Déjà vu and the KMT after the 2020 Elections

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Wednesday February 5, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

As someone who has lived in Taiwan and closely followed and written about its democracy for the past three decades, I must admit that overall, I was pleased with the Jan. 11 election results.

It may be biased to say, but the people have spoken and democracy triumphed.

The incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, President Tsai Ing-wen won another four-year term.

Meanwhile, the DPP, which maintained its majority in the Legislative Yuan, received a mild warning as it lost some legislative seats. Tellingly in the separate party vote, the DPP and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) received an equal amount of legislative seats.

Kaohsiung Mayor, Han Kuo-yu, the KMT populist candidate was sent packing back to Kaohsiung to see if he has any ability to be a real mayor let alone a president.

In the arena of third parties, which should be considered necessary in a democracy, there were some surprises.

First, the voters sounded the death knell of People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong and the PFP. Soong received a disappointing 4.2 percent of the vote for president. Since he will be 81 by the next presidential election in 2024, the chances of him trying to run a campaign again are minimal.

Further, despite its early confidence that it could win ten legislative seats, the PFP did not pass the 5 percent threshold in the party vote. It therefore will have no representation in the upcoming legislature. Since the PFP shepherd has been slain, the flock will no doubt scatter.

The New Power Party (NPP) continued to maintain some influence by again obtaining 3 legislative seats in the party vote. One of its former members, Freddy Lim held onto his seat, but this time as an independent.

However, the big surprise was that of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which won five legislator at large seats through the party vote.

Founded by current Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je, the TPP replaced the NPP as the third-largest party in the nation. With its showing and the fact that Ko would finish his second term as mayor of Taipei in 2022, it seems likely that Ko will consider running for president in 2024.

Taiwan has clearly progressed in its democracy, and yet for any close observer, there still remains a strong sense of déjà vu. It brings to mind the French saying: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Why? What has created this haunting sense of déjà vu, which like the pungent aroma of stale and dated perfume continues to hang over both Taiwan and that nation on the other side of the Taiwan Strait?

Begin with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In 2013, I wrote an opinion piece about how despite the KMT victory in 2012, and the despair in some DPP circles, to a close observer, the DPP was already back in the game even with the 2008 scandals of former president Chen Shui-bian. (“China will have to deal with the DPP,” April 24, 2013, page 8)

True, the KMT had won again in 2012, but its victories were a clear and distant second to those of 2008. Then-president Ma was already losing his sheen and he had now received the title of “bumbler.” Further, the KMT had no strong candidate to replace him in 2016. It did not find one and lost.

That op-ed claimed that China would definitely have to face the inevitable future reality of dealing with the DPP. How true. Few believed it then but that reality has prevailed. The DPP and Taiwan’s democracy are clearly not going away.

The DPP won the presidential and legislative elections not only in 2016 and again this year. The landscape and thinking of Taiwan continues to change as new voters raised in democracy fill the ranks. Yet, the PRC in its own blustery way still tries to operate as if the reality of Taiwan’s democracy and the DPP can be ignored.

A major part of this PRC problem is of course ideological. Its authoritarian Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not practice or believe in democracy of any form. That word is anathema to its leaders; they have shown that they would rather break their 1997 promise to allow democracy in Hong Kong than honor it.

However, the problem is not just China’s; it is also found in the KMT and that is the déjà vu that must be addressed here.

The KMT not only lost Taiwan’s presidency in 2016 and this year, but it also lost the legislature. Despite this, the KMT still cannot bring itself to reform.

To be sure, there are cries for change and they ring out particularly among the young. However, the KMT’s old guard can neither see the writing on the wall nor source the root of the party’s troubles. Clinging to a lost paradigmatic identity, and still unused to democracy, the KMT veterans cannot let go of power and trust the democratic voices of their younger faction.

A different op-ed I wrote, addressed those issues once more. This time it was after the KMT’s disastrous losses in the 2014, nine-in-one elections, (“Now is decision time for the KMT,” Taipei Times, Dec. 14, 2014, page 8). In it, I again went over how the KMT was out of touch with the youth vote and changing times. It still is.

Two years later, I again hit the same issues in an op-ed after the DPP’s 2016 presidential and legislative victories, I questioned the KMT’s very roots as well as the sincerity of its Deputy Secretary-General Alex Tsai who now four years later is, not surprisingly, under investigation involving self-professed Chinese spy William Wang Liqiang. (“The root of the KMT’s identity crisis,” June 20, 2016, page 8).

Still, this inspired no change. Perhaps the KMT prefers not to read the Taipei Times.

That 2016 article posed four questions that the KMT must resolve, including the central question: How can the KMT maintain its belief in “one China” and pretend to balance that with a free and democratic Taiwan?

That democratic issue has remained unresolved. Wrapped in it, is a central KMT position as it clings to its past identity.

This belief had by then found expression in the bogus “1992 consensus,” an expression that former Mainland Affairs Council chairman Su Chi invented in 2000, eight years after 1992.

This crucial matter of the “1992 consensus” continues, but today, for the first time, it is finally being challenged by the KMT’s younger generations as they seek to revitalize their party.

In this, they are finding that the KMT old guard is of little help. Not only does it not help, but it also muddies the waters.

Ironically, for example, former Taiwan president, Ma Ying-jeou, has tried to lay the blame on the PRC. He recently stated that he felt that China had skewed the “1992 consensus” because Beijing would always omit the words “with different interpretations” when uttering the phrase “one China.”

Ma seems to have forgotten that back in 2015 when he met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Singapore, he was the one who publically avoided stating in front of Xi that the KMT held to “one China with different interpretations.”

This is the issue that will not go away, because as KMT Central Advisory Committee member Chang Ya-ping states, it is tied to the nation’s Constitution. Whereas on the other hand, KMT Youth League head Hsiao Ching-yan disagrees. For him, the roots of this expression of unification clearly conflict with a democratic Taiwan.

Constitutions can be changed, revised and amended. Taiwan’s dated 1947 Republic of China Constitution is in desperate need of an update. The KMT must face the fact that the only acceptable way that it could return to present authoritarian China would be in the garb of traitors.

Will the KMT rise to the task, stay in Taiwan and revitalize itself in this matter? A democratic Taiwan will always need a strong and vibrant opposition party to progress.

Or will the coming years be déjà vu all over again?

If the KMT cannot face this, then perhaps the TPP will come through for Taiwan since it desires to be the nation’s second largest party.

It is still far too early to say, but the issues are now on the table and for the KMT the central ones are constitutional and loyalty to Taiwan’s democracy.