Ever since the 2001 legislative elections, each of Taiwan’s major political parties has been classified as either a member of the ROC-centric, KMT-led pan-blue alliance or the Taiwan-centric, DPP-led pan-green alliance. Alliance partners competed with each other for votes but worked together on the big issues. But with the shambolic performance of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the KMT’s apparent determination to nominate under-qualified ideologue Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) to be his successor, the KMT’s biggest junior partner, the People First Party (PFP), is in open revolt, and in many ways it has already crossed the aisle.
This is not the future one would have expected for the PFP a decade ago, when Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) said he’d be willing to let the KMT take all the pan-blue legislative seats if that’s what was necessary to prevent a pan-green majority. Arguably, the PFP’s original split from the KMT was not policy-based at all, but rather a result of the KMT’s democratically insufficient candidate selection procedures.
In the 1990s, Soong was a very popular politician who had widespread support as the Governor of Taiwan Province. However he had been passed over for the KMT’s 2000 presidential nomination in favor of a weaker candidate, Lien Chan (連戰). If a primary had been held, Soong would have won; but president and party chairman at the time Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) pulled the strings for Lien. The exact reasons why Lee did this are still being speculated even till this day, with many even suspecting Lee intended to sabotage the KMT.
Instead of waiting for a future chance that may have never come, Soong immediately cashed in his briefcase, launching an independent run as The People’s Nominee, braving party expulsion and embezzlement accusations—and very nearly winning. In any case, Soong fared much better than Lien. Following the election, which either Soong or Lien would have likely won running alone, Soong launched his own party at the behest of his supporters’ entreaties.
Soong was able to find plenty of able candidates for this party, showing he wasn’t the only talent whom the KMT had passed over. Many of these politicians are still in power today, albeit not with the PFP. They include Hualien Magistrate Fu Kun-chi (傅崑萁) and Legislators Lo Shu-lei (羅淑蕾), Lee Ching-hua (李慶安), Lu Hsueh-chang (呂學樟), and Lin Yu-fang (林郁方), among many others.
What distinguishes these former PFPers today from their lifelong KMT counterparts is—well, it’s hard to say, really. PFP members did run on being “cleaner” than the KMT but later proved they too could get into personal legal trouble with the best of them. Soong himself was so adept at running patronage networks, he still draws political power from money he spent 20 years ago. Even though Soong’s party also appealed to some ethnic Taiwanese, the party absorbed New Party members and had a more waishengren (外省人) flavor than the then-Taiwanized KMT—its highest support was in the northern enclaves of Taipei City and County, Taoyuan, and Keelung. But as the KMT reversed the Taiwanization of the Lee Teng-hui years, the PFP could no longer distinguish itself as the True Defender of ROC Nationalism.
After the 2001 legislative elections, the PFP could have joined with the DPP to create a legislative majority to aid President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in changing and passing a variety of laws to strip the KMT of its institutional advantages, such as going after the KMT’s massive financial assets. But it didn’t. Why not? Especially when this would have helped it immeasurably? The answer, I believe, is that like Chao Shao-kang (趙少康) and the New Party in the 90s, Soong and the other PFPers had the ultimate goal of taking over the KMT and all its assets and advantages, and ruling it themselves, once they had proven their electoral superiority to those they left behind. To collaborate with the DPP on party assets or anything else would also have deepened many blues’ view that the PFP was traitorous, making it harder for them to come back into the KMT in the future.
Some people today still say that if only the PFP had done better between 2001 and 2004, Soong, not Lien, would have led the combined blue 2004 ticket. I don’t think so, for reasons that are also affecting the KMT’s 2016 nominations: First, the KMT will not step aside because it must keep face as Party No. 1; it feels compelled to run its own candidate in every race. Second, in KMT nomination battles everyone looks out for their own faction instead of the big picture, so having a large number of supporters outside the party means little on the inside.
Unable to take over the KMT or to distinguish himself and his party from it politically, Soong openly accepted subordination from the 2004 presidential election until well into Ma’s first term. He ran as Lien’s vice presidential nominee despite being a better politician—they lost by 0.2%, a difference they could very possibly have made up if Soong were on the top of the ticket. After Lien went to China in 2005 and began what some consider the “CCP-KMT United Front” era, Soong conducted a parallel tour of his own. After garnering only 4% of the vote in the 2006 Taipei mayoral race, Soong announced his departure from politics, and his party began to shrink precipitously. In the 2008 elections, he practically negotiated surrender to Ma Ying-jeou’s KMT, allowing several PFP legislators to join the KMT and win its nominations while not even putting the PFP in the proportional representation election. As a result the party ended up with just 1 of the 113 seats, compared to 46 of 225 in 2001.
And if President Ma had performed well in office, that would have been the last we’d heard of the PFP.
Soong was still polite to the KMT when he ran again for president in 2012, emphasizing he wanted to go beyond blue and green. He finished with 2.8% of the votes. The PFP ran in both district and proportional representation legislative elections, and won three seats (reduced to two after the election of one of them was invalidated). It was a small party, but it had at least recovered idealism and the will to live.
Since then, Ma and the KMT have continued to ruin their own image with the electorate, while the PFP has worked harder than ever before to distance itself from the KMT. The PFP has tried to define itself as the nonpartisan, good-governance, caring alternative for disillusioned former KMT supporters. The PFP caucus joined hands with the DPP in many standoffs this term, most significantly in opposing the Ma administration’s attempt to ramrod the Cross-Strait Agreement on Trade in Services through the Legislature. Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) and PFP Taipei City Council candidates enjoyed a symbiotic relationship in the 2014 Taipei mayoral race, supporting each other to show they were each beyond blue and green ideology.
Now Soong and the PFP are hitting their stride. They understand that quality of life issues matter more to voters than ideology right now. Soong has challenged the KMT to cut ties with Ma and even recall him, declaring that the KMT no longer cares for the people, and until it turns its back on Ma, the PFP must keep nominating candidates to fight it. The PFP’s legislative candidates recently attacked the government fiercely over the Formosa Fun Coast powder explosions, saying it isn’t doing enough for the people.
The party has refused all offers to cooperate with the KMT on the coming legislative election, and even successfully sought the DPP’s endorsement of its candidate for the Taipei 4th district, Huang Shan-shan (黃珊珊). Huang has promised to vote with the green coalition on domestic issues. Such blue-green cooperation would have previously been unthinkable. Soong has praised Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) moderation and not yet ruled out supporting her or running himself (he earned 24% of the vote in a recent survey); there’s no chance he’ll endorse Hung. So far, the PFP’s legislative nominations have been in districts where it endangers the KMT’s chances and could very well contribute to a DPP victory, the complete opposite of Soong’s strategy a decade back.
The biggest shock of all for the KMT, however, has been how actively and successfully Soong is exploiting the rift between Chinese-identifying “deep blues” of the civil service and military sectors of society, and the Taiwanese-identifying “light blues” of the local factions. Ma made the situation critical by trying to purge legislative speaker and local faction godfather Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) from office and allegedly suppressing his presidential campaign. Furthermore, Hung is salting the wounds by taking the most pro-China stance of any KMT candidate in the democratic era and expressing little concern at all for Wang’s political future.
In a radio interview last week, Soong warned the KMT against “excluding native Taiwanese comrades who have worked so hard for the party” and “upon whom the party has always depended,” and emphasized “it cannot deal with Wang Jin-pyng this way.” Pundits perceived this as a public declaration that he stands with the light blues and welcomes their support.
Sources say Soong has recently frequented southern and central Taiwan to entice dissatisfied KMT local leaders to join his party, with many positive results. For example, former KMT Secretary-General Liao Liao-yi (廖了以) and former Taichung County Magistrate and KMT national policy consultant Lin Min-lin (林敏霖), Taichung Red Faction heavyweights and still core KMT members, allegedly had a long conversation with Soong behind closed doors last week in which Lin encouraged Soong to run for president. United Daily News reports the KMT is not promising much campaign money to its own candidates, depriving itself of its best advantage over Soong. This week, former KMT legislator Chang Shuo-wen (張碩文) defected to Soong’s party for his run to return to the legislature, and current legislator Chang Chia-chun (張嘉郡), whose father is a friend and ally of Soong’s, declared she is considering leaving the KMT due to Hung’s stance.
These events have ignited panicked speculation of a mass exodus. Chang Shuo-wen claims that numerous KMT grassroots election headquarters in places like Chiayi, Yunlin, Tainan, and Pingtung are already coming loose and support for the PFP is even building in the backcountry mountains of the nation’s east. He says he has received many phone calls over the past several days from Yunlin, Chiayi, and Tainan local campaign headquarters and opinion leaders who told him they want to go with him. Meanwhile, PFP Deputy Secretary-General Liu Wen-hsiung (劉文雄) has told the press that current KMT public representatives are contacting the party for talks about PFP legislative nominations.
Despite the momentum the PFP seems to have right now, we should not forget that the KMT has splintered and come back together before. Taiwan’s presidential and legislative election systems practically demand the formation of two major parties, as one big party is multiple times more powerful than two smaller ones in fielding candidates for first-past-the-post elections, like the presidential election. The KMT’s insistence on running in every district makes it unlikely the KMT and PFP could ever agree to divide the map long-term. But a schism with the deep blues on the inside and the light blues in a new party on the outside is a logically intuitive arrangement, that could be a midway point to realignment, either within the party or within the political scene itself.
The New Party and the old PFP were largely led by deep blues, but emotionally, deep blues can never truly leave the KMT behind because they have always been taught it is the vehicle for the reunification of China; they can only hope to hasten the KMT’s cleansing. Light blues, on the other hand, generally align with the KMT for the stability, reputation, the financial support and the power. In other words, it’s a marriage of convenience.
But what’s making this national election cycle different from any other is that the KMT is now in chaos, its reputation is in the dumps, and for the first time it is the clear underdog. Though the party has lost before, it was favored or at least too close to call, so it could hold out the promise of power. This time, the KMT is sure to sink, and local factions will be looking for lifeboats such as PFP party list nominations.
Soong is waiting until after the KMT’s July 19 party congress, when it formally nominates a candidate, to decide whether to run for president and give his movement a man at the top of the ticket. So are most of the KMT’s light blues and factions, who are surely hesitant to give up what they have—including the chance to maybe take over the big party one day—but are perhaps losing hope they can ever wrest the party from the deep blues.
Indeed, this congress is looming large as one of the most important days in the party’s recent history. Choosing Hung means choosing, at least for this term, to become a deep-blue, northern, minority party: a New New Party, with the PFP and DPP absorbing its localist defectors. This could start a vicious cycle, where the departures of light blues increase the influence of deep blues, making it harder and harder for a new centrist leader to emerge. On top of that, if the pan-greens win a legislative majority, as a KMT crack-up would appear to ensure, their first order of business will be stripping the KMT of as much wealth as they can, robbing it of its best tool for future coalition-building.
Rejecting Hung for a candidate who can bridge the divide, like Wang Jin-pyng or Eric Chu (朱立倫), could start the healing process and allow the party to avert this destiny. But it would be a massive loss of face for a party that already told the whole world it’s Hung, and it could also bring a lawsuit from Hung and a counterrevolt by the deep blues.
Whatever happens over the subsequent six months, James Soong and the People First Party will be in the thick of it, fighting for the people the KMT haven’t.
(Feature photo of James Soong)
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