KMT’s Lost Opportunity to Reinvent Itself Again for Survival

Written by Chieh-Ting Yeh.

Image credit: 侯友宜/ Facebook.

The Kuomintang (KMT), also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party, announced Hou You-yi as its candidate to run in the 2024 Taiwan presidential election.

Picking a presidential candidate is any political party’s most important HR decision. In most democratic countries, this process is called a primary. Through the primary, a party finds the most suitable person to nominate for the general election, someone with the highest chance of winning and whose political stance best represents the party’s stance.

The primary is a chance for party members to openly debate its platform and a set of rules for leaders of different factions within a party to compete fairly against each other for primacy. It is normal for any political party to appear chaotic and disunited during this process, but for the KMT, this process has always particularly been fraught with drama and ugly infighting, often leading to a party split.

This has been a consistent feature of the KMT since competitive elections began in Taiwan in the 1990s, but the root cause goes much further back in time. The KMT today is fundamentally a forced union of two conflicting factions that could not be more different from one another, and increasingly the two factions have come to embody the dilemma between electability and the party’s core values.

In 1949, the KMT fled to Taiwan from China after its defeat by the Chinese Communist Party. Its leader, Chiang Kai-shek, established a one-party authoritarian regime in Taiwan, staffed with the elites among the people who fled with him. As the ruling clique, they perpetuated a myth that they represented the true China and that Taiwan was part of the Chinese national project. They are united by an ideological loyalty to their national identity. Preserving their attachment to a vision of Greater China is paramount. They stand against separating Taiwan from China in any form, whether politically or culturally.

Maintaining this ideology was simple when they controlled the entire government, media, and corporate leadership positions. Dissent could be dispensed with easily. But as their number dwindled the longer they stayed in Taiwan, the party understood it needed to recruit from the local population, often local strongmen, to secure their political grip, technocrats, and professionals.

The Greater China ideology did not apply to the local Taiwanese recruits, so the KMT resorted to carrots and sticks tactics. The carrot was the promise of career advancement, favour with local party bosses, or preferential treatment in business; the stick was the opposite, or worse. In other words, the KMT formed a crony capitalist network with the Taiwanese locals. As long as the locals professed the same ideology as the ruling clique, they could enjoy privileges denied to the rest of society. The deal naturally attracted opportunists lured in by the material benefits and had no qualms about professing whatever ideologies to get ahead. This group has more moderate and practical views on politics but also has shifting loyalties and is easily pressured.

As Taiwan gradually democratised after 1987, the KMT had to transition from a party run by a dictator into one that could stay in power by appealing to voters. This proved to be a difficult and painful process. Party leaders and elders have had difficulty getting used to not making the top decisions among themselves, and the inherent conflict between the ideological and the opportunistic camps became the main battleline of any intra-party competition—especially party primaries.

First, former president and KMT chairman Lee Teng-hui turned the two factions against each other in the so-called Mainstream versus Non-mainstream struggle to accomplish constitutional reforms in the 1990s. Then the conflict coalesced into the fight between then-President Ma Ying-jeou, representing the Greater China ideological faction, and Legislative Yuan Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, representing the local opportunistic faction, in the 2010s.

At the same time, China has gradually become a much bigger menace for Taiwan, and public sentiment in Taiwan steadily moved away from any ideas of Greater China. The number of people who identified as Chinese or both Chinese and Taiwanese has only declined, as has the number of people who prefer political integration with Beijing. In Taiwan’s open democratic marketplace of ideas today, the Greater China narrative has become a solid minority—not enough to elect a president in a two-way race.

Hence, the divide that has existed for decades within the KMT has become a choice between keeping its original Greater China core value as held by the ideological camp, as unelectable as that may be, or focusing on being elected, even if that means further giving up its claim of having any vision as the opportunistic camp will have the party do?

Given the fact that there are actually no presidential primaries in the KMT this year, but the chairman Eric Chu alone picked the candidate , the KMT has decided to sweep this conflict under the rug for the time being, even if that means everyone will feel even more suppressed over time. 

From a Leninist authoritarian ruling clique in China to one of many political parties competing in a democratic system in Taiwan, the KMT has somehow managed to find a way to continue to exist. It did this by reinventing itself, allying with various factions along the way. But these tactics from the past have caught up with the KMT, and it is facing yet another crucial moment in its history.

In this context, the KMT party primaries are crucial. They are not just cheap political melodrama. On the contrary, they are the formal processes through which the KMT could decide if and how it needs to keep reinventing itself to survive.

If—and it’s a big if—the KMT could reinvent itself again, it could find a way to shed the old rifts between the ideological and the opportunistic camps. It could present a platform that is clear in its stance on major social issues. It could take the lead in reviewing its own past as a perpetrator of human rights abuses, even if just to get the issue off its back. It could convince Taiwan’s voters that its China policy is no longer motivated by the older generation’s national identity crisis but based on a pragmatic approach to protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty and security.

It could be hopeful. But looking at how the KMT finally settles on its presidential candidate, the KMT still has a very long way to go—and not very much time.

Chieh-Ting Yeh is a venture investor in Silicon Valley and a director of US Taiwan Watch, an international think tank focusing on US-Taiwan relations. In addition, he is a co-founder and the editor of Ketagalan Media and an advisor for the Global Taiwan Institute and National Taiwan Normal University’s International Taiwan Studies Center.

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

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