The Kuomintang’s Uncertain Path to Reform

The Kuomintang’s Uncertain Path to Reform

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The Kuomintang’s Uncertain Path to Reform

For the past eight years, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) has dominated Taiwanese politics, leading many in the opposition Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) to express concerns about their party’s diminishing significance and repeated failures to regain the presidency. Despite a concerted effort during the 2024 national elections by the KMT to form a unity presidential ticket among opposition parties to force “the DPP stepping down [from power] (下架民進黨),” the party fell short once again. Even though the KMT managed to gain a plurality of seats in the Legislative Yuan (LY, 中華民國立法院), the party did not succeed in forming a majority caucus to secure dominance in the legislative process.

It would be an exaggeration to describe the KMT’s outcomes in the 2024 elections as an absolute defeat, but the results were far below the party’s expectations. While various “Pan-Blue” (i.e., pro-KMT) supporters have called on the party’s top leadership to be held accountable for the party’s repeated failures, KMT Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) has defended the party’s decision- making under his leadership. Moreover, Chu has criticized Ko Wen-Je (柯文哲) and his Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 民眾黨). Nevertheless, many observers have speculated as to why the KMT still underperformed in appealing to “young, independent, and southern [Taiwan] voters” (年輕、中間、南部選民), even as the party has nominated a number of younger, more exciting politicians to run for various offices—including the 2024 presidential nominee, Hou You-yi (侯友宜).

The KMT’s Structural Issues

The nomination of Hou is emblematic of how far behind the KMT is in reforming its internal democratic practices, as the party chairman has almost sole discretion to select nominees, with limited accountability. The KMT’s lack of checks and balances has had a variety of consequences, including the nomination process itself. The party did not conduct primaries during its nomination process for the most recent presidential election cycle (likely a response to party primaries in 2015 and 2019, which produced presidential candidates judged likely to perform poorly in a general election). Instead, in 2023 the KMT chose to nominate by appointment (徵召). As a result, both the nomination process and the nominee were regarded by many as lacking legitimacy, leading to questions from Pan-Blue constituent groups regarding the KMT’s breach of institutional and democratic practices

It was reasonable to nominate Hou as the party’s candidate, regardless of the flaws in the process. After the 2022 local elections, multiple polls revealed that Hou was the candidate who received the most support, leading by double digits. It was widely believed that the KMT nominated Hou as its presidential candidate at this time in an effort to take advantage of Hou’s strong support and to secure the loyalty of the Pan-Blue camp—theoretically freeing them up to focus on other aspects of the election. However, despite his strong reputation in municipal administration, Hou quickly proved unknowledgeable about cross-Strait relations and international affairs. For instance, he was unable to even accurately name the Three Principles of People (三民主義), the KMT’s governing ideological framework. 

While Hou repeatedly demonstrated his lack of preparedness for the responsibilities of the presidency before the nomination, the party believed that his high popularity as New Taipei City mayor would be enough to defeat the vulnerable DPP, which was mired in multiple scandals after eight years of rule. However, it seems that the KMT’s decision to sidestep democratic institutions to nominate candidates by party chairman appointments significantly affected the KMT’s profile among Taiwan’s public—especially with independent voters, many of whom were wary of the party’s perceived return to its previous, autocratic tendencies.

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Image: KMT Chairman Eric Chu (center left) poses for a photograph with members of the KMT caucus in the Legislative Yuan, March 13. (Image source: Official KMT website)

Policy Indecision

Besides its institutional choices, the KMT’s loss in 2024 was to a large degree a result of its failure to propose a coherent policy agenda. Hou remained vague and ambiguous throughout the campaign, in part to his lack of experience in foreign and national-level affairs—but also due to a reluctance to take a clear policy stance out of fear that a direct announcement might trigger controversy and hinder his campaign further.

Pan-Blue supporters were disappointed about Hou’s lack of attention to issues they were concerned about most. For instance, Hou was questioned for not proposing a proactive nuclear policy, even when Pan-Blue voters were strongly supportive of increased nuclear energy use. In December 2021, Hou publicly denounced the referendum on restarting construction on Taiwan’s fourth nuclear power plant (核四公投), arguing that it had “polarized the society (撕裂社會).” Many Pan-Blue supporters viewed Hou’s remarks as antagonistic, and refused to accept a KMT nominee who was perceived to have betrayed them. Hou has also been questioned for not demonstrating support for the “92 Consensus,” the essential pillar of the KMT’s approach to cross-Strait relations.

Additionally, a media interview with former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) just prior to the January election sparked an intense discussion about the party’s ties with China. Despite Ma’s defense of the KMT’s official stance, which called for peace and negotiations across the Taiwan Strait, Hou was eager to distance himself from Ma and excluded him from the KMT’s election night rally—an ironic decision given the KMT’s vision of an “unprecedented united campaign.”

What Comes Next?

Hou’s failures reflect significant flaws in the KMT’s policy approach, in that it has gradually lost its ability to keep up with Taiwan’s evolving political discourse. The KMT has always been aware of its failures in attracting new voters, especially being negatively viewed by younger generations. The KMT’s loss of ability to sway younger voters comes from its dysfunctional institutions and vague agenda, which are interrelated. The party’s power structure is highly centralized, giving the party chairman disproportionate authority and influence over decision-making without accountability. While the KMT has made efforts in the past to reform its structure, the party has never been considered fully democratic. These institutional failures came to a head during this election, when the party leadership was determined to nominate Hou without an open process, suppressing dissent within the party. Furthermore, the party repeatedly demonstrated its arrogance as an “established party” through its efforts to force Ko Wen-je into a subordinate status as Hou’s vice presidential candidate. Those unscrupulous practices were viewed as outdated and pedantic by young and independent voters, and a sign that the KMT has only marginally evolved since the end of the authoritarian era.

Another impediment that makes the KMT unattractive is its lack of a clear vision. Thanks to the DPP’s struggles to handle both its internal affairs and growing tensions across the strait, the KMT experienced a dramatic victory in the 2022 local elections. The KMT believed that the 2024 election would be a similarly easy win for the party. However, even though 60 percent of voters chose not to support the DPP presidential candidate, the KMT was not able to fully capitalize on voter dissatisfaction—in part because the party was unable and unwilling to elaborate on its policy agenda.

One example is the KMT’s stance on China. Throughout the election, the party maintained a vague, noncommittal approach to cross-Strait relations, showing little intention to either elaborate on its China policy or reinterpret the “92 Consensus.”  Instead, KMT officials only mechanically accused the DPP of “breaching the peaceful status quo.” As the election demonstrated, the public would not turn to the KMT solely because of their disappointment with the DPP. Despite promising to solve the problems of low incomes, unaffordable housing, high costs of living, and other issues that the younger generations care most about, the KMT did not put forth feasible solutions. Meanwhile, Hou’s vice presidential candidate, Jaw Shaw-kong  (趙少康), repeatedly oversimplified the hardships of Taiwan’s youth, further reinforcing the stereotype of the KMT as “the party of egotistical elites” among young voters.

The KMT lost the 2024 presidential election because it failed to adapt to changing demographic, economic, and social circumstances. After the election, numerous internal criticisms emerged, calling for institutionalization and democratization within the party, with many condemning Eric Chu for his misjudgments. Chu, however, fought back, arguing that the KMT leadership ought not to be the target of censure, but that blame should rather be placed upon the unfavorable political atmosphere. Chu also asserted that the KMT is “on the track that [is] heading to the direction of reform and we have been witnessing the outcomes.” Despite claiming that he would be held accountable for the loss, Chu refused to step down as the party chairman, and soon a consensus within the party emerged to support Chu throughout his remaining term.

Indeed, the KMT did secure some noteworthy gains in the 2024 elections. It successfully derailed the DPP’s bid to form a majority government, becoming the largest party in the Legislative Yuan in the process. Although it did not gain the majority of seats, it gained a plurality that allowed it to install Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) (the KMT’s 2020 presidential candidate) as the new speaker. Han has built up a considerable social network while serving in various positions before, and has connections with both DPP and KMT members in the LY. Even though Han’s bombastic demeanors—as demonstrated in recent years—have affected his popularity, his characteristics and personal network may contribute to negotiation among the three parties.

Although gaining the speakership may be vital for the KMT to play a critical role in Taiwan’s politics during the next four years, the party’s lack of a majority will likely complicate chances for the three parties to reach consensus. Taiwan’s self-defense and security could be affected if political divisions in the legislature become more intense, and China may see it as an opportunity to increase its influence. For the KMT, 2024 will not be the end of its challenges. If the party is still not able to convince voters that it will adapt its institutions to be more inclusive and responsive—and will not trade Taiwan’s freedom and democracy for expanded ties with China—it will continue to flounder. If the party does not move quickly, the real crisis is yet to come.

The main point: Despite declining electoral support for the ruling DPP, the KMT failed to regain the presidency in the 2024 elections, largely due to institutional failures and an incoherent policy platform. If the party is to succeed in future elections, it will need to act decisively to address these concerns.