The Dysfunctional DNA of the KMT

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Sunday February 28, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

For both many Taiwanese and also for the reform-minded youth of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) the recent Jan. 16 elections were not just déjà vu, but déjà with a vengeance.

From these two different perspectives one thing has become apparent. Call it DNA or heritage; there is something in the mentality of the KMT's old guard that makes it both incapable of true introspection and unable to understand the very nature of democracy with all its changing demands.

Democracy is a system of government that continues to answer to the will and needs of the public as they grow in knowledge and exercise the right to freely choose competent leaders. Thus by its nature democracy rules out any preconditioned norms and beliefs of hierarchical privilege and entitlement that some Taiwanese political leaders feel is their right.

When a person or party in a democracy has any such ingrained or cultural beliefs in hierarchical privilege, these beliefs will make clear introspection impossible. Nowhere is there a more salient and immediate example of this, than in the KMT which after 40 years of one-party state rule this year lost the presidency for the second time and the legislative majority for the first time in Taiwan's young democracy.

Step back to 2004, when former vice president and then KMT chairman Lien Chan and People's First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong teamed up to run against then-Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) president Chen Shui-bian. At that time, the KMT figured that this would be a slam-dunk, no contest affair.

In 2000, Chen was elected president with only 39.3 per cent of the vote. In contrast the combined total percentages of Lien (23.1 percent) and then-independent Soong (36.8 per cent) were 59.9 percent, a clear 20 percentage points higher than Chen's. However, in 2004, when Lien and Soong joined forces, they lost. Chen's vote increased to 50.1 percent and he gained over 2.5 million votes. Why?

Wild speculation, of course, followed this result as this pan-blue camp sought a scapegoat and/or tipping point for its new narrow loss. However, few wanted to take on the real task, namely the introspection needed to determine how they could lose a 20 per cent advantage in four years -- especially when Chen had to fight the pan-blue majority in the legislature that constantly stymied his motions.

On the scapegoat side there was the "two bullet" theory on the assassination attempt. So, Chinese-American forensics expert Henry Lee was invited to Taiwan to show how Chen and the DPP had staged this assassination attempt. Instead Lee proved the shooting was real.

Afterwards in showmanship fashion, Lien Chan toured the nation, thanked his supporters and pledged reform. Among party suggestions was the cry to remove the name "Chinese" from the party's name and efforts to make it more suitable to a developing Taiwanese identity.

In a classic statement, Lien apologized for the loss and said that the party needed to do some serious introspection, adding that the party no longer needed "happy sparrows singing words of praise." Instead, what the party needed were "woodpeckers to peck out the worms and tell the truth even if the truth might be unpleasant," he said.

Hopes were high.

Introspection was promised, but it never really came. The search for the worms that infested the core of the party was not pursued. Instead of encouraging woodpeckers, the party simply switched gears and relied on cheerleaders; it put a new label on an old product.

With the advent of President Ma Ying-jeou's tenure, the KMT felt that it had a knight on a white horse knight who would put things on the right path. In his early years, Ma lived up to the image and was not short on promises; these promises included a future golden decade and the ill-advised 6-3-3 pledge that now only draws derision.

The task of understanding democracy, which relies on a competent government responding to the needs of the people, was put on the backburner.

More than a decade passed and today after the eight failed years of Ma's administration, the KMT is back to square one and has found itself in a worse position than in 2004. It got a drubbing in the nine-in-one elections of 2014 and a disastrous rout in both the presidential and legislative elections last month.

The cries for reform are being heard once again, for this recent disastrous defeat of the KMT was not simply a political party taking a thrashing in the elections. Instead it was once again a symptom of a party that has never been able to grasp what democracy means and a party that is incapable of introspection.

Whether it is due to human nature, or to the KMT's metaphoric DNA, or to a Confucian hierarchical sense of privilege, the KMT has found that the will of the people has once again moved the cheese of democracy.

Decisive introspection has never been the strong suit of the KMT--either in China or in Taiwan. Even as early as 2000, introspection should have told Lien and the party that Soong was the more competent candidate. For the party's sake, Lien should have stepped down and given up his privileged rank; of course he did not.

This intransigence of their leaders has now become a dilemma of the younger KMT members. They have grown up in democracy. They know that hierarchical privilege does not by itself determine who the best candidate is. They want reform but their hands are tied.

The old KMT, whose heart remains in China, still see the Taiwanese as Taibazi (working-class) and not deserving to rule in what it considers Chinese colonial property. Whether the tree is rotten to the roots remains to be seen.

However, one thing is certain: Worms remain in the upper echelons and there are still no woodpeckers to dig them out.