The View from Taichung: KMT Holds Chair Election Early - Hung makes her move?

With the move of the election date to May Hung has secured an advantage.

KMT chairmanship election poster. (Image from official Hung Hsiu-chu Facebook page)

Taichung -- This week the Kuomintang (KMT) announced that its next election for Chairman has been tentatively set for May of 2017, instead of August as had been previously supposed. Current Chairman Hung Hsiu-chu, the party's initial candidate in the 2016 presidential election, won the Party Chair post in the March in the wake of the KMT's January election debacle. A hardliner steeped in KMT Return-to-China ideology, Hung declared that evening: "As long as we are together, solidarity and hope will be in our hands. I will lead the party to restore our homeland, which has been in ruins."

KMT officials said that the move was to bring the election date into compliance with the party's charter, which specifies that the election has to be held three months before the national party congress of that year. But many observers could not help but notice that the move gave Hung's potential rivals less time to prepare for the election.

In the March by-election, Hung, with 56% of the vote, defeated her main rival Huang Min-hui, (黃敏惠), with 33%, and minor candidates Taipei City Councilor Lee Hsin (李新), and Legislator Apollo Chen (陳學聖). Huang, a Taiwanese politician whose power base is in the south central Taiwan county of Chiayi, could not match Hung's rock-star appeal to the hardline Old Soldiers, the lingering elderly who had fled with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, and their immediate descendants. In Kinmen and Matsu, deeply KMT areas, Hung received over 70% of the vote, indicating her appeal to the "deep Blue" core of the KMT. Most election watchers attributed the win to that strength of hers.

Since the Lee Teng-hui era the KMT has been riven by two conflicting currents: the "mainstream" politicians who seek to localize the party as a Taiwanese party, and the "non-mainstream" politicians who want to run the KMT as a fief of the elites who brought the party over from China in 1949, and their descendants. Hung, a "mainlander" whose father came over with Chiang in 1949, is aligned with the latter group, and publicly so. "I'm not a radical," she once said, "I am just carrying on Sun Yat-sen thought." The non-mainstream, deep Blue voters feel that they were betrayed by Lee Teng-hui, a Taiwanese, and have vowed never to permit a Taiwanese politician run the KMT again.

Will these factors govern the next Chairmanship election? What does this say for the future of the KMT?

With the move of the election date Hung has secured an advantage. Her other advantages remain. Turnout in the last election was just 41% of all potential voters, and the Old Soldiers, who do not need to pay party dues since they are retired, constitute a disproportionate number of both party members and party voters. They will likely remain her iron votes. Moreover, soon after her election in March Hung moved her campaign people into key posts within the KMT, securing her control over party institutions.

Potential rivals are few, and all are wounded. The "princelings," the children of KMT elites, lack appeal. Eric Chu, the current Mayor of New Taipei City, the one municipality still controlled by the KMT, performed poorly in the Presidential election and worse, is half-Taiwanese and thus suspect to many staunch mainlander voters. Hau Long-bin, the son of reactionary old KMT heavyweight Hau Pei-tsun and the former mayor of Taipei, lost an easy legislative election in 2016 in Keelung, long a KMT stronghold. Other names frequently mentioned include princeling Sean Lien, the son of heavyweight Lien Chan, who lacks appeal outside the deep Blues, and former Vice President Wu Den-yi, whose power base is in sparsely populated Nantou and who is Taiwanese. Except for Wu, who is a formidable politician with deep links throughout the party, none are likely to pose a great challenge to Hung.

More importantly, none of these people represent fresh blood and none have much appeal outside the KMT. All are either from KMT royalty or are lifelong politicians at the end of long careers: Wu Den-yi and Hung were both born in 1948. This shows how the KMT remains a party in the midst of a slowly unfolding generational and demographic crisis brought on by its inability to localize and to let go of its Return to China mentality. For over a decade party rank and file have complained about the lack of youth in the party. In 2005 they even formed a reform association with the nickname SKII to push the party to bring in younger members, but failed. In the 2016 election the KMT's strongest support came from the over 70 age cohort, while the young turned up their noses at it. As people in Taiwan identify more and more as Taiwanese, they identify less and less with the China focused KMT. The party lacks young candidates, and it lacks candidates who can appeal to the young.

Moreover, the KMT is losing other advantages. The ECFA agreement with China, much-touted outside Taiwan, failed to stimulate trade and reduced Taiwan's trade surplus with China. That, coupled with the widespread wage stagnation, slowing economic growth, and the housing bubble destroyed the party's myth that it is a skilled economic manager. It legendary wealth is being threatened by the new Administration, whose move against the KMT assets has broad public support. Because of its crushing defeats in 2014 and 2016, at present it lacks a wide array of regional bases which it can use to develop new politicians with broad regional appeal.

Interestingly, despite Hung's failure to move on any of these issues except the illegal assets commission, she remains in control. Perhaps KMT elites prefer that Hung, a hardliner with no appeal outside the KMT, takes the blame for the party's loss of assets, which will enable them to call for her replacement after the asset ordeal finishes and the KMT is beaten in the 2018 local elections. Local media reports suggest that the KMT itself is split on whether to let the assets go in order to win public support, or fight to keep them.

Hung's reaction to the crisis has been to circle the wagons. While on her Facebook account she has plaintively asked the young to support the KMT, she has made no concrete changes that might invite them to. In April she appointed fellow hardliner Alex Tsai as head of the KMT's Central Policy Committee and appoint Taiwanese politicians to subordinate local roles, a traditional form of KMT institutional organization. In June she expelled KMT critic Yang Wei-chung from the party, a decision widely interpreted as a sign the party was becoming even more ideological.

It appears that Hung will once again cruise to victory in May of 2017 and maintain her hardline course. The question will then be if the KMT is beaten again in 2018, will Hung step down? And if so, who can replace her? Whatever happens, get out the popcorn: the next year promises to be full of juicy KMT internal political drama.