Changing of the guard at Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, a Taiwanese national monument erected in memory of Chiang Kai-shek, former President of the Republic of China
Three months away from the election, the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, in Taiwan has ousted its own presidential candidate. Hung Hsiu-chu, vice president of Taiwan’s legislature, was originally selected in July for the candidacy. But the party recently announced that she will be replaced by Eric Chu, Kuomintang chairman and mayor of New Taipei. Hung protested and forced a party vote, but to no avail. The race started looking down for the KMT after it appointed Hung, with the rival Democratic Progressives’ candidate Tsai Ying-wen polling 20%-30% ahead by September. By early October, furtive rumors of a switch were already floating around.
The switch was accompanied by choreographic fanfare. The congress that would name Chu the party’s official candidate took place at the extravagant Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. Standing in front of a giant portrait of modern China’s founding father, the party leadership announced that members had voted in a landslide to dump their first female presidential candidate. Members then applauded, enthusiastically waving the century-old Blue Sky and White Sun flags. It was a desperate move, with the negatives far outweighing the positives, both domestically and diplomatically, for several reasons.
First, the Kuomintang, the oldest functioning Chinese political party, will lose much of its dwindling credibility. The choice of Ms. Hung was originally welcomed as a bold move for the aging party, which signified a break from politically expedient decisions and an amorphous party line. By choosing Ms. Hung, the KMT proved it was willing to take a chance on embracing a divisive figure in Taiwanese politics — her nickname was “Little Pepper,” for her fiery speeches and combative style as Vice-President of the legislature. The international community also celebrated the fact that Taiwan would hold the world’s first presidential election between two women: a sign of progress for democracy. The Taiwanese public will most certainly view the KMT’s choice to cancel its bet on Hung as the party taking a conservative step backwards rather than attempting to innovate.
The switch also raises questions about the KMT’s disconcerting history. After moving from the Chinese mainland to Taiwan in 1949, the party ruled the island with an iron fist under Chiang Kai-shek, who imposed martial law and suppressed political opposition. Both policies remained in place until 1987. As a result, Taiwanese politics and decision making took place within the party, displaying no regard for public perception for almost forty years. The last minute candidacy switch, which was forcibly imposed on Hung by party elites behind closed doors, is reminiscent of the KMT’s old style of business. This top-down approach will prove ever more unpopular in a world moving towards democracy and accessibility. Even in the U.S., the heavy-handed decision making of political parties has increasingly inspired demands for more popular input. The KMT, buckling under similar pressure, is now effectively divided. Hung supporters have been completely alienated. As party members voted inside the hall, hundreds protested outside it, vowing to abstain from voting in the upcoming election in order to “allow the KMT to collapse.”
Second, this move will bother the People’s Republic of China and create diplomatic repercussions. While the rising power across the Taiwan Strait has its own economic problems to deal with, it has surely been paying attention to the election. One of the reasons Hung Hsiu-chu fared terribly in the polls was because of her policy of “One China, Same Interpretation,” which called on Beijing to recognize the existence of Taiwan’s government but not the existence of the Republic of China (Taiwan) as a country. This is certainly favorable with Beijing, which has contested Taiwan’s sovereignty for decades. But by replacing Ms. Hung, the KMT has also redacted her proposed cross-Strait policy of formally incorporating the island under Beijing’s sovereignty. This may be politically expedient — Taiwan’s sitting President has lost much of his popularity due to his cross-Strait policy, which many see as pandering to Beijing — but it’s not diplomatically prudent.
The removal of Ms. Hung can certainly be interpreted as the KMT drawing a line in the sand. Closer cross-Strait ties are conditional on the existence of some entity called the Republic of China. As Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council writes in the Wall Street Journal, the repudiation “signals to Beijing where the political boundaries for closer ties lie.” The PRC will not enjoy this development.
After accepting the KMT’s presidential candidacy, Eric Chu announced that he would be taking leave as mayor of New Taipei: the only local territory his party maintains. The abdication will most likely compromise the party’s already dwindling popularity on the local level — the main reason Mr. Chu did not contend for nomination back in July. The KMT, which has put reputation and cross-Strait relations on the line as part of its desperate attempt to secure the presidency, might end up disappointed. In a recent poll, measured after the replacement of Hung, 53.3 percent of respondents agreed that Mr. Chu had betrayed his campaign promise by taking leave of his responsibilities as mayor in order to run. Most importantly, it reported that “Tsai was supported by 45.2 percent of those polled, giving her a 23.3-point lead over Chu who garnered 21.9 percent.” As a result of the switch, the KMT’s lead rose by less than four percentage points. One must hope that the small gain was worth the costs. For now, that doesn’t seem to be the case. With just three months to go, it looks like a victory of the rival radical Democratic Progressives is closing in.
Image Attribution: “Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Changing of the Guard” by Alan Wu, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0