In the first significant temperature taken of the political climate within Taiwan after the January 2020 presidential and legislative elections, the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) held a special by-election on March 7 to elect the Party’s new chairman. Eligible party members had to choose between two candidates: former Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌, b. 1952) and legislator Johnny Chiang (江啟臣, b. 1972). The election—scheduled after the former chairman and members of the Party’s Central Standing Committee (CSC) resigned—saw Chiang emerge as the clear victor. With 68.80 percent (or 84,860) of the total votes cast, Chiang scored an overwhelming election victory over his opponent, seemingly reflecting, at the very least, party members’ imminent desire for a candidate with a clear plan indicating how they are going to steer the party in a new direction—particularly when it comes to party reforms and perhaps even the KMT’s policy towards Beijing.
During a time of domestic social-economic changes, cross-Strait tension, and global uncertainty, the KMT as a political party has been grappling with internal political cohesion, while competing factions vie to determine the party’s future relations with China. The Party’s electoral defeats in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections have at the very least exacerbated these tensions, and have now compelled the younger members of the Party to call for reforms. In turn, this has highlighted the generational gap in thought and opinion on cross-Strait relations and Beijing’s “One-China” principle. While the new chairman’s election seems to portend the party’s shift in a certain direction, there are several factors that militate against this move.
Another Chairman in Mid-2021 Before Local Elections?
First, the recently-held chairmanship election is a special by-election—as was the case in 2016 after Eric Chu (朱立倫, b. 1961) stepped down as the chairperson following his loss to President Tsai in the 2016 presidential election. Another election for chairman will be held in the middle of 2021 at the conclusion of what would have been the former chairman Wu Den-yih’s (吳敦義, b. 1948) four-year term. Indeed, Chiang was elected to serve the remaining term of Wu, which began in August 2017 and ended in January 2020 after he stepped down to take responsibility for the KMT’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election. Chiang does not have a sure path to win the next chair election as there are no guarantees that there will not be any challengers to Chiang (there were several challengers to the incumbent in the 2017 elections).
Without an election to win within Chiang’s immediate term to validate the electoral significance of any reforms he may initiate—the next local elections are not scheduled until 2022—he will likely have to negotiate and compromise with the different factional leaders and power bases to enact the reforms ostensibly called for by his election. Although, this factor may at least make it easier for Chiang to make the case that party members should stick with him to see through the reforms. Lastly, it is even questionable at this point whether he would even want to remain the chairman after the conclusion of this current term.
Furthermore, of the 345,971 eligible electors for the KMT chairman—which includes 251,848 local chapter members, 83,307 Huang Fu-hsin chapter members, and 10,816 overseas chapter members)—only 35.85 percent (or 124,019) cast votes, a remarkably low turnout percentage. This is around 6 percent lower than the 2016 special by-election and far less than 276,423 votes cast in the 2017 chairmanship election. This low voter turnout will cut against any narrative that Chiang’s election was a clear mandate and may not provide him with the political capital necessary to carry out reforms.
Waning Influence of the KMT Chairman?
Second, while party members and outside observers may hope to see a strong new chairman single-handedly carry out the necessary measures to reform the party, the influence of the position is arguably not that strong within the party’s political ecosystem. It is worth recalling that the former chairman’s victory in 2017 seemed to point to a less radical orientation and portended the return of the control of the establishment wing of the party. Yet, as one of GTI’s authors previously wrote of the 2017 chairmanship election:
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.
Even Wu was apparently unable or unwilling to control the various party factions and raise the profile of the youth wing of the party—and fell short of expectations.
The Role of the KMT Central Standing Committee
Third, in addition to the chairman, the Party is directed by the Central Standing Committee (CSC). The election for the members of the CSC was voted on by KMT Central Committee members alongside the chairmanship election on March 7. Sixteen of the 17 current CSC members that sought re-election were elected. The Nationalist Party’s Constitution stipulates that the CSC must have at least 39 members and a maximum of 44 members. Thirty-two members are elected by Central Committee members. Out of a total of 48 people registered for the election, 31 were new candidates.
The two most popular CSC members—those who received the most number of votes—are current member Chen Tsung-hsing (陳宗興, b 1962) and Hualien County Chief Hsu Chen-wei (徐榛蔚, b. 1968), who tied for first place, each receiving 1,034 votes. Among the top 32 vote-getters for the CSC race, 8 were women (25 percent), and 3 were youths (9 percent), and one aboriginal (3 percent). It is debatable whether the less than ten percent of CSC members representing the youth wing of the party would be sufficient to help the new chairman carry out the reforms that he appears to want to carry out.
Influence of Huang Fu-Hsin Faction
Fourth, and perhaps most notably, the influential Huang Fu-hsing (黃復興) chapter of the party accounts for around 80,000 of the 346,000 eligible electors within the KMT—more than 20 percent of all eligible KMT members. This chapter is known for its ability to mobilize members during elections and boasted that it would mobilize no less than 60-70 percent turnout rate amongst its members in this special by-election. While the breakdown of KMT voters are not available, it appears that voter turnout for this segment was significantly lower than expected as well. To be sure, there had been an expectation of lower turnout due to the party’s brutal defeat in the presidential election and fears of the coronavirus outbreak. Hau Lung-bin, the former mayor of Taipei, is very much representative of the KMT old guard and this wing of the party. Hau comes from a well-connected political family; his father, Hau Pei-tsun (郝柏村, b. 1919) had served as the chief of the general staff of the party for eight years before serving as Premier between 1990-1993. Despite the loss of their candidate, the apparent low turnout does not mean that this faction is no longer a significant political force within KMT politics.
Youth Is the Key
Fifth, with the election of Chiang as chairman—whose campaign for chair focused on appealing to youth voters—there seems to be a clear recognition in the higher echelons of the party that youths are key to the Party’s rejuvenation. Not only were youths the key variable in the 2014 Sunflower movement that generated the political tidal wave that voted the KMT out of office in 2014 and then 2016, they were also a crucial factor in the 2020 elections. According to one researcher from Academia Sinica, 72 percent of voters below the age of 40 had cast their ballot for Tsai in 2020, while more than 60 percent of college graduates had also chosen to re-elect the president. Chiang seems to understand the challenge facing the KMT. In an interview, Chiang noted that if the country’s voting age is revised down to 18 years old, the current 16-year-olds will be able to vote in 2 years, adding about 800,000 first-time voters. These young voters could well decide the fate of the KMT in the 2022 local elections. Will they look to the KMT as their political party of choice? Chiang underscored the challenge facing the KMT when he also revealed that there are only roughly 9,000 members under the age of 40 in the party. He noted the KMT will face greater challenges in the county and mayor elections in 2022 if it does not reform.
To be sure, Chiang is relatively young. At 47, he is able to make a case that he is better suited to reach out to young voters. Furthermore, he is a powerful figure in the Taichung Red Faction of the party. However, as a post-1949 Taiwanese local, he will be opposing powerful elites in the party who emigrated with or are descendants from the KMT exodus that came from China in 1949. Most previous KMT chairs have been descendants of so-called “mainlander elites,” potentially meaning that China has lost some of its influence in Taiwan with the election of Chiang. He has emphasized a need to “redesign and adjust” core values, policies, and nomination process of the party. While those hoping for party reforms have a reason for cautious optimism, it remains to be seen whether Chiang has the political clout and adeptness to navigate an increasingly complex party system under strain and increasing pressure from within and also from China to undertake the necessary reforms.