With Party Chair Election, KMT Takes One Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards

Hung’s election is the worst possible outcome for Taiwan, as it puts the KMT’s formidable assets at the disposal of politicians who should have bowed out a long time ago
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J. Michael Cole
By

As expected, Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) was elected chairperson of the struggling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) by a comfortable margin on Saturday night, ending more than 100 years of male dominance at the helm of a party that suffered a major setback in the presidential and legislative elections in January. While the rise of a female politician within the KMT is in step with prevailing attitudes in Taiwan today (she also ran against Wu Poh-hsiung in 2007), Hung’s ascension represents a shift toward a more conservative stance at the party at a time when social forces are calling for rejuvenation. We take a quick look at the implications for the KMT and the nation’s politics.

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Although polls had long indicated that she was likely to prevail against her three opponents (including another woman), Hung’s victory on Saturday was an impressive comeback by a politician who, back in October last year, had been ignominiously dropped as the KMT’s presidential candidate. In the months prior to her demise, Hung’s out-of-step policies and pro-Beijing stance had fueled widespread discontent within the KMT, leading to expulsions and walkouts by party stalwarts and the threat of collapse months before the Jan. 16 elections.

Hung’s comeback likely will seal the fate of former chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫), who replaced her as the KMT candidate in the January elections and fared only marginally better than she would have against the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).

More significantly, her political resurrection also completes the process of New Party-ization of the KMT, signs of which had first appeared when Hung was selected as presidential candidate in mid-2015. Hung tends to attract ultraconservative “deep blue” (and generally older) KMT members, as well as pro-unification types from the marginal New Party and even more insignificant China Unification Promotion Party headed by ex-gangster and Beijing agent Chang An-le (張安樂). Those groups rallied around Hung last year and protested outside KMT headquarters when it looked like she was about to be replaced.

What this development means is that at a time when the KMT should have taken note of the factors that contributed to its demise in the January elections and opted for rejuvenation (in other words, to become more moderate or “mainstream”), it has instead regressed to an ideology that has very little appeal among the majority of voters in Taiwan.

Thus, from an electoral point of view, Saturday’s result seems irrational and self-defeating.

What this also means is that at a time when Taiwan needs unity and as president-elect Tsai strives to erect a wide tent politically, the KMT under Hung’s guidance is least likely to cooperate with her and is instead expected to engage in scorched-earth policies that will contribute to disunity and gridlock — including on the matter of transitional justice. Thus, despite her low popularity with the public and her election on the lowest turnout ever in a KMT chairperson election (41.63% against 56.34% in 2015), Hung will have tremendous assets at her disposal (which she will fight to keep) and is expected to be more than amenable to cooperating with Beijing in challenging Tsai.

Therefore, while some observers have rejoiced at Hung’s election and see this as a sign of the KMT’s imminent death, it is not, in my opinion, a positive development for Taiwan. Far healthier would have been for the KMT to distance itself from the ideology and conservatism that led to its defeat and to better align itself with Taiwanese society through a combination of new ideas and the empowerment of young individuals. As in the January elections, the low turnout may reflect discontent with the KMT among traditional supporters; it nevertheless allowed someone like Hung to take the helm.

While there is a possibility that Hung’s election will contribute to or accelerate the breakup of the KMT and the emergence of a more modern and electorally viable faction, we should not take such an outcome for granted. A split will be contingent on the existence of a sense of crisis among local KMT factions that may not materialize until the next elections. If she plays her cards well, Chairperson Hung could succeed in nipping forces for change in the bud and scaring the rest of them into submission, if only for reasons of self-preservation. We should also not underestimate the entropic forces that often guide individuals toward inaction rather than challenging the status quo.

It will therefore take great courage for members of the KMT to directly challenge Hung or break up the party and form their own faction. Consequently we should not take the party’s imminent implosion as a given.

In the short term, Hung’s election on Saturday is the worst possible outcome for Taiwan, as it puts the KMT’s formidable assets at the disposal of politicians who should have bowed out of politics a long time ago. For all intents and purposes the pro-Beijing New Party has hijacked the KMT.

 

J. Michael Cole is the editor-in-chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, and an associate researcher with the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. The views expressed in this article are his alone.

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