The opposition Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) delivered a strong performance during the November 2022 “9-in-1” elections, in which the KMT candidates won 13 of the top political posts in local government across 22 appointments. However, it remains too early to conclude that a monumental shift in Taiwanese politics, or “blue wave,” is underway. Looking at other recent election cycles, while the KMT fared exceptionally well in the 2018 midterms, it nevertheless experienced a catastrophic defeat to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) during the 2020 presidential election—thereby indicating that a strong midterm result does not directly translate into a national election victory. As it approaches the upcoming 2024 presidential election, the KMT has several challenges ahead. First, while local elections tend to emphasize domestic issues such as fiscal policy and infrastructure, cross-Strait relations and issues of Taiwanese identity play a larger role in national elections. As the party that still advocates for the electorally handicapping “1992 consensus” (九二共識), the KMT is disadvantaged on this front. Second, when looking at two key variables that are strongly correlated with voting behavior—party identification and national identity—the DPP maintains a growing lead over the KMT in both of these categories.
Due to the structural disadvantages the KMT faces on cross-Strait policy, as well as shifting Taiwanese demographics, the party still has a tough road ahead leading up to the 2024 presidential election. Opinion polls have clearly demonstrated that the majority of Taiwanese are opposed to unification with China, though most also believe there is no need to formally declare independence, a middle-ground that the DPP has successfully occupied. The challenge for the KMT is to reclaim its position as the “mainstream” party, a goal that will likely only become viable if the KMT were to revise its divisive China platform. Despite its losses against the DPP in the past two presidential elections, Nathan Batto notes that the KMT has consistently “proven unwilling or unable to move to a new position through internal party mechanisms.”
The primary reasons for the KMT’s reluctance to reform the so-called “1992 Consensus” and other elements of cross-Strait policy are the continuing factional divisions within the party. From an outside perspective, it may appear obvious what the KMT needs to do to maximize its chances of winning. However, the older, more conservative, and more pro-unification wings of the party still wield a significant degree of influence over party platforms and personnel. In the lead-up to the 2024 elections, will these factional divisions continue to hinder the KMT’s ability to produce a tenable candidate and policy platform?
An Overview of KMT Factional Composition
The KMT’s factional composition consists of three broad main groups. First is the so-called “Mainlander” faction (外省派), in which former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) still exercises significant influence behind the scenes. As the party’s mainstream faction, it remains highly committed to signature policies representative of Ma’s legacy, such as the “1992 Consensus.” The second faction is Huang Fu-hsing (黃復興), a veterans’ organization that is highly effective at mobilizing votes among retired military personnel. The organization typically holds “deep blue” positions, such as a hardline pro-unification stance. The third is the local “Taiwanese” faction (本土派). While this group has the requisite ideological flexibility to push for internal party reform, it has historically struggled to accumulate political clout ever since the departure of its two most prominent leaders, Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and James Soong (宋楚瑜). On balance, the ineffectiveness of the local faction largely leaves the Mainlanders and Huang Fu-hsing as the most prominent players within the KMT, even as their policies have grown increasingly unpopular among the general electorate. This mismatch between the views of influential voices in the party, and the attitudes of median Taiwanese voters, represents the core element of the KMT’s electoral difficulties.
The Lessons of Johnny Chiang
The local Taiwanese faction has previously tried to present a more electorally viable party-wide position, but generational differences within the party have hampered progress. One recent example emblematic of this tendency was the brief tenure of Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) as chairman of the KMT in 2020. Chiang initially rose to prominence as a legislator who branded himself as a different breed of KMT politician, willing to put forward a reformist vision. As chairman of the party, he introduced a proposal for a KMT “redesign,” which notably distanced the party from the controversial “1992 Consensus” and emphasized the importance of safeguarding the Republic of China’s (ROC) sovereignty, democracy, and human rights.
However, former President Ma strongly opposed this proposal. Within three days of Chiang’s initial attempt to reorient the party, he met with Ma and substantially revised his plans: he included the “1992 Consensus” as the basis of for cross-Strait dialogue, while stressing the importance of opposing Taiwanese independence. The final “redesign” was almost entirely consistent with Ma’s vision, suggesting that Chiang’s efforts had been stymied.
This episode demonstrates how Chiang’s local faction lacked the political capital to enact change. While Chiang was nominally the chairman, the party—at least in terms of its official positions—was still under the de facto leadership of Ma Ying-jeou. The KMT experienced an increase in party identification under Chiang’s leadership, implicitly indicating broader public support for the new direction the party was heading in. Despite this, Chiang still lost his party chair re-election bid to Eric Chu (朱立倫), a traditional KMT politician affiliated with the Mainlander branch of the party.
In short, whenever new voices are daring enough to reflect on the KMT’s lack of electoral viability and aim to revise the party’s platform—particularly as it pertains to China—they quickly face opposition from the KMT mainstream.
Image: Senior KMT leaders, including current Chairman Eric Chu (center), Vice-Chairman Andrew Hsia (second from left), and former President Ma Ying-jeou (right) at a campaign rally prior to the November 2022 elections. (Image source: New Bloom Magazine)
Candidate Selection and Factional Politics
According to recent survey data, New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜) is the most popular candidate amongst potential KMT presidential nominees, even faring better in some polls than the presumptive DPP contender Lai Ching-te (賴淸德). However, it is unclear whether Hou himself wants to run, as he was recently re-elected for his second term as mayor. Han Kuo-yu’s (韓國瑜) experience in the aftermath of his failed 2020 presidential bid exemplifies the political consequences of prematurely abandoning your mayoral post to run for president.
Hou’s popularity largely stems from the fact that he belongs to belongs to no KMT faction. He is neither known as a “deep blue” politician nor a reformer. Instead, he is well-liked for his competent governance as mayor of New Taipei City. Indeed, his lack of factional ties is simultaneously his biggest source of strength and weakness. Thus far, he has been able to avoid controversial partisan statements that could alienate large swathes of the Taiwanese electorate. During Hou’s 2022 mayoral debate, for instance, he presented himself as a “light blue” candidate—who avoids direct criticism of the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) Administration, and comments very little on cross-Strait relations.
However, it remains unclear how sustainable this position is. To secure enough votes within the party to secure the nomination as the KMT’s presidential candidate, proving partisan loyalty is vital. Indeed, traditional KMT elites have historically been suspicious of Hou on the grounds that he was originally promoted to his role as director-general of the National Police Agency (NPA, 內政部警政署) during the administration of the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). Furthermore, while the issue of cross-Strait relations can be avoided in local elections, the Taiwanese public tends to be more sensitive to this issue during presidential elections. DPP politicians such as Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) have already criticized Hou for what they label as a deliberately vague cross-Strait policy that fails to address difficult questions regarding the “1992 Consensus” or the “one-China principle” (一中原則).
This leaves Hou You-yi in a bind, as he is unlikely to be able to maintain his vague, non-committal cross-Strait policy. While he can distance himself from traditional KMT policy platforms to maintain his popularity as a more moderate, “light blue” candidate, this would likely come at the expense of party support during the nomination process. Alternatively, he could increasingly make statements implying his tacit approval of traditional KMT policies to curry favor with the old guard, but in turn lose the support of the average voter. It is very possible that Hou will be forced to embrace divisive positions under the pressure of KMT leadership. While he may seem popular now, in the eyes of the electorate, Hou may become a wholly different candidate by the time election season comes around.
The current party Chairman Eric Chu is another potential presidential nominee who has stronger ties to the Pan-Blue base. However, his antiquated views on cross-Strait relations, as well as his poor overall popularity ratings, cast serious doubts on his viability as a presidential candidate. Meanwhile, the business mogul Terry Gou (郭台銘) remains a potential disruptor for the KMT nomination process, and boasts a considerable amount of popularity. However, he faces several obstacles to running—most notably, his withdrawal from party membership in 2019.
2024 National Election Platform: Dogma over Popularity?
Regardless of who the KMT selects as their 2024 standard-bearer, it is unlikely the party will significantly revise its approach to cross-Strait relations. From the case of Chiang’s failed party redesign, to Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia’s (夏立言) recent visit to China reaffirming the KMT’s adherence to the “1992 Consensus,” it is clear the old guard is not ready to embrace reform.
To make its position more attractive, the KMT establishment will likely look for inventive ways to frame the DPP as the party disrupting the status quo. During the lead-up to the 2022 local elections, Ma brashly asserted that “a vote for the DPP is a vote to send our youth to war.” These comments could be seen as an indirect criticism of Tsai’s military restructuring legislation, which aims to extend conscription from four months to one full year for men born after 2005. Moves such as these, the KMT will likely contend, are dangerous and unnecessarily ideological efforts to seek Taiwanese independence and provoke China. As the conscription policy will chiefly impact Taiwanese youth, a voting base the KMT has historically had a hard time appealing to, this campaign tactic may reflect an attempt to secure their support. However, it is notable that a recent poll shows that the conscription extension is popular with the majority of Taiwanese, including younger respondents aged 30-39, as well as parents who have children under 18.
Even if these arguments help the KMT gain some ground, the “redesign” Chiang had in mind is still probably the most viable direction for the party. The fact remains that Taiwanese identity continues to skew “green” —that is, in the direction of a stronger sense of native Taiwan identity. As such, committing to the same outdated cross-Strait policy that underperformed during the past two elections is unlikely to address the structural issues associated with the KMT’s dwindling voter base. Additionally, as national elections are often framed as a referendum on cross-Strait relations, Taiwanese voters are likely to closely monitor China’s behavior this year. The Chinese government has repeatedly made its preference for the KMT clear. However, its efforts to influence the election may backfire. Just as the DPP’s 2020 election victory was heavily influenced by the Hong Kong protests, the 2024 election could be defined by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ability, or lack thereof, to exercise prudence.
Against the backdrop of Chiang’s inability to “redesign” the KMT and Andrew Hsia’s two visits to China over the past year (in which the KMT and CCP re-endorsed the “1992 Consensus”), the KMT appears to be heading into the 2024 presidential elections without any real meaningful changes to its cross-Strait policy. It is increasingly clear that those in the party that have a reformist vision do not currently possess the political capital to see it implemented, while the more influential elites have proven that they lack the ideological flexibility to pursue a less polarizing platform. As Shelley Rigger observed after the 2016 election, “instead of reshaping its priorities to fit the expectations of a changing society, the KMT seems to be doubling down on its self-marginalizing approach.” To this day, it remains to be seen whether the KMT can escape this pattern of self-defeating behavior.
The main point: The KMT will have its best chance in the 2024 election if it is willing to revise its unpopular China policy. In practice, however, longstanding factional divisions may preclude the possibility of the KMT embracing the most electorally viable strategy.