KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) – The Kuomintang (KMT) is in a very bad place at the moment.
It all looked so rosy just a few years ago. Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) swept to office in the DPP stronghold of Kaohsiung, the poster boy of a local election campaign that saw the KMT win back control of seven counties and municipalities from the DPP.
At that time, there was much talk of the KMT winning the 2020 presidential election, and when Han was selected as their candidate it seemed, in many observers' eyes, like a certain thing.
It wasn’t to be, of course. The Taiwanese people saw through Han’s heady mix of populism and rhetoric, they observed his record of failure and neglect in Kaohsiung, and they handed President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) a second term with a sizable majority.
It has been all downhill from there for the KMT. Just six months on from his Presidential election defeat, Han was removed from office in Kaohsiung in a seismic recall vote.
And while the KMT has scored a couple of wins in similar recalls around the country, this tactic has made them look petty and out of touch in the eyes of many voters. This, combined with the ongoing internal wranglings within the party, at least partially explains why they suffered an embarrassing series of defeats in recent by-elections and referendums, and why their approval ratings are now at an all-time low.
For DPP supporters and all those who are fundamentally opposed to the KMT’s pro-China policies, this might appear to be a good thing; symbolic of a country that is moving further and further away from China.
But Taiwan’s distinct identity in this part of the world is rooted in its thriving democracy, its passionately competitive elections, and its ability to transition power freely and fairly when the people decide that’s what should happen.
For democracy to thrive, there has to be a strong opposition to provide alternative policies for voters, to hold the governing party to account, and to ensure that the country’s democratic values are not undermined by a slide towards a single-party state.
A strong and confident government actually wants a strong opposition to help ensure that it remains at the top of its game, and doesn’t lapse into a comfort zone and begin to make poor or ill-informed policy decisions.
The decline of the KMT is therefore a bad thing for Taiwan and Taiwanese democracy.
Besides its complex internal struggles, the KMT faces two big challenges in terms of public perception.
The first is its perceived proximity to the Chinese Communist Party and the view that a KMT government will move Taiwan closer to China, something which a large and growing proportion of Taiwanese people do not want.
The second is its association with the past; Taiwan’s years of one-party dictatorship, martial law, the White Terror, and other atrocities with which the country has yet to fully make its peace.
The prospect of Chiang Wan-an (蔣萬安), the great-grandson of Chiang-Kai-shek (蔣中正) running as the KMT candidate for Taipei Mayor in the upcoming elections, and therefore also presumably being a future candidate for the party’s Presidential nomination, suggests that the KMT is not ready to break with its past just yet.
But if it wants to win back the popular vote in Taiwan, it may need to do just that. Perhaps an entire party rebrand is needed to make that break.
It will certainly need to fundamentally rethink its attitude towards cross-Strait relations as it is highly unlikely that any party perceived as being pro-China will win a free and fair vote in Taiwan any time soon.
These are big hurdles for the KMT to overcome, and it is by no means clear that the party is even aware that such changes are necessary, never mind being inclined to go through the difficult process of delivering them.
So, if the KMT is, as it appears, something of a spent force in Taiwanese politics right now, where does opposition to the DPP realistically come from?
The Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) is the only credible party that sits to the right of the DPP on domestic issues (if we exclude James Soong’s long-standing but minor People First Party). But the TPP is still in the center-ground of the political spectrum and is essentially a vehicle for Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲).
While the TPP came third in the 2020 legislative elections, it still won just five seats in the Legislative Yuan and there is little sign that it has won many disillusioned KMT voters over to its cause.
The only other prominent force in Taiwanese politics right now is the New Power Party (NPP), which advocates full independence from China, something which the majority of Taiwanese people are wary of, given the likely consequences of such a move.
The current landscape suggests that, if the KMT is not able to either rebrand or reposition itself, Taiwan really needs a completely new center-right ‘conservative’ political party to hold the DPP to account on its domestic agenda.
The domestic agenda is absolutely where the focus of Taiwanese party politics needs to move forward.
While the issue of China will always be an elephant in the room, the public view on that issue is pretty much set in stone now and, as long as political parties continue to be defined by that issue alone, strong opposition to the established ‘status quo’ party will be hard to find. Especially from a pro-China party like the KMT.
It’s time to stop viewing Taiwanese political parties through the prism of China and instead focus on our own politics, our domestic agenda, and what's best for the future of Taiwan and our democracy.