In our last show we took a deep dive on the KMT candidates, and in this show we’ll take a look at the state of the race, some intriguing hints of change in discourse and tone what the polling tells us, who has endorsed whom and what might be key to winning this thing–and who probably has the best chance of pulling it off.
Like the last show, it’s been re-written more than once and even re-recorded after something struck me I missed the first time around.
By the way, I’ll also be answering a patron’s question at the end of the show.
To actually slow the decline, or even grow support, the KMT will have to undergo fundamental reforms if they want to remain a powerhouse on the national level–though there is little sign of them losing steam at the county and city level where local issues are more relevant to voters.
They will have to jettison the 1992 Consensus, tackle the entire “one China” ideology and create a new vision forward for the party that is Taiwan-centric.
There is no way around this, the public has decisively turned against the party’s stances on these issues–and as went into in the last show, the candidates are campaigning mostly as if it were 2008 all over again.
At first blush, there is not much daylight between the four candidates and the stances of Ma Ying-jeou during his two terms.
Eric Chu even did a “listening tour” just like Ma Ying-jeou.
There are, however, some intriguing changes in discourse and tone that caught my attention–more on that later in the show.
Reform, if executed well, could be the pivot the party needs avoid a future as merely a topic of nostalgia in old folks homes.
They’d lose some of their deep blue followers, but the potential growth would likely outnumber the losses–and open the door to younger followers they have almost entirely lost currently.
But that would be tough to pull off, the party recently has been successfully resisting reform.
Chiang has already run into this, being stymied in his most important attempt at reform: dumping the 1992 Consensus.
The KMT is an old institution, with powerful conservative institutional impediments to change like the veteran’s grouping the Huang Fuhsing.
But he also had to give up not only because of them, but also opposition from the party elites best represented by people like Ma Ying-jeou himself, and that the party has become deeper blue, older and more conservative as it continues to lose support among the public at large and youth have almost totally abandoned the party.
An internal poll showed that over 80% of members supported the 1992 Consensus, and knowing he was going to lose badly, finally Chiang pulled it from the agenda just prior to last September’s party congress.
He knew the loss would have been humiliating, and undermined any hope that he could get anything done.
And that’s not all up against a prospective reformer: The party is broke and living off of debt.
Once the Transitional Justice Commission froze the party’s ill-gotten assets, the party was left with a huge problem.
Having once been billed as the “richest party on the planet” by the press due to their largely unfettered seizure of assets during the martial law era, they now have to pay their bills like a normal party.
Like the DPP, they get state subsidies, collect party dues and donations from supporters.
They have a respectable income.
However, when they never had to worry about cash, the KMT used to use party positions for patronage and as rewards for loyal followers.
The party has attempted to deal with this by letting a lot of people go–but they’re still stuck with paying those people severance and even more catastrophically, their pensions.
There is no quick fix for that no matter what they do, unless they come up with a massively successful way of making money no party has yet thought of.
Maybe we’ll be seeing a Sun Yat-sen themed cryptocurrency in the future.
Since a significant new source of revenue seems unlikely, they’re likely to remain living off of debt for the foreseeable future.
So, not only will the incoming chair have to figure out how to make the party electable again, but will also have to fend off financial collapse–which may force unpopular decisions.
In short, the deck is stacked against any potential reformer.
So, is it impossible the party will be reformed and become electable again?
No, the party has undergone radical transformations in the past.
Is it likely they will be able to reform enough to regain the trust of the public?
With the platforms that the candidates have pitched so far, definitely not.
However, those intriguing changes in tone and discourse I mentioned on one issue hint at both shifts inside the party and where they may move the ball forward in future.
In the Chen Shui-bian era the KMT created the current version of the party’s ideology, culminating in the Ma Ying-jeou presidency.
The central points publicly were that the KMT could be trusted to govern responsibly, were economically responsible, would defend the ROC from Taiwan independence advocates–those three being holdover talking points from the past–and would build prosperity by opening economically to the People’s Republic, which was for the most part new.
The crux of this was the 1992 consensus, which posited that during KMT-CCP talks in 1992 they reached a consensus of some sort.
That’s not technically true other than they agreed to talk, and Su Chi admitted making it up and presenting it as something more tangible in the 1999-2000 period.
The KMT pitched this as “one China, both sides with its own interpretation”.
Beijing did bite, and agreed to talks with then-KMT chair Lien Chan in 2005 on a CCP-KMT basis–but only ever acknowledging the “one China” part, which of course meant themselves.
With China economically booming at the time, and restrictions on movement and trade hampering Taiwanese directly benefiting from that boom, they were able to make a case compelling to the Taiwanese public–and Ma Ying-jeou won easily in 2008, and was re-elected in 2012.
Plenty of lucrative business opportunities did in fact appear–but heavily weighted towards KMT politicians and political allies, not Taiwanese in general.
Worse, it became clearer and clearer that even when non-KMT affiliated (and even in some cases KMT affiliated) Taiwanese business people did get opportunities, they were often temporary in nature–allowing their Chinese counterparts to steal their technology or let them develop a market for them to then take over.
Or use them as political pawns to forward Beijing’s agenda on Taiwan.
Meanwhile, under Ma–who by all accounts did hope for an eventual, if not immediate, unification of Taiwan and China–worked to open Taiwan’s economy and cultural spaces to Chinese to ease the path long-term.
By 2014, this had all become painfully obvious–most visibly kicking off with the massive Sunflower protests–and the backlash began that continues to this day: self identification as Taiwanese continued to grow strongly in parallel with distrust of China.
In the 2016 national elections the DPP won in a landslide, winning the presidency and taking the legislature for the first time.
In the meantime, Xi Jinping’s overt tying of the 1992 Consensus to the “one country, two systems” formula used in Hong Kong–while simultaneously violently crushing Hong Kong’s freedoms–led to widespread public distrust of the 1992 Consensus.
The post 2000 KMT ideology that propelled Ma into two terms in power remains largely in place in the KMT, and listening to and watching the messaging of the candidates shows they are largely hewing to that.
But there are some changes.
Some are obvious, and predictable because they are based on current issues–the candidates have been bashing the KMT on current issues like ractopork, but these are not fundamental ideological changes.
The emphasis on recruiting youth has been around since just after the Sunflower movement, so isn’t particularly new–and calls for reform have happened off and on for years.
But are there any substantive changes?
For the most part, no–but there are some shifts that hint at where the party may be tentatively moving into a new era.
Right now, the four chair candidates are pitching the party faithful, so they will be concentrating their messages on that audience, not the general public.
This means they will be generally conservative and not rock the boat because the party’s ideology of the past 20 years is now orthodoxy.
And sure enough, they didn’t for the most part, and are sticking to the 1992 Consensus.
But what has changed is very interesting.
To illustrate this, I’m focussing mostly on Johnny Chiang and especially Eric Chu, because he is a very seasoned politician who tends to take stances that he thinks will be politically advantageous.
I’ll admit I have no idea whether Chu’s change in tone and discourse are personally genuine or not, or if he has any intention on expanding on it, but he has changed some significant things.
Both of them have been spending a lot of time with the KMT party membership recently, so any changes they make suggest they both think there is sufficient push within the party to make these changes acceptable to enough of the members that any potential risks are worth taking.
And interestingly, both Chiang and Chu have been saying basically the same things, which indicates they are both getting the same message from many of the party faithful.
This means, under the circumstances, they are taking steps that may be significantly amplified if they go into a general election with the populace at large.
So consider these potential babysteps to a possible shift going forward.
Note one thing they have dropped almost entirely from the party’s platform that survived into the 2020 presidential election: Hope on relations with China.
There is no longer much talk on prosperity, economic growth or opportunities or even much positive at all on the relationship with China.
That’s a big shift.
Then consider this, all the candidates have been talking up “protecting the ROC” in a big way.
That by itself isn’t new, but it now has clearly taken on a double meaning.
Previously this meant protecting the ROC internally from those infernal Taiwan independence types.
I’m sure they still mean that.
But now it appears to also mean protecting the ROC from the PRC as well.
Note that Eric Chu specifically called for more cultural exchanges, and specifically talked of de-politicizing the cross-strait relationship.
Both Chu and Chiang have both, especially in the last few days, have been trying to outdo each other in emphasising their determination to maintain the status quo–both openly pointing out that this is where the majority of the public stands on the issue.
And also consider, they are both at pains to point out that their calls for dialogue with Beijing are about reducing tensions and building peace–not furthering economic or political ties.
Johnny Chiang has gone even further, proposing a grand, multi-party conference to determine the path forward–in short he’s promising to bring in the DPP and other parties to chart a unified position towards Beijing.
Interestingly, there is some precedent for this on domestic politics in the past on constitutional and electoral reforms.
In short, they are both taking a defensive position regarding Taiwan–and no longer preaching growing ties with China.
Clearly even much of the KMT base is now unnerved by China’s behaviour, otherwise these candidates wouldn’t be pitching them this way.
How far along this path will they go in future, how much opposition in the party leadership and rank-and-file there will be, and whether it leads eventually to a full-on new era in KMT politics or it remains a mere shift in tone remains to be seen.
But it’s definitely worth paying close attention to.
Something is afoot, we just don’t know how extensive it’s going to become.
I’ll likely be returning to this issue after the election and the new chair starts charting his path forward.
Regardless of which path they take, it is going to be fascinating to watch, with a colourful cast of characters.
So, moving on to who is going to win this?
The polling I’ve seen on this has been all over the place.
Most of the polls have been iffy for one reason or another, and not all focus on just the KMT membership, which is what really matters as only they can vote.
In general they point to Eric Chu winning, but three inherently dodgy blue camp online polls all showed Chang Ya-chung ahead by a huge margin.
It’s also worth noting that clearly Chu and his camp are taking Johnny Chiang seriously.
If they were completely confident they wouldn’t bother taking so many potshots at him and would ignore him like they do the other two candidates.
Plus, no polling I’ve seen has given any indication of how enthusiastic the KMT membership is to turn out and vote.
Chang Ya-chung’s shockingly high results in those online polls could indicate he’s got an enthusiastic core base of support from deep blues, including possibly some of Han Kuo-yu or Jaw Shaw-kong supporters.
So, voter turnout and enthusiasm could play a big role here–and Chang could pull votes away from the other candidates, probably more from Chu’s side.
Another factor that may play a role–or not–is endorsements.
There haven’t been many so far, with Jason Hu’s endorsement of Johnny Chiang about the highest profile so far with Sean Lien’s endorsement of Eric Chu about the only other high profile one.
Who will Han Kuo-yu direct his famously enthusiastic supporter fan base to back?
How about Jaw Shaw-kong’s outsized media voice?
Will New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih break his standard policy of not getting involved and lend his huge popularity to someone?
How about Taichung Mayor Lu Shiow-yen, who is in a bit of a pickle on who to support, Chiang served as her campaign manager and Chu has supported her in getting people for her administration.
And Chiang Wan-an, the grandchild of Chiang Ching-kuo?
Does he throw his support behind the candidates who praise his grandfather like Chu or Chang, or keep to his younger, reformist image and support Chiang?
Or what about the elephant in the room–and it’s very obvious both Chiang and Chu are courting him–Ma Ying-jeou.
Though I suspect Eric Chu has the largest chance to win, it’s still murky and wide open enough it’s not a sure bet.
Judging by all the talk of attracting young voters and reform, the party is well aware it has a huge problem–but when it comes to actual talk of reforms the candidates haven’t offered up much, sounding mostly like retreads of Ma’s playbook, which has been roundly rejected at the polls twice now.
Party members are almost entirely elderly, conservative and self-selected deeper blues who often come across as thinking that the glory days of the KMT dominating elections will come back if only they can elect the right messenger to repackage their existing ideology in a way that will magically win back voters.
Since all of the candidates at this point are pitching themselves as being mid-to-deep blue, it’s clear all are gearing themselves to target these people–but who they will jump for is hard to say.
Polling begins on September 25, and unlike what a Taipei Times editorial suggested, it isn’t based on opinion polling like the KMT presidential primaries, but is rather party members physically going to the polls to vote–who will also be voting for party representatives.
Turnout will be something to watch no matter who wins, as it will show something about where–if there is any at all–the enthusiasm in the party is at.
If the turnout is high, especially for one particular candidate, that will tell us where the party membership wants the party to go.
I’m particularly curious to see how well Johnny Chiang and Chang Ya-chung do, both are the closest to bellwether candidates for the lighter blues versus the deeper blues.
If Eric Chu does well, that suggests that a middle-of-the-blue path is where the party is at.
Finally, a patron asked me a question on why I refer to what’s happening in East Turkestan (aka Xinjiang) as a genocide.
It’s a reasonable question, as colloquially when we think of genocide with think of mass scale massacre.
The US government’s position is that it is a genocide, the parliaments of several countries (including if I recall correctly Canada, the UK and Australia) have voted on resolutions
calling it just that, and human rights groups also use the term. The reason is they are using that definition is because it is what is provided by the United Nations to codify what qualifies as a genocide.
You can Google “UN definition of genocide” and you’ll see that what is happening in Xinjiang easily qualifies under their definition.
Image courtesy of Eric Chu’s FB page