At an emergency congress on Saturday 17 October the Taiwanese Kuomintang party (KMT) voted overwhelmingly to replace former presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-Chu with KMT chairman Eric Chu. With Hung at the helm, the KMT realised that it had little chance of victory in the 2016 presidential elections and that it even risked losing its majority in the legislature. But with calls that Hung's removal was undemocratic, and with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) continuing to lead in the polls, what does Hung's removal mean for the KMT's election chances and the future of the KMT? While leadership challenges and changes seem to be a regular occurrence in Australia, they are treated with criticism and extreme scepticism in Taiwan and this is the first time in its history that a candidate has been changed so close to polling day. However, for some time it had been evident that Hung's tenure as the KMT’s presidential candidate was fast becoming untenable. As her support in the polls continued to slide, and questions were raised about her extreme position on key issues (such as her approach to the future of cross-strait relations), KMT members sought alternatives. New presidential candidate Eric Chu is the mayor of New Taipei City and current chairman of the KMT. For several months there has been a 'will he, won't he' question surrounding whether or not Chu would stand as the KMT’s presidential candidate. For several months pressure had been mounting to see if he would challenge Hung. On 8 October events came to a head when the KMT’s Central Standing Committee passed a motion to hold an emergency congress to remove Hung and install Chu. This was confirmed at the congress on Saturday where 812 out of the 891 representatives voted to see Hung replaced with Chu.
But what will this change mean for the KMT’s election fortunes?
Chu is a popular candidate and he is expected to improve the KMT’s chances in the 16 January election. He also enjoys broader public support amongst the general population (Hung was seen to be a polarising figure whose views were believed to be too extreme for even some KMT supporters). But will this broader support translate into an election victory for the KMT? The DPP presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, has been leading the KMT in the polls for weeks and, in the latest polls, she had a double-digit approval rating of 44.6%. She has also avoided the errors of her 2012 campaign. In contrast to the election campaign in 2012, where she failed to clearly articulate her policy on cross-strait relations, in this campaign Tsai has adopted a cautious approach to cross-strait relations, appealing to Taiwan’s majority preference to maintain the status quo.
Chu started his campaign on a negative note accusing Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP of being a populist party whose election would have a negative impact on Taiwan’s democracy. While it is still too early to judge the key tenets of his campaign, such early negativity suggests that Chu will pursue an election campaign driven by fear.
Replacing Hung with Chu will likely improve the KMT’s position in the polls and ensure that the KMT retains a majority in the legislature. Yet, the change of candidates points to deeper structural issues within the KMT.
Since the KMT’s arrival in Taiwan, its key defining mission has been to return the KMT government to China and to replace the Chinese Communist Party. Lee Teng-Hui renounced this in 1990, recognising a sense of rising Taiwanese identity and he sought to set Taiwan on a new path. But his reforms were not fully grasped by the KMT. Following Ma Ying-jiu’s election in 2008 he once again set the KMT (and Taiwan) on a path of rapprochement with China. Yet policies of reunification, or greater rapprochement, with China are out of step with the current trends within Taiwan, witnessing a growing sense of Taiwanese identity.
For the KMT to stand a chance at victory in the 2016 elections, Chu needs to redefine what the KMT stands for and he needs give the KMT a modern message, resonating with voters. The KMT should shift its focus from relations with China to issues that affect Taiwan directly, such as strengthening Taiwan’s domestic economic and social policies. It remains to be seen whether the KMT can rebrand itself and reach out to disaffected voters in time for the 2016 elections.
Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus is the East Asia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image credit: Jimmy Yao (cropped, edited) (Flickr: Creative Commons)