25 October 2016
KMT chairman and presidential candidate Eric Chu gestures while giving a speech at a party congress in Taipei on Oct. 17. Photo: Reuters
KMT chairman and presidential candidate Eric Chu gestures while giving a speech at a party congress in Taipei on Oct. 17. Photo: Reuters

Why KMT’s Eric Chu has a daunting task ahead of him

Fearing a disastrous outcome at presidential and legislative elections in January, Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang finally took the plunge and replaced its original presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, with party chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫), mayor of New Taipei City.

The move is unlikely to prevent the win of Tsai Ing-wen, candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, but it may help limit KMT’s loss of seats in the parliament, known as the Legislative Yuan.

Even during 2000-2008, when Chen Shui-bian of the DPP was president, the KMT controlled the legislature and the DPP did not have full control of the government.

A recent poll showed Tsai with more than a 20-point lead. Hung, the deputy legislative speaker, born in Taiwan of mainland parents, shocked many by advocating unification with the mainland. A KMT-sponsored poll early this month put her support level at 13 percent, leading to calls for her replacement. At the party congress on October 17, more than 90 percent of delegates voted to replace her.

Ironically, Tsai, the opposition candidate, has in effect endorsed President Ma Ying-jeou’s policy of cooperation with the mainland by announcing that her cross-strait policy would be one of maintaining the status quo. She has moved so far toward the center that on Oct. 10, for the first time, the DPP leader actually attended National Day celebrations presided over by Ma and even sang the national anthem, although noticeably keeping her mouth closed at certain times.

This is understandable because the anthem is a relic of the KMT’s authoritarian past, where party and government were indistinguishable, and the lyrics at one point refer to “our party”, meaning the KMT. But because of Taiwan’s unique political situation, it is difficult to imagine the adoption of new lyrics for the anthem, even if Tsai is elected president with a parliamentary majority.

With less than three months to go before the Jan. 16 election, Chu faces a daunting challenge to try to catch up with the clear frontrunner. The KMT has not fared well in the eight years of Ma’s presidency, with the cross-strait relationship standing out as virtually the president’s only successful policy, albeit a very important one.

So Chu will challenge Tsai to debate the cross-strait issue and press her on the DPP’s stance on Taiwan independence, which is abhorrent to Beijing. Chu will also question her on Lee Teng-hui’s policy of a “state-to-state relationship” between Taiwan and China, known as the “two-states theory”. On her part, Tsai will try to say as little as possible since, at this point, the election is hers to lose.

The KMT lost badly in local elections last November, with the DPP making major inroads into hitherto KMT bastions. Eric Chu’s victory in New Taipei City was one of the party’s few bright spots. During the campaign, he promised to serve out his term. But now that he is running for president, he has to break that promise. And if he loses the election, he cannot go back to being the mayor.

Chu may well try to solicit American support for his candidacy. In 2012, Tsai lost to Ma in part because the Obama administration was not comfortable with her as Taiwan’s leader. This year, the United States has not taken sides but Chu is likely to visit Washington soon, in part to boost his standing at home, as the American Institute in Taiwan has said that he is welcome.

The KMT’s top priority at this point is to keep its majority in the Legislative Yuan. But given the extent of the defeat all across Taiwan last year, this will not be easy.

So far, China has kept quiet about the Taiwan elections, as it has promised. No doubt, a pro-China candidate would be welcome, but not if this was going to be counterproductive. Beijing is more interested in the election of a new leader with whom it can work. Chu, who met the Chinese leader Xi Jinping last May, is clearly someone acceptable to Beijing.

If Tsai wins, China will be wary of her every word and act. But there should not be a repetition of what transpired during the Chen Shui-bian era. China has developed a variety of ties with both the Taiwan government and its people over the last 15 years. No doubt, it will try to get Tsai to pay lip service to a nebulous “one China”, but it should also have learned that threats have the effect of driving Taiwan’s people away, and that greater sophistication is necessary.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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