When a car starts going downhill, the driver and the passenger next to him might start arguing about the best way to escape crashing. The passenger might start pulling at the steering wheel, but if the driver refuses to adapt his direction, a full fight for control might erupt, with both individuals trying to wrest control over the steering wheel from the other. The end result might still be a crash, with the car completely destroyed and driver and passenger seriously injured, or worse.
The Kuomintang is the car crashing down the hill, with presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu and party chairman Eric Liluan Chu the two people inside. We seem to be at the point where the passenger, Chu, is about to win control over the steering wheel from the driver, Hung.
Only a week ago, the replacement of Hung as the party’s presidential candidate by Chu was merely a rumor, dismissed by some as originating from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party and from Hung’s opponents inside the KMT.
On Wednesday, the KMT fully confirmed the rumors, agreeing to hold a congress later this month at which Hung’s candidacy could be canceled and Chu rolled out as the new candidate, fewer than 100 days before the January 16 polling day.
While it still remains to be seen whether the sudden change of course will bring the KMT the results it hopes for, i.e. victory in the January 16 presidential and legislative elections, it is certain that in the short term, the damage will be serious.
Whatever course of action the KMT chooses, it is likely to meet with widespread condemnation.
At the origin of the present collision course stands a mistake made almost a year ago. After the KMT’s devastating defeat in the November 29 local elections, President Ma Ying-jeou was forced to resign as party leader. With apparent reluctance, New Taipei City Mayor Eric Liluan Chu, one of the few local KMT leaders still left standing, accepted the challenge and became a candidate for the party chairmanship.
During his campaign, he kept harping on how he would not run for president because voters in New Taipei City had just re-elected him for a second term as mayor which lasts until December 2018.
As previous frontrunners for the KMT nomination such as former Taipei City Mayor Hau Lung-bin and Vice President Wu Den-yih saw their popularity crash following the local elections, Chu soon looked like the only viable choice. Yet, again and again, he said he would not run for president.
If he had not insisted on this promise, the KMT might not have found itself in its current predicament.
Chu would have given in to the reality that he was the favorite candidate of KMT voters right from the start and have accepted the nomination. Instead, he sat in the background while only Hung and former Health Minister Yaung Chih-liang, neither of them high-profile political stars, came to the fore and declared a run for the nomination.
Yaung failed to clear the first hurdle, leaving Hung alone. She said she was only running to force KMT leaders into the race, but none of those surfaced. Even Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, who for a long time was seen as a contender and the leader of the anti-Hung forces within the party, never materialized as a candidate.
Hung’s crash became inevitable when she proposed China policies far removed from Taiwan’s public opinion, as Chu rightly pointed out at Wednesday’s CSC meeting.
She uttered support for “One China, the Same Interpretation,” a peace accord with Beijing and unification as the final target of Taiwan’s future. The KMT’s basic tenet on cross-straits relations is the so-called “1992 Consensus” or “One China, Each His Own Interpretation,” a formula which has already been rejected by the opposition and by a large segment of Taiwan’s public opinion. Moving in the opposite direction, away from public opinion, was certain to lead to a significant loss of support for Hung, though the KMT waited until it was almost too late – according to rules guarded by the Central Election Commission – to change candidates.
The party will now be faced with the consequences of having to choose between ideals of democracy and the electoral reality.
As Hung and her supporters pointed out, the KMT will face a serious democratic deficit. Here it introduced a democratic process to select a candidate, yet in the end it “recalled” that candidate despite the complete absence of any impropriety or corruption.
It will be attacked for betraying its intentions to introduce democratic reforms and stick with them, and rightly so.
On the other hand, it is understandable from a political viewpoint that when a political party sees a disaster looming, it will do everything in its power to prevent that disaster from happening and to salvage some of its possessions from the wreckage.
The KMT realized that while the presidential election was certainly already lost, it could not afford to lose the legislative election as well. For the first time in modern Taiwan history, the KMT might lose the grip on the Legislative Yuan which it held even during the rule of President Chen Shui-bian from 2000 to 2008.
The trigger for the move to change Hung was reportedly the realization by the KMT’s legislative candidates that it would be impossible for them to win with Hung as the presidential candidate. So, while it is widely believed to be already too late to save the presidential election, Chu has been offering up his reputation and breaking his promises in order to prevent a disaster in what is considered the junior of the January 16 elections.
On his way to election day, the new KMT candidate will still have to deal with New Taipei City politicians who want to recall him because he is breaking his promises to stay on as mayor until 2018 and because he is apparently unwilling to resign as mayor during the campaign. Chu will also have to deal with KMT infighting, with Hung supporters who are angry about her replacement and have sworn not to vote for him in the presidential election.
There is also still the problem of People First Party Chairman James Soong. While his campaign has been heading the same way as Hung’s in the polls, he is still occupying more than 10 percent of the political landscape, drawing votes which might have gone to a KMT contender. As his emergence might have been the result of Hung’s nomination by the KMT, some within the ruling party will now hope that Soong gives way to Chu.
The new KMT candidate will also face the choice of a vice-presidential running mate, which could be KMT Vice Chairperson Huang Min-huei, a woman and former mayor of Chiayi City in Southern Taiwan, which would complement his candidacy in two ways.
The first opinion polls indicate that, as might be expected, voters will not flock to back Chu. The main trends are still the same, with DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen hanging on to her significant lead.
Understandable, since Tsai’s support has not been based on Hung’s lack of popularity, but on the policies of eight years of KMT government and their consequences.
Even with a new driver at the wheel, the car might still crash.