Written by J. Michael Cole.
Something rather extraordinary occurred outside the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) headquarters in Taipei on 7 October as hundreds of angry protesters gathered to vent their anger at the party. Unlike the usual protests by civic activists or pro-independence groups, this crowd was made entirely of pan-blue supporters—in other words, of people who traditionally vote for the KMT. Behind the unusual show of discontent were efforts by the party, unveiled earlier this week, to drop the unpopular Hung Hsiu-chu as its candidate in the 16 January 2016 presidential election and presumably replace her with party chairman Eric Chu.
A defiant Hung, whose support lies in the low 20 percent against the almost 47 percent enjoyed by Tsai Ing-wen, her opponent from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), told a press conference on 6 October that despite the KMT shenanigans she intended to run and threatened to take the KMT to court for attempting to change the rules in order to cast her aside. Soon afterwards, a Facebook announcement called upon Hung’s followers to protest outside the KMT headquarters on 7 October.
Despite the 2,000 or so Facebook users who indicated they would attend, about 300 did so, blocking parts of Bade Rd from around 1 pm. As dozens of police officers looked on behind the police fences and barbed wire, the enraged crowd exploded with shouts of “Hung Hsiu-chu go! go! go!” and “Eric Chu step down!”
The protesters certainly had valid reasons to feel betrayed by the party. In June, Hung had passed three party primary polls with an average of 46.203 percent, well above the 30 percent needed for her nomination, and was formally nominated on 19 July, ostensibly with the full support of KMT heavyweights. However, no sooner had she secured the candidacy than divisions began to appear within the party: a precipitous drop in the polls resulting from revelations of her pro-Beijing ideology, poor delivery, and an altogether disorganized campaign, sparked discontent in the ranks. As observers began talking about the pro-unification New Party-ization of the KMT under Hung (the New Party officially endorsed Hung on 22 August), an increasing number of local KMT officials—the pillars who were instrumental in ensuring that the KMT could win elections in the post-authoritarian era—refused to participate in her campaign events; several pulled out of the race altogether or showed up at DPP campaign events for Tsai. In July, the KMT expelled five longstanding KMT members for their vocal criticism of the party’s candidate.
By late September, it had become clear to the KMT that its prospects of securing the presidency in 2016 were next to nil. However, internal pressure to salvage the legislative election, which will be held concurrently on 16 January, had been steadily growing. With the real possibility that the DPP, or a pan-green alliance, could secure a majority in the legislature—a first in Taiwan’s history—something had to be done. And that meant dropping Hung and realigning the KMT with “mainstream views within Taiwan.” With internal polls showing support for Hung at 13 percent, and the belief that her candidacy was damaging the party’s prospects in the legislative elections, a large number of KMT Central Standing Committee members proposed holding an extraordinary meeting to discuss changing the party rules to annul Hung’s candidacy. Twenty-seven of the committee’s 39 members have reportedly signed a petition calling for Hung’s removal, which could be effected at a party congress on 17 October.
As demonstrators gathered outside, Chairman Chu told the Central Standing Committee that Hung’s “One China, same interpretation” and “evolution toward eventual unification” remarks departed from longstanding KMT ideology and were removed from “mainstream public opinion in Taiwan.” Briefly commenting on Hung’s “poor poll performance,” Chu said that party members should put the party before the individual, a remark that sparked speculation that a move to oust Hung was imminent.
Outside, the anger was palpable.
“After 30 years, I’m beginning to wonder whether I made the wrong choice,” a supporter of Hung, surnamed Liao, told me outside the KMT headquarters. According to him, the KMT’s decision to drop Hung—and to change its party regulations at the eleventh hour—was “undemocratic” and did not respect due process.
“I feel betrayed by my party,” he lamented. “You can’t just drop her and change the rules because her numbers are low.”
Another protester, surnamed Lee, was also outraged by the recent developments at the party she had always voted for.
“Hung is the best person to protect our country, the Republic of China on Taiwan,” she said. “Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP is nothing but empty promises and lies … she wants independence and to cut off Taiwan from China.”
As we were talking, one of the speakers at the protest shouted at the reporters from SET-TV, a pan-green media outlet, to leave the site. Behind us, police were at pains to contain the angry demonstrators as vehicles heading for the garage at the KMT building drove by. “Eric Chu step down! Eric Chu step down!” they hollered. One vehicle was attacked by an angry protester. Zhang Xiuye, a founding member of the pro-Chinese Communist Party Chinese Patriotic Alliance Association who gained fame for her tendency to physically assault Falun Gong practitioners, was among them.
Accompanied by several dozens of his supporters, Chang An-le, a former fugitive and gangster-turned politician and chairman of the China Unification Promotion Party, also turned up at the protest. During a short speech, Chang, who lived in exile in China from the early 1990s until his return to Taiwan in June 2013, said that if the KMT didn’t support eventual unification with China—a view espoused by Hung—it was “unworthy” of being called the Chinese Nationalist Party (interestingly there has been talk of dropping the prefix and renaming the party the Taiwan Nationalist Party).
For the most part, members of Chang’s pro-unification group did not mingle with the other protesters. It was evident that most of the demonstrators were KMT supporters who were disappointed with the party’s inability to respect democratic procedure. I was curious to find out what they thought about mixing with gangsters who support unification with authoritarian China.
Most shook their heads and laughed dismissively.
“We’re a democracy and it’s their freedom of expression,” Mr. Liao told me, referring to the demonstrators wearing the dark-blue and yellow China Unification Promotion Party blazers. “But most of us don’t support their pro-unification views—certainly not now.”
Ms. Lee was less dismissive, although she was also adamant that “the ROC on Taiwan” and its freedoms needed to be protected. “He [Mr. Chang] is not a bad person. People think he’s bad because of the things he did in the past [Chang served ten years in a U.S. prison for trafficking drugs and fled Taiwan during a nationwide campaign against organized crime] but he means well.”
Whatever happens, Ms. Hung’s perseverance will likely be rewarded by indifference from a party that just a few months ago had picked her as its candidate, when nobody else was willing to step up in a campaign that held little promise of success. Earlier this week, KMT headquarters ordered a number of individuals who had assumed roles in Hung’s campaign to return to party headquarters and refrain from involvement in Hung’s activities. Should she remain as a candidate, her support base will likely be limited to deep-blue constituents who are increasingly marginalized on the political scene. If the KMT drops her, there is a possibility that she could run as an independent, or perhaps on the New Party ticket, and thus further split an already split vote thanks to People First Party candidate James Soong’s participation in the race.
Hung’s out-of-touch ideology aside, the KMT’s current travails are mostly self-inflicted: knowing that her views had no chance of appealing to the public, it should never have picked Hung in the first place. Adopting undemocratic measures to undo the damage reflects poorly on a party that continues to struggle with the democratic ideal.
J. Michael Cole is Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the China Policy Institute, Associate researcher with the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC), and Editor in Chief of www.thinking-taiwan.com. Image by J. Michael Cole.