is not running from his responsibilities as mayor of New Taipei. “Mayoral desertion” also jeopardized the chances of Han Kuo-yu in 2020, who was then seen as abandoning Kaohsiung – which eventually even led to him being recalled from the city’s mayorship in June 2020.
While the KMT could realistically find ways to legitimize Hou’s precipitate departure as mayor, the above aims striving for larger unity beyond the KMT might be more difficult to accomplish. Hou’s light Blue credentials – those in the pan-Blue camp who tolerate the idea of the Republic of China de jure confined to the areas presently de facto under Taiwanese control – could be problematic for “uniting the entire pan-Blue camp.” By selecting Hou, who, for example, had never stressed the need to uphold the 1992 consensus (九二共識), the KMT has to fear a considerable loss of votes amongst deep Blue adherents – which refers to those who still aim to, at least eventually, unite with China. Displeasing them could lead to a large part of this bloc skipping the election or supporting a hypothetical candidacy by a deep Blue independent or an adherent to a minor party (Can we truly believe 2024 will be the first presidential election since 1996 without James Soong?).
Eric Chu’s aim to “unite all non-Green friends” could prove to be even more tricky. The “non-Green friend” causing the most trouble for the pan-Blue camp, former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je, who leads the centrist third-force Taiwan People’s Party (台灣民眾黨, TPP), is unlikely to back down from his candidacy. The TPP needs Ko’s name on the ballot to ensure it crosses the five per cent threshold for party-list proportional representation. Although often perceived as being more Blue than Green, Ko seems committed to ending Taiwan’s political polarisation and strives to find a middle-way (“learn from Japan”) in dealing with China. A worst-case scenario for the KMT would be that a desponded Terry Gou could endorse or join forces with Ko – something the former already suggested four years ago but the latter rejected.
Can the KMT’s “Strongest Hen” Nibble into Green Turfs?
On the upside, Hou Yu-ih’s light Blue credentials might help the KMT dig into the (light) Green territory. Hou had proven his ability in this regard in 2018 and 2022 when he won two landslide victories in New Taipei. While incumbent presidential Tsai Ing-wen routed KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu by 18 per cent in New Taipei during the 2020 presidential elections, Hou decimated his DPP opponent by 25 per cent two years later. However, as turn-out is generally much lower in local elections and those that do go to the polls are generally concerned with bread-and-butter issues instead of grander themes like national identity and cross-Strait relations, local results cannot be entirely extrapolated to general elections.
Hou’s two landslide victories do nevertheless show that he might potentially possess the genes of an electoral juggernaut, or, in the words of KMT chairman Eric Chu, might be “the most powerful hen” (“最強母雞”) – a reference to how a strong presidential candidate (the “hen”) might also help other legislative candidates down the ballot perform well (the “little chicks”). Suppose some level of unity between Hou, Gou and Ko is achieved despite the abovementioned difficulties. In that case, it will bring about, again, in the words of Eric Chu, “the strongest squadron” (“最強戰隊”) to oppose William Lai. Polling until early May indeed confirms that a Lai-Hou match-up is much closer than a three-cornered bout Lai-Hou-Ko. Finally, it should be stressed that the pan-Green camp is also facing potential division. Lai has recently been moderating his tone toward China somewhat to increase his electability, which is unlikely to satisfy deep Green members of the pan-Green camp.
What about Ideology?
The KMT has also been aiming to moderate its cross-Strait platform after former president Ma Ying-jeou’s historic but contentious trip to China in March and April. As a counterbalance to pan-Green narratives on how Taiwan’s sovereignty was jeopardized by Ma’s apparent embrace of the one-China principle, Hou Yu-ih and Terry Gou – and Ko Wen-je too, for that matter – have recently attested to the importance of strong relations with the US, which arguably embodies the true Blue policy line desired by the KMT’s leadership.
However, beyond banking on his image as an efficient and down-to-earth mayor, Hou has remained equivocal about national governance, ideological matters and cross-Strait relations. So far, Hou has stated that he sees Singapore as a model; invoked an abstract policy focus on the “3D principles” (“3D原則”) of “deepening democracy” (“深化民主”), strengthening defence (“强化國防”) and “defrosting hostility” (“降低敵意”); and, proposed a highly abstract allegory to the Taiwanese identity question by stating that “the Republic of China and Taiwan are inseparable like water from a cup” (“中華民國和台灣密不可分, 就像杯子和水”). Hou’s light Blue credentials are once more on display here: defending the areas de facto under the control of the Republic’s government is prioritized over any pronouncements on the de jure state of one China or identity questions.
Although Hou’s apparent reluctance to propose ideological concepts or policy initiatives might ultimately affect his electability, his blank slate in this regard could also leave some much-needed space to be filled in by KMT spin doctors later. It could even convincingly be used for concessions necessary to “unite the pan-Blue Camp and non-Green friends.” The main question is, therefore, not whether the KMT’s leadership will be able to develop an electable platform, but whether Hou will be able to function as its credible representative.
Cross-Strait Continuity Likely Prevails
As of early May, William Lai is moderating his deep Green image, Ko Wen-je is providing a new centrist option with a dash of Blue, and Hou Yu-ih is cherishing his light Blue image while showing a willingness to be supplemented by some true Blue at a later date. Ultimately, all are orbiting around moderate cross-Strait policies. As the rise of someone willing to wholly embrace the one-China principle seems improbable, the elections of January 2024 are unlikely to satisfy the Chinese leadership and will merely determine the depths of its disappointment. However, none of the possible outcomes – not even a Lai victory – should give it cause for alarm, as radical cross-Strait initiatives seem off the table. After January 2024, we thus are more likely to see continuity than a break with the past across the Taiwan Strait.
Jasper Roctus is a PhD researcher affiliated with the “East Asian Culture in Perspective: Identity, Historical Consciousness, Modernity” research group at Ghent University and is presently working on evolutions in modern narratives surrounding Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925). His “PhD Fellowship fundamental research” is funded by the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO). He is also an Associate Fellow at the Egmont Institute, where he works on domestic Chinese politics and cross-Strait relations.
This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘KMT primaries battle‘.