Normally, the question of who the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT) will run for president is a simple one: The party chair has historically been the presumptive nominee. Also under normal circumstances, a party chair whose party has just won an overwhelming sweep of elected offices across the country should be riding high.

And yet, KMT chairman Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) is weak and on the defensive. Wu is a loyal party man and one of the few native born Taiwanese largely trusted by the traditional dominant KMT “mainlander” families that decamped with the defeated Republic of China government to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War in 1949. As a protege of former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), he was picked to be premier, and eventually joined Ma on the winning ticket as vice presidential candidate in 2012.

Following the blowout election in 2016 that saw the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) win the presidency and the legislature by a large margin, the KMT was demoralized and in serious trouble: Both the party and their top politicians were unpopular and the electorate appeared to have permanently rejected the KMT’s pro-Chinese identity politics by a large margin. Into this breach, the native Taiwanese Wu ran for party chairman in 2017, and defeated a bevy of “mainlander” candidates, taking just over half the vote, in spite of Wu not being very popular with the electorate.

One of those challengers was Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), a largely unknown former legislator of humble “mainlander” background, with known gangster and local political faction connections. Perhaps with an eye on getting him out of the way, Han was dispatched to Kaohsiung to run for mayor in this year’s election – a city so firmly in the DPP’s camp they had ruled it for 20 years straight. A largely pro-Taiwan identity city, the rank out-of-towner seemed an almost impossible long shot.


Photo Credit: 中央社

Kaohsiung Mayor-elect Han Kuo-yu, who may have been dispatched to the city on a hiding to nothing.

One key KMT player and consummate politician, Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), lost his post as President of the Legislative Yuan (commonly referred to as “speaker of the legislature”) in the DPP legislative sweep in 2016 – a post Wang had held continuously since 1999. Wang was not popular with the “mainlander” elites, so much so that Wu’s ex boss President Ma Ying-jeou expelled him from the party when he was out of the country, and tried to get him arrested for influence peddling.

Wang’s considerable influence, power and actions during the Sunflower Movement, when he played a moderating role in negotiations between protesters and the government, plus his challenge to Ma in the party chairman election in 2005 (which Ma won) put him in the president’s crosshairs.

However, Wang, a local boy with a background in the local KMT political patronage factions, had considerable support and won reinstatement in the courts. Those factions have their roots in the martial law era, when the Chinese KMT – recognizing they needed local support to maintain control – supported these patronage factions by offering them control of agricultural associations and credit unions, as well as the cash that ran through them, in exchange for loyalty.



Former Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng.

However, when Taiwan entered the democratic era, the KMT elites found these corrupt factions embarrassing, and would periodically take action to reduce their influence. But they stopped short of removing them entirely as the party still needed them to mobilize locally in their rural bastions, and Wang emerged as their most powerful leader and defender.

Following his fallout with the KMT top brass, Wang dipped under the radar, but appears to have been tending to his base via low-profile activities in rural areas with strong ties to the aforementioned factions.

Then the election campaigns got underway. In Taichung it was unprecedented how strongly often rival Red and Black factions came together in support of KMT candidate Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕). It turns out that this was also the case elsewhere – normally competitive factions were working together.

Wang had worked his magic, taking advantage of actions by the DPP such as announcing the government would be nationalizing irrigation associations, taking away a source of revenue, patronage and power for the factions. Wang – a Kaohsiung native – had also been working closely with the Kaohsiung mayoral candidate, Han Kuo-yu, right from the start.

Starting about three weeks prior to the election, two interesting things happened. First, three candidates – Hou You-yi (侯友宜) in New Taipei, Lu Shiow-yen in Taichung and Han Kuo-yu in Kaohsiung – made a very visible and very advertised alliance. Who frequently appeared on stage with them as they campaigned? None other than Wang Jin-pyng [see cover image]. What was remarkable is that Ting Shou-chung (丁守中), the mayoral candidate in Taipei who has just been confirmed to have lost out to Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) following a recount, and the party chairman, Wu Den-yih, kept their distance from the party's most successful insurgent candidates.

丁守中成立中國大陸各省同鄉會後援會  吳敦義出席

Photo Credit: 中央社

KMT Chairman Wu Den-yih and Taipei mayoral candidate Ting Shou-chung largely kept themselves in Taipei during local election campaigning.

Wu spent most of the last few weeks with Ting in Taipei and in his native Nantou, not appearing with the other big three candidates.

On election night, one look at the electoral map of KMT victories and it was obvious that the KMT had done well in areas where the traditional factions are strong, and ran candidates with relationships with Wang.

A power struggle beckons

All of this suggests there may be, or may soon be, a power struggle in the party. Wu most likely has the backing of the powerful “mainlander” clans and possibly the very influential Huang Fuhsing military veterans group. However, the big winners in the election are “Wang people” – both Han and Lu are “mainlanders” but of relatively humble origins. Han was born in a military village, and his punching out of ex-President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) means he could be popular with the Huang Fuhsing – and if indirectly Wang now has influence over them that would be quite a coup.

Will Wu Den-yih run for president? If he holds on to the party chairman post, then he will remain the presumptive nominee. He isn’t popular, however, and is a wooden, old-fashioned candidate. If a power struggle breaks out in the party, it isn’t clear he’d come out the victor – though at this point that couldn’t be ruled out.

The three politicians riding high right now are Han Kuo-yu, Hou You-yi and Lu Shiow-yen. All would make good candidates, but they’ve all only just been elected to their current positions. To run for president they’d need to step down only months into their new jobs as the election is only just over one year from now. Running would be a slap in the face of those who elected them. It’s possible any one could run, but unlikely.


Photo credit: 中央社

Taichung Mayor-elect Lu Shiow-yen (C) could mount a presidential campaign, but she and her fellow city hall chiefs have cities they have been elected to run.

Wang Jin-pyng would be one of the KMT’s best options if he chooses to run. He’s one of the KMT’s more popular politicians, and he’s got the support of factions who could help significantly with mobilization. However, Wang would most likely need to oust Wu, which could be tough – the powerful “mainlander” and Huang Fuhsing military veterans group would almost certainly oppose Wang. Wang ran in 2005, and lost to Ma Ying-jeou, who is from one of those clans, and has been lurking in the background amid suggestions the former president may himself choose to mount a presidential bid.

Wang is also excellent as a behind-the-scenes operator, not so much an excellent campaigner, so it is entirely possibly he may back a proxy and instead aim to win back the speaker of the legislature position.

One such proxy might be a young, fresh face in media-savvy Legislator Johnny Chiang (江啟臣), who has done a good job building name recognition outside of his native Taichung. After losing the KMT Taichung Mayoral primary by less than 1 percent to Lu Shiow-yen, Chiang immediately threw his support behind her, and campaigned vigorously on her behalf. High ranking in the Red Faction, he also campaigned for Lu with fellow lawmaker Yen Kuan-heng (顏寬恆) of the Black Faction, visibly demonstrating their unity. His youth would be an appeal if running against the aged leaders of the DPP, but his candiacacy would face significant obstacles in a traditionally hierarchical party like the KMT, and difficulty in gaining support from the old elite “mainlander” factions.

立委江啟臣訪美 談九合一選舉

Photo Credit: 中央社

At 46, Legislator Johnny Chiang may yet be too young to overcome an entrenched KMT hierarchy.

Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌), the ex-Mayor of Taipei, lost already to Wu in the last chair race, and lost his last race to be legislator in Keelung. Ting Shou-chung has lost in Taipei, despite his move to have the result of the election annulled. Both of these candidates would likely not be very popular outside of Taipei. Ex-Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) is an excellent campaigner and candidate, but he has too many health issues to run a major campaign at the ripe old age of 70.

Ex-Taipei County Magistrate Chou Hsi-wei (周錫瑋) only won one term, but curiously he has been highly visible recently with the Wang-backed candidates and with Wang himself. Something is going on with Chou, and there is a chance he could act as a proxy for Wang. Another possibility is Eric Chu (朱立倫), who is term-limited out of his position as New Taipei Mayor. However, he seems to have little interest in making a play having lost badly in the 2016 presidential contest.

At this point the most likely candidate remains Wu, but watch closely to see what moves Wang makes going forward.

Read Next: The Perfect Storm: How the DPP Lost Its 20-Year Hold on Kaohsiung

Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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