The Kuomintang’s Lessons of Defeat: Implications for 2022 and Beyond

The Kuomintang’s Lessons of Defeat: Implications for 2022 and Beyond

The Kuomintang’s Lessons of Defeat: Implications for 2022 and Beyond

In the aftermath of losing the December 2021 referendum votes, politicians from Taiwan’s largest opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT, 中國國民黨), have again spoken critically about the state of Taiwan’s democracy. Former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has argued that Taiwan has become an illiberal democracy, while KMT Party Chair Eric Chu (朱立倫) has described Taiwan under the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) as having an autocratic government. So, is Taiwan’s democracy in crisis? 

The political scientist Kharis Templeman has examined each of Ma’s justifications for describing Taiwan as an illiberal democracy, concluding that “Taiwan is not an illiberal democracy. It’s as liberal, robust, and resilient as any of the Third Wave cases, and it’s made major strides over the last 20 years in addressing some of its remaining democratic shortcomings.” Key ingredients of a consolidated democracy include strong opposition parties and routine changes of ruling parties through elections. Taiwan is quite distinct from Japan, where a single party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has won almost all democratic elections, to the point that it is hard to imagine the LDP losing power in the medium-term. 

Despite the KMT’s talk of one-party dominance, for much of the most recent presidential election campaign in 2020 and the 2021 referendum campaign, the KMT actually led in the polls. A more important question for the KMT to answer is why it failed to hold on to these leads and allowed the DPP to win. At the local level, the KMT still remains much more powerful than the DPP. Despite the KMT’s current struggles to find support at the national level, it is still quite possible that the KMT will be able to come back to power in 2024, especially if it has a strong showing in the 2022 local elections. 

Nevertheless, if we compare the popularity of the KMT to earlier cases of opposition parties, then the prospects of the current KMT do not look so rosy. In the autumn of 2005, the opposition KMT won landslide local election victories, while the ruling DPP’s support levels collapsed on the back of a string of corruption scandals. Similarly, the ruling KMT’s support declined dramatically after it won re-election in 2012, with Ma’s presidential approval levels remaining in the low teens for most of his second term. In other words, at this point in the 2006 and 2014 electoral cycles, the opposition party looked poised to retake power. In contrast, the current DPP administration has enjoyed surprisingly high levels of party support throughout President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) second term, while the opposition KMT has shown no signs of bouncing back. For instance, in December 2021 the National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center survey showed the DPP’s party identification at 29.7 percent compared to only 17.1 for the KMT. The way the KMT has responded to the latest referendum defeat follows a pattern set since 2014, in which it appears to have struggled to learn lessons from defeats.   

Previous changes of ruling parties through elections have tended to feature both failures of the incumbent government and the opposition party learning key lessons of defeat. In the aftermath of the DPP’s disastrous 1996 presidential campaign—the country’s first direct presidential election—it not only reformed its nomination system but also adopted a more moderate position on the independence versus unification issue that placed it closer to the median voter. Such reforms allowed the DPP to take advantage of the KMT’s divisions and come to power in 2000. The KMT has also had its own experiences of successfully learning from defeat. In the aftermath of losing power in 2000 and failing to recover it in 2004, the KMT also embarked on a range of reforms designed to draw lessons from these setbacks. These included changes to its nomination system, its policies towards China, reuniting the Pan-Blue parties, and adjusting the way it made national identity appeals. Such reforms, together with the DPP’s political corruption scandals, allowed the KMT to return to power on the back of landslide election victories in 2005 and 2008. [1]

Three crucial areas where the current KMT appears to have failed to learn lessons of defeat are in the realm of party leadership, appeals to younger voters, and on the issue of relations with China. The party’s struggles to recover support since 2014 are closely tied to this inability to learn lessons of defeat in these fields. 

In the final years of their presidencies, both the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou and the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) were very unpopular. It may have appeared that the KMT was learning a lesson of defeat when Ma resigned as party chair in 2014 to take responsibility for local election defeats. However, the KMT has found it much harder to come out of the shadow of Ma. Even today, he remains the most powerful figure in the KMT. We can contrast this with the way the DPP recreated its leadership image after 2008: its new leader Tsai Ing-wen projected a very different leadership image from previous party elites, while Chen was marginalized in the party soon after leaving office. [2]

A similar example of the KMT’s failure to learn lessons of defeat concerns its one-time 2016 presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱). The party chose to replace Hung during the campaign, partly as a result of her perceived unpopular positions on relations with China, which were seen as too extreme. However, in the aftermath of the election, when it came to electing a new party chair, the KMT’s party members elected Hung, someone whom the party had deemed unelectable as its presidential candidate just months earlier. 

In 2020, the KMT again lost the presidential election with the then-Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) as its candidate. To make matters worse, Kaohsiung voters then went on to punish Han for joining the presidential race just a few months after being elected Kaohsiung mayor: in June 2020, Han became the most high-profile Taiwanese elected politician to be recalled. Despite these electoral setbacks, Han remains the most popular figure in the KMT, and some party elites still see him as their best chance of regaining national power in 2024. Of course, Han’s campaign style was deliberately quite different from establishment KMT figures such as Ma and the unsuccessful 2016 candidate Eric Chu. However, when it comes to policy positions, Han showed no signs of any deviation from the same policies that had led to KMT defeat in 2014 and 2016. 

A key factor in the DPP’s ability to return to power in 2016 and retain power in 2020 has been the support of younger voters. In contrast, the KMT has become a very unpopular party among younger voters since early in the Ma presidency. A key reason for this has been the KMT’s decision to repeatedly ignore the concerns of younger voters. While President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) was able to reach a limited consensus when he met the “Wild Lily” student leaders in 1990, the meeting between Sunflower Movement leaders and Premier Jiang I-hua (江宜樺) in 2014 saw no common ground. [3] Additionally, some of the KMT’s 2016 election advertising was described by analysts as stirring up intergenerational conflict, or else highly patronising in the way it portrayed younger generations. Moreover, the KMT has repeatedly taken positions at odds with most younger voters on a range of issues, such as opposing pension reforms and LGBT rights. 

The 2020 election defeat and recall of Han Kuo-yu should have led to a round of deep reflection on why the party had been defeated again. Instead though, the party has chosen to lash out and engage in revenge recall votes that have especially targeted younger politicians from social movement-linked parties. Recall votes against figures such as Freddy Lim (林昶佐) are widely perceived as an attack on the younger generation. Although the KMT has often spoken about rejuvenating the party’s support base, it does not appear to have made any progress since the Ma era. Here it is important to recall that this pattern was not inevitable: the KMT was able to win back the youth vote after it first lost power in 2000. [4] Today, however, it is hard to imagine that the KMT was far more popular among younger voters than the DPP by 2008. 

Academic research suggests that the most influential issue affecting voting behaviour in Taiwan concerns national identity and relations with China. [5] It is therefore not surprising that when Taiwan’s parties have reflected on defeat, this has been the first place they look at to reform in a bid to win back voters. Despite the fact that concerns over the KMT’s China policies have been at the heart of a number of its defeats since 2014, this has been an area where the KMT has either chosen not to learn from setbacks or has learned the wrong lessons of defeat. 

For instance, in the aftermath of a number of popular social movement protests caused by rising social concern about the dangers of closer integration with China, the KMT’s original 2016 presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu proposed accelerating the integration process. In place of Ma’s model of “one China, different interpretations” (一中各表), Hung’s preferred model was “one China, same interpretation” (一中同表). During the 2020 campaign, Han revealed that his vision of cross-Strait relations was actually very similar to that of Ma. [6] This was highly damaging to Han, as increasing Chinese pressure on Taiwan, together with the harsh crackdowns on the democratic movement in Hong Kong, made the KMT’s China policy look defeatist and unrealistic. In the aftermath of the 2020 defeat, the new KMT party chair Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) did propose moving away from the “1992 Consensus” (九二共識). However, Ma Ying-jeou’s influence within the party meant that these reforms went nowhere. 

The lack of learning from defeat on the China issue was again apparent in the 2021 KMT leadership contest. During the chairperson debates, there were no signs of any attempts to move the party back towards the preferences of the median voter, the support of whom the KMT needs if it wishes to return to national power. The incumbent Chiang came in a distant third, while the closest challenger to the eventual winner was Chang Ya-chung (張亞中), a former advisor to the unelectable Hung. Notably, Chang was the most pro-unification of the four candidates, and proposed a peace treaty with China in the debate. Although the eventual winner, Eric Chu, attacked Chang for supporting rapid unification, there were no signs that Chu had reflected on the KMT’s earlier defeats. In fact, his China policy appeared little different from Ma’s. 

The last three decades have seen numerous examples of the ways by which Taiwan’s parties have recovered from defeats by conducting reforms based on lessons learned from electoral setbacks. In contrast, the unpopularity of the largest opposition party today, the KMT, is largely due to its failure to truly reflect in its string of defeats since 2014. The fact that in some recent surveys a party as ideologically empty as the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 台灣民眾黨) has similar levels of support as the KMT reveals perhaps just how far the KMT has fallen.   

The main point: At this point in Taiwan’s electoral cycle, the incumbent party has tended to have poor poll ratings compared with the main opposition party. However, today the opposition KMT remains unpopular and has suffered a number of mid-term electoral setbacks. The KMT’s inability to recover is largely due to its failures to learn the lessons of its defeats since 2014. 

[1] Dafydd Fell, Government and Politics in Taiwan (London: Routledge, 2018): 255-265.

[2] Ibid.: 270-272.

[3] Ian Rowen, “Inside Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement: Twenty-Four Days in a Student-Occupied Parliament, and the Future of the Region,” The Journal of Asian Studies 74, no. 1 (February 2015): 5-21, 11.

[4] “Poll One Day Before the 2008 Presidential Election,” TVBS Poll Center, March 21, 2008,  https://cc.tvbs.com.tw/portal/file/poll_center/2017/20170602/even-20080328162638.pdf.

[5] Christopher Achen and T.Y. Wang (eds), The Taiwan Voter (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2017).

[6] Dafydd Fell, “Challengers to Mainstream Parties in Taiwan’s 2020 Elections: Continuity Rather Than the Expected Change,” Taiwan Journal of Democracy 17, no. 1 (2021): 141-160, 149-150, https://www.tfd.org.tw/export/sites/tfd/files/publication/journal/141-160-Challengers-to-Mainstream-Parties-in-Taiwans-2020-Elections.pdf.