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Eric Chu is Taiwan's come back kid who could

Eric Chu turned things around with combination of good fortune, skill, strategic planning and plenty of perseverance and grit

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KMT rally to thank voters for their victory in New Taipei City. (CNA photo)

KMT rally to thank voters for their victory in New Taipei City. (CNA photo) (CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — Kuomintang (KMT) Chair Eric Chu (朱立倫) finally has a victory, winning 13 of 22 executive posts across Taiwan in the 9-in-1 elections.

It may sound odd to call losing one post from the current 14 a victory and down two from the 15 won in 2018, but the key is which races the KMT won. Crucially, the KMT reclaimed the capital Taipei.

They also won back the special municipality of Taoyuan, and the city of Keelung. By contrast, they lost the remote offshore counties of Kinmen and Matsu, and low population Miaoli — easily a fair trade in the eyes of the KMT.

They are also likely to end up with 14, as the Chiayi City election has been delayed to December due to the death of a candidate, and the KMT is likely to retain the mayorship there. No doubt also satisfying for the KMT is the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lost Taoyuan and Hsinchu City, where they had started the election cycle looking hard to beat, and only picked up remote Penghu, leaving the party with only five executive posts, down from seven.

It’s also true that Chu did not manage to live up to the promise he made when running for party chair to win 16 executive posts total, but he did fulfill his promise to win over half of the special municipalities, which was by far the more important of the two promises. Overall, this election was a victory for the KMT and Eric Chu personally.

It’s also a remarkable turnaround and personal triumph for a chair who had been struggling through most of his tenure so far. He started off weak, and in spite of being the only heavyweight in the race, he only won the party chair position last September with 46% of the vote against three relative lightweights. Over half the party rejected him right out of the gate.

Eric Chu off to a bad start, and downhill from there

Newly in the job, his party won a recall vote in Taichung, but that was largely attributed to his predecessor, who had laid the groundwork. Chu then went on to lead the party to losing four referendum votes, a legislative by-election and a recall vote — six straight losses in a row.

By January, some odd behaviour and the string of losses led to widespread calls for him to resign. He appeared to be hanging on by a thread, but managed to hold on with the backing of some of the party’s heavyweights.

Things only got worse as primary season got underway. Chu boldly decided that all the key executive posts would be chosen by himself and the election committee, bypassing the primary process.

According to party rules, he could do that, but it caused considerable outrage and yet more calls for his resignation. He barely averted a disastrous party split in Taoyuan, but KMT members bolted the party to run in Miaoli, Penghu, and Kinmen, and the party went on to lose all three, killing off Chu’s promise to win 16 executive posts in total.

Then Chu embarked on a campaign in June and July to move the KMT closer to mainstream Taiwanese public opinion on sovereignty issues. He visited the U.S., loudly proclaimed the KMT was “always” anti-Communist, pro-U.S., was “never” pro-China, that the 1992 consensus was a “non-consensus consensus” and even outright copied the DPP’s stance that “The Republic of China has always been a sovereign, independent country!”

That also provoked ire in the KMT, and he’s since had to embarrassingly backtrack on some of it, including doubling down again on the 1992 consensus and pivoting to a “Double D” stance, which refers to “deterrence” (as in national security) and “dialogue” with China.

Eric Chu romps to victory

Then, after a year of being a weak, controversial party chair, he romped to victory on Nov. 26, restoring both himself and his party to a position of strength. The party will almost certainly fall in line under Chu now, and his position is strong going into the 2024 national elections — so much so that there is considerable talk about him running for president again (he lost in landslide in 2016).

So what happened? Partly it was good fortune and incompetent opposition party leadership, but much credit needs to be given to Chu’s skills, good strategic planning and perserverence and grit in the face of considerable opposition.

As explained in recent columns, the KMT usually dominates in local elections, having only failed to do so once this century in 2014. They were also able to field a large number of incumbents with name recognition, while the DPP was forced to run relative unknowns in a country that more often than not re-elects incumbents.

Chu trumps on experience

Chu was also fortunate that the DPP bungled the campaign in many ways. In Taiwan it is common practice that the president also serves as party chair, which meant that Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was rather distracted from the campaign with her duties as president.

Similarly, Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) Chair Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) was also busy being Taipei mayor. Chu has been able to spend the last few years to plan this campaign, and has devoted himself fully to the job for over a year.

Tsai, a technocrat, is also not very qualified when it comes to running local election campaigns, though she has had much success in national ones. She has only ever run in one local election herself, and lost…to Eric Chu in New Taipei City in 2010.

Chu has a lot of experience with local elections, including having secured two terms as leader of Taoyuan, followed by two terms leading New Taipei. He’s a professional, Tsai is not.

Perseverance in sticking to his strategic guns

Strategically, Chu started making some smart moves right from the beginning, though he did not get much attention or credit for it. He boosted membership significantly, and did quite a bit to repair the party’s poor financial situation.

His efforts to reframe the party as far more moderate and closer to mainstream public opinion seem to have paid dividends. Though he split the party and lost some races, his forcing through of candidates he handpicked meant that almost the entire slate was candidates viewed as moderates, which also had the positive effect of largely keeping the KMT’s deep blue ideologues out of the news cycle.

In the long term, it may even turn out that the three races lost to splitting the party may work out. There is already discussion inside the party that after a respectable amount of time, they may be readmitted into the party. That’s what they did eventually with former Hualien County Commissioner Fu "King of Hualien" Kun-chi (傅崐萁), who had not only bucked the party but had also served jail time.

Chu also very intentionally weighted the party’s candidates toward younger candidates in council races and female candidates at all levels. Chu chose ten female candidates for the top executive positions, and the party campaigned heavily on it, highlighting that the DPP was only running five.

That was a smart move when in this election cycle women candidates won at a far higher percentage rate than their male counterparts. This trend has been growing increasingly obvious for awhile, it’s puzzling that the DPP leadership appears to have totally missed it in spite of having won two landslide victories running a woman for president.

If Lai Ching-te (賴清德) becomes the next DPP chair, as seems likely, then Eric Chu may have more of a challenge. Lai is tough and has served his time in both local politics and national politics.

But for now, Eric Chu is the come back kid who could.

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. Follow him on Twitter: @donovan_smith.