On May 20, Wu Den-yih (吳敦義, b. 1948) was elected in overwhelming numbers by members of Taiwan’s largest opposition-party to serve as the eighth chairman of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT). In an election that was widely billed as a turning point for the KMT, party members appear to have chosen a path that—at the very least for the near term—portends a return to a more mainstream orientation for the party.
On the same day as the one-year anniversary of Tsai Ing-wen’s presidency, 276,425 members of the KMT—representing 58.5 percent of eligible KMT voters—went to the polls. Wu obtained 144,408 of the votes, representing 52.24 percent of those cast, whereas the incumbent chairwoman, Hung Hsiu-chu’s (洪秀柱, b. 1948), came in a distant second, receiving only 53,065 votes, or 19.2 percent of total cast. The vice chairman of the KMT and former mayor of Taipei, Hau Lung-pin (郝龍斌, b. 1952) came in a competitive third place with 44,301 votes, representing 16.03 percent of total votes cast.
The KMT flirted with a shift towards a more conservative orientation following its devastating defeat in the 2016 presidential and legislative elections. The failed presidential campaign of Eric Chu (朱立倫; b. 1961), who successfully defeated Tsai in the 2010 New Taipei Mayoral Election, shook the foundation of the KMT, which struggled to put forward a unified front during and in the aftermath of the 2016 elections. This discord and discontent were clearly reflected in the results of the presidential and legislative elections that saw Tsai Ing-wen and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) win by a wide margin of 25.1 percent and by 28 seats, respectively. Tsai also carried New Taipei City by more than 11 percent.
A rising political star, the mayor of New Taipei City and then KMT chairman was at best a reluctant presidential candidate, but was put forward by party elders and the establishment wing of the Party in a last-ditch effort to spark an 11th hour rally. The leadership hoped that Chu could salvage the KMT’s electoral prospects, which had been dimmed by Hung’s controversial brand of KMT politics. Among other contentious policies, as vice speaker of the Legislative Yuan, Hung advocated that cross-Strait relations be based on the formula of “one China, same interpretation” （一中同表), which is a stark departure from the KMT’s original “one China, respective interpretations” （一中各表).
Four months into her presidential run and a little over three months before the 2016 elections, Hung was replaced by Chu in an extraordinary party election that appeared to sideline her wing of the KMT. After Chu’s and the KMT’s categorical defeat in the presidential and legislative elections, however, Chu resigned as chairman of the KMT, which paved the way for supporters of the dismissed presidential candidate to hoist her to the helm of the Party in a provisional election that saw Hung besting her closest opponent by a decisive 23 percent. The KMT appeared to be headed down a path of significant course change.
That the former vice president and seasoned KMT politician earned more than 33 percent of votes than Hung represent, in no small part, a resounding victory for the establishment wing of the KMT. Wu’s and Hau’s combined votes constitute a clear majority, with 68 percent of party members voting in the election. Hau comes from an established political family (his father is former Premier and 4-star General (Chief of the General Staff, Army Commander-in-Chief Hau Pei-tsun) and served as mayor of Taipei before Ko Wen-je (柯文哲). Although the former president did not explicitly endorse any of the candidates for KMT chairman, it was clear from his public activities that Ma preferred the establishment candidates: Wu and Hau. During the chairperson election, Ma only appeared atthe rallies of these candidates—and was noticeably absent at Hung’s rallies.
Despite insinuations of irregularity, the other KMT candidates were quick to sound a unified tone after the results were announced. First out of the gate in calling the results in favor of Wu was Hau who congratulated the new chairman. Hung also swiftly conceded and called for party unity. The party’s leaders appear eager to mollify any doubts about the legitimacy of the election and rally behind the new chairman.
While the KMT chairperson election seems to indicate party members’ preference for a more mainstream orientation, whether the Party is able to connect with the changing demographics in Taiwan remains to be seen. The 2016 election was prefaced by a groundswell of youth activism manifested in the 2014 Student Sunflower Movement. Public engagement by Taiwanese youths, as stakeholders in the country’s national politics, must now be seriously addressed by political parties.
On balance, the 69-year old incoming chairman of the KMT presents a stark contrast to the firebrand politics of his immediate predecessor. However, in a primary that seemed more focus on the candidates’ experience than policy differences, Wu’s capabilities as a seasoned politician may have been more of a salient factor than his policies for party members. A native Taiwanese, Hakka-minority, and considered part of the party’s local faction (本土派), Wu can speak and play to these political advantages in appealing to a general audience. Although Wu’s election as chairman currently puts him in the most favorable position to become the party’s candidate in 2020, his candidacy remains far from assured. Much will depend upon the Party’s showing in the 2018 local elections.
The chairman of the electronics conglomerate FOXCONN, Terry Gou (郭台銘), is rumored to be a possible contender in the 2020 presidential election. According to a recent poll conducted by the China Times Weekly, 35.7 percent of respondents said that, if the election were to be held immediately, they would vote for Gou, compared with 24.2 percent of those polled, who would vote for Tsai.
The main point: While the KMT chairperson election indicates the party members’ preference for a more mainstream orientation, whether the Party is able to connect with the changing demographics in Taiwan remains to be seen. Moreover, KMT voters may have found Wu’s capabilities as a seasoned politician to be more salient than his policies.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly referred to 2018 as the year for Taiwan’s next presidential election.