VOTE 2016: Hung Hsiu-chu is Out, Eric Chu is InThe eleventh-hour move was made to prevent further hemorrhaging at the local level and to salvage the KMT’s chances in the legislative elections
By a single show of hands, party representatives from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) on Saturday ended weeks of speculation by overwhelmingly deciding to drop their controversial presidential candidate for 2016 in favor of the party chairman, in a move that was widely seen as an attempt to prevent a further implosion of the party.
At about 4 pm, 812 of the 891 representatives present at Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall in Taipei supported a motion to remove Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), who almost three months earlier had seen her candidacy confirmed by party members in the same hall. Hung, who delivered a fiery speech early in the meeting, had already departed by the time of the vote.
By 5 pm, KMT Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) was the new candidate.
However undemocratic the eleventh-hour decision to abandon the unpopular Hung, who after all had become the party candidate via established party mechanisms, the move was probably a necessary one, a matter of survival for the party. With nobody in the KMT stepping up earlier this year, and with behind-the-scenes machinations preventing would-be candidates from making the jump, Hung had become a candidate by default. But it soon became clear that her views on cross-strait relations were so out of touch with mainstream opinion in Taiwan, her rhetoric so reminiscent of a bygone era, and her disdain for civil society so strident, that she should never have been a presidential contender to begin with.
As early as June, party members were starting to express apprehensions at her policies, which included signing a peace agreement with China and, just as controversial, her intention to push beyond the so-called “1992 consensus” under a proposed “one China, same interpretation” framework. In response to that criticism, five party members were expelled — a decision that bore Chairman Chu’s signature.
Unfortunately for the party, the expulsions didn’t stop the hemorrhaging. As Election Day approached, and as Hung’s popularity continued to dwindle, more and more local pillars were threatening to pull out of the race. Some abandoned ship; others joined other parties. Many refused to run in the legislative elections as long as Hung was the KMT’s presidential candidate. By alienating its local pillars, the party wasn’t only losing its candidates: it was losing the tightly knit networks of support and fundraising that have been crucial to the KMT’s ability to remain in power in the post-authoritarian era.
By October, the party was facing a real crisis. Having given up on the presidency, party insiders were now talking about the possibility that the KMT risked not only losing its majority in the legislature — a first in Taiwan’s democratic history — but that it might not even secure the one-third of the seats necessary to be able to initiate bills at the Legislative Yuan. In one fell swoop, the party, one of the richest in the world, was on the brink of descending into oblivion. Something had to be done. A stopgap measure was needed. Hung had to go.
It remains to be seen to what extent the crisis, which was entirely of the KMT’s making, will have damaged Chu’s image. Stung by what they see as a betrayal, Hung’s supporters have called on Chu to step down and may continue to agitate for a while. One way they could punish him would be by not voting on Jan. 16, a form of support-base retribution that cost the ruling party dearly in the Nov. 29 local elections last year. Emphasizing the need for party unity after Saturday’s decision, a surprisingly composed Hung implored the about 2,000 supporters who welcomed her outside SYS Memorial Hall to still vote for the KMT in January.
Although the effect on voters’ decision remains uncertain, Hung’s replacement will likely stop the bleeding at the local level and ensure a modicum of unity for the party, especially in the south, where Chu, a “half-Taiwanese,” may have more appeal than the “Mainlander” Hung. Whether the abandoned candidate, who has shown no interest in being Chu’s running mate, remains defiant will also have an impact on party unity.
For all her ills, Ms. Hung fought until the end and kept a dignified stance even as the party that had made her its candidate turned on her once it realized that her chances were next to nil. The same can be said of the handful of young staffers and spokespersons who stood by her side until the very end, even after KMT central had ordered them to forsake Hung. They stuck to their ideals, and they were loyal to their candidate, even when it had become clear that the tide had turned.
It did not take long for Chu to start sounding like a different person. Addressing party representatives, the new presidential candidate immediately adopted the scare tactics that had become a hallmark of Hung’s campaign. Chu — who will not step down as New Taipei City mayor — warned that it would be “catastrophic” for the Republic of China (ROC) if the executive, legislative, and local branches of government were to be controlled by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). (Apparently it is acceptable and “democratic” when the KMT controls all three branches, but not so when another party manages to do so.)
Using the typical Hung trope, Chu also likened the DPP to a “violent” and “populist” party with roots in the streets, whose victory would be detrimental to Taiwan’s democracy. (The last point about the DPP’s origins was certainly true: Under Martial Law and KMT single-party rule, opposition groups were all from the streets, as opposition parties were illegal.) The attack on social movements was rather disingenuous given Chu’s expression of support for the Sunflower Movement in March 2014.
Like Hung, Chu also seemed to be channeling old notions of the party-state, arguing that the collapse of the KMT would pose an existential threat to the ROC. And as expected, Chu maintained that the KMT would ensure peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, while suggesting that a DPP victory would result in tensions.
In a press release, the DPP called Chu’s remarks “incomprehensible” and “intimidating,” adding that the comments, made in a time of crisis within the KMT, were comparable to President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) tendency to deflect blame onto others. President Ma, in many ways the architect of the current crisis at the KMT, was present throughout the party congress on Saturday.
According to recent polls, Mr. Chu would also trail DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) by a wide margin. Even though that margin is likely to narrow as Jan. 16 approaches, the KMT’s prospects for the presidential election remain dim. But it is unlikely that Saturday’s move was primarily about the presidency; it was, rather, a last-minute effort to salvage the KMT’s chances in the legislative elections and to prevent the chasm between the different factions from widening further, to a point where the party could split. At a minimum, the removal of Hung has shaved off the deeper-blue elements within the party, whose influence on the previous candidate had led some to refer to the New Party-ization of the KMT. By ridding itself of those elements, the KMT has a taken a small but important step toward better aligning itself with mainstream opinion in Taiwan. However, Chu’s fear mongering raises serious questions as to whether he is capable of taking the party in the right direction.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.