Taiwan: Is KMT’s Dilemma China’s Opportunity?

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“Between the rock and a hard place” is a cliché that seems entirely appropriate for describing the situation that the Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang, or the KMT) currently faces in Taiwan. The candidate that it nominated for the 2016 Presidential Election, Hung Hsiu-chu, has been polling around 13 percent, a far cry from the support for the frontrunner, the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen, who has an approval rate that hovers around 45 percent. Hung, who is on the conservative end of the KMT’s ideological spectrum, has been stirring up controversies and causing no end of headaches for her own party on her stances. She once remarked that the “one China, different interpretations” principle that the KMT-led government operates under should be rectified to “one China, same interpretation.” The uproar that ensued, both among the general public and the members of the ruling party, prompted the KMT to force a reluctant Hung to walk back her statement. This was just one of the more divisive moments of Hung’s candidacy.

Consequently, it comes as no surprise that the KMT’s Central Standing Committee unanimously agreed to hold a special congress that may replace Hung for a more electable and uncontentious candidate, presumably party chairman Eric Chu. The move follows rampant rumors that had besieged the Hung campaign since its initiation.

For the KMT, replacing Hung is unlikely to boost the party’s campaign. In fact, it may hurt the party further. Ostensibly, the swap is meant to both increase the KMT’s chances of winning the presidency, and at the same time improve the prospects of the party’s candidates who are running for the legislative election that will be held on the same date as the presidential one. Discouraged by the party’s bleak outlook, a fair number KMT candidates, incumbents or otherwise, have chosen to run as independents in the upcoming election. Even more, wary with being associated with the strong pro-China tendencies of Hung, tried to put distance between themselves and the party’s presidential candidate. Whereas the DPP candidates for the legislature proudly display banners of photos of themselves and Tsai, the KMT candidates are divided on whether to use Hung to promote their own campaigns. Moreover, with the campaign of James Soong, chairman of the People First Party (PFP), which holds similar views on Taiwan’s relationship with China as the Nationalist Party and is a minor member in the KMT-led pan-blue coalition, votes are further divided. In some polls Hung is running in third place, polling behind Soong. The KMT may not be able to even hold onto its status as one of the two dominant parties in the legislature, should Soong’s candidacy for president increase the PFP’s profile and support. With Soong’s participation and current polls, the PFP may ascend to the place of a major partner in the pan-blue coalition.

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Difficult Situation

Hung’s controversial stance and proclamations have undoubtedly made what is already a difficult situation even worse. With President Ma Ying-Jeou’s low approval ratings, the KMT has been fighting a difficult battle to retain the presidential office since the 2014 local elections, which saw the DPP win a landslide victory. With Hung so far behind in the polls, and her own unpopularity within the KMT, which has divided the party ranks, a more moderate candidate in the form of Eric Chu seems like a smart choice. Surveys show that should Eric Chu become the KMT candidate, he would be behind Tsai by only ten percentage points, which is still a sizeable gap, but is still greatly better than the current situation. Moreover, as surveys show, the most that the KMT would lose in support is 30 percent of the current Hung supporters, which is still within an acceptable range given that Chu is more appealing to central voters.

However, the road to replacing Hung is fraught with difficulties. To avoid legal repercussions, changing the candidate for the KMT entails changing the party’s constitution to allow the replacement of a presidential candidate. Next, procedurally the party has to recall the nomination and reactivate the solicitation process for a new candidate. Every step of the way, particularly the first of rewriting the KMT constitution, has the potential to be disrupted, especially by Hung supporters. Hung herself has stated that she would go down fighting. Ultimately, the procedure may do more damage to KMT unity than the status quo. The party is divided, with Hung supporters threatening to take over KMT headquarters, while a KMT legislator in favor of swapping out Hung declared that he would lead the KMT legislators to remove the president should Ma continue to obstruct the replacement of Hung.

For Beijing, Hung is undoubtedly an ideal candidate, in theory at least. With her ideology closely aligned with that of the PRC’s and her ultimate goal being peaceful reunification, she is more assertive than Ma in her stance towards Taiwan-China relations. While Chinese commentators have shown reservations, with China Review stating that Chu would be committing political suicide if he let go of his current position as head of New Taipei City and then failed to win the presidential election.

However, while Beijing’s best scenario would be a KMT victory with Hung as the newly elected president, the possibilities of that happening are very slim at the moment. In fact, the better outlook for Beijing right now may well be Chu replacing Hung as the KMT’s candidate. While the chances of Chu getting elected president are small, especially after taking into account the division and shakeup that the KMT would undoubtedly go through should a formal process to remove Hung be instigated, the chances of Hung ascending the presidency are even slimmer. If Beijing cannot attain its preferred outcome of having the KMT heading up the administrative branch, and in fact may not even see the KMT retain its status as the largest party in the legislature, it has to decide whether it prefers a loss with Hung as the candidate, or with Chu.

Though Hung has, throughout her candidacy, communicated her aspirations for closer Taiwan-China relations (that implicitly ends in peaceful reunification someday), it does the PRC no service. At a time when the Taiwanese public identifies less and less with the Chinese identity and see themselves as a separate entity from the PRC, it is perhaps better for Beijing that the KMT nominates a more moderate candidate. As the past couple of years have shown, through events such as the Sunflower Movement, Taiwanese society has been leery of the increasing speed with which cross-strait relations have developed. Ma and the KMT have come to be representatives of closer economic ties with China at any cost, benefiting only the wealthy corporations and the taishang (overseas Taiwanese businessmen), who are solid KMT supporters.

Hung, for Taiwanese society, is in some respects the embodiment of the future that many fear, that of economic integration and dependence leading to political reunification. That she is vocal in her opinion certainly does not help matters. If the PRC wishes to gain the trust of the Taiwanese and form a more stable and long-term relationship with the island, Chu’s nomination should be seen as a boon. This is a painful but necessary step, especially for the KMT, because whilst the top echelons of the party, and indeed the majority of its members, may be moderate in their views on cross-strait relationships, presidential candidates more often than not represent the party as a whole. After all, not only are their views usually endorsed by parties, but if elected, their mandates would translate into policies. Thus, the ideology and goals of the KMT, as indeed with all parties, is now being characterized by Hung. With Chu’s more moderate views, whether or not he wins the presidency, he would at least be taking steps in changing the image of the KMT to one that is more representative of the Taiwanese society’s hope to maintain its current relative independence.

Just as the DPP needed to reconstruct its image from that of a radical pro-independence party that scared many voters into electing the KMT to one of a party that takes responsible steps in balancing cross-strait relations with Taiwan’s security, so the KMT must do something similar if it is to remain relevant in changing times, especially with the emergence of new parties that tout changes such as election reforms and that are headed by political newcomers.

Meanwhile, if Beijing wishes to maintain Taiwan’s goodwill, it not only must refrain from interfering in the elections, but should also hope that Chu replaces Hung as the presidential candidate. While it has already taken steps to woo DPP local leaders, it is the national elections that will most likely set the tone and course for cross-strait relations in the future. Hence, in consideration of the long-term benefits, a moderate KMT representative can go a long way towards soothing Taiwan-China ties.

Pei-Yu Wei is currently an MA Political Science candidate at New York University, concentrating in political economy with a regional focus in East Asia.

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