After a marathon review in the legislature on Monday, the Act Governing the Handling of Ill-gotten Properties by Political Parties and Their Affiliate Organizations (政黨及其附隨組織不當取得財產處理條例) was finally passed, empowering the government to investigate, and presumably go after, the Kuomintang’s (KMT) “ill-gotten” assets. Traumatic though this experience may be, it could also be just what the KMT needs to reform and rejuvenate itself.

Substantial resistance is expected. The KMT leadership has already promised to use every legal instrument at its disposal, including the request for a constitutional interpretation, to counter what elements within the party regard as retribution by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which now controls both the executive and legislative branches of government.

However, a battle to the death is not in the KMT’s best interest — and it certainly isn’t in Taiwan’s best interest.

Entrenched interests will make the recuperation of those assets, and their return to their rightful owners, an onerous task at best. Some, perhaps many, will fight the special commission that will be set under the Executive Yuan to investigate the KMT. After all, whether fortunes are made by means legal or not, their owner will rarely, if ever, agree to give them up freely. Moreover, the party-society dependencies that continue to exist today because of the fortunes amassed by the KMT since 1945, the clientelism that gave the KMT a major advantage in elections, is something that it is unlikely to give up without a fight.

But recent years have made clear that control of the financial spigot is no longer enough. Above all, Taiwanese now expect good governance and accountability from the people they elect, which largely explains why the KMT, notwithstanding the assets at its disposal, fared so poorly in the Nov. 29, 2014, local elections, and in the Jan. 16 presidential and legislative elections. Not long ago many analysts claimed that it was mathematically impossible for the DPP to win major elections.

That may have been true then, but that is no longer the case, evidently. The reason is that the ground has shifted; civil society changed the rules of the game, so much so that a continued clientelistic relationship between the KMT and society, which in some ways explains how a former authoritarian regime succeeded in getting itself elected after decades of iron-fisted rule, will no longer be sufficient to ensure electoral victory.

In this new, more politically aware context of post-Sunflower Taiwan, the KMT’s ill-gotten assets are no longer the assets they once were; increasingly they are a handicap, a scarlet letter that epitomizes the party’s inability to truly reform itself and a reminder of the old guard’s continued influence on the party. The KMT therefore finds itself at a crossroads: it can fight, and perhaps will succeed in keeping its financial wealth, real estate, and investments, but in doing so it risks creating further distance between itself and a society that is no longer as easily co-opted, and will therefore pay the price at the polls.

There’s already an ongoing battle within the KMT between the reformers and those who want to maintain the status quo. So far, with Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) — who has called the Act “evil” and “illegal” — in charge, reform has been an uphill battle and the outcome of that fight remains highly uncertain.

Provided it is handled properly and does not verge into rampant punitiveness, the Act passed on Monday could draw a wedge between the reformers and the conservatives in the KMT — and it should. It could also give ammunition to, if not empower, those in the KMT who see the logic of severing the umbilical cord that links their party to its authoritarian past. Ironically, should the reformers succeed, they will likely be regarded as traitors by the more conservative branches of the KMT, but in doing so could ensure that the party launches the kind of reforms it needs to do to remain a viable political force in today’s post-Sunflower Taiwan.

In other words, by stacking the deck in the reformers’ favor and forcing the KMT to confront its past, the DPP could be helping the future leaders of a leaner, more progressive and therefore more competitive KMT. While such an outcome might not be ideal for the DPP, whose successes in recent elections were in part due to the KMT having lost its balance, it would be better for Taiwan as a whole.

Soon after the Act was passed, Lin Te-fu (林德福), the KMT caucus whip, called it “the darkest day in Taiwan’s democratic history.” It need not be that. In fact, if the end result is a reformed, more modern and accountable KMT, the day will only have been dark for the conservative elements within the party who refuse to join the 21st century.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White