Can We Think of 2016 Elections as an Opportunity to Deepen the Crisis of the KMT?

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: CCTV

The Crisis of the KMT?

IT MAY BE IRONIC to note that, while unbroken power of the KMT party apparatus and its vast economic resources is often thought of as the unpredictable, unaccountable factor in Taiwanese politics which inevitably leads to the defeat of all other competitors, the KMT currently appears in the throes of crisis. This crisis has expressed itself in the production of Hung Hsiu-Chu, previously a minor political figure, as the KMT’s frontrunner for presidential candidate. And though Hung’s nomination remains to be finalized, Hung has been catapulted to superstar status—despite that all evidence points to that she will a very damaging candidate for the KMT.

The victory of Tsai Ing-Wen and the defeat of the KMT in 2016 presidential elections has seemed probable since the crushing losses faced by the KMT after nine-in-one elections in late 2014. Since attaining the position of DPP presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-Wen has also put on a strong campaign to date, as most recently reflected in a front cover Time Magazine article, and her highly successful 12-day long tour of America.

But the apparent inability of the KMT to produce a strong presidential candidate evidenced that the KMT was in disorder and has added to the perception that the KMT is far from headed for a 2016 victory. Crisis within the KMT has been exacerbated by Ma Ying-Jeou’s resignation as KMT party chairman after the defeat of the KMT in nine-in-one elections, the naming of Eric Chu to party chairman and the high profile meeting that took place between Chu as KMT party chairman and Chinese president Xi Jinping, but that after all this, to the confusion of many, Chu was apparently reluctant to run for KMT presidential nomination himself. This was by contrast to Tsai, who ran largely unopposed for nomination as presidential candidate of the DPP while also serving as party chairman.

PhotoCredit翻攝自網路Hung in official KMT party garb. Photo credit: 翻攝自網路

Yet even then, the DPP had strong contenders for presidential candidate waiting in the wings, even had Tsai decided not to run, such as former party chairman Su Tseng-Chang. The KMT would seem to have had nobody. The reasons for Chu’s refusal to run remain vaguely opaque. Though one can speculate that after the defeat of the KMT in nine-in-one elections and resultant loss of territory, Chu felt the need to hold down mayorship of New Taipei City, Chu’s refusal to run also appears to be the product of internal factional conflict within the KMT. Indeed, while outside observers can only speculate as to the full dimensions of KMT factional conflict, we might note that the other KMT heavyweight who might have thrown his hat into the ring, Wang Jin-Pyng also did not run for president. Wang’s claimed reasons for not running sound similar rather to Chu’s claimed reasons—both stating the reason why they were not running for the sake of preserving the internal order of the party. Perhaps they did not want to heighten factional conflict?

The factions within the KMT which are in conflict are the Ma faction, affiliated with current president Ma Ying-Jeou, and Legislative Yuan speaker Wang Jin-Pyng. Though Ma has been disgraced, following the defeat of the KMT in nine-in-one elections and his staggeringly low popularity ratings, Ma remains powerful within the party and Chu is more closely affiliated with Ma. Conflict between the Ma faction and the Wang faction dates back several years, but largely revolves around grounds that Wang is too close to the DPP opposition—and too native Taiwanese, where the Ma faction represents Mainlander Taiwanese stalwarts.

Had Wang stood for election, Wang would have offered the possibility of “Taiwanizing” the KMT in an effort to reform the party. Chu, though more closely ensconced with the Ma faction, nonetheless was rebuked by Ma for deciding not to run. Why did both not run? Was it because they hoped to avoid factional conflict within the KMT? One can conjecture. Actually, past weeks have seen not shortage of posturing by both where it appeared as though each might be hoping to be to drafted by the party, where it may be that factional animosities would have been aroused had one or the other of them willfully sought presidential nomination. In the end, however, this does not seem to have amounted to anything.

But it seems the impasse of the KMT in choosing a presidential candidate was resolved in unexpected fashion with the rise of Hung Hsiu-Chu. Hung, a party hardliner like no other, has emerged seemingly out of the abyss to become the current leading presidential candidate. It seems Hung’s success to date in being catapulted from obscurity to superstar status seems to come from that because Wang and Chu both did not apply for presidential nomination, she was one of only three candidates who applied. Though there was much questioning about the established KMT process for presidential nomination and whether the established process for nomination would be circumvented the KMT central committee in order that a heavyweight candidate rather than a obscure one would become the KMT’s presidential nomination, it seems Hung’s obstinacy in refusing to back down to make room for another candidate was the crucial to her success after rapidly eclipsing the other two candidates who applied for presidential nomination. Indeed, this seems to be par for Hung, where Hung has in the past gone against the informal pressure of when party central sought to remove her from elections as an unpredictable factor, to her success.

In fact, it is rather par for the KMT to produce political candidates out of nothing. Sean Lien, who ran for mayor of Taipei in past nine-in-one elections, largely was a political candidate crafted by the KMT, as the wealthy princeling son of former party chairman Lien Chan, and whose only political experience beforehand had come from serving in several KMT positions. It was speculated by some that Lien came out of the KMT party apparatus’ attempt to produce party candidates for the next generation of heavyweight KMT party politicians, where mayorship of Taipei is often a position that a future president of Taiwan takes up before running for president. Current president Ma Ying-Jeou followed such a career path, serving as mayor of Taipei from 1998 to 2006, despite a similar lack of previous political experience—and Ma, too, was scion of an old and powerful KMT family. Yet where Hung has defied expectations, it is that she was an unpredictable wild card who actually defied the party to attain her current stardom, rather than someone who was elevated by the party from obscurity to fame. Hung attaining nomination would seem to be inevitable now, with high profile meetings taking place between her and Eric Chu, and international media crowing on about how between her and Tsai Ing-Wen a female president for Taiwan in 2016 is inevitable.

Enter Hung Chu-Hsiu: A Potentially Destructive Candidate for the KMT?

THE MYSTERY OF Hung Hsiu-Chu and what her future political behavior will be largely comes from her wild card status. Apart from her willingness to go against party central, past stances, Hung has been a hardliner where party loyalty has been concerned. Concerning factional loyalty, Hung has, for her part, publicly affirmed loyalty to President Ma, though she may actually be more hardline than Ma.

Where Hung is a thought of dangerous and unpredictable, it is because of the fiery nature of her rhetoric. When Hung states criticisms of the DPP and opposition to Taiwanese independence, she is not truly saying anything new, but Hung states it in terms that threaten flare-up sub-ethnic tensions in Taiwan. In an interesting contradiction, having joined the KMT despite being the child of a victim of the White Terror, Hung has acquired a reputation for anti-native Taiwanese chauvinism, for example, regarding cutting the budgets of Taiwanese language programs or even casually making fun of the enunciation of the Taiwanese language. Hung’s appeals seem primarily aimed towards deep blue KMT diehards, which has been a crucial factor in her past inability to capture larger Taiwanese demographic and may be a factor as to her future inability to do so.

Where we may speculate as to the internal dynamics of the KMT, if Hung’s support comes from KMT hardliners within the party, it may be that the past year’s defeats of the KMT have not made the KMT reevaluate its need for internal reform. Recent attempts to highlight young members of the party in cognizance of the disconnect of the KMT with younger Taiwanese notwithstanding, it seems that the solution arrived at by hardliners is if what they are doing now is not succeeding, they need to go back to the good, old days—as represented by Hung. This kind of behavior, too, is not entirely surprising where, for example, the Ma administration’s reaction to the large-scale popular resistance to attempts to sign free trade agreements with China in the past year as expressed in the Sunflower Movement and its aftermath has largely been to attempt to continue attempting to draw Taiwan economically closer to China.

PhotoCreditAgenceFrancePressGettyImagesHung fighting in the Legislative Yuan with a DPP legislator in 2010. Photo credit: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

With every issue in the past year that stirred the fear of Taiwanese that Taiwan was in danger of encroachment from China—whether regarding the CSSTA trade agreement that the Sunflower Movement was reacting to, the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which also prompted protest, or flight route M503 which was seen as allowing Chinese airplanes to get dangerously close to Taiwanese airspace—Hung has taken the line that such fears were unfounded and attributed the outbreak of protest to the machinations of the DPP rather than any popular expression of the will of the Taiwanese people. Hung will almost certainly never connect with the Taiwanese public at large if she keeps this up and is unable to moderate herself.

So it is that in analysis of the behavior of the KMT, if were to attribute something like an intentional state to the party as a whole, sometimes it strikes as that the KMT has something of a death wish. Certainly, since the Sunflower Movement, the KMT has engaged in no shortage of self-destructive and counterproductive behavior. Perhaps that is historical inevitability—that the KMT no longer has any place in the present order and so is doomed to pass by.

Does that mean that Hung’s nomination means a KMT defeat in 2016 is inevitable and that this is a sign of the decline of the party as a whole? It is too early to say, but we might not give way to wishful fantasy. Moreover, even if we might question the political objectivity of recent polls by TVBS and other television networks which show Hung as leading over Tsai, most other polls showing the opposite, if Hung is able to moderate herself in the future, Hung may be able to quite successfully capitalize on her sudden rise to fame in order to establish firmer grounds for her presidential campaign.

But, on the other hand, if we can expect a continued series of gaffes from Hung, we will see as to how powerful the KMT party apparatus which seemed previously all-powerful is actually able to pull in votes in the face of an unpredictable presidential candidate. This would be a measure of how truly “democratic” Taiwan truly is, if to date the KMT party apparatus and financial resources have been able to unduly influence democratic process, and international observers have to date ignored the vast disparity in power between the KMT party apparatus and the DPP party apparatus in order to deem Taiwan already “democratic.”

Tsai Ing-Wen versus Hung Hsiu-Chu

IT IS INTERESTING to note how pervasive the discourse of an inevitable Tsai victory has become, as evidenced in a recent Time Magazine cover story touting Tsai as the future president of Taiwan. Even if it also true that the article reflects a number of pro-Beijing assumptions and more often sources Chinese scholars than Taiwan experts, Tsai for the most part comes off quite well in the Time Magazine article, coming off as intelligent and confident and regardless of the content of the article, the appearance of the article in international media adds to her public prestige.

Where much discourse has suggested Tsai may be a provocative candidate regarding China, largely as a product of longstanding hostility against the DPP as unnecessarily provocative of China rather than any of Tsai’s policy stances, here we find the depiction of Tsai as a moderate candidate. Though, of course, it is raised that the victory of a DPP presidential candidate may provoke responses, we find that Tsai is far from being depicted in line with how Chen Shui-Bian was seen in international media as unnecessarily provocative but irrationally hostile towards China. Certainly, even if the article was written before Tsai Ing-Wen’s tour of America, Tsai’s recent tour of America would also seem to have been highly successful, it seems, in generating an positive and moderate image for Tsai in the international sphere.

Thus, when it comes to Hung, least pertaining to individual political candidates, if not political parties as a whole, it is surprising to note that it is the KMT’s candidate who is seen as an unpredictable factor at present. The international world would also seem to be too aware of Hung as a weak candidate relative to Tsai, as evidenced in a Washington Times article.

PhotoCreditTimeMagazineTime Magazine cover featuring Tsai Ing-Wen. Photo credit: Time Magazine

Indeed, at present, Hung does not stand well vis-a-vis Tsai, particularly where Tsai has been successful as an internationally minded candidate and Hung has been quite the opposite. Though Hung congratulated Tsai for making Time Magazine’s cover publicly, Hung has also recently mocked Tsai’s attempts to appeal to the international public with her trip to America, mocking Tsai, for example, for staying at five star hotels. Ironically, if it is America that has more often than not viewed the KMT as a safer choice than the DPP where maintaining cross-strait stability was concerned, Hung has taken the stance of mocking Tsai’s appeals to the international, citing that she has no need to go abroad to speak with American officials, and that America has not made efforts to reach out to her where it has made efforts to reach out to Tsai. Hung later backtracked, announcing a tour of America in August and September, then backtracking as to whether she would actually go and clashing with Eric Chu concerning under whose authority should the decision be made about whether she should go or not. Small wonder that Wang Jin-Pyng would refuse to be part of Hung’s campaign team, where tensions only appear to be growing between Hung and establishment KMT heavyweights as he and Eric Chu.

It is true, of course, that Hung has less of a need to reach out to America where the DPP has a need to assure America that it will maintain cross-strait stability that the KMT does not have. Actually, if Hung had not decided to make any tour of America, that would isolate her where even high profile members of recently third-parties as Freddy Lim, Fan Yun, and Tsay Ting-Kuei, who are not running for president, have made tours of America. But it would strikes that Hung was, in some sense, acting out of a sense of envy of the vaguely cosmopolitan image Tsai has established for herself—proof that Tsai has seized the initiative and Hung is reacting to Tsai in rearguard fashion. Indeed, part of Hung’s disastrous response is where she ceded the moral high ground to Tsai where her attacks on Tsai come off as petty in nature. Tsai, on the other hand, seems above personal attacks.

And what does it mean when Hung criticizes the US for not meeting her where she is at, rather than her taking steps to accommodate the US? Once again, we can see where Hung is not a KMT establishment candidate. It would seem Hung misunderstands something about the historic relation between the US and the Taiwanese government and the basic need of the Taiwanese government, whether controlled by the KMT or DPP, to maintain American support. As J. Michael Cole also noted in a recent article, it would be unprecedented, after all, if a KMT rather than a DPP candidate were to lose the faith of the US because of a sense that that candidate would potentially go against the desires of the US in maintaining regional order in the Asia-Pacific! Indeed, the ability of a potential president to maintain the passive support of the US is of central necessity as to whether Taiwanese voters will vote for such a presidential candidate—and Hung does not seem to understand that.

Can We Think of 2016 Elections as an Opportunity to Deepen the Crisis of the KMT?

OBVIOUSLY THERE remain many ways in which a DPP presidential run could fail, as no election victory is certain until it actually happens. But if Hung largely seems to be a disaster as a presidential candidate and for the KMT, perhaps we should move beyond thinking about 2016 elections with the end goal of defeating Hung, but toward thinking of 2016 elections with the aim of establishing what under what conditions should the KMT lose the election in a manner that would serve to erode away the KMT as a whole. Indeed, though the rise of Hung would seem to have foreclosed other possibilities, it has been a matter of debate as to whether Hung is the best candidate for a KMT defeat. Would it be more damaging of the party if a stronger candidate were to be defeated by Tsai Ing-Wen, for example? Or would as disastrous candidate as Hung Hsiu-Chu prove the apparent deficiency of the KMT down to its very roots?

Likewise, what would happen after a KMT defeat in 2016? Would we see a substantial decline or collapse of the party, with current KMT members joining other parties or forming new parties? Or would it be possible for the KMT to reform, with the current young generation of KMT members largely of the same generation of Sunflower Movement activists but who are descendants of KMT party families, in fact, actively seeking to change the KMT out of a sense of post-Sunflower despair, somehow taking the reins? That remains to be seen.

It may be that defeating Hung is the first step, but what would it mean to think beyond just defeating Hung? If Hung Hsiu-Chu is a political candidate who is expressive of the current crisis of the KMT, what would it mean to be able to accentuate that crisis? Can Taiwanese, particularly civil society activists, formulate a political response to Hung with the aim of using a Hung defeat to erode the power of the KMT?

Although Taiwanese independence activists who view Taiwanese independence as ridding Taiwan of the KMT in light of Taiwan’s de facto independence have been laboring to eliminate the KMT for decades now, since the Sunflower Movement, some attempts been made by civil society to politically target the KMT, for example, with the Appendectomy Project which sought to use referendum as a means to remove especially corrupt politicians—but whose name was in Chinese a pun on surgically removing the “blue” part of Taiwan’s political spectrum.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sunflower Movement, in an early article for New Bloom entitled “Taiwan Minus the KMT”, I wrote of the possibility of attempts to eliminate the KMT from the political spectrum. But I did not think the possibility of of large-scale campaign to target the KMT from Taiwanese civil society at that time. This was largely because I did not think the DPP and the more centrist forces of the Taiwanese political spectrum would not explicitly target the KMT.

With the rise of new third-parties, it is a possibility that the explicit political platform of eliminating the KMT may become more widespread. Where, for example, the Free Taiwan Party is actively founded on the platform of Taiwanese independence and comes out of longstanding Taiwanese independence activists, eliminating the KMT is quite central to its party platform. By contrast, it remains unlikely the DPP would explicitly target the KMT because the DPP depends on the two-party structure of governance to survive. Attempting to actively eliminate the KMT would actually vaguely leave the DPP open to the strange but probable accusations that it is seeking to generate a one-party system—under its rule rather than that of the KMT—and that this would undermine the foundations of Taiwanese democracy. Never mind the KMT’s own longstanding history of acting against Taiwanese democracy. But civil society and third parties are able to target the KMT in the present without repercussion.

PhotoCreditCRNTT.comHung meeting Xi Jinping. Photo credit:

Still, we might note that not all third parties are necessarily progressively oriented, but can be rather right wing, for example, with James Soong hinting recently he might run as a candidate of the People First Party potentially in collaboration with the KMT. By contrast to recently formed third parties antagonistic to the KMT which originate from civil society, there is no shortage of older third parties who are decidedly right wing in nature and who might actually become the new avenues for KMT members to continue to participate in Taiwanese politics if we were to see a decline of the KMT. Nevertheless, if the KMT were to see a decline, that would see the opening of new possibilities where cross-strait relations are concerned. As evidenced in Eric Chu’s meeting with Xi Jinping in May, at which Hsu Hsiu-Chiu was also present, the KMT is able to override democratic process to conduct negotiations with China outside of the channels of official government diplomacy on the basis of its historical relationship with the CCP. Eliminating or eroding the KMT would certainly serve to curtail this.

Can a Hung Hsiu-Chu candidacy provide a valuable opportunity for newly formed third parties coming out of civil society to target the KMT? If Hung is unable to moderate her public remarks and this inflames public opinion, certainly, one can use that as an opportunity to damage the reputation of the KMT as a whole. But as with the period immediately following the Sunflower Movement, actively attempting to eliminate the KMT remains a platform that originates from civil society, rather than a centrist position. For the notion of using the Hung Hsiu-Chu candidacy of attacking the KMT as a whole to spread, it will require popularizing the notion that it is a realistic possibility and not just an imaginative fantasy for there to be, as I phrased it in July of last year, a “Taiwan minus the KMT.”

This will require appealing to centrist elements of the Taiwanese political spectrum by members of Taiwanese civil society and new third parties, but also leveraging against the DPP, which will probably not advance any political platform which actively seeks to eliminate the KMT.  To do so, civil society and new third parties will need to arrive at a relation with the DPP that allows it to operate independently of the DPP and be able to criticize it, even as it cannot fully isolate itself from the pan-Green camp, which would serve to be self-marginalizing.

In the project of actively eliminating the KMT from Taiwan, civil society will have to take the leading role, but it will only be able to do so if it is able itself to arrive at the awareness of that the Hung Hsiu-Chu candidacy is reflective of the crisis of the KMT as a whole and that the Hung Hsiu-Chu candidacy is too valuable an opportunity to damage the KMT as a whole to pass up. More broadly, targeting the KMT while also criticizing the DPP rather than merely allying with the DPP, as a whole serves as an opportunity to push the Taiwanese political spectrum further to the Left. But we will see as to future developments regarding how civil society conceives of its role relative to 2016 elections.