Written by C. Donovan Smith.

A rich party with a long history and extensive local factional networks, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in Taiwan is about to be marginalized.

At first blush the current situation strongly resembles the early 2000s: the KMT is demoralized, in danger of losing both the presidency and the legislature, and faced with new political forces. In reality, things are completely different.

First, the KMT lacks viable national candidates. With the combined legislative and presidential elections less than a year away, only two heavyweights in the KMT remain popular outside of the party, New Taipei mayor and new KMT Chair Eric Chu (朱立倫), and legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平). Neither is strong. Chu barely survived the 9-in-1 election, and if he runs for president he will likely have to give up his mayorship. If Chu loses the presidential race and the KMT does badly in the legislative elections, which the public both wants and expects, he will have lost his mayorship and will be under heavy pressure to resign as party chair–potentially leaving Chu with nothing.

Legislative speaker Wang is a flawed potential candidate. A local Kaohsiung faction politician, it is likely that traditional faction patronage sleaze in his past would emerge in the glare of a presidential election. Additionally, his years in the legislature provide easy ammo for critics. Moreover, he isn’t polling anywhere near a majority. Plus, the mainlander-led KMT elites don’t like him, as the president’s recent efforts to kick him out of the party attest. If the party follows tradition and Chu doesn’t run, it will run old heavy guns, like ex-Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin or VP Wu Den-yi. Both poll miserably.

Today’s KMT is in much worse shape than the early 2000s

In 2000 the KMT lost a three-way Presidential race that saw the DPP win with only 39.3% of the vote. This time the DPP is poised to win with an outright majority. That signals strength in DPP support they didn’t have before. In 2001 the DPP won the most seats in the Legislative Yuan, but not a majority. The KMT, with the PFP and other fellow ‘pan-blues’ still controlled the legislature, with the KMT the senior partner allied with largely ex-KMT members. This time the DPP has a fair chance to win control.

Alarmingly for the KMT, this is not because the DPP has grown greatly more popular, but rather, because the KMT has grown significantly less popular. KMT membership is plummeting, and its favorability ratings are in the tank. Nor is this fall the result of normal electoral cyclical change.

The Party’s selling points are gone. The goodwill that the party had for presiding over the economic miracle has vanished. Wages have returned to 1990’s levels. The party is no longer viewed as technocratically competent. The widespread popularity of the Sunflower Movement made it clear that the KMT is no longer trusted to handle cross-strait relationships.

The party’s continuing identification as being Chinese and advocating eventual unification with China is more than ever radically at odds with public opinion. Currently only 3.5% of people in Taiwan consider themselves “Chinese” only, down from 26.2% in 1994. Removing spouses from China and the elderly who moved over from China after 1949 from the picture, this suggests that less than 1% of Taiwan-born people consider themselves Chinese. Moreover, 32.5% consider themselves both Chinese and Taiwanese, but the majority of those people are older. Today fully 60.6% consider themselves “Taiwanese” only, a number that rises significantly among younger generations. Support for “reunification” is also now below 10%.

Can Eric Chu revive the party? In theory he could, but that’s a massive challenge to accomplish by January 2016. In practice it is extremely unlikely. Initially he made encouraging comments on reform, only to backtrack on almost every point later. Normally the party chair is also the presumed presidential candidate in the next election–which he has said he is not. His relationship with his predecessor and the current president puts him in a quandary. If he works hard to have a smooth relationship, he risks being tied to a deeply unpopular administration. If he moves boldly against the president, he would only encourage more disarray in the party. Thus, it’s unlikely he will be able to reform enough to change the party’s perception in the public eye by January 2016. In fact, Chu has doubled down on the status quo:  His appointees for key party posts are largely male, older, and previous post holders.

The collapse of the KMT as we know it

If, as expected (poll), the KMT takes a pounding in January, the party as we know it may cease to exist as a significant force. It will likely only have one major post left, the New Taipei mayorship, but will have lost the presidency and, for the first time, control of the legislature. If Chu runs for president, follows tradition, and resigns from the New Taipei mayorship, then the KMT also runs the serious risk of losing New Taipei, which would make Miaoli commissioner the most important post the party has left.

Unlike the early 2000s, the traditional party elites have no next generation. Sean Lien (連勝文), son of heavyweight Lien Chan and John Wu (吳志揚), from a longstanding KMT family, were beaten last November. Many of the next generation of elites are foreign passport holders and not interested in politics. One of the President’s children, for example, is an American citizen.

To cultivate new talent the party is going to have either draw from academia (likely) or radically break with tradition and begin to allow popular local (usually faction-supported) politicians to rise in the party. Unfortunately these local politicians are frequently associated with local factional sleaze and are bitterly opposed by the traditional party elites. That would set off infighting while not necessarily producing candidates with national appeal.

With the opposition in control the law governing party assets may finally pass the legislature, stripping the KMT of its massive wealth, leaving it unable to buy itself out of trouble.

The loss of power to provide patronage via control of the legislature and the huge bankroll it once had will make it increasingly unlikely that the local factions will remain loyal. The KMT’s control over factions is already eroding. Both of the last two party chairs were open in their distaste for factions and worked to weaken them. This has taken a toll on factional loyalty to the KMT already, as one in the last 9-in-1 election bolted to the DPP and another KMT faction legislator has quit the party and has broken the party’s long-standing tradition of not allowing factions to cross local geographic boundaries to form a new party. Even if the majority of factions remain loyal through to 2018, their power is not what it used to be. Recent losses in Taichung, Taoyuan and Changhua underlined that point. Factions may remain powerful at the city council level, but unless they diversify and make alliances outside their local areas, they can no longer have much influence on a major scale. The KMT is all that stands in their way of doing so.

Following the projected major 2016 defeat, the KMT will be demoralized and full of finger-pointing. The lack of incoming talent will become increasingly obvious as they grow more desperate to find good candidates. The loss of the traditional association of the party with good economic management, popular distrust of the party’s ability to handle ties with China and its strong Chinese identity will leave the party rudderless and unpopular. It will no longer be so wealthy, and will increasingly be seen as an obstacle to the local factions rather than an ally. In short, there will be virtually nothing left holding up the party but inertia and name recognition. The current slow unravelling will turn into a collapse. That will leave a vacuum at the center of Taiwan’s politics.

2018 local elections, will the KMT still be a major force?

Between 2016 and the 2018 local elections the KMT will either need to revolutionize itself into a new force, or be relegated to small party status. If it revolutionizes, it would have to make such radical changes to convince the public it has really changed that it wouldn’t resemble the party of today. Two possibilities present themselves. First, current legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (or someone like him) leads a revolt of the local rank-and-file to turn the party into a Taiwan-centric one. The other is a charismatic leader appears who inspires intense devotion and is credible to voters, but no such person in the party is visible at this point. Though both considered ‘likeable’ by the public, neither Eric Chu nor Wang Jin-pyng inspire much passion.

The question is, could the KMT revolutionize itself, build a new popular ideology, find a wide field of respectable candidates, keep the factions in the fold and inspire the voting public by 2018?  Not likely.

So far the main beneficiary of the unravelling of the KMT has been the DPP. While somewhat more popular, the DPP’s surge in support seems to be more a vote against the KMT than a vote of confidence in the DPP. Polling doesn’t have the DPP’s support that high. If the KMT can’t reform itself fast enough, and the there is a cap on the level of DPP support, then the alternative is new political forces.  Many hope for that to happen.

Like the early 2000s there are new political forces on the scene, but today’s forces are very different from the PFP and TSU, both of whom were largely built from KMT defectors. Today’s new forces are more likely to come from the green camp than the blue camp, and much more in line with the reality and trend of people’s self identification.

On the one hand are the social groups that came together around the Sunflower Movement. Unlike previous movements, this wasn’t specifically a ‘student’ movement, though they did feature prominently.  The Sunflowers were unique in building a self-organized alliance of groups around a common theme that publicly resonated and included people of all walks of life. Parties are forming (and here, and here) out of these groups.

The DPP is encouraging this by supporting third force candidates in KMT strongholds. The PFP’s early spurt showed there are large blocs of KMT voters who will vote for non-KMT candidates–as they are not DPP. The election of outsider Ko Wen-je to the Taipei mayorship shows how this strategy can both undermine KMT strongholds and build new forces.

People today forget that in the post-Tang Wai era, the early DPP polled better in the north than in the south. This changed as Hoklo-speaking Taiwanese nationalists began to dominate a movement that had previously included people from across the ethnic spectrum allied for change. As the party lost its mainlanders and others, the party’s base shifted south. Ko P reignited that cross-ethnic appeal of ideas and principles, not ethnic identification. In the 1990s Lee Tung-hui broadly managed the same. This is a giant, longstanding breach in Taiwan’s political lines, but the pan-blues and pan-greens will find it extremely hard to grasp that opportunity.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is co-publisher of the Compass Magazine Group, and contributes the Central Taiwan News reports every Wednesday on ICRT. He writes at Taiwan Take. Image Credit: CC by Joshua and Eva/Flickr.