As KMT Digs Its Own Grave, DPP Plans Its Burial

As KMT Digs Its Own Grave, DPP Plans Its Burial
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
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Will the DPP try to take over, co-opt or replicate the KMT patronage networks?

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The Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) is not only rotting from the inside, dysfunctional and wedded to a deeply unpopular ideology — the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is working to both strangle the KMT at the top, and kneecap them at the local level.

While the recent selection of Wu Den-yih () — native born of local roots — as KMT chairman may slow their decay, the party’s institutional flaws and ideology remain firmly in place. After WWII, the Republic of China (ROC) took possession of the then Japanese colony of Taiwan on behalf of the allied powers, and after losing to Mao Zedong’s Communists in China in 1949, the KMT-ruled one-party state fled and created a Chinese government in exile on Taiwan. After a brutal 50 years of martial law and Chinese indoctrination, the KMT slowly loosened the reins and allowed for more democratic involvement by others. Their reputation for engineering Taiwan’s economic miracle in the 1970s and 1980s, some remaining institutional advantages, local patronage networks, massive wealth and a genuine appreciation by much of the population for voluntarily giving up the one party state meant the party continued to do well electorally in the 1990s and 2000s.

By the 2010s, however, a revival of local Taiwanese culture and identity, plus growing unease with Chinese bullying tactics aimed at annexing Taiwan, caused a tectonic shift politically — most notably manifested in the 2014 Sunflower Movement protests and overwhelming victories by the DPP in the 2014 and 2016 elections.

The old “pan-blue” Chinese identity versus “pan-green” Taiwanese identity battle is now largely over, and the DPP-led pan-greens won. The KMT remains committed to eventual unification with China, a deeply unpopular position. Additionally, the party is still structured as a ruling one-party state institution, with elite descendants of the KMT exodus from China dominating the party at the top, and patronage networks that are local government-based, generally corrupt political machines run mostly by Taiwanese whose families pre-date the KMT arrival.

As the generations have passed, KMT elites are no longer producing many popular or viable candidates, but the history, party membership, and voting structure keep a bias towards these elites and the pro-Chinese unification ideology firmly in place. The local patronage factions have been slowly losing influence for years, but continue to wield power, especially in rural areas. Within the party itself the choice of Wu Den-yih — not of the elites — seems a bold choice, but his political views remain firmly rooted in the party’s past, making him deeply unpopular among much of the public, almost uniformly so among the younger generation.

Following an almost clean sweep of local governments in the 2014 election, and the victory of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and a large majority in the legislature in 2016, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party is doing all it can to ensure the KMT stays down. The DPP, born out of the struggle for democracy during the martial law era and continues to bear the scars of that struggle — for many in the party their enmity towards the KMT is personal and deep rooted. Since the early 1990s, the DPP has been the main party championing Taiwanese identity.

To tackle the top level of the KMT, the DPP passed the Ill-gotten Party Assets law. This law is intended to strip the KMT of assets it gained as part of a one-party state, both through direct appropriation (much taken over from the former colonial ruler, Japan) and through sweetheart deals given to them by the state — which by many estimates made the KMT the richest political party in the world.

The KMT, in deference to public opinion, itself for years said they would tackle the issue themselves, but never really did. The ill-gotten assets law is popular and enjoys widespread support. The problem for the KMT, however, is that they over-employed over the years as part of their system of rewarding loyal supporters, saddling the party with massive benefit and pension liabilities. The law has already caused cash flow problems for the KMT, a problem that is only likely to get worse. As their popularity wanes, the KMT will have increasing trouble raising the funds needed to both pay their liabilities and to campaign effectively for office.

While the KMT fought the ill-gotten assets law in the legislature, they knew it was going to happen and that the public was against them on this. They have been fighting much harder against a second piece of legislation: The Forward-Looking Infrastructure Development Plan, going so far as to try to bury it with over 10,000 related motions, several of their legislators staging a hunger strike and the former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), among others, calling President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) government a “fascist regime.” Now that the bill has passed, the KMT is seeking a constitutional interpretation on how it passed in one last desperate attempt to stave it off.

On the surface, this appears a somewhat hysterical response to an infrastructure and economic stimulus bill. In many ways, it is the kind of pork-barrel bill that is common to most democracies, being rushed through with many of the plans included not well fleshed out (or nearly pointless, such as an MRT extension from the city of Taichung to the city of Changhua basically in parallel with an existing rail line used by commuters) in order to get the funds flowing in time for the upcoming 2018 local government elections. Also, like most in most democracies, much of the money will go to favored local governments, industries, and businesses — and it will provide the DPP an opportunity to win over new business allies.

So why the fevered response by the KMT? Though the DPP has won the executive branch twice before, the KMT and their allies have never lost control of the legislature and continued to control a majority of the local governments that often end up actually doling out the cash. This allowed them not only to get the lion’s share of political donations by businesses, it also allowed them to keep most of the local factional patronage networks set up during the martial law era in their camp.

Now with DPP in control of the executive and legislative branches at the national level, and a vast majority of local governments in their hands, the DPP is in a commanding position. At the very least, they will almost certainly start to try and weaken or break apart the KMT’s patronage networks — and with ill-gotten party assets law in place, the KMT can’t rely on their huge cash reserves any longer to keep them functioning out of pocket.

The question now is this: Will the DPP try to take over, co-opt or replicate the KMT patronage networks? Only time will tell, but there are some educated guesses that can be made. Some DPP politicians out of principle won’t. For more ambitious politicians (such as the mayors of Taichung and Taoyuan) with presidential or other high offices in their sites the answer is probably not — they will stick closer to the pork-barrel type patronage seen in typical democracies to keep their image cleaner. However, some of the old KMT local factional patronage networks have already in recent years jumped over to the DPP camp and more may follow on the encouragement of local players. Other local politicians who have fought the KMT factional patronage networks may feel it is not only the normal way of doing politics, it is their due. Local politicians and local conditions will also likely create different responses.

The inability of the KMT to reform will continue to keep the party weak and holding on only to pockets of local power. They, for now, remain the most significant opposition party to the DPP, but that will change as other players move into the vacuum left behind as they continue to weaken. What will fill the vacuum of opposition to the DPP as the KMT lags? That will be the topic of my next piece here in The News Lens.

Editor: Olivia Yang

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