The KMT’s High-Stakes Gamble: Reaching the Pinnacle or Navigating a Precipice?

The KMT’s High-Stakes Gamble: Reaching the Pinnacle or Navigating a Precipice?

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The KMT’s High-Stakes Gamble: Reaching the Pinnacle or Navigating a Precipice?

The 2014 Sunflower Movement set off a seismic shift in Taiwan’s political landscape. Triggering a surge in public awareness about sovereignty and Taiwanese identity, the movement propelled the protection of democracy to the forefront of the popular consciousness. This backdrop set the stage for the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP, 民主進步黨) ascent to power in 2016,  propelled by its strong commitment to safeguarding Taiwanese identity, democracy, and sovereignty. In the 2016 general election, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) secured the presidency with a resounding 56.12 percent of the vote, defeating Eric Chu (朱立倫) of the long-ruling Kuomintang (KMT, 中國國民黨), who received only 31.04 percent. Tsai’s second presidential bid faced challenges, accentuated by the DPP’s significant setback in the 2018 local elections. Going head-to-head against charismatic KMT figure Han Kuo-Yu (韓國瑜)—dubbed “Taiwan’s Trump”—further complicated her prospects. Han’s populist and nationalistic campaign initially positioned him as a formidable contender. Early polls appeared to bolster his chances. Yet, the 2020 presidential election defied predictions. Despite the odds, Tsai clinched victory with the highest number of votes ever garnered by her party, marking a stunning turn of events.

As the January 2024 presidential election in Taiwan draws nearer, political parties have officially announced their candidates. Notably, the KMT’s candidate, Hou Yu-Ih (侯友宜), has garnered substantial academic and media attention since the outset of his campaign. This heightened scrutiny is attributable to both his background, as well as internal criticism emanating from his own party. The prevailing skepticism surrounding Hou’s nomination has prompted speculation within the KMT ranks regarding the possibility of replacing him as the party’s candidate.

However, in July 2023, Eric Chu, the chairman of the KMT, definitively put an end to these discussions by reaffirming the party’s unwavering support for Hou. This episode raises a central question for analysis: Despite the perceived drawbacks associated with Hou’s candidacy, why does the KMT persist in supporting him?

Why Hou?

The rationale behind the KMT’s endorsement of Hou’s candidacy may ostensibly appear straightforward, potentially leading to an oversimplification of the intricacies inherent in Taiwan’s political landscape. However, a more nuanced examination reveals that Hou’s nomination represents a calculated strategic gamble by the KMT. Rather than adhering to electoral strategies aimed at securing a second-place position (as was the case in the past two presidential elections), the KMT is embarking on a daring path, with the ultimate goal of attaining the ruling position. Historically, many of the KMT’s previous presidential candidates were descendants of families who accompanied the party to Taiwan following the Chinese Civil War. These candidates often embodied the “deep blue” stance within the KMT, advocating for expanded ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, this strategy has left the KMT largely unable to keep pace with the rapid evolution of Taiwanese identity, which has only accelerated since the Sunflower Movement. In contrast, the current KMT candidate, Hou, symbolizes the Taiwanese identity through his family’s enduring presence on the island, affording him the status of a “native Taiwanese” (benshengren, 本省人).

Consequently, some have posited that Hou aligns more closely with the more moderate “light blue” stance within the KMT. Despite facing substantial criticism from within the KMT’s ranks, the selection of Hou conveys a clear and deliberate message to Taiwanese voters: “Here stands one of your own.”

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Image: KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih (center) appears alongside other prominent KMT figures—including Taipei Mayor Chiang Wan-an (蔣萬安) (left) and party Chairman Eric Chu (second from left)—at a meeting of the KMT Central Committee (May 17, 2023). (Image Source: CNA)

KMT: Deep Blue Versus Light Blue

In the complex landscape of Taiwanese politics, the DPP is commonly associated with the “Pan-Green” camp, while the KMT is considered the standard bearer for the “Pan-Blue” camp. However, a further distinction exists within both the green and blue camps, often referred to as “deep” and “light.” Within the KMT, the “light blue” faction traditionally advocates for maintaining the status quo in Taiwan’s relationship with China. They adopt a pragmatic approach, prioritizing economic cooperation and the peaceful resolution of disputes over ideological considerations. Furthermore, “light blue” KMT members tend to place significant emphasis on safeguarding Taiwan’s democratic institutions and values, viewing the preservation of Taiwan’s autonomy and democracy as paramount.

Conversely, the “deep blue” faction within the KMT espouses a different set of principles and orientations. Members of this faction tend to embrace pro-China and unification-friendly views. They may advocate for forging closer economic, cultural, and political ties with mainland China, and may even support the concept of eventual reunification with the PRC. Ideologically, “deep blue” KMT members often uphold traditional conservative values, including opposition to social liberal policies such as same-sex marriage. Additionally, some members of the “deep blue” faction may have significant familial or historical ties to the Chinese mainland, further influencing their pro-China stance.

Since the 2000 presidential election, the majority of the KMT’s candidates have predominantly aligned themselves with the “deep blue” ideological stance. A case in point is Lien Chan (連戰), who served as the KMT’s candidate in both the 2000 and 2004 general elections. Notably, Lien was born in China, and conducted a highly publicized visit to China as chairman of the KMT in April 2005, where he met with General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Hu Jintao (胡锦涛). This was an historically significant moment, representing the first meeting between leaders of the two parties since 1949. These actions solidified Lien’s “deep blue” credentials. Likewise, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who served as the KMT’s candidate and Taiwan’s president from 2008 to 2012, exemplified another representative of the “deep blue” faction. Prior to his presidency—which included the Sunflower Movement, and a meeting with Xi Jinping (習近平) in November 2015—Ma explicitly articulated that his goal was to lead Taiwan toward “eventual unification.” These instances collectively affirmed his “deep blue” ideological disposition.

Conversely, Eric Chu, the KMT’s candidate in the 2016 presidential election, assumed a relatively moderate and pragmatic approach to cross-Strait relations and other policy matters. While this positioning may be perceived as leaning towards a “light blue” stance, the electorate’s opposition to KMT policies that were implemented during the Ma Administration hindered Chu’s electoral prospects against Tsai. In the most recent presidential election, Han Kuo-yu aligned himself firmly with the “deep blue” camp, expressing more pro-China and unification-friendly views. His platform promoted closer economic, cultural, and political ties with mainland China.

By contrast, Hou’s candidacy diverges significantly even from that of Chu. While Chu’s policy stances leaned closer to the “light blue” end of the spectrum, his candidacy was distinguished by familial ties to influential figures in Taiwan politics and the attainment of a PhD from a prestigious institution in the United States. In comparison, Hou hails from far humbler circumstances. His father earned a modest livelihood selling pork, and Hou himself dedicated several years to serving as a police officer. Additionally, Hou’s campaign thus far has underscored his apparent deficiency in foreign policy exposure, limited history of international travel, and notable inability to communicate proficiently in English. These factors have collectively undermined his recognition and presence on the international stage, particularly within the United States.

Can Hou Address Taiwan’s Most Significant Issue?

Taiwan’s most pressing challenge continues to be its relationship with China, a matter that has grown increasingly complex during the eight-year tenure of the President Tsai. Among the three presidential contenders, current DPP Vice President William Lai (賴清德) seems to have emerged as the candidate least likely to foster stability in cross-Strait interactions. His alignment with President Tsai’s approach, coupled with China’s portrayal of  him as a “troublemaker” during his visit to the United States, has prompted concerns about his ability to strike a diplomatic equilibrium. In contrast, Hou, despite publicly opposing both Taiwan’s independence and Beijing’s “One Country, Two Systems” (一國兩制) model, offers an alternative perspective. He posits that the “1992 Consensus,” which ostensibly acknowledges a singular China, is open  to interpretation. Hou nevertheless maintains that this consensus has been a pragmatic agreement  that bolsters stability for Taiwan. His public statements underscore his profound respect for Taiwan’s democracy, with an emphasis on the paramount importance of peace in safeguarding it. Hou has pledged to steer the country away from conflict, signaling an intent to preserve the status quo rather than pursue independence or unification. Against the backdrop of the Ukrainian conflict, peace and stability hold significant resonance amongst  the Taiwanese populace.

While these positions seem largely in line with Taiwanese public sentiment, recent polling data has revealed that the KMT has thus far struggled to garner support for Hou’s candidacy. According to a survey conducted from July 10 to 12 by the Association of Chinese Elite Leadership, William Lai of the DPP leads the race with 32.4 percent of voter support, followed by Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) from the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 台灣民眾黨) (25.9 percent). Of greatest concern for the KMT, Hou currently occupies the third position among these contenders, amassing a meager 17.6 percent support rating. While the odds appear daunting for Hou at present, the political landscape remains dynamic, and the potential ramifications of the KMT’s strategic gamble are yet to fully manifest.

The polling outcomes arguably reflect the KMT’s challenge in effectively conveying its message to the Taiwanese electorate through Hou’s candidacy. These difficulties have only been exacerbated by the candidacy of Ko Wen-je, who has proven highly capable at using social media to cultivate a favorable image among younger voters—who could exert considerable influence in the upcoming election. While social media and youth engagement do not guarantee victory, they could position Ko as a formidable second-tier candidate, particularly if the KMT faces difficulties in effectively communicating its agenda. Furthermore, the independent candidacy of Terry Gou (郭台銘), the founder of Foxconn and a previous contender for the KMT nomination in the 2024 presidential race, introduces another layer of risk for the KMT. While the potential for Gou to attract votes from DPP supporters may be debatable given his background in the business sector and extensive interests in China, it is plausible that some KMT voters may opt for him over Hou.

Although the KMT retains an opportunity leading up to the January 2024 elections to explain the rationale behind Hou Yu-Ih’s candidacy and persuade Taiwanese voters of his potential to effectively address the complex issue of cross-Strait relations, the current political landscape presents an increasingly grim outlook for the party. This emerging pessimism is compounded by the potential impact of Terry Gou’s independent candidacy, which carries the risk of splitting the KMT’s voter base. The candidacy of Ko Wen-je could also present a significant obstacle for the party. In such a scenario, where the KMT’s electorate is potentially divided and the TPP secures second place, the party’s strategic gamble to reclaim its former prominence may inadvertently result in a descent to third place in the upcoming elections.

The main point: While Hou Yu-ih might appear to be a more moderate, electable candidate for the KMT, his lack of international recognition and failure to gain youth support could greatly undermine his chances in the 2024 election.