Between Taiwanese Elections: The KMT’s Quest for True Blue
After achieving a resounding victory in the local elections of November 2022 over the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of incumbent Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) started its preparations for Taiwan’s general (legislative and presidential) elections
Between Taiwanese Elections: The KMT’s Quest for True Blue
After achieving a resounding victory in the local elections of November 2022 over the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of incumbent Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) started its preparations for Taiwan’s general (legislative and presidential) elections scheduled for January 2024 in earnest. So far, however, this turned out to be a difficult endeavor. While the DPP-led pan-Green camp (pro-Taiwanese identity/independence) is expected to select new DPP chairman and incumbent vice-president Lai Ching-te as its presidential candidate in April, and Ke Wen-je, the popular centrist former mayor of Taipei, already proclaimed to be “directly preparing” (“zhijie zhunbei”) for 2024 early on, the fight for the presidential banner within the opposition pan-Blue camp (pro-Chinese identity/(re-)unification) led by the KMT is far from over. Chances that its eventual nominee will be a traditional “true Blue” (zheng lan) stalwart who will enjoy the full approval of the KMT’s conservative leadership seem slim, however.
The China Factor: Echoes of 2020
As of late February 2023, election surveys are looking increasingly promising to the KMT, which is now polling higher than the DPP. The party nonetheless has more cause for concern than reason for celebration. Many inside and outside the pan-Blue camp remember the impressive triumph in the local elections of November 2018, followed by equally encouraging polling numbers until the Hong Kong protests of 2019 brought Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP the “China Card” necessary to overtake the KMT and achieve a landslide victory in the general elections of January 2020.
The KMT, the party that before its retreat to Taiwan in 1949 had proudly ruled over the entirety of China in form of the Republic of China (which is still the official name of the Taiwanese state), has many lessons to take from its electoral collapse four years ago. Although the outbreak of the Hong Kong protests was an event outside of its control, its lackluster response to the DPP’s “resist China, protect Taiwan” (Kang Zhong bao Tai) rhetoric could have been handled better. The KMT did little to dispel its image of being pro-Chinese, and its statements of support to the beleaguered Hong Kong protestors came too late due to disunity in the party’s higher echelons. Its eventual calls to the Hong Kong government to listen to the protesters were also perceived as weak compared to the DPP’s existential extrapolation of the crackdown to Taiwan under its resonating slogan of “Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow” (“jinri Xianggang, mingri Taiwan”). By August 2019, the KMT’s initial polling lead had reversed into an unsurmountable deficit.
The main (controllable) cause of the KMT’s 2020 defeat, however, was the selection of its presidential nominee. The party’s ultimate pick, Han Kuo-yu, who experienced a meteoric rise after achieving what was thought to be impossible by winning the southern pan-Green stronghold of Kaohsiung in 2018 through a populist campaign, turned out to be ill-suited as pan-Blue presidential contender. While Han’s rhetoric – initially, at least – was seen as down-to-earth and in touch with the bread-and-butter issues that the local residents of Kaohsiung were faced with, his populist conduct – often-compared to Donald Trump – on the national stage was highly erratic. Owing to Han’s unpredictable (pro-Chinese) outbursts, Tsai was able to present herself as a reasonable moderate – despite the DPP’s platform arguable being more radical than the KMT’s proposals to return to the relatively cordial cross-Straits ties of its last stint in power (2008–2016).
The question remains whether the KMT will truly learn from these miscalculations and remember that the 2022 “Blue Wave” was not an endorsement of (re)unification with China, but merely a rebuke of unsatisfactory domestic DPP performance and its excessive scapegoating of China when local reflection was required. The first signs do not attest to “lessons learned,” however, as KMT Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia led a party delegation to China in February 2023 and met with CCP politburo (fourth-ranking) member Wang Huning – Xi Jinping’s chief political theorist who is expected to formulate a new framework to achieve (re)unification with Taiwan in the near future. Despite Hsia’s reassurances that Taiwan’s sovereignty was not on the table during his visit to Beijing, a perception rapidly took shape that the KMT had yet again fallen back to its traditional policy focus on achieving (re)unification with China – if necessary, at the cost of Taiwanese interests and its de facto independence.
It will nonetheless remain to be seen just how the Taiwanese public takes to the KMT’s recent outreaches to Beijing. While the issue of identity on the island has firmly shifted toward “Taiwanese” over the last decades, “maintaining the status quo” (either “indefinitely” or “for now”) toward China remains the most popular approach to cross-Strait relations. Some Taiwanese might thus still be enticed by the prospect of more stable ties with China if – like in 2022 – the pan-Green camp goes overboard in its anti-China rhetoric during the upcoming election campaign.
The KMT’s Quest for “True Blue”
The traumatized KMT will do everything in its power to prevent a repetition of the 2020 catastrophe, but will nonetheless have to fear the rise of another populist maverick. Although the disgraced Han Kuo-yu – shortly after his failed presidential run he became the first Taiwanese mayor to ever be recalled – is unlikely to run again in 2024, Terry Gou, his main opponent during the party’s wild presidential primaries of 2019 is likely to return to the fold. That is, if he is allowed to do so. Gou, the billionaire founder and CEO of Foxconn, the largest microchip manufacturer in the world, angrily left the KMT after his defeat to Han. According to KMT party regulations, one has to wait out a 4-year membership ban after doing so, making Gou ineligible to return in time for the May 2023 primaries. However, KMT chairman Eric Chu has recently signaled that an exception could be made, stressing that the KMT aims to unite “all non-Green friends” (“suoyuo fei lü pengyou”) under its banner. Whether Gou, who is allegedly not trusted by Taiwan’s military which refused to purchase arms from Foxconn over the company’s (and its chairman’s) ties to China, can be the pan-Blue camp’s saving grace, remains to be seen.
The other frontrunner in hypothetical polls, Hou Yu-ih, the incumbent mayor of New Taipei, is equally undesired by the higher echelons of the KMT. While he is not an “outsider” like Terry Gou and has no controversial China-ties, Hou served as Director-General of the National Police Agency during the last three years of Chen Shui-bian’s DPP administration (2000–2008). While he proved himself as an electoral juggernaut during 2018 and 2022 in New Taipei due to his moderate positions, his (extremely) “light Blue” credentials – Hou left the KMT during the administration of Chen, who even affirmed him as “his protégé” – are unlikely to be embraced by many conservative KMT cadres. Moreover, the public might not take kindly to another “desertion” by a local mayor similar to Han Kuo-yu, who had also promised to not run for president after being elected in 2018. KMT chairman Eric Chu has nonetheless admitted to the high electability of Hou, hailing him “the most powerful hen” (zui qiang muji) – a reference to how a strong presidential candidate (the “hen”) might also help other legislative candidates down the ballot perform well (the “little chicks”).
What the KMT top brass really desires, however, is a return to a strong “true Blue” candidate in the image of Ma Ying-jeou, Tsai Ing-wen’s predecessor. “True Blue” implies a policy focus on maintaining Taiwan’s de facto independence under a de jure “Republic of China” designation while simultaneously pursuing cordial relations with China (through recognizing the embattled 1992 consensus) and the United States. This should not be confused with the “deep Blue” faction, which takes more distance from the US and aims for (re)unification with China, even if this comes at the cost of Taiwan’s sovereignty (like former KMT chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu, who is now a welcome guest in Chinese state media); or the “light Blue” faction, with flirts much more prominently with the boundaries of a distinct Taiwanese identity or a Republic of China de jure confined to the areas de facto under Taiwanese control – like Hou Yu-ih, who has been accused of “having Green bones under a Blue skin” (lan pi lü gu) by “deep Blue” adherents before.
KMT chairman Eric Chu is likely the only “true Blue” option during this election cycle and has recently sought to stress the party’s traditionally warm ties with the US. He is, however, not a strong presidential contender. In 2016, Chu was defeated as pan-Blue nominee in a landslide by Tsai Ing-wen, and during the presidential primaries of 2019, Chu came in a distant third to Han Kuo-yu and Terry Gou. In hypothetical polling for the 2024 pan-Blue candidacy, Chu is presently again coming in third (8%) to Hou (37%) and Gou (29%).
True Blue Could Still Rule from Behind the Curtains
As KMT chairman, Eric Chu does nonetheless hold major sway over the outcome of the presidential primaries and the selection process of the pan-Blue legislative candidates. As stated above, he will, among others, have the final say on Terry Gou’s participation. Moreover, he will also have to decide on the format of the presidential primary (which should become clear by late March). Another opinion-polls based primary like 2019 seems most probable, but also very likely to not align with the wishes of the KMT’s leadership – which would probably prefers to only have its aging membership vote.
Although the prospects for another “true Blue” Taiwanese presidential candidate in 2024 thus seem slim, the Chu-led KMT leadership can be expected to leverage its power and control the platform of the eventual nominee to prevent another electoral meltdown alike 2020. While another Han Kuo-yu might rise in form of Terry Gou, or a highly electable “hen” with “Green bones” could be victorious in the shape of Hou Yu-ih, it remains to be seen whether they can truly escape the squeeze of the KMT’s top-down “true Blue” policy line.
Jasper Roctus is an Associate Fellow at Egmont, where he works on domestic Chinese politics and cross-Strait relations.
Jasper is also a PhD researcher affiliated to the “East Asian Culture in Perspective: Identity, Historical Consciousness, Modernity” research group at Ghent University, and is presently working on evolutions in modern narratives surrounding Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925). His “PhD Fellowship fundamental research” is funded by the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO).
(Photo credit: Roméo A., Unsplash)