Can the KMT Regroup if it Loses?

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Monday January 18, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The presidential and legislative elections are at hand and the majority of pre-election polls have indicated losses for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).

Anticipating that result, three crucial questions are predicted for discussion in the aftermath.

The first and obvious question will be why the KMT lost, especially after having controlled the presidency for eight years and having always held a legislative majority? Second, and more importantly will be the discussion over why the KMT lost by so much? The third question is most vital: can the KMT regroup?

In answering these questions, five interlinked factors must be considered.

The first factor to examine is candidate choice. In looking at the three presidential candidates, the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen stands out as the best choice. Tsai has abundant governmental experience and has been battle tested in campaigns, which has made her a seasoned veteran. Despite losses in 2010 against Eric Chu in the New Taipei City mayoral race, and in the 2012 presidential race, she has regrouped and reorganized the DPP. From all this, she has also learned the art of politics—minefields to avoid and how to meet the needs of the broader spectrum. Now her only challenge is to deliver; hopefully she will have a legislature that will help.

People's First Party presidential candidate, James Soong is a man whose day has passed. He only hopes to ensure that his party will win some legislator at-large seats. His best opportunity was in the 2000 presidential elections when he was at his peak. His failure to get even 5 per cent of the vote in the 2008 Taipei mayoral election was a sign of his marginalization. Since then he has been a dead man walking in political circles. When he leaves, his party will crumble: strike the shepherd and the flock will scatter.

Chu has been thrust in the role of a "Johnny-come-lately" candidate. He had shown early promise for the KMT, but recent events have diluted that hope. His narrow re-election as the New Taipei City mayor in 2014 was a sign of a faltering support base. At a time when he should have been examining the reasons behind his narrow margin of victory, he was forced into becoming the KMT hopeful. A loss now, would give him time to reflect on KMT issues. Will he take the opportunity?

The KMT's future brings up the second question of why the party has been losing by so much, since November nine-n-one elections. Part of the answer is the unfortunate factor of President Ma Ying-jeou. Like it or not, Ma's presidency has successfully and forever destroyed the KMT myth of "wise government" that had lingered from certain accomplishments in its one-party state days.

Examining the role of Ma is the key to understanding the why the KMT fell. It is not just Ma who has been incompetent; governments have survived incompetent leaders before. The problem has been that Ma tied the credibility of the KMT to his image and his promise that he could bring back the glory days created by a one-party state. His promises proved to be misplaced. One of them was Ma's ill-conceived vow to raise the individual income level to NT$30,000 per month. He never came close to achieving that in eight years. Unfortunately not learning from this error, Chu has promised to achieve that level in one year if he is elected.

Finding a capable and credible chairperson will be a separate issue for the KMT if it hopes to regroup. Some in the Ma camp are floating the idea of bringing him back as chairperson, but that would be similar to the situation involving Soong Mayling after former president Chiang Ching-kuo's death. Some loyalists would support Ma, but not enough to turn the tide. Ma may prove to be running for his life after he leaves office. The KMT chairperson issue will not be easy, especially since Deputy Legislative Speaker Hung Hsiu-chu whom Eric Chu replaced as presidential candidate is considering running for that position.

There is more trouble in store for the KMT. An ironic third hidden role to be sorted out is that of Wang Jin-pyng. Wang is a wheeler-dealer, who is liked by many but favored by few. Despite his speakership he has never been KMT party chairman or a presidential candidate.

In the strife of September last year, Ma tried to rid of Wang because Wang did not move the cross-strait service trade agreement with China through the legislature quickly enough. This backfired on Ma because Wang saved the Sunflower movement by allowing the student-led group to remain in the main legislative chamber and not ordering them to be cleared out like they were from the Executive Yuan.

As No. 1 on the KMT at-large list, Wang is guaranteed to be in the legislature for the next four years whatever happens on Saturday.

The fourth factor for the KMT party is coming to terms with its past identity. Certainly one contributing reason for the KMT's failure is that the party does not have a sense of shared history with Taiwan. In its role as settler colonialists, the KMT never outnumbered Taiwanese. Instead, it has proven to be only a diaspora, although it does not know how to accept that role. Some party members long to go back to China; others have adapted and become Taiwanese while others are content to try and become a lesser enclave in Taiwan politics and culture. This factor will be key in the struggle for the party's identity.

The fifth and final complication that portends problems for the KMT is the use of media on a huge scale alongside the role of a free press, something that did not exist in the KMT's one-party state days. This is seen where KMT commercials and "propaganda" are quickly parodied, with the party leaders mocked. The Sunflower movement used this to its advantage. News can be transmitted island wide in seconds and YouTube videos can go viral in minutes; people do not need to rely on television, newspapers and radio.

Because of the change in how news travels, the public can see that their leaders have flaws and need not be glorified as in the days of Chiang Kai-shek. Political image is a crucial factor, and a two-edged sword but the government is not the only entity that can wield it.

These are things that the KMT must face if it is to regroup in the aftermath of the elections.