Reforming the Kuomintang: Adapting to Taiwan’s Dynamic Democracy (Part I)

Reforming the Kuomintang: Adapting to Taiwan’s Dynamic Democracy (Part I)

Reforming the Kuomintang: Adapting to Taiwan’s Dynamic Democracy (Part I)

Lauren Dickey is a PhD candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, where her research focuses on Chinese strategy and cross-Strait relations. She is also a member of the Pacific Forum Young Leaders program at CSIS.

In November 2014, the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party) sustained a landslide defeat in Taiwan’s nine-in-one local elections, an unprecedented electoral setback for the party that left it with control of only one of Taiwan’s six major municipalities. In January 2016, the KMT lost the presidential office to Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). With a minority of seats in the island’s Legislative Yuan and a DPP president in power, the KMT is left on the outside looking in. The question many are rightly asking is if and how the KMT can reform sufficiently to remain politically viable.  

The task of teaching an old dog new tricks falls into the hands of KMT chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu, previously ousted from the presidential race but since restored to lead the party through July 2017. Hung faces a host of problems, all of which are more complex than simply recalculating the party’s electoral strategy to win the next set of local and presidential elections. The reforms needed to ensure the KMT’s viability as a political party are existential in nature. A failure to reform its personnel structure or domestic and cross-Strait policy platforms could lead to the party’s demise, relegating it to the history books. A successful reform effort, however, could rejuvenate the KMT and ensure its place in the island’s vibrant democracy.

The KMT’s problem set begins with a perceived irrelevance to the electorate–an electorate that was discontented by former president Ma Ying-jeou’s economic and cross-Strait policies, as demonstrated by  the Sunflower Movement, the largest democratic protest in Taiwan’s history. Unlike the DPP’s active courting of the youth vote, the KMT is perceived as out of touch with Taiwanese millennials, a socially progressive constituency energized by protests of closer Beijing-Taipei ties and in search of something besides the status quo. The KMT’s reputation has been further tarnished by the DPP’s push to investigate the party’s ill-gotten assets. With the recent passing of legislation requiring the KMT to register all its target assets over the next year, some analysts have been so bold as to suggest that this debacle alone will lead to the KMT’s bankruptcy and demise, a possibility the KMT and Hung have vehemently rejected with the promise to use all legal tools at their disposal.

Amongst these difficulties the KMT has displayed a willingness to reform; the question is whether the party will be able to do so. In April, the KMT commissioned a report outlining priority reform measures for Chairwoman Hung. Fourteen major issues were identified as leading to the KMT’s electoral defeat, including poor implementation of major policies, unpopular cross-Strait policies, ineffective leadership, and asset management. Twelve recommendations were proposed to both resolve and prevent future problems, including a call to terminate the KMT’s channel of dialogue with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Broadly speaking, the path of reforms for the KMT can be divided into three categories—personnel, domestic policy, and cross-Strait ties (to be addressed in Part II of this article)—each of which will be examined below.

Personnel reforms: New versus old blood

According to Eric Huang, chief of the KMT Central Committee’s foreign media and international affairs section, the KMT needs new messengers. Chairwoman Hung’s Facebook page is thusadorned with cartoon photos appealing to the younger generation, asking Taiwanese youth why they do not like the KMT or refuse to support the party. Bringing in newer, younger blood will help the party shake off its reputation of “old dinosaurs clinging to power” and “geriatric individuals who identify as Chinese.” Yet, the KMT has largely failed to attract young people to its political ranks. Efforts from young KMT members, the Grassroots Alliance (草協聯盟), aimed to establish intra-party democracy and spark discussions of the KMT’s cross-Strait policies and overarching narrative. But the youth movement was short-lived, diminishing the prospect for youth-led, reform-from-within efforts. A broader divide between reformers and status quo supporters has taken shape within the party, as manifest in the recent expulsion of a pro-reform member.

If the KMT can get beyond its divisions, changes to the KMT’s internal selection processes have also been identified as a requisite reform component. Presently, KMT headquarters in Taipei appoints heads of local chapters; the chairperson further has the authority to appoint nearly all other major officeholders within the party, oversees the party’s core committees and directs all party business. According to one anonymous commentator, it is a structure inherently “designed to consolidate the power of the party-state’s supreme leader” that hearkens back to the days of the KMT as a “revolutionary vanguard and then-colonial power.” The KMT must overhaul its existing top-down operations in favor of a democratically-oriented, bottom-up structure. Successive leaders have promised to oversee this restructuring, but have failed to implement any such reform. Current chairwoman Hung has delayed reforms to the party’s internal process in a call to put such changes on hold “until several necessary complementary measures were completed.” It remains to be seen what or when such parallel progress will create the foundation on which the KMT can rebuild its personnel structure.

Domestic policy reforms: Rebuilding societal confidence in the KMT

In the aftermath of the KMT’s electoral losses, it has pledged to remain conservative, but with a new shift toward the middle class and its concern forsocial justice and welfare. Importantly, the party has also promised to support the DPP’s initiatives that benefit Taiwan, a move that places the security and longevity of the Taiwanese people ahead of partisan politics.  

Chairwoman Hung has started to shift the KMT’s domestic policy agenda through the recent unveiling of four committees, a step she deemed as necessary to rebuilding societal confidence in the KMT. Each of the four committees is tasked with an issue area affecting key constituent groups. The Hakka Affairs Committee (客家事務委員會) will strive to strengthen the link between county-city administrative power and actively promote Hakka cultural activities at all levels of government. The Indigenous Peoples Working Committee (原住民族工作委員會) will promote policies favorable to the indigenous peoples and continue to protect their rights, as guided by the Taiwanese constitution. Two additional committees—the Women’s Working Committee (婦女工作委員會) and the New Citizens Working Committee (新住民工作委員會)—will seek to elevate the voices of women and new immigrants through policies that reflect their interests and service needs. Even if the work of these committees is able to gain traction within targeted constituencies, any policy initiatives must first undergo the scrutiny of the DPP-dominated Legislative Yuan.

In addition to the formation of these committees—and their role in maintaining the KMT’s relevance to key groups of constituents—the KMT has also taken steps to propose draft bills that will aid in changing declining public perception of the KMT. In one step to realign its public image, after a viral video of a self-described citizen journalist using abusive language against Chinese veterans who fled to Taiwan from China, the KMT proposed a draft bill against ethnic discrimination. Such efforts signal a willingness from KMT politicians to become more outspoken about the negative impact of societal polarization upon national solidarity and social progress.

Additionally, despite staunch support among the “old soldiers” and Taiwanese military, the KMT has not decided on how it will address civil servant pension reform. The pension system is an urgent issue for all parties, with one author even arguing that inadequate reform could lead the Taiwanese government into bankruptcy. But no party, KMT included, claims to have discovered a silver bullet. Given the fact that the KMT may be hardest hit by pension reforms, it has avoided any substantive action, even supporting a protest on Ketagalan Boulevard against the Tsai  administration’s initial steps to consolidate public opinion around her reform agenda. What steps the KMT previously undertook—namely a decision to cut the pensions of some civil servants and members of the armed forces—came at the cost of the KMT member rolls, contributing further to the party’s electoral losses over the last year.

Taken in sum, the shifts in the KMT’s domestic policy agenda represent an effort to respond to the changing domestic socio-political environment. As with personnel reform, the largest challenges to a reorientation in domestic policy priorities will come first and foremost from status quo proponents within the KMT. One other challenge looms ahead, namely, how the KMT will manage the cross-Strait relationship.

The main point: As the Kuomintang looks to reform both its internal party structure and its domestic policy agenda, the largest challenge to such a reorientation will come first and foremost from status quo proponents within the party itself.

Correction: The earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Taiwan’s local elections took place in 2015. 

1. Hao Chung-jen (郝充仁), “中華民國股份有限公司破產” [Taiwan ROC Inc., Bankruptcy], Business Today, December 2015.