The January 16 general elections in Taiwan elevated to power the Democratic Progressive Party in a radical overturn of results from 2008 when the Kuomintang swept the DPP from the presidency, and a dramatic change from the 2012 elections, which saw the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou re-elected and his party retain its legislative majority.
Four years later, the KMT finds itself in a position superficially similar to that of the DPP in 2008, but in reality, far worse. The DPP, post 2008, was a demoralised, badly beaten party. However, it had a trump card that is yet to fully materialise: rapidly changing demographics that leave in ruins the traditional “green” south, “blue” north divide.
Unfavourable demographic trends have converged with KMT’s awful external and internal governance and delivered a stunning blow. This does not have to be the end of the KMT, but, at the moment, prospects for a strong revival appear dim.
There were early indications of the KMT’s coming woes. In the 2010 local elections, it managed to hold on to its Taipei bastion but faced a tough battle in New Taipei City and nearly lost Taichung, in stark contrast with smooth DPP victories in Tainan and Kaohsiung.
The 2012 general election may have had a soothing effect on the party as Ma was re-elected with a comfortable margin and the KMT defended its legislative majority. The KMT capitalised on a campaign emphasising its achievements in relations with Beijing and possible negative consequences for cross-strait relations of a DPP return to power.
However, Ma’s second term became a nightmare, with the avalanche of protests by grass-roots movements, his disastrous attack on legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng, which came back to bite him during the sunflower protests, and the massive electoral defeat in the 2014 local elections, which saw the KMT lose all the major municipalities except New Taipei. The combination of public dissatisfaction with the party and sheer ineptitude of the leadership reached new heights when KMT die-hard Hung Hsiu-chu was hastily replaced as presidential candidate by New Taipei City mayor Eric Chu, even though for months he had categorically rejected such a move.
Unlike the DPP, today’s KMT has no safe territory to rely on, except the sparsely populated “Hakka belt” and mountainous areas in central Taiwan, some traditionally blue areas of Taipei, and the islands of Kinmen and Matsu. Neither does the KMT appear to have someone who could lead the party out of its misery. Instead, it is still controlled by the old mainlander clique that seems determined to hold on to power, no matter the cost.
Ma’s propensity to appoint scholars in his cabinet has further degraded the quality of the party’s human resources. Not only are scholars largely unsuited for government positions, they have little incentive to work for the party after they are dismissed from their government positions.
The KMT had eight years to groom a new generation of politicians, by giving them executive experience in various levels of governance, but completely wasted the opportunity.
The KMT finds itself in a very difficult position. The obvious long-term solution is to become a more Taiwan-centred party but that would require a strong leadership willing to break from fundamentalists within. The forthcoming KMT chairmanship election will give a first indication of the direction the party wants to take. One thing is clear, a “business as usual” approach is not going to suffice.
Beijing will always prefer KMT to DPP rule in Taiwan. To support the KMT’s narrative of being a responsible stakeholder in cross-strait relations, Beijing was willing to ignore the party’s version of the so-called “1992 consensus”. Beijing never accepted that there are different interpretations of “one China”, whereas that was the very essence of the consensus for the KMT. This arrangement worked well for the KMT in 2012 but it failed to sway the voters in 2016.
The election result presents three dilemmas for Beijing.
First, how should it address the demographic trends in Taiwan that defy Beijing’s common narrative?
Second, is the KMT going to recover before the next term and, if not, what are Beijing’s options?
Third, is the “1992 consensus” worth insisting on, or is it better to bite the bullet and find some common ground with the DPP?
There is very little that Beijing could do about the first issue. The trend towards strengthening Taiwanese identity and opposition to unification has been consistent over the past two decades. Increases in personal contacts between the two sides have simply emphasised their differences for Taiwanese.
Chinese leaders may keep convincing themselves that the pro-independence movement is the minority in Taiwan politics. However, the truth is that, for most Taiwanese, the issue of unification versus independence has been resolved and the former has been flatly rejected.
The answer to the second question is central to Beijing’s approach towards president-elect Tsai Ing-wen’s new government. If Beijing believes the KMT has the capacity to recover sooner rather than later, it will have the incentive to step up pressure on Taiwan in the hope that voters will miss the good old days of quiet cross-strait relations.
However, the KMT’s problem is not just a temporary trough in the political cycle. The party may well consolidate its internal governance issues, but a long-term solution requires addressing its demographic challenges. Either the KMT decides to align itself with socio-political trends in Taiwan, or it will be left to rely on Beijing’s covert and overt support to remain relevant.
The fundamental problem of cross-strait negotiations under Ma was that they were essentially party-to-party negotiations masquerading as semi-governmental talks. It is time for Beijing to drop the KMT as the only partner and seeks common ground with whoever Taiwanese voters choose to represent them.
Thus, the best option is to find some common ground with Tsai, effectively replacing the outdated “1992 consensus”. Beijing may well be reluctant to take this road. However, if the KMT’s woes are long term, as all indications suggest, then Beijing may need to face a DPP in power for many years to come.
One thing seems clear: The era of KMT dominance of Taiwan’s politics is over. Its failures are Beijing’s problem now.
This article was originally published on South China Morning Post, January 25, 2016.
Michal Thim is a Taiwan analyst at the Prague-based think tank Association for International Affairs and a member of the Centre for International Maritime Security.