Three years ago, then KMT New Taipei Mayor hopeful Eric Chu defeated his DPP rival Tsai Ing-wen. He is now running against Tsai once more, this time for the highest office of the nation.

See you again

As expected, ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Eric Chu was endorsed as the party’s new presidential candidate, replacing pro-unification Hung Hsiu-chu, who was nominated through the party’s democratic primary mechanism in June. At October 17’s KMT Party Congress, party members voted overwhelmingly to oust Hung with 821 of 891 votes. They hoped Chu could help the KMT regain public support and improve its souring prospects in the 2016 legislative election, as many local polls showed that the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is likely to gain a majority in the parliament in next January’s polls.

It will be the second time we see Chu and Tsai run against each other since the 2010 local election when Chu won the New Taipei mayorship over Tsai, with 1,115,536 votes compared to Tsai’s 1,004,900, or 52.61 per cent to 47.39 per cent. The victory in New Taipei, the largest of Taiwan’s metropolitan cities, made Chu a rising star within the KMT.

Indeed, Chu has generally been considered the most viable presidential candidate for the KMT, even before Hung was nominated earlier in the year. It can be noted that if the elections had been held a year ago, Chu could have had a bigger chance of defeating Tsai. A public opinion survey conducted by pro-KMT TVBS in January 2014 found that Chu and Tsai were tied at 42 per cent apiece if they were to stand against each other in a presidential election a year back.

Since Chu took up the KMT chairmanship in January this year, he has had ample opportunities to manifest his leadership and push forward his political career. However, his meeting with Xi Jingping, China’s president and the secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing on May 4, had failed to bring any concrete breakthrough in cross-Strait relations. Instead, he only created new grounds for the opposition to accuse Chu of trying to evade legislative oversight of cross-Strait issues.

Similarly, a poll by TVBS showed that only one-third of Taiwanese were satisfied with Chu’s performance at the Chu-Xi meeting. After a number of unfortunate incidents that occurred over the summer such as typhoon Soudelor and the Formosa Water Park explosion, his support ratings took a dive from 50 per cent to 39 per cent by his 100th day in office.

In between his two terms, Chu’s share of votes in New Taipei did not increase either. Back in 2010, Chu won by five per cent of the votes, which could be seen as a substantial win, given that traditionally the blue-green balance in Taiwan’s political landscape was 54-46 (before 2014 local elections). In his re-election bid last year, Chu won only by 1.28 per cent, about 20 per cent short of expectations. He won by slightly over 25,000 votes, a lot less than his first victory when he won by over 100,000 votes.

A rock and a hard place

Chu’s mission to reinvigorate the party would be at the cost of his political career. The first challenge he is facing now is whether to quit his position as New Taipei Mayor and focus his efforts on the 2016 election. The latest TVBS poll found that more than half of his constituents, 66 per cent, said Chu should step down as mayor of the city if he runs for president. In this scenario, if Chu hypothetically loses next year’s presidential race, the KMT could lose the only special municipality it heads and he will inevitably lose his chairmanship as well. Furthermore, Chu has promised in the past that he will finish his term by 2018 before running for president.

Therefore, despite knowing that wearing the hat of New Taipei mayor while running for president will be his weak spot during his campaign, Chu decided to “take leave” from his mayorship instead of stepping down outright.

Second, in an effort to regain the momentum, Chu played the ‘cross-Strait card’ again and asked Tsai to elaborate on her idea of “the status quo”. This is not an effective move, as the KMT’s Beijing-friendly policy has already alienated itself from the public. Closer economic ties with China bolster growing concerns that Taiwan’s economic independence will become eroded.

Third, the KMT no longer has the absolute upper hand in Taiwan’s political landscape. According to the latest research by Academia Sinica, the KMT’s support ratings declined to 21 per cent from 33 per cent in 2013, whereas that of the DPP climbed to 24 per cent from 21 per cent two years ago. The gap between the two parties is growing and will be the deciding factor in next year’s legislative election.

The challenges facing Chu’s political career is not just in next year’s presidential and legislative elections. He also faces the prospect of unifying the party, to attract young people, who have stronger Taiwan identity than the older generation. In addition, he will have to convince the public that his party is more capable of handling the cross-Strait issues than the DPP, without having to compromise the island’s sovereignty.

With only three months to go before the elections, Chu has little time to prove his competency. And if the elections outcome does not bode well for the future of the KMT, Tsai won’t have to worry about Eric Chu running against her again in 2020.

(Feature photo of Eric Chu from 志強 胡, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)


Gwenyth Wang

Gwen is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Warwick. She has a Master’s degree in democracy and democratisation from the University College London. She has previously worked in Taipei, Los Angeles and London – in fields ranging from think tanks to academia. She is currently based in Taipei and tweets at @GwenythWR.