With his support rating hovering in the low single digits in some opinion polls to become the country’s next president, the embattled chairman of Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) Eric Chu (朱立倫) is planning a long-awaited and important visit to the United States. Starting on June 1 and lasting 12 days, Chu’s visit will include several cities in the United States and is intended to formally relaunch the party’s office in Washington, DC, as well as to assure US policymakers, and rally expatriates in the United States to support the KMT. Issues that will undoubtedly be on the table in discussions with US policymakers in Washington are the KMT’s approach to cross-Strait relations, its defense policy, and its ability to maintain cross-Strait peace in an era of increased tension. The new chairman is facing challenging political headwinds internally as he tries to sell his pitch to Washington: in addition to his low support rating, significant differences between factions within the Party on its approach to cross-Strait relations and with the United States—differences that emerged during the KMT chairmanship primary—show no sign of abating. Whether the chairman is able to maintain his grip on power will be a determining factor as to whether he can successfully implement his preferred policy approaches.
According to an opinion poll conducted by the pan-Green-leaning My Formosa (美麗島電子報) released in April, support for Chu to be the next president of Taiwan stood at only 3.2 percent (down from 5.2 percent in the previous survey in February). Perhaps a more troubling indicator from this poll is that the KMT chairman does not appear to have much support from even within his own party, with only 6.2 percent of those who identified as leaning politically towards the KMT expressing their support for his candidacy. Moreover, the percentage of people who somewhat distrust or strongly distrust Chu were 34.7 percent and 31.3 percent, respectively, which are the highest among the political figures included in the survey (see graphic below). In the same poll, the percentage of those holding favorable views of the KMT reached a new low of 22.5 percent, while the percentage of those having negative views were at a high of 59.9 percent.
New Chairman, Same Troubles
The troubles facing the new KMT chairman appear to be a result of structural issues within the party, with a core base of the party asserting itself despite its growing detachment from the mainstream attitudes of Taiwanese society. Consequently, a little over half a year into his new term as chairman, Chu is facing similar challenges to those who held the position before him.
Chu took over from Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) as the party’s 10th directly elected chairman in October 2021. His tepid win in the primary race, which saw him receive 45.78 percent of votes—compared to the 32.59 percent who voted for pro-unification candidate Chang Ya-chung (張亞中)—foreshadowed the challenges facing him now. Fissures over the orientation of the party—between those who favor closer relations with China and those who favor closer relations with the United States—have been building since at least 2016, when former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) stepped down with no unifying leader to take his place. KMT infighting between the establishment and anti-establishment wings of the party, which had previously been kept carefully under wraps by party elders, broke out into the open during the contentious 2016 presidential campaign.
When Chiang took over as chairman in March 2020, the KMT had just lost its second consecutive presidential election to the incumbent president, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨). The writing on the wall then was clear: the KMT had to change course if it wished to remain politically viable. Chiang saw it as his task to steer the party through the colossal task of revising the party platform. Singularly focused on the reform platform, Chiang oversaw the creation of the KMT Reform Committee (國民黨改革委員會) and sought to bring more youths into the political fold. In doing so, however, he apparently failed to solidify support from KMT elders and did not unify the factions of the party. Less of a maverick than his immediate predecessor and with more political support from the old guard, Chu was seen as the natural establishment favorite to strike a balance between placating the party elders and undertaking reforms within the party. Accordingly, Chu comfortably bested Chiang in the race for chairman in September 2021. Yet, a little over six months into his term, Chu appears to be struggling to implement the reforms and is facing growing angst from within—especially from the party’s unification wing.
Growing Angst from the KMT’s Unification Wing
The pro-unification faction of the KMT has become increasingly uneasy with Chu’s outreach to the United States. In a recent media interview, the runner-up in the 2021 KMT chairman race, Chang Ya-chung, called on Chu to step down as chairman of the KMT if the party does not perform well in the upcoming local elections in November 2022. According to Chang, Chu promised to win 16 seats in the nine-in-one election to be held later this year and stated that the chairman should step down if he does not meet this goal. Chang added that he would run again for the chairmanship position if that should occur.
Indicative of the KMT unification wing’s broader concerns and with the chairman’s upcoming visit in mind, Chang argued that the KMT should spend the same amount of time dealing with cross-Strait relations as it does with the United States. In pursuit of this, he added that the KMT should set up offices throughout China, which would be as important as the representative office in the United States. Chang also lamented how countries like India, Israel, Hungary, and the Arab states were defending their own national interests in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine by not siding with the United States—suggesting that Taiwan should similarly put its own national interests first and not align so closely with the United States.
These views espoused by Chang represent the increasingly assertive conservative wing of the party, which is aligned with firebrand former chairwoman, Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱). It is instructive that while Chu prepares for his Washington trip, Hung flew to Zhejiang and spoke at the 5th Cross-Strait Youth Development Forum (第五屆海峽兩岸青年發展論壇) in Hangzhou. In her keynote speech on May 11, Hung mostly parroted Beijing’s propaganda on Taiwan, stating, among other things, that cross-Strait integration is an “irresistible historical trend” (不可阻擋的歷史趨勢).
The political challenges facing Eric Chu—in particular the tensions between the pro-China and pro-US factions—are reflective of deeper tensions within both the party and Taiwanese society as a whole (see Pew survey below). This division was captured in a 2020 Pew Research Survey Poll about Taiwanese perceptions toward China and the United States. Indeed, among those identifying as KMT supporters, 57 percent expressed favorable views of the United States, whereas 66 percent expressed favorable views with China. By comparison, among respondents identifying as DPP, 82 percent expressed a favorable view of the United States, whereas 14 percent expressed a favorable view of Mainland China.
Widening Gulf between the KMT Base and Mainstream Public Opinion
Eric Chu represents the moderate, pro-US wing of the KMT, and may currently be the only leader capable of unifying the various powerful factions within the Party in a national election to compete against the DPP in 2024. Yet, as recent trends show, the power of the KMT chairman has gradually diminished, while Chang’s continued relevance—which can be viewed in part as an extension of the Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) phenomenon—also shows that the anti-establishment and pro-unification wings remain prominent features in the party’s internal politics. The growing angst of the increasingly vocal unification wing of the KMT could potentially pull the party away from the mainstream of public opinion.
Electoral strategists within the KMT may hope that the chairman’s upcoming visit to the United States will help him get a much-needed boost in the polls from a perceived endorsement from Washington. In turn, this could be used to assure voters and supporters that the KMT—rather than the DPP—is the more responsible party for managing cross-Strait relations and keeping the peace in the Taiwan Strait. However, given the internal dynamics of the party, a successful US trip may not necessarily buoy his support back within the party’s increasingly polarized body politic—parts of which could perceive him as leaning too heavily on the United States.
The reality is that Chu—and any future KMT chairman for that matter—faces a party base that is increasingly detached from the mainstream of Taiwanese public opinion. The chairman will need to strike a balance between the preferences of this base and those of the broader population in order to maintain control of the party and to win general elections. Yet, this balancing act will become increasingly difficult as the gulf widens between the views of the KMT’s base and mainstream public opinion. These tensions will make Chu’s task in persuading Washington all the more challenging.
The main point: The new KMT chairman is facing challenging political headwinds from the party’s unification wing as he tries to sell his pitch to Washington. Ultimately, whether the chairman is able to maintain his grip on power will determine whether he can successfully implement his preferred policy approach.