What a difference eight years can make. Badly beaten party is waiting for someone to pick it up and put it back on the track. That description was as apt for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2008 as much as it is true for the Kuomintang (KMT) in 2016. For some very good reasons, many do see the KMT slipping away into oblivion. However, nothing in politics is a foregone conclusion. The KMT can recover if it does a few things right. Restoration of party unity would be a good start. More daunting, but necessary, task would be to marginalize KMT diehards’ excessive influence on the party. Related, and the biggest challenge for incoming party leader, is the growing divorce of KMT’s founding ideology with the mainstream public opinion.
Following Eric Chu’s customary resignation on Election Day, speculation abounded as to who would register to compete for the KMT’s leadership in the forthcoming elections on March 26. The problem with the March elections is that they are extraordinary and the mandate will last only until the end of the regular term next year. Perhaps the new KMT chair will feel compelled to leave important decisions to the next one with a regular mandate. However, the KMT does not have the luxury to wait in a decision making limbo for another year.
Registration for the chair race in February was not drama-free. To everyone’s surprise, expected frontrunner Hau Lung-pin, former Taipei mayor, did a last-minute bail-out and acting KMT Chairwoman Huang Min-hui jumped in. Perhaps Hau assassinated his own aspirations by parachuting himself in a supposedly safe legislative district in Keelung, only to suffer an embarrassing loss–even measured by the KMT’s general performance. The other candidates are former KMT presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu, Taoyuan legislator Apollo Chen, and Taipei City Councillor Lee Hsin. Not a particularly strong ticket with the absence of real power-holders, which invites speculations that Hau and other strongmen decided to bide their time and wait for next chairmanship elections in 2017.
Hau’s personal experience underscores lesson from recent electoral defeats. The KMT cannot rely on sons of powerful KMT elders. Hau’s defeat in Keelung was just the last one in a string of princelings’ electoral defeats. John Wu and Sean Lien suffered previously unthinkable defeats in the 2014 mayoral elections in KMT strongholds Taoyuan and Taipei respectively, while Eric Chu narrowly defended his mandate as New Taipei City mayor only to reluctantly jump into presidential race, a losing proposition from the start.
At present time, frontrunners for the March elections are Huang and Hung, with Hung performing significantly better in the polls. That being said, public opinion polls may have some impact on the KMT delegates voting, but in the end of the day, the election will be result of internal party politics. It is clear that KMT’s fundamentalists’ darling Hung Hsiu-chu is not the person one should expect to take bold steps in challenging KMT’s unification ideology, a necessary step in order to align the party with political mainstream. As far as Huang Min-hui is concerned, it is too early to tell if she is the person that could lead or at least start the process of KMT’s revival. Huang, former Chiayi City mayor, is one of the few KMT politicians capable of winning in Taiwan’s South. But the obstacles on the way are substantial and Huang herself may not be too interested in challenging the existing order.
Presentation of candidates’ policies during two televised debates on March 12 and 19 suggested relative consensus over the issue of KMT’s assets and a discord over approach towards China. Hung Hsiu-chu came under fire once again for her formula “One China, same interpretation”. The response from other challengers was to backtrack to previous party policy, i.e. the “1992 consensus”. Candidate Lee Hsin promoting more explicit version thereof under the label “1992 Consensus, insisting upon separate interpretations.” Huang Min-hui embraced the “1992 Consensus” for its proven viability. However, Huang’s criticism of Hung’s position was not as much about its viability but rather its unpopularity. In a hindsight, Hung’s apparent departure from KMT’s policy based on the “1992 Consensus” has become a liability for the KMT beyond just the most recent electoral defeat. Hung moved the goalpost and it will be difficult for the KMT to undo that. Nevertheless, despite being out of touch with political mainstream, Hung will find strong support in Party’s powerful veteran military faction, the Huang Fu-hsing (黃復興) chapter, which has a history of playing kingmaker role.
One thing is evident, simple return to Cross-Strait policy status quo ante is not a credible option for the KMT. Cross-strait policy has long been a strength for the KMT, perceived as more realistic than DPP’s various efforts to frame relations with Beijing. However, the DPP eventually found a way around it with formula based on the ROC constitutional order. Beijing may not be overly excited about it but it is good enough for the Taiwanese voters. It is the DPP, not the KMT, who now occupies the higher ground of cross-Strait policy credibility in the eyes of Taiwan’s electorate. And KMT has only itself to blame. With Hung’s “One China, same interpretation” proposal, the KMT left relative safety of “1992 Consensus”, only to find the DPP took the place when it tried to get back.
Perhaps the KMT Chair candidates would do well to look at how the DPP rose from the ashes of the 2008 electoral defeat. The DPP in 2008 had enough courage (or despair, whichever way one looks at it) to select the relatively low-profile Tsai Ing-wen, who had government experience but was otherwise only a rookie to party politics. Not everyone was happy with the choice, least of all were some DPP old guards who felt that Tsai compromises too much from DPP’s core values in order to appeal to a middle-ground voters. Former Vice-President Anette Lu’s attacks on Tsai prior to 2012 elections is a case in point. Eight years later, Tsai delivered the DPP its greatest victory yet. Moderation, not fundamentalism, is a key to KMTs’ resurrection.
Whoever wins this Saturday should present a longer-term vision for the party and be willing to defend the mandate next year. However, the KMT leadership may have different idea; supporting Huang to appease the Taiwanese faction in the KMT just to give enough time to one of the remaining big shots to recover from electoral defeats.
This is a longer version of an editorial published on South China Morning Post, 24 March, 2016.
Michal Thim is a Taiwan defense specialist, a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs, a member of CIMSEC, an Asia-Pacific Desk Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat, and a founder of Taiwan in Perspective. Michal tweets @michalthim.