Taiwan’s Presidency: Twilight for the Kuomintang?

In the changing world of politics, 20 nations – about 10 percent of the world –have overcome gender bias and elected females as their leaders. In January 2016, if all goes according to form, Taiwan will join that select club. The nation’s two main presidential contenders are women.

The key words in this of course are if all goes according to form but then it may hold true even if things do not. The undisputed opposition Democratic Progressive Party candidate is Tsai Ing-wen. She is also the favored front-runner. In early June, Tsai completed a very successful visit to Taiwan’s major ally, the United States, and explained her platform. Her reception was much better than when she had run in 2012. In that campaign, she also weathered all the homeland slings, arrows and barbs that anyone running for a national position must face. Tsai is entering this race as a battle-tested veteran.

Conversely, Taiwan’s ruling party, the Kuomintang or Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is having trouble finding a candidate at all, and the one the party found, Hung Siu-chu, the vice president of the Legislative Yuan, is exhibiting troubling inconsistencies over the always-ticklish question of sovereignty and Taiwan’s relationship to the US. Those inconsistencies do not bode well for the Kuomintang. Hung has been called a minor functionary and loose cannon whose swift nomination was pushed through because the party’s standing is so poor that nobody else was willing to run.

No takers in the KMT

Only two persons entered the primary, and only Hung passed the first requirement to get 15,000 signatures approving her bid. Hung later passed the second step by getting well over the required 30 percent approval rating in polls (she got 46.2). She now waits until July 19 for the official confirmation of her candidacy at the KMT convention.

As the only KMT contender, her confirmation would seem secure. However there are clouds. None of the party heavyweights entered the primary—they were later labeled too “hesitant or cowardly” and hoping to be drafted. There is also speculation that her poll approval rating may have been skewed by DPP crossover votes. Regardless, she now enters the phase of intense scrutiny found in running at a national level.

In politics as in business, the Peter Principle applies – that one rises to the level of his or her incompetence. Many can perform well at a local level, but when they reach the national level a much more intense scrutiny and judgment kicks in. Since none of the KMT heavyweights entered the primary, Hung, through no fault of her own, never went head-to-head with any of them. For that reason, not all party camps and divisions are on board and ready to endorse her. The KMT primary system will no doubt change after this election.

Hung’s combative and feisty personality is under scrutiny. With the nickname, the “little hot pepper” she tends to speak first and think later. This creates problems at a national level. For example, is she a team player? New candidates, especially unknowns, visit the US to seek a stamp of approval even though the US says it refrains from influencing Taiwan politics. The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) extended an invitation and KMT Party Chairman Eric Chu indicated that when confirmed Hung could visit the US in August or September. Hung almost immediately countered that she will go if and when she determines to. (She later did admit this was “improper.”) However such quick responses are too frequent as she also suggested that perhaps the US should visit her after she wins.

Ying-jeou's favorite bites his hand

Hung is allegedly looked upon favorably by President Ma Ying-jeou, yet she has criticized his cross-strait policy, suggesting that his principles of “no unification, no independence and no use of force” would lead the nation from de facto to de jure independence. And instead of Ma’s nebulous one-country-with-two-interpretations relationship with China, she advocates one country and one interpretation. How she will achieve agreement with China resulting in one interpretation remains a mystery.

Here, Hung demonstrates a worrisome naiveté as to the reality of cross-strait affairs. Her critics wonder if she has even paid attention to China’s consistent efforts to prevent other nations from recognizing Taiwan. Ironically however she then reverses and contradicts herself by saying that Beijing has never recognized the right of the Republic of China, as Taiwan is formally known, to exist. Still she feels she can negotiate a one-country, one-interpretation agreement, something tantamount to getting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to admit that though it won the Civil War, it really did not.

Similarly while Hung is aware of her party’s disastrous results in the November 2014 general election, she denies that that vote relates to Ma’s efforts to ramrod through an unexamined trade bill with China. Instead she blames the Sunflower Movement, a 2014 coalition of students and civic groups protesting the passing of the Cross-Strait Trade Agreement by the Kuomintang without a clause-by-clause review,as destroying the nation’s alleged mutual trust with Beijing. Such positions lead many to question if Hung is in touch with rank-and-file Taiwanese.

Taiwan’s future leaders are always required to navigate thorny issues like the “one-China” policy, the mythic “status quo” etc. Past Taiwan governments were always able to skirt these challenges by keeping things vague to allow for flexibility. Hung seems confused and instead gives her own interpretations even to the extent that she claimed that the bogus “1992 consensus,” the outcome of a meeting between semi-official representatives of the mainland and Taiwan on finding ways to facilitate communications and commerce, actually created the One China principle in which both sides allegedly said they would recognize that there is only one China, and that that principle had already a part of a series of agreements with the US over Washington’s position on Taiwan’s sovereignty.

As this goes on, questions have been raised or leaked about Hung’s 1991 master’s degree from Northeast Missouri State University, then a teachers college but now Truman State University. How can one get a Master’s degree with only a few years’ summer school classes? If Hung did not get a teacher’s certificate how many credit hours did she take there? If legitimate these questions could provide the excuse needed by the KMT standing committee to reject Hung’s candidacy on July 19.

This campaign, however, is proving to be more than just a matter of whether Hung will get KMT approval. It reveals much deeper issues for the KMT. Party identity and loyalty have been diminishing. There has been no strong planned development of the next generation of leaders. The current leaders have lived too long on clichés, and half-baked ideology based on a Constitution created in China in 1947 just before the KMT lost the Civil War.

As a result younger members have no idea how to explain such vagaries in the changing world of today’s political environment. After January 2016, pundits may well be discussing what was the tipping point in Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency that marked the party’s decline.

Jerome F. Keating is an academic living in Taiwan and teaching at a local university.