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Is there a future for the KMT?

Is there a future for the KMT?

What might become the most important election day in Taiwan history is now barely two weeks away. Not only will voters pick a completely new president, but also 113 lawmakers to go with it.
One opinion poll does not make an election result, but when one candidate leads by a large margin in one survey after another for months, then you can begin to say that the end result should be quite close to what those polls are saying.
Barring a thoroughly surprising development within the next few days, it is not adventurous to predict that Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen will be elected Taiwan’s first woman president, and the second to hail from her party.
Kuomintang Chairman Eric Liluan Chu and People First Party Chairman James Soong are both likely to end far behind, whatever their position vis-à-vis each other.
The only question that remains is about the outcome of the legislative election on the same day. While few predicted it about a year ago, there is now a strong chance that the KMT will even lose that advantage which it even kept during eight years of DPP rule in the past.
The party has one last chance to turn around the projections as we have reached the middle of a period of televised debates and presentations, the former allowing for interaction and for replies to questions from reporters, academics or social activists, the latter basically one-way exposition.
However, first indications are that whatever the three candidates and their running mates tell the public on TV, voters will not be moved enough to change their minds.
While Chu looks highly likely to join former Vice President Lien Chan to become only the second KMT candidate to lose a presidential election, we still will have to wait until late on January 16 or maybe even January 17 to know how badly the party has lost.
If it still manages to hold on to most of its seats in the north and east of Taiwan, its traditional strongholds, and some of the central regions, with more than ten at-large seats in addition to that, then the result will be a defeat but not a total disaster.
However, if even Taipei, where the KMT once held eight out of eight seats, Chu’s home region of New Taipei City, Taoyuan and other parts of the north color green on the maps, then the party will have been dealt a serious blow.
Nevertheless, it would be too early to write off the future of the KMT. After all, the party survived revolutions and a move into exile from a huge nation like China to a small island off its coast called Taiwan. It also survived coming third in the 2000 presidential election, hauling itself back to a narrow defeat in 2004 and victory in 2008.
The difference this time of course is that the DPP presidential candidate will win by a large majority, and could even gain control of the Legislative Yuan for the first time ever. In 2008, the KMT won because it could point at the DPP administration as a failure and claim it was the only party talented enough to create economic prosperity for Taiwan. That reputation now lies in tatters amid economic growth straining to stay above 1 percent, unemployment, unaffordable housing and a widening gap between rich and poor.
While the KMT will enter a bad patch just a few weeks from now, one should remember that some commentators were ready to write off the DPP when Frank Hsieh lost the 2008 presidential election. It was not his fault the party lost, but Tsai Ing-wen succeeded in rebuilding the party and in giving the public the image of a can-do leader necessary to bring Taiwan back up to speed.
After May 20, when the new president is sworn in, the KMT will have a difficult task criticizing the government during the first couple of years, because a lot of government effort will go into doing away with the negative factors in the inheritance from eight years of Ma rule.
The KMT is also likely to face personnel changes at the top. Chu will resign as chairman to take responsibility not only for his own presidential defeat, but also for the defeat at the Legislative Yuan and for a campaign full of mistakes.
The question will then be who will succeed him at the top. He could be persuaded to stay on, being the only leading KMT politician from the younger generation, therefore exposing a shortage of new talent to prepare the future. Other candidates are likely to include the woman he helped oust from the presidential candidacy, Hung Hsiu-chu, who is likely to take the party on a course closer to China but away from the mainstream of Taiwanese politics, making it even harder for the KMT to plot a comeback.
Vice President Wu Den-yih and Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng might also try for the party leadership, but if as expected, the KMT loses both elections, then both men will both lose their main functions, leaving Wang only as just another lawmaker. If either of them succeeds, they will push the KMT more in the direction of a native Taiwanese party, but because of their age, they might still only be seen as supervisors of a transition.
Some commentators even suggest that President Ma might want to stay in politics and try to become chairman of the KMT for a third time. That might be hard to believe, since Ma is the main reason the party’s popularity has sunk so deeply, so there is hardly likely to be a clamor for him to return.
If the KMT wants to even remain significant, it will need a new generation of leaders and a thorough transformation of its agenda. It will have to move closer to mainstream public opinion on a range of key issues from the relationship with China to social and economic policies. If it only wants to wait for the eventual Tsai Administration to trip up, it could be faced with a nasty surprise.
Former DPP Chairman Hsu Hsin-liang recently even pondered the possibility that the KMT might be replaced as the main alternative to the DPP by the emerging smaller parties, such as the New Power Party and the alliance between the Green Party Taiwan and the Social Democratic Party. Such an analysis might be seeing things evolving too fast, since there is no evidence that any of the smaller parties will win more than a handful of seats, and some maybe only because of support from the DPP which did not nominate candidates of its own in some election districts.
The smaller parties could become a third force after this election, but for them to replace the KMT, the results would have to be even more disastrous for the ruling party than the worst opinion polls. An eventual replacement of the KMT by those small parties could only happen at the next election, in 2020, but to paraphrase the saying, if a week is a long time in politics, then it is almost impossible to predict Taiwan’s political predicament four years from now.
The KMT will lose badly on January 16, but we’ll have to wait and see whether it has been dealt the fatal blow many of its opponents hope for. The phrase “Taiwan will not improve unless the KMT collapses” has gained popularity as a battle cry for KMT critics over the past few years, but it remains to be seen whether this is mere wishful thinking or impending reality.


Updated : 2021-06-20 07:55 GMT+08:00