After losing the presidential and legislative elections in 2016, the Nationalist party (Kuomingtang, KMT) is attempting to turn over a new leaf. As the party’s incoming chairperson, Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), prepares to take over the helm of Taiwan’s ailing opposition party on August 20, there are signs that the leader is trying a major course correction in an effort to salvage the party. The latest in a series of such signs may be the reported final revision of the new KMT platform, which will be submitted for internal deliberation to the Party’s central committee next week and then eventual ratification by the Party congress. Observers expect the modification to pass without substantial revisions. The new KMT platform will reportedly remove several controversial items inserted by the former chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), which included an emphasis on “deepening the 1992 consensus” (深化九二共識) and a “peace agreement” (和平協議) with Beijing.
Most notably, the new platform—which represents the policy principles of the new chairperson—will reportedly affirm the previous Ma Ying-jeou government’s “1992 consensus: one China, different interpretations” (九二共識、一中各表) position. The platform will maintain as its foundation for cross-Strait relations the “five visions” (五項願景) established at the historic yet controversial 2005 meeting between former KMT honorary chairperson Lien Chan (連戰) and former CCP general secretary Hu Jintao. Yet, the new platform will reportedly simplify the Ma government’s preferred formulation of “no unification, no independence and no use of force” (不統、不獨、不武) to “resolutely opposing Taiwan independence” (堅決反對台獨), while deleting the prior commitment to “no unification.”
Last September, while under the leadership of former chairperson Hung, the KMT congress approved the party’s first platform after its defeat in the 2016 elections. In the section on cross-Strait relations, the platform emphasized deepening the 1992 consensus and studying the prospect of a peace agreement in order to end the conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
According to supporters of the incoming chairperson, the decision to delete the “peace agreement” from the Party platform is intended to assure the Taiwanese people that the party is moving towards a more mainstream position. Moreover, by connecting “one China, different interpretations” with the so-called “1992 consensus,” the new chairperson is perhaps signaling to Beijing the party’s return to its original position on cross-Strait relations. During the tenure of the outgoing chairperson, the Party flirted with a move towards a controversial formulation of “one China, same interpretation” (一中同表). The simplification of the platform’s opposition to Taiwan independence and underscoring “Chinese culture” (中華文化) are meant to assuage any doubts across the Strait of the new chairperson’s pro-independence inclinations.
The relative shift to a more mainstream orientation on cross-Strait relations may reflect a rebuke of the previous chairperson and her controversial policies by KMT party members. Indeed, Wu was elected as KMT chairperson by a clear majority back in May. In an election that was billed as a turning point for the KMT, Wu obtained 52.24 percent of the vote, whereas Hung received 19.2 percent of the total vote cast. While the reasons why Wu won the chair may have more to do with his support from the party establishment and political acumen, the resounding victory has given his transition team more authority to reshape the party’s policy platform.
While Hung’s conservative faction has been marginalized–observers should bear in mind that she still received nearly 20 percent of member votes in the May election. Some observers may be quick to forecast the return of the moderate wing of the Party, but the apparent narrowing of the formulation from Ma’s “no unification, no independence, and no use of force” to “resolutely opposing Taiwan independence,” while deleting the commitment to “no unification” may reflect a compromise with a weakened but still influential conservative wing.
Much remains to be seen, in terms of whether and how the reconstruction of the KMT will affect its electoral prospects in the upcoming 2018 local elections. During the last local elections in 2014 (i.e., nine-in-one elections), the ruling-Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rode the wave created by the student-led Sunflower protests against the central government and Ma’s low approval rating—which registered mostly below 20 percent for the entire year— to win a majority of the contested seats: five of six municipality elections and nine of the other 16 city and county elections. Then-president Ma had to step down as party chair after the rousing defeat.
According to a Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation (台灣民意基金會) survey conducted in June, 33.1 percent of respondents expressed approval of President Tsai’s leadership. While dissatisfaction with the Tsai government remains high, with only a little over a year to go before the local elections, it remains to be seen whether President Tsai’s low approval rating alone will dictate voter preference when it comes to local candidates. To be sure, losing the midterm elections do not necessarily mean that the losing party will also lose in 2020. Yet, if past is prologue, the ruling party should be cautiously watching the poll numbers.
The main point: The incoming KMT chairman’s relative shift to a more mainstream policy orientation on cross-Strait relations indicates a move away from the controversial policies of the previous chairperson. However, while Hung’s conservative faction has been marginalized, she still received nearly 20 percent of members votes in the May election.