The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) of Taiwan suffered an historic electoral defeat on January 16, losing not just the presidency but also control of the Legislative Yuan. There are countless analyses and interpretations as to what caused such a catastrophic electoral result, but the perception amongst the Taiwanese public that the Ma Ying-Jeou administration had presided over a return to a more anti-democratic and authoritarian-style governance seems to be a primary factor.
In 2008, Ma ran on a platform that stressed his Taiwanese roots, yet after being elected this soon shifted significantly in favor of references to the Republic of China and Chinese identity. The salience of Taiwanese identity, and in particular democracy, declined dramatically throughout his term. The Ma Administration suffered from constant criticism of engaging in “black box” dealings, even drawing the ire of some of his influential supporters, who have likened him to an autocrat. This image has not been aided by Ma’s personal actions which are deemed, both at home and abroad, to be deliberately controversial and part of a personal agenda to ensure that he secures a legacy. Events such as his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and visit to Taiping Island generally do not seem to align with the public’s will or interests, and only further the negative impression of his presidency.
Arguably the most disastrous incident Ma had to face was the Sunflower Movement. What started as a series of relatively small scale protests seeking social justice quickly erupted into a mass movement. Due to Ma’s ineffectiveness at formulating a prompt and appropriate response, the Sunflower Movement quickly developed into a wider conversation regarding Taiwanese identity and democracy; in particular the civic nature of Taiwanese society and values, and governmental accountability.
The apathy shown toward the general public, who widely supported the demands made by the protesters, and the desire for greater transparency and democratic accountability was made even more pronounced in the run up to the 2016 elections. Not only did the KMT forcibly remove their presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu, who was nominated via a democratic selection process, they insisted on trying to drag Taiwan-China relations to the forefront of the campaign. Despite polls consistently demonstrating that most Taiwanese people do not support the so called “1992 Consensus” or the “One China Principle,” the party refused to alter its stance. In spite of this and in what could be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to mislead voters, Eric Chu’s campaign then deemed it appropriate to have “One Taiwan” as its campaign slogan, which was then justifiably criticized.
The subsequent election of Hung Hsiu-chu as KMT party chairperson has meant that the rhetoric emanating from KMT has become even more pro-China, despite the party’s massive electoral defeat, which signified a rejection of such policies. In a time when arguably the party should be focusing on becoming more localized to reassure voters that the KMT represents them and their interests, it has instead opted to select a chairperson who does nothing to allay concerns that the party has become a proxy of the Chinese Communist Party. The receipt of a congratulatory message from Xi Jinping, and Hung’s response, only makes clear that the two parties now enjoy an intimate relationship.
This renewed emphasis on China, which is far more apparent than it was during Ma’s stewardship, has manifested in several ways. For example, there was the relatively restrained response to the Chinese “abduction” of Taiwanese citizens from Kenya yet scolding condemnation when a fishing boat was detained by Japanese authorities.
Additionally Hung has recently stated that the KMT will continue to pursue cross-strait relations on the basis of the 1992 Consensus. This implies that the KMT is willing to sidestep, and undermine, the democratic and political institutions that formulate foreign policy, which is the prerogative of the elected government, to engage in party-to-party negotiations with China. This displays a remarkable inability to identify why the party no longer resonates within society, particularly amongst younger voters. It also shows in no uncertain terms that the party has yet to shed its penchant for authoritarian-style government and still fails to differentiate between the party and the state.
In the same speech Hung voiced her unreserved objection to de-Sinification (去中國化). Generally, de-Sinification in Taiwan refers to one of several things: renaming and repurposing the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and other memorials to a man who is, rightfully, by many seen as a dictator, murderer and oppressor; reclaiming illegally acquired KMT assets gained during the authoritarian era; re-focusing education on Taiwan; promoting local languages and cultures after decades of arbitrary repression in favor of Mandarin: removing KMT iconography from historical sites; and holding to account the perpetrators of crimes. These actions, at their core, have less to do with attempting to remove Chinese cultural aspects from Taiwan and are in actuality primarily concerned with the elimination of authoritarian era symbolism and institutions. Another term for this would simply be “transitional justice.”
It is a result of the KMT’s blending of party and state for almost 70 years that has resulted in the concept of “Chinese” being conflated with the “Chinese Nationalist Party,” and a failure to recognize this exhibits stark cultural insensitivities on their part. Such is the party’s separation from mainstream thought that they accused the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of being a “forceful majority” when the DPP attempted to pass legislation to address some of the above concerns. This is despite the KMT having had a majority in the Legislature for the past seven decades.
The KMT since the 2016 elections has shown an extraordinary incapability to adjust its policies to better align with new realities in society; this coupled with the leadership seemingly moving in an opposite direction does not bode well for the future of the party as a credible alternative to the DPP. It would perhaps do well to, like the DPP following its 2008 defeat, seek a non-established figure to re-invigorate and set a new direction for the party.
Liam Joel Han returns to Taiwan at least once a year. Currently a student in the United Kingdom, his research interests focus on Taiwan’s international relations, security and growing civic identity.