Written by Dafydd Fell.
On July 19 the Kuomintang (KMT) officially nominated the senior legislator Hung Hsiu-chu as its 2016 presidential candidate. A year ago, even six months ago few would have predicted Hung would be a potential candidate. Even after she joined the primary, it was still widely believed that the KMT chairman Eric Chu, Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng or even Vice-President Wu Dun-yi would eventually be the official candidate. Nevertheless Hung has shown she has the ambition to reach high office and her rise should not be a complete surprise. She is one of the longest serving legislators after Wang Jin-pyng, had stood in the election for KMT chair against the party’s preferred candidate in 2007 and has been the Deputy Speaker of the Legislative Yuan since 2012.

This KMT party decision to endorse Hung is a historic one in a number of ways. Observers have pointed out that this is the first female KMT presidential candidate; however, it looks unlikely that gender will be one of her key appeals. What is more significant though is that her background is so different from earlier KMT and even DPP candidates. She is the first ever KMT presidential candidate with experience as a legislator, having been a legislator since 1990. The fact that two of the leading contenders for KMT presidential nomination were senior legislators reflects the growing influence of the Legislative Yuan. In contrast, almost all other presidential candidates have had either extensive central government or local government executive experience prior to standing for president.[1] In fact the last three presidents have all served as Taipei mayor. With the exception of Chen Shui-bian, she is also the presidential candidate with the least international experience. Given that the KMT had made this a core criticism of Chen Shui-bian, this is significant. The degree of contrast with previous KMT candidates is rather similar to the starkly different life experience of Tsai Ing-wen to previous DPP candidates and her inner party challengers in 2011.

Nevertheless, the aspect of Hung’s campaign so far that has attracted the most attention has been her statements on relations with China. Her use of strong Chinese nationalist appeals, opposition to Taiwan independence, support for a peace treaty with China and call to move beyond the KMT’s understanding of 1992 consensus of One China Different Interpretations to One China the Same Interpretation, have led observers to place her at the far right of the unification versus independence spectrum. Her rise in the KMT has led observers to speak of a New Partyization of the KMT. In fact early in her career she was part of the New KMT Alliance that later formed the basis of the New Party in 1993, though at the time Hung decided to remain in the KMT. Although Hung has been pressured to return to the KMT’s official position of One China Different Interpretations, perceptions are hard to change.

Generally to win a presidential election candidates need to appeal beyond a party’s core constituency. Back in 2012 Tsai Ing-wen was unable to win over enough floating voters to defeat Ma. The majority of Taiwan’s voters are concentrated in the middle on identity and China-Taiwan relations. Thus this raises some challenges for the Hung candidacy. Firstly, Hung has previously been elected in Taipei County under the old Single Non Transferable Vote in Multi-Member Districts electoral system. This meant that she only needed to win about 10 of the vote in her district to get elected and thus could rely on core party supporters. In the last two elections she has been elected on the KMT’s party list so she has again not needed to reach out to broader audiences. Thus she differs for example from KMT chairman Eric Chu who after serving as a legislator went on the win Single Member District local executive races in Taoyuan and then New Taipei City.

Previous KMT and DPP presidential candidates have been at pains to show they were moderate on relations with China. Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian, Lian Chan, Frank Hsieh and Ma Ying-jeou all attempted to appear moderate in their presidential campaigns. That is not to say they did not change positions afterwards. Lee and Lian became openly more extreme after they stepped down from party leadership roles, while Chen and Ma began to move towards the poles during their second presidential terms once they no longer had to worry about re-election.[2] The only other case where a mainstream party’s presidential candidate began their campaign with a clearly more radical position than their party was the Peng Ming-min campaign of 1996. Given that Peng’s campaign was a historic low for the DPP, Hung’s positioning at the far right of the spectrum does not bode well for the campaign.

Jonathan Sullivan’s studies have shown that there is significant variation in the use of negative campaigning in Taiwan’s presidential elections. Hung’s speech on receiving nomination attacking the DPP and the current ideological gap between the parties suggests that 2016 will see high levels of negative campaigning. As Sullivan has shown this is not necessarily a negative consequence for democracy as negative campaigning tends to have greater levels of issue content. In other words, we can expect Hung and Tsai to offer quite contrasting visions of both domestic policy and external relations.

One of the most common slogans at the Party Congress endorsing Hung’s candidacy was party unity. Generally parties make the call for unity when they are divided. The recent series of defections away from the KMT and then the expulsion of a number of KMT politicians for critisizing the party in the media do not suggest a united party. Some observers are suggesting that there will be further defections once Hung is officially nominated. If we look back at previous cases where the main party was badly divided during a presidential campaign, the party in question lost in all but one of those years.[3] In three of the last five presidential elections a rebel Pan Blue candidate has emerged to challenge the official KMT candidate. At this stage it does look possible James Soong again will mount another presidential challenge and the polls suggest he could actually gain more votes than Hung. Therefore the possibility of a repeat of 2000 where a divided Pan Blue camp allowed the DPP’s Chen to win is not out of the question.[4]

The KMT suffered a major setback in the local executive elections in November 2014, its worst ever local elections performance. This defeat was severe enough for the KMT Chairman Ma Ying-jeou to resign to take responsibility.  It will take a significant swing in public opinion for the KMT to hold on to the presidency. However, Taiwan has experienced a number of cases where candidates have come back from being well behind in the polls, such as in 2000 and 2004. More recently the polls underestimated the DPP’s votes in 2014 in many local executive races. In other words, there are enough floating voters so that a strong campaign can change the eventual outcome. Naturally the KMT does have the financial advantage over its rivals and in 2012 it vastly outspent the DPP. At least at this stage the KMT’s prospects look more optimistic in the legislative elections to be held on the same day as the presidential election. The large number of alternative third force parties contesting the legislative election may serve to dilute the anti-KMT vote at both the district and party list level. However, even here this is perhaps the only legislative election where it looks even possible the DPP could win a majority and only the third time when there seemed a possibility that the Pan Blue camp could lose a majority.[5] In short, the KMT will need to run a very special campaign to retain control not only of the presidency but also of the parliament.

Dafydd Fell is the Director of the SOAS Centre of Taiwan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).Image credit: CC by David Hsieh/Flickr

[1] The exception was the DPP’s Peng Ming-min in 1996.

[2] In Lian Chan’s case it would be more accurate to date his shift to be from when he lost his second presidential election in 2004.

[3] The cases of divided parties in a presidential campaign are DPP 1996, KMT 1996, KMT 2000 and DPP 2008.

[4] I appreciate that there is debate on whether we should still view James Soong and the PFP as a Pan Blue party.

[5] Other occasions when the Pan Blue majority looked in danger were 1995 and 2004.