KMT party chair Eric Chu (朱立倫) has finally made a move, convening a meeting of the Central Standing Committee to vote on holding a special party congress this Saturday. It is widely assumed this congress will be called upon to change the party’s rules to allow for the current presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) to be dumped and a new candidate selected. Chu has said he will step up and take responsibility as party chair, which can only mean he intends to take over as the party’s candidate for president: traditionally the KMT party chair and presidential candidate are the same person. Will this make the situation better or worse for the KMT?
Initially it is making things worse. Already the decision has caused protests by Hung supporters, legal challenges (according to party rules a party congress requires 60 days notice) and is considered unreasonable by the majority of the public (59.6% vs 15.3%) according to the first poll out of the gate. Worse for the party, the poll suggests that the candidate widely expected to take Hung’s place–party chair Eric Chu himself–is only polling within the margin of error better than Hung (19% for Chu, 18.5% for Hung).
Things could get even uglier fast if Hung continues to fight, and goes on the offensive. She already has the public’s sympathy as having been treated unreasonably, and the public by a 75.8% to 5.8% margin blame the KMT for Hung’s low poll numbers, not Hung personally. Any legal challenge she launches will likely be seen as reasonable (the legal challenges so far by TSU and DPP politicians will likely be perceived as self-serving). If the party chooses another candidate, her legal challenge to the nominee could put the situation in limbo for some time as to who the party’s official nominee really is–with less than three months to the election. If the party spends money on the new chosen candidate, Hung supporters may try to get the campaign funds frozen until a ruling on the official nominee is handed down (with appeals possible).
Hung, if she chooses to go on the attack, is in a position to eviscerate Eric Chu. First, she has the moral high ground. Through the entire nomination process she has played by the rules, and repeatedly called on Chu and others to run. By calling the party congress–breaking the 60-day advance notice rule–Chu appears to be setting the stage to pull the rug out from under Hung. With all the controversy over KMT party assets, Hung also struck for the moral high ground by refusing party money for her campaign. When Chu took up the post as chair earlier this year , he stated clearly he would ensure that any party assets gained improperly would be dealt with. He’s since gone silent on the issue.
Second, Hung’s strong suits highlight Chu’s deficiencies. Hung is direct, outspoken and lays out clear positions. Chu speaks almost entirely in platitudes. Hung has a clear–if deeply unpopular–set of beliefs that she is passionate about. It is unclear where Chu stands on many issues. The contrast is stark, as a visit to their Facebook pages or listening to their speeches makes clear. Hung–though espousing unpopular ideology and apparently tone-deaf to public opinion– earned some respect for her principled, sincere approach and her courage to stand by her beliefs. Chu’s standing will fall further and Hung’s standing will rise if she brings the battle to Chu on these grounds.
But in any case, Hung is not the right candidate for the KMT’s political survival. The original problems Chu is trying to solve remain. As the party congress grows closer, delegates are going to look at the disastrous poll numbers (both in the presidential race and the legislative races), the current train wreck that is the party congress itself, and the string of decisions that led to the current situation. Party chair Chu’s leadership doesn’t come out well in those calculations. Combined with his dismal poll numbers, many may come to the conclusion that he is little better than, or perhaps worse than, Hung as a candidate for president.
There is a second problem that the party is trying to solve. As journalist Jane Rickards recently pointed out on ICRT, the decision to boot Hung may be more about the legislative election than the presidential one. Legislative candidates–especially in the center and south of the island–have been avoiding having anything to do with Hung publicly, with some reportedly leaving the party or refusing to run because of her. The old-school ideology and China-centric worldview of Hung is anathema to the constituents the local Taiwanese factional candidates are trying to win over.
Would choosing Eric Chu–changing one unpopular mainlander for an unpopular mainlander princeling–improve the situation? Perhaps. Chu’s propensity for avoiding taking hard positions means he says nothing offensive, so perhaps legislative candidates will be more comfortable appearing on stage with him. But will that help these candidates electoral prospects significantly? Not likely, as long as Chu remains unpopular. The KMT has never lost control of the legislature before (it lost the majority once, but with pan-blue allies maintained effective control). That prospect is deeply frightening to many in the party, not least because the KMT’s opponents will almost certainly pass laws to strip the KMT of assets acquired under martial law.ending the KMT’s purported status as richest political party on the planet.
After having said all that, the KMT’s choice should be glaringly obvious: legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平). Wang is by far the most popular KMT politician with the general public. A non-mainlander, he is generally acknowledged to be the unofficial leader of the local Taiwanese factional legislators, who would rally to him and energize the factional base. However, President Ma Ying-jeou–still powerful in the party–famously tried to drive him out of the party, and the mainland elites that dominate the party structure and the delegates to the party congress have always voted to run one of their own. For the sake of the legislative race, they likely will consider him as a possible vice presidential nominee.
If Hung is considered a doomed candidate and Wang is not acceptable, will Eric Chu still get the job by default? If the delegates come to the conclusions reached in this article, they will have second thoughts in the run-up to the party congress. If not Hung, Chu or Wang, then who? The KMT is not teeming with great candidates. Aside from Wang, no one has polled at over 50% approval with the general public in months.
Who else is out there? The more obvious one is an accelerated timeline of a theory put forth by Michael Turton. Turton is of the opinion that the elders in the party are grooming former Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) for 2020 (I agree that is what they are doing, though after 2016 whether they continue have control of the agenda is another question). They could speed up the plan and run him this time. Yes, while Hau is still popular in the party, he polls at under 50% favorability with the general public. He is another mainlander princeling who is unlikely bolster the party’s legislative hopes outside of the north by much. However, of the current crop of party heavyweights, he is the most likely to be able head off the other pan-blue presidential candidate James Soong (宋楚瑜), reunite the pan-blue base, and recover some ground against the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen. That wouldn’t be enough to save either the presidency or the legislature from an embarrassing loss, but it could be a significant improvement on the disaster that appears to be coming under either Hung or Chu.
The situation is so dire, and the KMT field so abysmal, that there is a significant possibility of a dark horse candidate. First, it sidesteps the problems with all the current options. Second, it would allow for a honeymoon boost as everyone on the pan-blue side projects their own hopes on the fresh, new candidate. Third, if interesting enough, centrists may give the candidate a look. The question isn’t so much if the party would go for a dark horse candidate–after all they’re desperate enough to break the rules to ditch their current one–the question is if such a candidate can be found or comes forward. Dark horse candidates by nature are hard to predict, but such candidates could be found–for example ex-Minister of the Interior Lee Hung-yuan (李鴻源).
If the party does end up ditching Hung, no matter who they decide to run with, they are still likely to lose–the party is collapsing. The best they can hope for is to stave off the PFP on the blue side, rally enough to save a few marginal legislative seats, and obtain a percentage of the popular vote that is merely embarrassing, rather than downright humiliating. A dark horse candidate who performs well could give hope to the party for the future. Without one, the party is faced with a dark winter.