Is Johnny Chiang the man to save the KMT?

The 48-year old has promised reform but can he make the KMT electable without alienating its hardcore supporters.

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(Wikimedia Commons photo)

KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) — With the global Wuhan coronavirus pandemic dominating the news here in Taiwan and around the world, it would be quite understandable if you had overlooked the fact that Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), has a new leader.

After the party’s drubbing in January’s presidential election and its failure to wrest control of the Legislative Yuan from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), change was inevitable at the top of the party.

Failed Presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) is now clinging on to the mayorship of Kaohsiung by his fingernails. So the choice KMT members were presented with was between 67-year-old former mayor of Taipei Hau Lung-pin (郝龍斌) and Johnny Chiang (江啟臣), a former Cabinet spokesman who at 48 years old represents the youthful element of the KMT.

Given the failings of the old guard over two successive elections, they wisely opted for the candidate who is not only younger but also more PR-savvy and more open to shifting the party’s policy intransigence, particularly when it comes to relations with Communist China.

Had Hau won, we could have expected more of the same from the KMT and, with Taiwan’s population getting younger and more China-sceptic with every passing year, the party would have been destined for more years in the political wilderness. It could even have brought about the KMTs complete demise.

This could still be the case, but at least the election of Chiang gives them a fighting chance of salvaging the party.

A tough job

But he faces an upward struggle. While Chiang comfortably defeated Hau with 84,860 votes to the latter's 38,483, he did so on a woeful turnout of just 35 percent of party members.

While the KMT has been quick to point the finger at coronavirus concerns as the reason for this, the fact remains that the KMT's popularity is dwindling, and even its own members seem to have lost all enthusiasm since the wave of optimism that surrounded Han Kuo-yu was brought to a shuddering halt.

Chiang now has to convince an aging and implacable supporter base that change is needed if the party is going to have mass appeal again.

He has suggested that he might abandon the party’s commitment to the fictional 1992 Consensus and shift its position on unification with China. But its opposition to same-sex marriage and partisan approach to key domestic issues are just two of many other policies that have proved toxic at the ballot box.

The risk for Chiang is that if he moves too far, too fast, he runs the risk of alienating the party’s core voters, who largely agree with their current position on these issues. As a result, while Chiang’s victory has been seen as a signpost for reform, the process of delivering it could be long and anguished.

But if ever the party needs a period of introspection, it is the KMT.

Much like the Democrats in the USA and the Labour Party in the UK, electoral defeat has seen the party lurch to a political extreme and prioritize political ideology over future electoral success.

But Labour’s socialist experiment in the UK has proved an abject failure, and if Bernie Sanders does get the Democratic nomination in the USA, Democrats could face a similar outcome.

If the KMT wants to be politically relevant, it mustn’t make the same mistake.

Taiwan needs a strong opposition

DPP supporters reading this might be hoping that’s exactly what will happen. But they shouldn’t.

Every thriving democracy needs a strong opposition party to hold the government administration to account. Many of the problems currently facing the UK and the USA have come about, in no small part, because that has been absent.

Unless another party is going to step up and consign the KMT to permanent political obscurity, and Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) Taiwan People's Party no doubt has that ambition, then Taiwan and the DPP need a functional KMT.

The question now is whether Johnny Chiang is the man who can deliver that united, reformed, and electable KMT.

He claims he will do so within a year. It is a tight timeframe for a mammoth undertaking and as things stand, it would be a brave man to bet in his favor.