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Eric Chu's weak position in KMT threatens plan to radically reboot party

His weak chair election win, repeated ballot box losses, contentious candidate selection methods mean he is not in position of power

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A protester displays portraits of the late president and former Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek, left, and the founder of the Republic Of China, Sun...

A protester displays portraits of the late president and former Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek, left, and the founder of the Republic Of China, Sun...

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — Kuomintang (KMT) Chair Eric Chu (朱立倫) is attempting to force the party to radically shift the course it has been on for the last twenty-plus years.

After losing two national elections in a row in landslides, faced with dismal public support numbers, virtually no support from voters under the age of 40 and a rising Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), Chu knows this has to be done to make the party electable again on the national stage.

It is also going to be difficult. He is going to have to face down internal challenges, get party members on board, marginalize powerful pro-China figures in the party, convince the public that this course correction is for real, do well enough in the local elections later this year so he can keep his job, and then entrench the changes deeply enough that they have a fighting shot at not losing in another landslide in 2024.

In my previous column, in which I go into detail about what these plans are and how Chu is taking lines from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), I included the following: “According to a 'party insider,' Chu’s trip to the U.S. was the launch of a plan to replace the party’s old 'pro-U.S., peace with China' platform with a new 'pro-U.S., love Taiwan' (親美愛台) one.”

This was also in the column: “At the party conference on Aug. 28, the plan is to launch a more fleshed-out 'three-axis' platform around the themes of 'pro-democracy, love Taiwan,' 'strong national defense, defend Taiwan,' and 'want peace, protect Taiwan.'”

As was this: An “elected representative” explained this is all to help dispel the negative “pro-China, sell out Taiwan” label that has been pinned to the party, and to reduce the risk of being “smeared as red."

Chu’s first challenge will be getting the party on board at the August party conference, which will not be easy. The pro-China elements in the party are significant, a topic I devoted an entire column to.

Chu is not in the strongest of positions. Though he won a full term election for chair — which is considered more legitimate than winners of by-elections — he only won with just shy of 46% of the vote, so a majority voted against him.

A bad sign for Chu is that the changes he is now proposing are very similar to what former KMT Chair Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) was running on, and he only got just shy of 19% of the vote. Chu ran as a moderate, while the hardline deep-blue unificationist and President of the KMT’s Sun Yat-sen School, Chang Ya-chung (張亞中) got one-third of the vote.

The right stuff

Chu has also been losing support in the party and has been accused of doing a poor job. Of the seven elections the party has faced with him at the helm, the party has lost six, which does not bode well for convincing party members he has the stuff to make the party electable.

His top-down approach to choosing candidates for this year’s elections and by-passing normal primaries has also made enemies and caused a series of internal revolts and defections. According to the latest My-Formosa poll, 55.2% of KMT supporters said they had confidence in Chu, though only 14.4% were highly confident in him, with the rest only having some confidence.

That sounds so-so, but it is actually terrible: 71.3% of KMT supporters said they had confidence in Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) and the chair of the Taiwan People’s Party. When a party’s supporters have more confidence in the chair of another party than their own chair, that is not a sign of strength.

Chu’s predecessor, Johnny Chiang, had hoped to get a proposal to drop the 1992 Consensus through last year’s party conference, but gave up at the last minute when it was clear that he was going to fail. Reports at the time suggested that over 80% of party members supported the 1992 Consensus, and heavyweights lined up to oppose him.

Though Chu is not trying to eliminate the 1992 Consensus — he hopes to temporarily shelve it — in many ways Chu’s plans are more extensive and wide-reaching than Chiang’s were. So somehow, Chu is going to have to convince party members to go along with his plans between now and August 28.

He’s not going to be able to win over the ideological pro-China unificationists, which, as a previous column examined, might make up between one-third and 40% of the party. They are already going after him, with Chang Ya-chung saying Chu’s ideas were little different than the DPP’s.

Straight talk

Former President Ma Ying-jeou has been attacking Chu’s plans to shelf the 1992 Consensus, noting that without it “how can the two sides of the Strait talk?” He’s correct, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has made accepting the 1992 Consensus a precondition for any talks, and pointing this out will make many in the KMT nervous — especially those who might not be ideological unificationists, but do have business or family connections in China.

Conversely, Chu can probably count on two groups for support. One is the more pro-U.S., pro-Taiwan wing of the party, of whom Johnny Chiang is probably the most well-known.

Another are the ones who are tired of losing elections and want to return to power. Probably the most famous of this type is now Chu himself.

One group he has to be concerned about is the powerful and very conservative veteran’s grouping, the Huang Fuhsing (黃復興). They make up around 27% of the party, but tend to have high voter turnout.

At first blush, one assumes they will be in opposition to Chu’s plans. After all, they were widely believed to have backed Chang Ya-chung against Chu in the chair race and have a strong ethnic Chinese identity. However, the bloc is not as united as it once was and Chu’s talk of “defending the Republic of China,” a “strong national defense, defend Taiwan,” the desire to win back power and deference to authority could appeal to some, or even many of them.

Much will depend on how aggressively he wants to change the actual party platform. He could, for example, make minor tweaks that are not so controversial within the party (it already looks like he plans to avoid tackling the 1992 Consensus), and focus most of the change on public messaging instead.

While that may make it easier to get through the party conference, it creates another risk. It will make his case to the general voting public that the KMT has genuinely changed that much harder to sell.

Ultimately, it is the voters he is trying to impress and win back to his party, but that is going to be a tough sell to make. Opponents in his own party will undermine him, and some of his own actions to date paint a murkier picture of where he really stands.

That we will address in a future column.

Courtney Donovan Smith - (石東文) - is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw) and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce.