Caution: This is one of those crazy ideas that probably won’t happen. Still, I can’t shake the idea that lots of various forces are aligning. I’m probably wrong.
I’m starting to think that party realignment might be coming. This is not about the DPP; they’re doing just fine these days. If any of this happens, it will be the blue side of the spectrum that is thrown into utter chaos. Nevertheless, if the blue side goes into wild convulsions, the green side will inevitably be affected, though I have no idea how.
There are a couple of linchpins to my scenario. One is Eric Chu 朱立倫. If he accepts full leadership of the KMT – including running for president – the KMT probably holds together, at least for the immediate future. Chu is the one person who everyone in the KMT can agree on. For the record, I still think they will prevail on him to run, but for the purposes of this post let’s assume that he is serious about not running. If Chu isn’t the candidate, the KMT has to come up with someone else. That is a problem.
Wang Jyn-ping 王金平 is the obvious replacement, as he is clearly the second most popular KMT figure in the polls. I think Wang has two fundamental challenges facing his presidential bid. On the one hand, he doesn’t seem to have any vision for Taiwan’s future. Wang has never set out a set of policies that he wants, talked about what sort of relationship Taiwan and China should have, or staked out a position about wealth inequality. His entire career has been devoted to seeking consensus. In other words, he has resolved the conflicts between other people’s visions. The closest he has come to staking out a courageous or controversial political position was his refusal to allow the police into the legislature to clear out the sunflower students. That, however, was a reflection of his vision for what the legislature should be – an institution that resolves conflict by seeking compromise and consensus rather than by allowing a bare majority to run roughshod over the minority. It was not a reflection of his vision for the country. As a presidential candidate, that won’t work. He can’t lead if he doesn’t stand for anything.
Much of Wang’s popularity stems from voters’ willingness to project their hopes and dreams onto him, rather than to anything he has told them he stands for. There are many people who think that Wang will become a second Lee Teng-hui 李登輝 and transform the KMT into a Taiwan-first party. Thus, every so often someone will propose the idea of a Wang-Tsai ticket, with Tsai Ing-wen 蔡英文 taking the second place. In the general electorate, being positioned as a Taiwan-First candidate is an advantage. Within the KMT, that is a big problem. Wang will have to make overtures to the deep blue part of the party to prevent a party rebellion. And because suspicions of him are so deep, he will have to be explicit and forceful in making these statements. Of course, as soon as he starts making statements about how Taiwan is part of China or how the relationship between Taiwan and China is not an international one, he will disillusion many of the light green people who are dreaming of a second LTH. I don’t think the effort to reinvent himself as a Chinese nationalist would be credible or successful. After all, LTH and Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九 said all kinds of things in order to win power; once they got into power it was a different story. Everyone, including the deep blue people, remembers this history.
If Wang somehow gets the KMT nomination, I think it is very possible that we will see an open rebellion from the Chinese KMT wing of the party. Remember, from their point of view, the biggest catastrophe in recent years was NOT Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁 winning two terms as president. Rather, it was LTH usurping their party. During the Chen era, they could openly complain, oppose policies in the legislature, and march in the street. When they discredited him, they roared back into power. When LTH took control of the party and turned it into a vehicle promoting Taiwanese sovereignty, they were stuck. Their own party was doing the wrong things; they could hardly go on talk shows or write angry editorials demanding that the KMT step down. Moreover, when the LTH-led KMT finally lost power, it issued in eight years of DPP government. If Wang Jyn-ping could become the second LTH, it would be far better for the deep blue wing of the party if Tsai and the DPP won outright. They could go into open and vocal opposition and try to win back power in four or eight years. If Wang wins and steals their party again, they might never be able to wrestle control back again. As such, if Chu doesn’t run, I suspect we will start hearing louder and more intense warnings from the deep blue wing that Wang is not acceptable under any circumstances.
If not Chu or Wang, then who? Everyone else is deeply unpopular, and most are closely associated with Ma Ying-jeou and his vision of pursuing unification by tying the Taiwanese economy closely to the Chinese economy, especially by encouraging large companies to develop in China. This economic unification strategy draws on worldwide ideas of free-market economics. China is seen as an economic opportunity (not a irredentist threat), and Taiwan and China can pursue mutual gain by developing more and more economic ties. Thus, the Ma government continually trumpets the gains from this trade, pointing to numbers such as GDP growth and the potential of the vast Chinese market. This argument was very powerful in 2008 and still had fairly widespread acceptance in 2012. However, it is coming under intense scrutiny.
On the one hand, there is a growing concern with inequality in the global economic discourse. The most important voice has been Picketty, whose Capital in the Twenty-First Century argued that since governments are no longer pursuing redistributive policies, returns to capital have outstripped economic growth. This has led to an increasing concentration of global wealth. Picketty’s argument implies that more economic activity will not necessarily lead to a fairer, more just society, since it is highly possible that all the gains will be monopolized by a small group of plutocrats. In fact, as this elite becomes richer and more powerful, it can use its influence to try to block any redistribution or regulation. That might make the world a worse place for the vast majority of people. For example, the world’s tech companies are sitting on trillions of dollars of cash right now. Much of this money is parked in Ireland, where they pay a negligible tax rate. The companies could repatriate this cash and invest it in new technologies or increased production, but then they would have to pay taxes to the governments of their home countries. Instead, they are demanding a tax holiday, effectively blackmailing the home governments. Are the 99% better off if the economy grows but the companies that make most of the profit don’t pay any taxes?
On the other hand, the domestic version of this argument has become more and more powerful over the past few years. In the 2012 election, Tsai Ing-wen was already raising concerns about the M-shaped society (with lots rich and poor people but not many in the middle). The Sunflower Movement really focused the argument and transformed it into mainstream opinion. They argued that the gains from cross-strait integration have been monopolized by a small elite. The costs, such as the loss of manufacturing jobs and low wages, have been borne by the rest of the population. Leading KMT politicians were seen as “compradores,” middlemen selling out the interests of the larger society for their own personal gain.
The effect of these arguments has been to transform the way the general public sees Ma and the KMT. Ma has increasingly come to be viewed as allied with wealth and capital, and he is increasing seen as indifferent to the plight of the average person. In an election, being framed as a champion of the rich and powerful is usually not a good thing. I believe that this transformation of the KMT party image was intimately tied to the KMT’s poor performance in the 2014 elections, especially in the urban north. If Wu Den-yi 吳敦義 wins the KMT nomination, he will not repudiate Ma’s policies. Hau Lung-bin 郝龍斌 probably wouldn’t fundamentally try to attack the KMT’s entrenched big business interests either. They are closely connected to Ma’s big business policies and have almost certainly completely bought into the idea that an alliance with capital is necessary in order to integrate economically with China in pursuit of the dream of unification. Of course, it is highly unlikely that Hau or Wu would win the presidency. However, their candidacy would signify that the deep blue wing still controls the party and will pursue business as usual. Unfortunately, the KMT’s current position looks increasingly precarious. It has painted itself into a corner with a minority of voters on both national identity and economic justice. Business as usual probably means facing life as a long-term opposition party.
A continuation of Ma’s policies leaves a big hole in the political spectrum. To be sure, I don’t think that Chu or Wang is ready to transform the KMT into a party for the working or middle classes either. However, Chu is popular enough that he might be able to hold the whole edifice together. With an unpopular candidate heading the ticket and a vacuum in the middle of the political spectrum, the existing party system might be ready for an earthquake. Nature abhors a vacuum.
There are many people on the blue side of the divide who are uneasy about the growing wealth gap and would like to work more for the average person than for the economic elite. During the CCK era, the KMT used to talk a lot about “the people’s livelihood,” an idea that goes back to Sun Yat-sen. For the past few years, James Soong 宋楚瑜 has been the most vocal proponent of this strain of thought within the blue camp. Unfortunately, Soong is old, and his time is past. He has been unable to organize the anti-capitalist forces. Now, however, there is another possibility.
The second linchpin is Ko Wen-je 柯文哲. Remember that crazy hypothetical poll from a few weeks ago that showed a Ko-Soong ticket leading the presidential race? While Ko and Soong won’t be appearing on a joint ticket any time soon, it’s actually not that crazy to think that they should be political allies.
In his campaign, Ko had the good fortune to run against Sean Lien. Positioning himself as an ordinary person who did not drive a Porsche or drink expensive red wine was a fairly easy and obvious tactic. In fact, I suspect his victory came precisely because he won over the votes of what the New Party used to call the “little people in the city” 小市民 who had no love for the economic elite. However, since taking office, Ko has shown that he actually meant his rhetoric by staking out a clear position as someone willing to fight against big business and elite privilege.
Ko is ambitious. He isn’t running for president in 2016, but I think it’s safe to say he wants to be re-elected in 2018 and 2020 may be crossed his mind once or twice. He can’t count on a repeat of 2014 in 2018. Even if – and this is a big if – the DPP yields to him, the KMT will probably find someone more competent than Sean Lien. He will be better off if he can reshuffle the party structure.
Ko won his office as a green candidate who developed ties with the blue side. Since taking office, he has continued to work with the blue side. In fact, he has arguably appointed more blue people to more powerful offices. Even more interesting, Ko’s position toward China has been ambiguous. As it becomes more and more likely that Tsai Ing-wen will win the presidency, China has been trying to come up with a new China policy. They want to stay engaged with Taiwan, but they don’t want to concede any ground on symbolic issues or help a pro-independence DPP in any way. It appears that one of their strategies is to reach out to Ko. If these ties deepen over the next few years, it is not impossible that Ko could play a critical role in cross-strait relations. While Ko denies that he is either blue or green, I can easily see Ko shifting to the blue side of the divide.
By now, you should be able to see where I’m going. If the KMT persists in its pro-rich agenda, Ko will have an opportunity to organize a political party representing the ordinary citizens on the blue side of the spectrum. Yao Li-ming 姚立明 might run the party, and he might build alliances with established politicians such as Soong, Wang, or defectors from the KMT legislative caucus. However, Ko would be the star, and everyone else would revolve around him. In 2018, instead of running against the KMT, he would cooperate with the KMT to defeat the DPP. In my scenario, the KMT wouldn’t particularly be happy about cooperating with Ko in 2018, but their supporters would demand it since a three-way race would probably be won by the DPP. I’m assuming Ko would easily win a polling primary against anyone the KMT could throw against him. Ko might then try to extend this model to the 2020 presidential race.
I’m not sure exactly why the KMT was able to fend off the PFP challenge a decade ago. I suspect the KMT party assets were a major factor in holding the party together. Neither side could access the resources of the state, but the KMT chair had a big pile of money he could throw around. The KMT still has those, but, unlike Soong and the PFP, a party led by Ko could draw on the resources of the Taipei City government, the richest local government in Taiwan. We’ll see how energetically Ko works for “his” legislative candidates this year; the legislative races might be a test run.
Separately, the KMT nomination difficulties, Ko’s political ambitions, and the shifting economic discourse could each lead to a minor reshuffling. If the KMT nominates Wang, I can easily see a deep blue rebellion. If the KMT nominates Wu or Hau, the Taiwan KMT wing might defect to the green side or support a Soong candidacy. Regardless of KMT presidential politics, Ko might organize a party as his best bet to win re-election. However, none of these seem likely to bring about a fundamental partisan realignment. It is the confluence of these factors that piques my interest. There is an outside chance that everything could mesh together perfectly to completely reshuffle politics in the blue half of the spectrum.