The leadership race of the Kuomintang (KMT), Taiwan’s opposition party, has come to a close after weeks of intra-party drama. Eric Chu, the former New Taipei mayor, was elected in late September by a slim margin, winning just half the votes he had won six years ago.

Yet Chu was triumphant in his victory speech. “Tonight is the moment the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) shall begin to worry,” Chu said. “Because starting today, we will unite the KMT like never before. We will be united, combative, and victory-seeking.”

Chu, a seasoned politician with a prior stint as the KMT chairman, will, like his recent predecessors, face the challenges of leading a fractured party, resetting cross-strait dialogue, and strategizing against the ruling DPP in the 2022 local elections.


Photo Credit: 中央社

Chu receiving the KMT party seal from his predecessor Johnny Chiang, October 5, 2021.
Unsatisfactory outcomes

Chu won with 85,146 votes, or 45.78% of the ballots cast, but his vote share was the lowest in the KMT’s history of leadership elections, foretelling the difficulties he will face in garnering enough support to push for reform.

His opponents for chairmanship included runner-up, dark-horse candidate Chang Ya-Chung with 32.59% of the vote, incumbent Johnny Chiang with 18.86%, and former Changhua County magistrate Cho Po-yuan with 2.76%.

Chang’s swift rise to popularity, reflected in his vote share, posed the greatest threat to Chu’s campaign. While he refers to himself as an academic, being the president of the deep-blue education institution the Sun Yat-Sen School, Chang’s lesser discussed political career ranges from being a diplomat, anti-DPP activist, to an elected representative of the National Assembly, a legislative body of the Republic of China until 2005. The running theme in his career is his strong opposition to Taiwanese independence and support for China’s “reunification.”

Chang’s more recent rise to prominence in the media — requesting authorization for 10 million doses of vaccines from Chinese benefactors and his proposal for a “peace memorandum” — is also in line with his China-friendly views.

If the votes for Chang indeed reflect inner-party support for the realization of his ideals, this would suggest that at least one-third of active KMT members support not only a China-friendly approach, but “reunification” as an end goal. This would present the KMT as further disconnected from the mainstream public opinion that has grown increasingly supportive of the status quo.

Factors apart from cross-strait ideology, such as candidate charisma and inner-party demographics, may have contributed to the final results, but Chu will still have to address cross-strait views more extreme than his own while attempting to concentrate power in a fractured party that failed to give him a decisive majority win.

Chu’s cross-strait plan

The KMT candidates’ ideological hardening over the 1992 Consensus did not go unnoticed during the chair debate, but Chu’s more island-centric position on the issue offers a path more acceptable to party moderates.

From the six platforms Chu campaigned on, “cross-strait connection” (通兩岸) and “international connection” (連國際) stand out to mean interactions with China on the economic and social level and re-establishing a representative office in Washington, D.C.

Chu’s notion of cross-strait peace seems to draw from the Ma Ying-jeou administration, during which Chu served as Vice Premier, proposing to “promote social exchanges and decrease political [tensions]” through culture, religion, sports, business, city exchanges, and academics. He builds on President Tsai Ing-wen’s proposal to “seek common ground while reserving differences,” believing that Taiwan and China should seek common ground while “respecting” differences.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Eric Chu, then-New Taipei mayor, with China's President Xi Jinping as they pose for pictures during a meeting in Beijing, China, May 4, 2015.

While Chu’s cross-strait plans may sound appealing in the abstract, the Ma administration had similar aspirations that led to the Sunflower Movement’s protest against Beijing’s growing influence in Taiwan. Furthermore, Chu has chosen to abide by the 1992 Consensus that allowed Ma to build ties with Beijing, but also uses the same cross-strait discourse that Taiwanese voters rejected in the 2020 Elections.

The incoming chairman’s solution to this seems to be a balancing act between relations with China and the United States, announcing that he will be visiting the U.S. to make preparations for the re-establishment of the KMT’s representative office in the capital.

The rationale behind the KMT’s re-engagement with the U.S. seems to be that voters will be less inclined to label the party as entirely pro-China, while neutralizing the DPP’s advantage of maintaining friendly relations with the U.S. However, the tightrope that Chu wants to balance between China and the U.S. will require extreme caution, as it may backfire within his party or among general voters if he teeters too far in one direction or the other.

This delicate act has already been tested by Chu receiving a customary congratulatory letter from Beijing, whereas incumbent Chairman Johnny Chiang did not receive one last year. For party members, this signals a return to seeking closer ties with China, but the public can grow wary of its implications, especially with Chu responding that the KMT is willing to engage on the basis of the 1992 Consensus and opposition to Taiwanese independence.

Battles to come before 2022

The KMT and DPP won’t face off directly at the polls until the 2022 local elections. But before that, the Tsai administration has to defend against four referendums in December, two of which are backed by the KMT— banning pork imports containing ractopamine and holding referendums to coincide with national elections.

In addition, the recall election for pro-independence Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP) Legislator Chen Po-wei scheduled on October 23 has become an unlikely battlefield between the two parties, with the DPP committed to supporting Chen against the KMT’s recall efforts in Taichung’s second district, where the election will occur.

Chu’s strategies for the recall vote and the four referendums will be placed under scrutiny, with any kind of failure indicating his inability to exert strength and leadership in uniting the party as he promised. The outcomes will also determine the level of support the KMT enters the 2022 local elections with.

The KMT chair position has a four year term limit, but considering that the party has elected six chairpersons within five years, even a small miscalculation by Chu’s could mean the end of his hard-won position as leader. Whether he can rise above the challenges and deliver on his platforms may be key to his political fate.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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