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Eric Chu Wins KMT Chair Election

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Eric Chu Wins KMT Chair Election

KMT stalwart Chu won handily in the end, but the challenge posed by deep-Blue candidate Chang Ya-chung is notable.

Eric Chu Wins KMT Chair Election
Credit: Facebook/ 朱立倫

Eric Chu handily won the KMT 2021 party chair election, which took place on September 25. Chu won with 85,164 votes, or 45.78 percent of the total number of votes. Chu’s nearest competitor, Chang Ya-chung, won 60,632 votes, which is 32.59 percent. By contrast, current chair Johnny Chiang gained 35,090 votes, or 18.86 percent of the vote, while former Changhua county magistrate Cho Po-yuan came in last with 5,133 votes, or 2.76 percent of the total.

Turnout was high, with 187,999 of 370,711 eligible voters participating, or 50.71 percent turnout. This is an increase of 14.86 percentage points from the 2020 KMT chair by-election, in which Chiang defeated his opponent, former Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin, by winning around two-thirds of the vote. Turnout for the last two KMT chair elections in 2016 and 2020 were record lows.

Chu is a veteran of the party, having been the KMT’s presidential candidate in 2016, during which he also served as party chair. Likewise, Chu had also served as mayor of New Taipei and magistrate of Taoyuan County in the past, as well as a legislator.

As Chu won nearly half of all votes in this four-way race, in other circumstances, this might give him a clear mandate to lead. That being said, the challenge to Chu from Chang Ya-chung is significant. The race originally was seen only as one between Johnny Chiang and Eric Chu, but Chang pulled ahead in the weeks before the election, with some polling from pan-Blue media showing him polling better than Chiang and performing neck-to-neck with Chu — or even ahead of him.

Chang, who heads the deep Blue educational institution called the Sun Yat-Sen School, was not a widely known figure before this summer, having risen to prominence after a COVID-19 outbreak experienced by Taiwan since May. In particular, Chang claimed to be able to facilitate a donation of 5 million BioNTech vaccines and 5 million Sinopharm vaccines from an obscure Chinese organization called the Beijing Cross-Straits Eastern Cultural Center, this occurring at a time in which Taiwan was facing vaccine shortages.

During the race, Chang distinguished himself from other candidates by emphasizing a strong pro-unification stance, whereas Eric Chu and Johnny Chiang had in the past called for reform of the KMT to change its pro-China image. In the first KMT debate, when asked about identity trends among young people that show rising Taiwanese identity and increasing low identification with China, Chang advocated that the KMT return to the fundamental principles it was built on and double down on emphasizing that Taiwanese identity is a form of Chinese identity.

Such hardline stances – along with a scandal that Chang became embroiled in after claiming that he could facilitate a loan of $5 million from a mysterious Malaysian benefactor – were used by Chu to attack Chang. This may have been what led to Chu’s victory, though Chang tried too late to walk back his pro-unification stances.

Given Chang’s claim of being able to facilitate vaccine donations at a time of global shortages and to be able to produce $5 million for the KMT during a period in which the party is strapped for funds because of the ruling DPP’s probe into party assets retained from the authoritarian period, some have questioned if Chang was backed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Either way, it is possible that Chang will continue to be a force in the party. It is generally clear that, if not Chang, there would have been another hardline pan-Blue candidate in the race, and that Chu will face possible criticisms from party hardliners going forward.

What surprises is that both Chang and Chu outperformed incumbent chair Johnny Chiang by large margins. Chiang and Chu have been seen as relatively moderate in the past, calling for efforts by the party to change its image and win back the support of young people. And so both might have otherwise struggled to distinguish themselves from each other, except for Chiang being the incumbent, and Chu having several more decades of political experience than Chiang, the youngest chair of the KMT in its history at age 48 when he took office. Chiang’s chairing of the KMT may have been seen as unsuccessful, in the sense that after early efforts at reform stalled – including proposing dropping the 1992 Consensus – Chiang largely instead hewed to the status quo that has endured since Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency, barring deep Blue attempts at pushing for a stronger pro-unification stance.

In his victory speech at the KMT’s party headquarters, Eric Chu stated he hoped to welcome former members of the KMT back into the fold to strengthen the party. Chu was referring to the recent phenomenon of individuals that had previously left the KMT returning to run for party positions, such as FoxConn founder Terry Gou, who rejoined the party to seek the KMT’s 2020 presidential nomination but left again after, or Broadcasting Corporation of China chair Jaw Shaw-kung, who rejoined the KMT in February to throw his hat into the KMT chair race but later pulled out.

Chu indicated a priority on attacking the DPP and pan-Green camp not only through elections, but in upcoming national referendums, and on a recall vote facing youth activist-turned-politician Chen Po-wei of the pro-independence Taiwan Statebuilding Party. Referendums and recalls seem to be where the KMT intends to draw battle lines with the DPP going forward.

Moreover, Chu stated that he intended to open a KMT branch office in Washington, D.C. so that the United States would also hear the KMT’s perspective and not just that of the DPP. It has long been a contested issue for the KMT as to whether it should open a D.C. office, with deep Blue politicians such as Chang Ya-chung claiming it a costly expense to do so when the party is wanting for funds, but perhaps not wishing for stronger ties between the KMT and the United States. The DPP, meanwhile, opened its own D.C. office back in 2013.

While noting that he hoped to encourage young people in the party that wished to push for reform, on the matter of cross-strait relations, Chu emphasized that the KMT could not afford to become a “little Green” party. In other words, Chu was asserting that the KMT could not become indistinguishable from the DPP on cross-strait relations, and he took pains to emphasize that the DPP’s current pro-status quo position is not the same as the KMT position on cross-strait relations.

When asked by the media about when he would take office, Chu stated that in the interim, Johnny Chiang is still the KMT’s acting chair. When Chu takes up the position of KMT chair is to be worked out in accordance with the party’s internal regulations.