January 16, 2016 will go down in history as one of the worst days in the more than 100 years of existence of the Kuomintang, short of its forced departure from China in 1949.
Taiwanese voters dealt it an unprecedented blow, not only defeating its presidential candidate but also for the first time taking away its absolute majority at the Legislative Yuan.
KMT Chairman Eric Liluan Chu received 31 percent of the vote, or more than 3 million votes less than opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen, who won a comfortable 56 percent or 6.89 million votes.
At the 113-seat Legislative Yuan, the party went from 64 seats to only 35, worse than the worse predictions during the campaign. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party surged from 40 seats to 68, achieving its first-ever majority.
In 2000, KMT presidential candidate Lien Chan might have done worse, receiving only 24 percent and finishing third, but at least the party still controlled the Legislature and he was back with just under 50 percent of the vote four years later.
This time, defeat was total, even though it would still be too early to say, as some have, that the DPP will stay in power for 20 years and that the KMT will be replaced as the main opposition by the newer and smaller parties such as the New Power Party. While that one group achieved a breakthrough with five seats, other similar lists, such as the alliance between the Green Party and the Social Democratic Party, remained outside the Legislative Yuan.
Chu only held on as leading presidential contender in the more remote and least-populated parts of Taiwan. He still finished first in the east-coast counties of Hualien and Taitung, but that was hardly any comfort, since the DPP took away both legislative seats in those areas.
As should have happened, he tendered his resignation the evening after the election results became known. As a result, the party will be caught in a power struggle to find a new leader. At first, the election of a chairperson by party members was set for February 27, but after complaints, this was rescheduled to March 26, while the necessary registration fee was cut in an attempt to appear more democratic.
As could be expected, the electoral calamity has caused a variety of opinions to emerge from within the ranks of the KMT.
First of all, there is the attention being paid to who will run for chairman. As mentioned several times after she was replaced as the party’s presidential candidate, Legislative Vice Speaker Hung Hsiu-chu announced a bid on January 20. A lesser known politician, Taipei City Councilor Chung Hsiao-ping, also declared he was in the running. Former Taipei City Mayor Hau Lung-bin, who resigned as vice chairman after the election, in which he failed to win a legislative seat in Keelung, announced his bid on January 21.
Vice President Wu Den-yih, whose credit reportedly rose after he helped legislative candidates in his native Nantou County win re-election, has been more reticent, implying he might take up the challenge, but without announcing any clear intention so far.
Whoever wins, the choice of a new leader is not the most important issue for the future of the KMT.
In addition to President Ma’s leadership, the main problem Taiwanese voters have with the KMT is its wide array of policies out of touch with the public’s daily life.
The tragedy for the party is that it should not have taken until the January 16 election disaster to know that reform is needed.
President Ma Ying-jeou’s opinion poll ratings went into free fall soon after he was re-elected in January 2012, tumbling down to 13 percent and lower, initially mostly as a consequence of his support for the import of beef from the United States with traces of the leanness drug ractopamine.
If the KMT did not know it should reform then, it was told so in no uncertain terms by the results of the November 29, 2014 local and regional elections. The DPP won 13 positions of mayor or county magistrate, while the KMT was left with only six. As if that was not already enough of a disaster, instead of listening to the voice of the voters, the party stumbled through another year, wasting its time on trying to look for a presidential candidate and then replacing her but to no avail.
For more than one year, from the local elections right up to 2016, virtually every single opinion poll showed Tsai way in the lead, sometimes by up to 30 percent. Yet neither government nor party took the hint, instead letting some of its present and former lawmakers launch farfetched personal attacks on the DPP leader.
While the KMT now talks about reform, it still remains to be seen whether the right type of reform is to be expected from the current crop of candidates for its leadership.
One of the official reasons why Hung was replaced as presidential candidate was her views on China, which were even further from the Taiwanese mainstream than the KMT’s or Ma’s.
Hau’s heritage as mayor of Taipei City has been thoroughly dismantled by his successor, Ko Wen-je.
Chung’s only major proposal to be mentioned by the media was the idea to expel former Vice President Lien Chan from the party.
So far, the most far-reaching proposals to have emerged have come from a new group of young party officials calling itself the “Grassroots Association.”
One of their first proposals for consideration was for the KMT to drop references to China from its name. The party’s full official name is still “Chungkuo Kuomintang” (“Zhongguo Guomindang”), usually translated as Chinese Nationalist Party. However, in the face of criticism, the young activists hurried to emphasize that the word “Chinese” had not been in the earlier party name proposed by Dr. Sun Yat-sen himself, and that they were only suggesting the possibility of a name change, not advocating it.
However, it shows that at least within the younger ranks of the KMT, there is a realization of what is wrong with the party and what it needs to do. First of all, de-emphasize its links to China, and pull closer to a full Taiwanese identity.
The activists also demanded more internal party democracy with open debates between the candidates about their policies.
All candidates have also promised to solve the issue of the party assets once and for all, but the problem is that Ma and Chu did so in the past too, so these promises need to be closely watched.
While the proposals from the young KMT members go in the right direction, the question remains whether the new leader, whoever he or she is, will bear their suggestions in mind. The gap between old and young has been one of the party’s main problems, but none of the candidates for chairperson seems to be particularly close to the “Grassroots Association.”
Within the next few months, as most of the attention will focus on the new administration of President Tsai Ing-wen, the KMT would do well not to spend its time on harsh attacks against the government, but to focus on its own long road to reform ahead.