OPINION-Kuomintang’s political renewal in Taiwan: Toward the 2024 showdown

The most recent decision by Eric Chu Li-luan to run for the election of the Kuomintang (KMT) chairperson is an indication of the KMT renewal with profound implications for the battle between the KMT and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the 2024 presidential election in Taiwan.

Born in 1961 and elected as the KMT chair from 2015 to 2016, Chu is a KMT politician supportive of the 1992 consensus. In May 2015, he met Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), in Beijing. If Chu were elected as the KMT chair, he would likely become a potentially significant breakthrough in the future development of Taipei-Beijing relations.

Eric Chu said that the KMT had not yet established its office and representative in the US in the past five and half years. He promises that, if he were elected as the party chair, he would set up the KMT office and representative in the US – an indirect criticism of Johnny Chiang Chi-chen, the current KMT chair. 

However, after Chiang’s election as the KMT chair in March 2020, he did not really have the time to visit the US due to the emergence and spread of Covid-19 in the US. Chiang had several discussions with the former Director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), William Brent Christensen. Brent in March 2020 had visited Chiang to maintain close bilateral contacts. Chiang in the past also went to the US to deliver lectures, meeting quite some Congressmen who were supportive of Taiwan. Born in 1972, Chiang acquired his PhD from the University of South Carolina and is familiar with US circumstances.

Eric Chu has become politically assertive after his announcement to run for the party chair position. He has been visiting party elites in various places, such as Hsinchu city, emphasizing that he wants to introduce reforms within the KMT rather than having internal struggles. He projects an image of reuniting the KMT at a time when the DPP popularity is in decline due to the ruling party’s clumsiness and failure to tackle the spread of Covid-19 variants effectively.

Chu says that he wants to build up a strong team for the KMT to nominate the best candidate for the 2024 presidential election. Nor would he be the candidate. Chu vows to bring solidarity back to the KMT, adding that a strong KMT would be a precondition of discussing the possibility of coalition with any other political party – an indication that he adopts an open-minded attitude toward cooperation with perhaps the People’s Party, which was led and founded by Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je in August 2019. 

Born in 1959, Ko was reportedly toying with an idea of running for the last presidential election in 2020, but he eventually did not do so. If Ko harbors the ambition to run for the presidential election, the 2024 election would be ripe for him to consider because he will be 65 years old by that time. Ko has its appeal to Taiwan voters, especially as he projects an image of neither pro-green nor pro-blue. If Ko runs in the 2024 presidential election, he would likely be a “kingmaker” because his votes would determine whether the KMT candidate or DPP candidate would win the electoral showdown.

After Chu announced his intention to run for the party chair position, a deputy secretary of the KMT, Yen Kuan-heng, resigned to maintain neutrality. Eric Chu and Yen are good friends. Yen appears to avoid antagonizing either Chu or Chiang. In response to media questions on Yen’s resignation, Johnny Chiang answered gracefully that Yen and he are good friends, and that Yen had supported his decision in February 2021 to run for the party chair position. On the other hand, Yen said that he would return to the grassroots level to help constituents to fight for various issues, ranging from the lack of electricity to the absence of water supply, and from Taiwan’s economic decline to the inadequacy of vaccines. 

Eric Chu raises a few issues to reform the KMT: (1) the loss of international support, (2) the loss of channels between Taiwan and the mainland, (3) the loss of popular support, (4) the loss of public enthusiasm, and (5) the loss of historical mission among KMT supporters. Chu’s emphasis on the utility of the 1992 consensus is important to the closer relations between the two Straits, but such an emphasis can be easily criticized by the green camp or the pro-DPP side as a “compliant” policy toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC). 

Eric Chu remarked that he would visit the US by the end of 2021, while Johnny Chiang remarked that he would visit the US in October. In 2020, Chiang received an invitation from the US-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference to interact with the US side, but due to Covid-19, the conference was held through the video. Chiang delivered a speech saying that Taiwan should enhance its military reserve’s capability of fighting any war. He advocated an approach of using military strengths to exchange for peace and appealed to the US to rein in any PRC intention of solving the Taiwan question by force. Chiang also stressed that Taiwan should protect its own interests and side with the US. Ideologically, unlike Eric Chu who maintains a traditionally blue position, Chiang appears to be light blue, slightly tilting toward the local supporters of the pan-green side. 

Eric Chu does constitute a threat to the DPP and the pan-green camp. Once Chu announced his intention to run for the party chair, he has been severely criticized by DPP supporters, who quickly questioned whether his sports policy would return to the Ma Ying-jeou era in which the sports development committee was “downgraded” into sports development department. Chu denied that his policy would represent a return to the Ma era, but instead sports development must consider the public health of all citizens as a priority.

When asked by the media about his plan in 2024, Johnny Chiang said that he has no intention of running for the presidential election. However, he would like to be a “kingmaker” in the KMT. Han Kuo-yu, the former Kaohsiung mayor and formerly defeated KMT presidential candidate in early 2020, is regarded by some Taiwan commentators as a possible presidential candidate to be supported by Chiang. However, Han has toned down his political activities in public after he was successfully impeached and removed from the mayor position in Kaohsiung in June 2020. Strictly and strategically speaking, Han should not have participated in the 2020 presidential election. His defeat signaled that Han’s chance of returning to the presidential election battle in 2024 would be slim.

In face of the challenge from Chu, Chiang claimed that, when he took over the KMT leadership, the party’s popularity was only 12 percent. Now its popularity reaches 23 percent – 3 points higher than the DPP whose public image is plagued by its failure to tackle the recent eruption and spread of Covid-19 variants effectively. 

Some commentators in Taiwan speculate that Eric Chu would perhaps support the increasingly popular New Taipei mayor Hou Yu-ih, who was born in 1957 and who will be 67 by 2024. If Hou would not run for the presidential nomination battle in 2024, he would be too old to do it after 2024. As a former director of the National Police Agency from 2006 to 2008, Hou is enjoying a good reputation of maintaining law and order in the city of New Taipei, where Covid-19 has been under control. Another dark horse in the 2023 KMT presidential nomination will likely be the current Taichung mayor Lu Shiow-yen, who defeated DPP candidate Lin Chia-lung comfortably in the 2018 Taichung city mayoral election.

Some commentators have used the most recent opinion survey released on July 13 to emphasize the increasing popularity of Hou Yu-ih, who got 76.7 percent of the satisfaction rate from respondents, followed by Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (66.8 percent), Premier Su Tseng-chang (38.8 percent), Su’s daughter and DPP lawyer Su Chiao-hui (21.2 percent), and Han Kuo-yu (18.4 percent).

On the DPP side, vice-president William Lai Ching-te and Taoyuan mayor Cheng Wen-tsan appear to be the top contenders for the presidential nominee of the ruling party in 2023. Born in 1967, Cheng became the mayor of Taoyuan by defeating John Wu of the KMT in the hotly contested 2014 Taoyuan mayor election. It will be likely that the DPP would be seriously divided if Lai and Cheng would compete for the presidential nomination.

Recent public opinion polls have pointed to 58 percent support for Cheng and 58.7 support for Lai – an indication that the two are the strongest candidates competing for the presidential nominee position by 2023. Eric Chu of the KMT got 53.5 percent of public trust – a result indicating he would not be able to compete with Lai or Cheng from the DPP. As such, Chu would have to find a more charismatic candidate within the KMT. After all, he does not have the ambition to run in the presidential election again. Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je only got 45.9 percent of the public trust – showing that Ko is weaker compared with the DPP’s Lai and Cheng and KMT’s Hou Yu-ih.

Richard Bush, a researcher from Brookings Institution and a former AIT Director, has recently said that, if “a clone of Ma Ying-jeou” would be elected as Taiwan’s president in 2024, then the mainland-Taipei relations would take a turn for the better. However, it remains too early to say whether Hou Yu-ih or any other KMT candidate would adopt a political platform which would be the same as Ma Ying-jeou in 2024.

In conclusion, the KMT is undergoing reforms, renewal and rivalry. If the KMT chair position is going to be captured by Eric Chu, a window of opportunity would likely be suddenly opened for a new era of relationships between Taipei and Beijing, especially in 2024 when the KMT presidential candidate would likely be from the blue camp. If the KMT chair position is going to be captured by Johnny Chiang, Beijing would likely be more hard-pressed to come up with a more attractive model of “one country, two systems” to the people of Taiwan. If the DPP would continue to capture the presidential position in early 2024, Beijing-Taipei relations would remain tense and rocky, unless intermediaries acceptable to Beijing, notably members of the blue camp, would work very hard to ameliorate the bilateral relations. Political uncertainties continue to cloud Beijing-Taipei relations in the years to come, but the party chair position of the KMT will be the first test with the immediate implication of shaping the cross-Strait relations in the short run.