On Saturday, Taiwan’s ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) will officially have a new chairman: Eric Chu, the mayor of New Taipei City (the largest city in Taiwan). The former chair of the KMT, current President Ma Ying-jeou, stepped down in December after the party suffered major losses in the November 29 local elections. Chu was one of the few KMT candidates to hold on to his seat in what turned out to be a landslide victory for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Chu will have to overhaul the KMT’s image in a short time if the party is to avoid a similar defeat in next year’s presidential and legislative elections.
According to the KMT’s website, Chu sent a letter to all 350,000 members of the KMT “bluntly stating that the KMT’s crushing defeat in last November’s nine-in-one elections provided an opportunity for the party to transform.” Chu made a bid for party unity, asking all party members to unite in voting for him (an easy enough request, as Chu is running unopposed for the position). Once Chu is officially elected the KMT’s leader, he will have to act upon the need for change within the party that has ruled Taiwan for all but eight of the past 70 years.
One of the items on Chu’s to-do list will be reevaluating the KMT’s approach to cross-strait relations. Current president Ma Ying-jeou tied his presidency to seeking closer ties with the mainland – a strategy that paid dividends in the 2008 and 2012 elections but has since hit a roadblock. The Sunflower Movement of spring 2014 coalesced widespread concerns about the nature of the cross-strait relationship and the pace of economic integration with the mainland. Some in Taiwan worry that the KMT is too beholden to big business, which care more about profiting from the mainland’s market than about defending Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Still, though Chu might tweak the KMT approach to cross-strait relations, there’s no sign that he will backtrack. As Reuters noted, Chu already seems to have a good relationship with Beijing; he was the only top politician to be visited by two high-ranking Chinese officials in 2014. An unnamed KMT source even told Reuters that President Xi Jinping would be “happy to meet Chu.” An op-ed in Want China Times speculates that a breakthrough in cross-strait relations during a Xi-Chu meeting might be enough to save the 2016 elections for the KMT – an interesting possibility if Beijing is truly panicked by the thought of DPP leadership and wants to give the KMT a boost.
While the cross-strait relationship the most high-profile issue Chu will face, his initial priorities will be handling some of the domestic problems holding the KMT back. For one thing, Chu has pledged to tackle economic inequality on Taiwan, advocating for higher taxes on the wealthy and lower taxes on working-class Taiwanese. Economic issues were a major threat in the Sunflower protests earlier this year, as young Taiwanese fear rising unemployment and lower salaries. In this arena, the KMT is seen as part of the problem, rather than the source of a solution.
In another sign that Chu wants to counter the image of KMT as the party of big business, he has also promised to address concerns aboutKMT assets. Critics say the party grew rich thanks to business monopolies during the period of one-party rule, and faces a conflict of interest in governing the country while also running for-profit enterprises. Whether or not Chu can deliver on this promise is another question; Ma Ying-jeou made similar remarks on party assets before he assumed the chairmanship in 2005.
Most intriguingly, Chu has been a vocal advocate for constitutional reform that will alter Taiwan’s political system. In particular, he wants Taiwan to adopt a parliamentary system. Critics of Taiwan’s current system say it places too much power in the hands of a president who is not accountable to the legislature. Currently, Taiwan’s premier is simply appointed by the president. One possible model would be something like the French system, where the president would maintain control over national defense, foreign policy, and cross-strait relations. Chu also wants to amend Taiwan’s election law to give smaller parties a better chance at winning seats in the legislature. Of the 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan, 64 are currently held by the KMT and 40 by the DPP, with only eight seats won by third parties. The DPP has also advocated for political and constitutional reform, providing a possible area of common ground between two parties that are normally bitter rivals.
Chu has set an ambitious agenda for himself, one that would be difficult under the best of circumstances – and these are not the best of circumstances for the KMT. The party is currently fractured and all but rudderless. One of Chu’s tasks will simply be to “reduce the frictions in the KMT that surfaced after the November 29 election,” Richard Bush, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, told The Diplomat via email. Ma Ying-jeou will likely continue to exert considerable influence over the party as he finishes out his term as president. He and Chu will have to work together to present a united vision for the party – but at the same time, creating distance from the unpopular president might be in the KMT’s best interests.
Tamping down party infighting might be Chu’s greatest challenge, and it could prevent him from making headway on his other goals. Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told The Diplomat, “Regardless of where [Chu] wants to take the KMT I suspect he will face obstacles from the old guard.”
Chu faces an added complication as well, as he previously said he will not run for president in 2016. That would allow Chu to focus his energies entirely on revamping the KMT and governing New Taipei, rather than on campaigning. But it could also mean he has only one short year as party chairman. The KMT amended its charter in 2013 so that any sitting KMT president automatically assumes the party chairmanship. Should another KMT candidate win the presidency in 2016, he or she would replace Chu as chair (unless the charter is amended again).