The 2021 KMT Chairmanship Election: The Resilience of the Unification Wing

The 2021 KMT Chairmanship Election: The Resilience of the Unification Wing

The 2021 KMT Chairmanship Election: The Resilience of the Unification Wing

On September 25, Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Nationalist Party (KMT, 國民黨) held a closely watched election for its party chairmanship. The candidates vying for the top position of the 101 year-old party were the incumbent Johnny Chiang (江啟臣, b. 1972), Eric Chu (朱立倫, b. 1961), Chang Ya-chung (張亞中, b. 1954), and Cho Po-yuan (卓伯源, b. 1965). With a 50.71 percent turnout of eligible KMT voters (370,711), Eric Chu, a former chairman and the party’s 2016 presidential candidate, was the victor, taking home 45.78 percent (85,163) of valid votes. The hotly contested election was closely watched by observers, who consider the results to be an indicator of the direction that a new chairman could take the party. While much ink has already been spilled about why Chu came out on top in the race, as well as his policy orientations, little attention has been paid to perhaps a telling indicator about the state of the party: the resilience of the party’s unification wing.

The Struggle with Internal Cohesion

It is no secret that the KMT has been struggling with maintaining internal political cohesion since its electoral defeats in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. One of the reasons for its ailment is likely because Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九, b. 1950) left a political vacuum at the top after serving two terms as president, and five years uncontested as chairman from 2009-2014—while failing to cultivate a new cohort of party leaders who could hold the various factions of the party together. The KMT has had eight interim and elected chairmen since Ma stepped down as head of the party in 2014.

Without a clear leader, the competing factions within the party have been vying for control—with serious implications for its relations with China. The division was on clear display in 2016 when Eric Chu was drafted in the 11th hour by KMT elders as a last-ditch effort to salvage the party’s electoral prospects from the firebrand politics of the pro-unification Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱, b. 1948), who rightfully won the primary to serve as the Party’s candidate. After Chu lost the 2016 presidential election to Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文, b. 1956), Hung was elected as the party chairwoman through a special by-election that signaled a swing away—albeit temporarily—from the establishment wing.

Control was wrested away from Hung by KMT stalwart Wu Den-yih (吳敦義, b. 1948) in 2017, a year that saw a transitory surge in party membership. However, even Wu was apparently unable to control the various party factions, leading to (amidst documented irregularities likely resulting from PRC interference) the unexpected nomination of Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜, b. 1957) as the party’s candidate for president in 2020. Han’s candidacy fell short of expectations, and Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected in a landslide in that year’s election. The elevation of Johnny Chiang in the special by-election of March 2020 was a possible compromise between the factions that permitted, at least for a time being, younger members of the Party a chance to steer the hundred-year-old ship. Chiang, however, would not last despite a slight growth in party identification under his watch.

The Rise of Hung, Han, and Chang

Image: A still image from a TVBS program on the results of the September 2021 KMT chairmanship election. (Source: YouTube)

After waiting until August 2021 (only two months before the election) to announce his candidacy to run as party chairman, Eric Chu has taken the helm of the party for a second time, after emerging as the winner with a plurality of the vote. With an average turnout rate, the most notable feature of the 2021 race, however, was not Chu’s victory but the strong showing of the candidate in second place. Chu’s tepid win, coupled with the 60,631 (32.59 percent) who voted for runner-up Chang Ya-chung, seem to reflect lingering fissures and deeper angst within the party.

The respectable difference of 13 percent for a relatively obscure politician—one who faced off against the political machine of Chu, and even bested the incumbent chairman Chiang— belies the notion that Chang does not have sufficient political organization to be competitive. (Interestingly, this is a criticism that was similarly levied against Han before he rose up to become the party’s 2020 presidential candidate.) While it is true that Chang does not appear to have a powerful patron within the party’s leadership, he is clearly aligned with Hung and served as one of her primary advisors. Chang boasts of being the brainchild behind Hung’s “One China, same interpretation” formulation for cross-Strait relations (一中同表) and for setting up her meeting with Xi Jinping when Hung briefly served as the party chairman. While there are notable differences between Chang and Han, those are mostly in terms of style, and the positions of Chang and Han are quite similar—to be sure, there were media speculations that Han may have been supporting Chang behind the scene.

The overarching similarity linking Chang, Hung, and Han are that these candidates are clearly anti-establishment, pro-unification politicians. The lessons of Wu Den-Yih with the rise of Han under his watch—who for a brief period of time appeared to have beaten back the unification wing—and the petering out of Johnny Chiang show that the power of the KMT chairman has grown increasingly limited over time. The Chang phenomenon—which can be viewed in part as an extension of the Han phenomenon—also shows that the anti-establishment and pro-unification wing cannot be ignored in the party’s internal politics. In fact, their influence seems to be growing within the KMT.  

How did seemingly fringe politicians representing the extreme wing of the party come to wield such influence in the party? It is perhaps worth remembering that it was only in 2001 that the hundred-year-old party held its first direct party leadership election. In 2005, card carrying members (numbering over 1 million at the time) were eligible to vote. But after that election, however, the party limited voting rights to the roughly 300,000 party members who paid their annual dues. The 300,000 members “in good standing” were mostly veterans (Huang Fu-hsin, 黃復興)—who make up more than 20 percent of all eligible voting KMT members—and the party’s die hard. [1]


While Eric Chu—and by extension the establishment wing of the party—scored a win in this recent election, he will still need to earn the mandate to lead. Long-time Taiwan observer David Brown foresaw the problem when he noted prior to the election: “With votes split three ways, it is uncertain that Chu will achieve 50 percent of the vote. As turnout is already likely to be low, not achieving a true majority would leave Chu with a weak mandate as the new leader of a still badly divided party.”

Falling short with just a little over 45 percent, Chu has his work cut out for him to consolidate his power—but there are perhaps some reasons to suggest that he might succeed. On top of his political experience, the fact of the matter is that there is not much daylight between Chu and Chiang. If one combines both Chu’s and Chiang’s votes (18.87 percent/35,093 votes), the establishment candidates received over 64 percent of the total votes. It is reasonable to infer that the majority of the party voters still prefer the establishment candidates despite the strong showing of Chang.

Yet, as earlier noted, it would be foolish for the new chairman to simply dismiss Chang, who could be seen as the latest manifestation of the Han phenomenon. The anti-establishment, pro-unification wing will remain a strong political force within the KMT. If the chairmanship election indicates anything, it is that Han’s political tide has not dissipated with his departure from the political scene, and appears to remain strong. This also means that the new chairman is stuck between a rock and a hard place—and this is not lost on Chu. This was reflected during the KMT chairman race debate, in which Chu made the point to criticize Chang for his pro-unification stance. According to media reports, Chu stated that Chang is entitled to his pro-unification views, but he has to take into account the mainstream attitudes of Taiwanese society if he is to lead the KMT.

Indeed, the latest poll by the National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center (國立政治大學選舉研究中心) released on July 2021 showed that an overwhelming 87.4 percent of the respondents continue to support maintaining some form of the current status quo across the Taiwan Strait, with only small fractions of the population preferring to declare independence or unification as soon as possible (5.6 percent and 1.5 percent, respectively).

There is another important dimension to the viability of the party and the new chairman. In an interview that Chiang gave in 2020 during his campaign for KMT chairman, the 49-year old noted that if the country’s voting age is revised down to 18 years old, then 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. With only roughly 9,000 members under the age of 40 in the party, Chiang noted the KMT will face greater challenges in the 2022 county and mayoral elections if it does not reform. Would Chu and the increasing political constraints posed by the pro-unification wing support or hold back the KMT’s electability in the 2022 elections, and the 2024 presidential election?

There will be a couple of immediate tests that Chu will need to face even before the local elections next year first. The first of these will be the high-profile recall vote for the pro-independence Taiwan Statebuilding Party (台灣基進) Legislator Chen Po-wei (陳柏惟, b. 1985) later this month; the second will be the December referendums that include controversial questions related to the import of US pork. Both issues will likely give the pro-unification wing of the party, perhaps emboldened by Chang’s performance, more fodder to push the party farther to take hardline positions that would be difficult to walk back from in a national race. While it is reasonable to infer that the majority of KMT voters still prefer the establishment candidates despite the strong showing of Chang, the resilience and strength of the party’s unification wing should not be discounted.

The main point: Eric Chu’s victory in the 2021 KMT chairmanship election indicates that a majority of KMT voters prefer the party’s establishment candidates, despite the strong showing of the pro-unification Chang Ya-chung. However, the resilience and strength of the party’s unification wing should not be discounted.

[1] The Huang Fu-hsin chapters are known for their ability to mobilize members during elections, and boasted that they could mobilize a 60-70 percent turnout rate amongst their members in a previous election.