(This is Part One of a series on the collapse of the KMT and its implications.)

Dr. Tsai Ing-wen, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s nominee for the 2016 presidential elections, looks like a certain winner—especially compared to her current opponents.

Espousing deeply unpopular political policies—such as growing closer to China and launching the fourth nuclear power plant—the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)’s Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) is languishing at under 20% support in the polls, and is unlikely to gain much ground. Meanwhile, the martial law era career politician James Soong (宋楚瑜) of the People First Party has enjoyed a brief honeymoon, that will likely fade as people remember why they didn’t vote for him the last two times he ran for president. Former anti-KMT leader Shih Ming-teh (施明德)—who was not even able to get enough signatures to qualify and is languishing in the single digits—is distrusted by many due to his habit of floating across the political spectrum and is no longer considered a major political player.

Expect others to enter the race

But the field is too wide open, with too large of a section of the population doesn’t want to vote for Tsai (the latest Taiwan Indicator Research Survey poll shows 15% voters undecided), and the recent example of Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) independent run and victory in the Taipei mayoral race, even amongst traditional KMT supporters, suggests a huge potential opportunity.

Strategically, it would make sense for a coalition of the new left wing parties, such as the Social Democrats or the New Power Party, to put forth a joint candidate. A presidential candidate adds visibility and would draw considerable press attention, which would help their legislative candidates get past the 5% party list threshold, even if their candidate loses the presidential race: they are too far to the left of mainstream public opinion.

But that begs the question: who?

Former DPP chairman Lin Yi-hsiung (林義雄) is the  obvious choice, given his mentorship of the new crop of young activists. But out of his charges, the New Power Party (NPP) will probably rather throw its lot in with the DPP and Tsai.

Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je would be a strong candidate, but abandoning his post as mayor less than a year  after being elected could reflect poorly on him. The KMT’s Parliament speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) would be a another strong candidate, but it appears he is planning to stay loyal to the KMT, possibly positioning himself for another run as party chair after the next election.

Potential dark horse candidates could include someone like former Interior Minister Lee Hong-yuan (李鴻源), a wealthy business person like Terry Gou (郭台銘), or someone totally out of left field (“chicken cutlet girl” (雞排妹) would be an entertaining choice).

Why to run against Tsai, even a losing one

While commentators like us can sit all day and talk about hypothetical candidates, but unless there is a serious, substantive campaign, it would still be a major challenge to topple the well-oiled Tsai juggernaut over the long haul. Support would have to be drawn from both of the current major parties, to reach enough critical mass to overcome Tsai. Moreover, it is unlikely that the KMT or PFP candidates would step aside for a new candidate, like the DPP did for Ko Wen-je in the Taipei mayoral race. This means that the anti-Tsai votes will be split amongst several candidates, none of which will likely reach the plurality needed to win against Tsai.

In spite of the very significant challenges, there is a lot to be gained by running. The KMT is set to collapse into small party status, marginalized in the Taiwanese political scene. The traditional mainlander elites are a depleted force, with few of the new generation still hanging on to their ideologies. The factional, opportunistic politicians are bolting the party.

Afterwards, what is going to form as the opposition to the DPP? At this point, it is totally uncertain and largely up for grabs. There is a huge hole in Taiwan’s politics, which was exposed by the coalition put together by Ko Wen-je.

It is largely forgotten today, but initially the anti-martial law tangwai  (黨外) and early DPP polled higher in north Taiwan, but drifted south as the party became dominated by Hoklo-speaking Taiwanese nationalists, according to Dr. Daffyd Fell. Ko, as with the early DPP, drew support from across the ethnic spectrum by running on platforms emphasizing ideals and change.

A new candidate who can manage to put together a respectable challenge to Tsai—especially one based on ideals and not ethnic division—would then have a support base that a new political party or force could coalesce around. Such a candidate wouldn’t need to win to gain such a position, only to get enough support to be a credible challenge. Anyone who can do that will be a strong position to shape the future opposition to the DPP.

(Feature photo of Tsai Ing-wen, by David Reid on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)


C. Donovan Smith

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is co-publisher of the Compass Magazine. He hosts the weekly Central Taiwan News report and is a regular guest on Taiwan This Week, both on ICRT Radio. He sometimes blogs at www.TaiwanTake.com.

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