The View from Taichung: Local Party Politics: Partying Like There is Noh Tomorrow

Former Vice President Wu Den-yih becomes teary-eyed (By Central News Agency)

Local party politics just got more complicated over the last couple of weeks with big news in the chairmanship race out of the Kuomingtang (KMT) and New Power Party (NPP). For those interested in creating a Taiwan-centered politics out of the wreckage of the KMT, it was a mixed bag of news.

The KMT Chairmanship election heated up with both former Taipei Mayor Hau Long-bin and former Vice President Wu Den-yih challenging current KMT Chair Hung Hsiu-chu for her seat in the May 20 election. This trio was immediately parodied by Taiwan netizens as Hau-Wu-Chu (好無助), a homonym for "hopeless." Wu, a practiced politician, delivered an Oscar-worthy press conference, a Noh play of traditional references to Sun Yat-sen, calls for "power under unity" for the KMT, and a mask of tears for the memory of President Chiang Ching-kuo, who has the same kind of sainthood for the KMT that Ronald Reagan does for the US Republican party. Clearly the ability to summon tears at will is a must for would-be politicians in Taiwan.

Wu has had a long and varied career in the KMT, with stints as a premier, city councilor, legislator, Kaohsiung mayor, and Nantou County magistrate. He has far more experience in politics than either Hung or Hau, both of whom have spent their careers inside the Taipei basin. A Taiwanese brought into the KMT in the 1970s under the program of cultivating Taiwanese political talent, he makes no secret of his presidential ambitions.

His problem was revealed by former Minister of Transportation Yeh Kuang-shih. Criticizing Hung's leadership, Yeh said that KMT figures show the party has 880,000 registered members, with only 220,000 having the right to vote in the chairperson election. Of these, 197,000 are either older than 65 and have been party members for at least 40 years. According to Yeh, that figure includes 170,000 Old Soldiers. Since the Old Soldiers are strong Hung supporters, it will probably not be difficult for Hung to win the Chairmanship again. KMT spokesperson Alex Tsai criticized Yeh and downplayed the significance of the Old Soldiers, saying that there were only 65,000 Old Soldiers, a number seriously inconsistent with other published figures.

Whatever their numbers, the Old Soldiers have made it clear that they will not accept a Taiwanese as head of the party and automatically, its likely presidential candidate. In announcing his bid, Wu was careful to avoid mention of his presidential aspirations, saying merely, as politicians in Taiwan always do, that the question of the party's 2020 presidential candidate required careful study. He did align himself with the party center, once again calling for support of the 1992 Consensus with the KMT's codicil, "two interpretations" what China is. Wu brought a pack of KMT legislators with him to his announcement, signaling his likely power base. Hau has similarly attempted to appeal to the legislature, saying he would elevate the status of the Legislative Whip within the KMT.

A win for the ideologue Hung, vilified by moderates within the KMT, would likely continue the KMT's fade. A longtime observer of local politics remarked to me privately of the necessity for the KMT to be maintain in its current vegetative state, "The KMT is like the dying grandfather who has to be kept on life support so that the children can continue to receive the government subsidy money for terminal patients." This is widely understood among non-KMT political observers of all stripes in Taiwan.

Meanwhile in the NPP things are less rosy for the future of a rich, Taiwan-centered democratic politics. Those hoping that the NPP would deepen and broaden itself into a party that could move into the space to the left of the DPP received a blow this week when Neil Peng, the Chairman of the Board of the NPP, resigned. Peng, an author, writer, and social activist, blasted NPP Chairman Huang Kuo-chang for having too much power in the party. This spat mirrored long-running rumors of Huang's personal ascendancy over the NPP. The problem of individuals turning parties into personal fiefdoms is a traditional problem for emerging political structures in Taiwan. Indeed, recognizing this, Peng had objected to Huang becoming Chairman, arguing that it would be bad for the party if the Chairman were also a legislator. Apparently oblivious to the remote possibility of victory, Huang is widely said to be planning to run for president. That too, is traditional.

The NPP's importance to a post-KMT Taiwan-centered politics should not be underestimated. It holds seats in Taichung, and in Taipei which, if its legislators do not run again, will likely revert to the KMT. It does have expansion plans, and is said to be eyeing the south as particularly good territory, where it is hoping to poach seats from the DPP.

However, the NPP lacks the kind of powerful local structure that the KMT has had for decades, and the DPP has been steadily building. Its strategy instead has been to use candidates who have fame and media buzz, like Hung Tz-yung or Freddie Lim, to gain seats. From what I have heard from prospective NPP political candidates, it is planning to continue this strategy as a cheap substitute for institution building. But the NPP should remember, to coin a phrase, that those who live by the media will die by it.