With only a little over two months left, the race for the chairmanship of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) is heating up. On May 20, members of the Nationalist Party (https://www.kmt.org.tw/) will elect their seventh chairperson. Currently, six candidates have announced that they will be vying for the chairmanship position that will determine the course and perhaps likelihood of the Party’s recovery after the crushing 2016 presidential and legislative elections.
The incumbent helmswoman, Hung Shiu-chu (b. 1948, 洪秀柱), is hoping to retain her position as chairwoman, which will ostensibly pave the way for her return as the Party’s presidential candidate in 2020 (assuming a successful 2018 local elections). Yet, Hung’s ability to reclaim the chairmanship is being challenged by several candidates from the establishment wing of the KMT such as former Vice President Wu Den-yih (b. 1948, 吳敦義), current KMT Vice-Chairman Hau Lung-bin (b. 1952, 郝龍斌), former KMT Vice-Chairman Steve Chan (b. 1948, 詹啟賢), as well as outsider candidates such as businessman Han Kuo-yu (b. 1957, 韓國瑜), and Tina Pan (b. 1957, 潘維剛).
In quite uncharacteristic fashion, the widely contested chairmanship election in May seems to indicate a lack of unity within a Party that has traditionally been wary of airing its dirty laundry in public. The slide towards greater division did not begin in the aftermath of the 2016 election, but arguably as far back as after the 2014 local elections, when former President Ma Ying-jeou stepped down as chairman to take responsibility for the KMT’s poor showing. Without enough preparations made to groom new KMT leadership in the preceding years, the Party was essentially caught flat-footed when forced to adapt to a new political reality in the aftermath of the student-led Sunflower movements.
Madame Hung has been serving as the chairperson of the KMT since March 2016 after she won the Party’s provisional election following Eric Chu’s (b. 1961, 朱立倫) resignation. Chu resigned after he was defeated by Tsai Ing-wen in the 2016 presidential election. Although Hung was the Party’s first candidate for the 2016 presidential election, she was replaced after party heavyweights intervened at the 11th hour and party members voted “overwhelmingly” to replace her with Chu—widely considered a political rising star, but a reluctant presidential candidate—in a last-ditch effort to salvage the KMT’s chances to win the 2016 elections.
Steered on by her stalwart supporters, Hung obtained 56 percent of the votes in the provisional KMT chairperson election—besting her closest opponent by over 23 percent in a race comprised of no real substantial opposition. Around 139,558 eligible votes were counted, representing 41 percent of the total eligible votes. As of January 21, according to data released by the KMT, the Party had 899,668 members, of whom only 226,783 are reportedly eligible to vote in the chairperson election. The Party elite, reeling from the crushing loss of the 2016 presidential and legislative elections, were still in shock at the time of the provisional election. Representing the “deep blue” (深藍) wing of her party, Hung’s rise and continued leadership role portended a drift towards that end of the political spectrum as the new mainstream. A year after the 2016 elections, however, it appears that the Party establishment is attempting to regain control of the Party. It should be no surprise that the prevailing theme in all the candidates’ messages has been to emphasize the need for party unity.
The silhouette of what appears to be a new factional fault line in KMT politics has emerged following the 2016 elections. To be sure, the 2016 presidential election exposed the erosion in the reputation of the so-called establishment factions within the KMT, and the new candidates and their respective supporters shed light on the new factions, represented by establishment candidates and non-establishment candidates. While four of the candidates represent old heavyweights of the Party, two of the candidates are relatively new to the upper-echelons of the political scene.
In a race—which has all but begun except officially—with no clear frontrunner, it is interesting to note the results of an online poll conducted by Taiwan-based media outlet, ETToday, which has Han Kuo-yu and Hung Shiu-chu leading the pack in terms of favorites to become the next KMT chairperson, with 2,931 and 2,126 votes, respectively. While such online polls should be taken with a grain of salt, it would seem that the popularity of the two candidates, Han and Hung, is consistent with the anti-establishment sentiment that may be growing among the Party’s base. Whether their favorability to win the chairperson election represents an endorsement of the “deep blue“ political perspective remains to be seen.
As it stands now, there is not a clear favorite to win the chairmanship election. While there does not appear to be much substantive policy disagreement among the candidates, the shifting power center manifested in the leadership of the Party at the top will significantly influence the direction that the Party goes. At the very least, the election will lay down an important marker for the Party’s approach to the 2018 local elections and even perhaps serve as a preliminary contest for the nomination in the 2020 presidential election.
The main point: A year after the election, it appears that the KMT Party establishment is attempting to regain control of the Party. The chairmanship election will lay down an important marker for the Party’s approach to the 2018 local elections and even perhaps serve as a preliminary contest for the nomination in the 2020 presidential election.