Where Does the KMT Go From Here?

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Where Does the KMT Go From Here?

The results of the chair election set the future trajectory for the party – and for Taiwan’s democracy.

Where Does the KMT Go From Here?

Eric Chu thanks medias after winning in the KMT chairman election in Taipei, Taiwan, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying

The KMT chair election results indicate the unusual dilemma faced by the party. On the one hand, with Eric Chu’s election victory, the KMT is in the hands of a veteran party politician that has been part of the KMT for decades. Chu rose up through the party ranks as a loyal member, holding positions such as New Taipei mayor and Taoyuan magistrate, as well as previously serving as chair from 2015 to 2016.

Election turnout was also the highest since 2016, with the party having experienced historic lows in the 2016 chair election and the 2020 by-election. This may indicate a re-energized party base, perhaps mobilized by a sense of crisis, or this could simply mean a return to form for the KMT.

That being said, it should be clear that the deep Blues in the party are here to stay, and that they demand to be heard. Although Chu won with 85,164 votes, or 45.78 percent of the total, hardline candidate Chang Ya-chung came in second with 60,632 votes, or 32.59 percent of the vote share. Until a few weeks ago, when polling indicated a sudden uptick in support for Chang, few would have expected that Chang would have performed better than incumbent chair Johnny Chiang. Chiang’s result was a mere 35,090 votes, or 18.86 percent of the vote.

Chang Ya-chung can be seen as the representative candidate of the deep Blues in the 2021 chair election. More broadly, in examining the recent history of the KMT, it can be anticipated that there will be insurgent deep Blue candidates in future elections for key party positions. As with Chang, they may have been previously politically marginal figures before being suddenly elevated to superstardom.

This pattern ultimately goes back to the meteoric rise from obscurity of the KMT’s first 2016 presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu. Hung had previously only been a KMT legislator. Although she served as vice president of the Legislative Yuan, she was not considered a party heavyweight or a contender for key party positions. However, Hung unexpectedly threw her hat into the KMT’s 2016 presidential primary and emerged victorious in the absence of any established party heavyweights entering the race.

As such, Hung became the KMT’s presidential candidate, though her starkly pro-unification stances proved so alienating to the public that she was replaced with then-party chair Eric Chu mid-race. Nevertheless, since then, Hung has continued to be a force within the party, winning the party chair after Chu vacated the position. Chu resigned after his 2016 presidential election defeat to take responsibility for the loss, which is traditional for party leaders in Taiwan.

Former Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu followed a similar political trajectory. In 2018, the relatively little-known former legislator abruptly won the Kaohsiung mayorship in what was previously considered solidly pan-Green political territory. This paved the way for Han’s 2020 presidential run as the KMT’s presidential candidate, during which Han was termed a “populist” candidate in the mold of Donald Trump or similar figures. He proved able to galvanize large portions of the voter electorate into fervent support as part of what was termed the “Han wave.”

While Han was handily defeated by incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progression Party, 8.1 million to 5.5 million votes, Han was still able to increase the KMT’s vote share by 2 million votes compared to Chu’s 2016 run. Although Han was removed from the mayorship of Kaohsiung following a successful recall campaign and has to a large extent stayed out of active politics since, he continues to have his staunch supporters in the KMT. Whenever key party positions such as the KMT party chair are up for election, there is speculation about whether Han will throw his hat into the race.

It is yet to be seen whether Chang Ya-chung will prove a similar figure to Hung or Han. Chang was originally best known as an aide of Hung’s and the director of the Sun Yat-sen School that she founded, this being a deep Blue ideological education institution. It was only after the COVID-19 outbreak experienced by Taiwan this summer that he became more widely known. Chang claimed to be able to facilitate a donation of 10 million vaccines from a Chinese cultural exchange center at a time of vaccine scarcity in Taiwan.

But regardless of whether Chang Ya-chung continues to be a political contender or not, it is clear that the KMT now has a strong precedent of producing insurgent deep Blue candidates that rise up to challenge the party establishment. This is likely to also be the case in the future.

More broadly, its successes in 2018 local elections notwithstanding, the KMT has struggled to win elections since the wave of popular dissatisfaction that broke out in the form of the 2014 Sunflower Movement. The Tsai administration is commonly perceived as riding to power on a wave of support after the movement. By contrast, the KMT is perceived as having alienated a generation of Taiwanese young people.

If deep Blue candidates such as Chang take power, one can expect that this will further damage the electoral odds for the KMT. Namely, as was perhaps most visible in the rise of Hung Hsiu-chu, some within the KMT responded to the crisis experienced after 2014 by taking the view that the party needed to double down on fundamentals and return to traditional party values, rather than reinvent itself to win the support of young people.

Overall, this has dragged the KMT closer to the deep Blue end of the political spectrum. Notably, despite having called for party reform while attempting to win KMT’s 2020 presidential candidacy, Chu took a much harder stance in the 2021 chair election. This time around, he claims that the KMT needs to defend its fundamental values and return to the tradition of Sun Yat-sen.

This was also the case with Johnny Chiang, who was the KMT’s youngest chair in history and proposed dropping the unpopular 1992 Consensus when he first took power. Yet Chiang largely adhered to the status quo dating back to the Ma administration when he ran for re-election this time.

Indeed, in charting Chiang’s political trajectory as chair we can see this shift from moderation toward a more hardline stance. While Chiang initially tried to suggest that he would rise above mudslinging, his actions eventually became increasingly partisan, including allowing the KMT caucus to throw pig offal at DPP politicians in the legislature and to mount a short occupation of the legislature to protest U.S. pork imports. Nevertheless, as with deep Blue insurgents, Chiang’s rise to power arguably also only occurred due to party heavyweights declining to run for key positions.

One can perhaps see efforts by the status quo party heavyweights – of which Chu is one – to keep potential insurgents in line. While traditionally, the KMT’s party chair and presidential candidate are the same person, since Chu’s first stint as chair of the KMT, the position of the KMT’s presidential candidate has become increasingly separated from the party chair. In July 2019, the party agreed to split the position of presidential candidate from party chair, perhaps in the hopes of avoiding Han Kuo-yu coming to dominate the party.

Since then, including in this chair election, party chair candidates have claimed that they will not seek the presidential nomination themselves but will instead act as “kingmakers” who will cultivate the strongest possible presidential candidate for the KMT. Even so, during the election party chair candidates frequently accused each other of secretly harboring ambitions to become the KMT’s presidential candidate.

Who the KMT’s presidential candidate will be in 2024 remains opaque, with names floated including Han Kuo-yu, New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi, who is one of Taiwan’s most popular contemporary politicians, and Terry Gou, whose efforts purchasing BioNTech vaccines for Taiwan may be aimed at building credibility for a future presidential run. How a future presidential candidate relates to Ko Wen-je’s “light Blue” Taiwan People’s Party is also unclear. But with Eric Chu having won the KMT party chair, it will be Chu that presides over the process that decides the next KMT presidential candidate – even if Chu will no doubt continue to be accused of hoping to run again himself.

But the possibility of another Han Kuo-yu or similarly populist figure still appearing from out of nowhere to win the candidacy cannot be ruled out. The rise of Hung, Han, and similar figures has likely empowered deep Blue factions within the party such as the Huang Fu Hsing, a special branch in the party consisting of military veterans. The Huang Fu Hsing has been particularly active in past years, including in demonstrations against the Tsai administration’s pension reform – and most notably an attempt to occupy the Taiwanese legislature. While winning the Huang Fu Hsing vote has always been important for KMT chair hopefuls, the Huang Fu Hsing has likely been empowered within the party in past years because of the vocal and strident political rhetoric of Hung, Han, and others.

Furthermore, if the KMT’s electoral viability continues to flounder under Chu, the ramifications for Taiwanese democracy remain unclear. If the KMT is no longer a viable contender in national elections the DPP would be increasingly politically dominant – and unchallenged. At the same time, this may pave the way for splits within the DPP that do not occur along the lines of the independence/unification divide that has historically characterized Taiwanese politics between the party’s left and right wings. Or this may allow for the growth of youth-oriented, politically progressive, and more overtly pro-independence political parties, like those that emerged in the wake of the Sunflower Movement. While such possibilities are periodically raised in domestic political discourse, this is yet to be seen.