the KMT nomination fiasco (so far)

If the last week of KMT presidential politics hasn’t made much sense to you, you are not alone. I wish I could offer a definitive answer, but I don’t know what the hell just happened either. As for the future, it looks like the KMT is heading for an electoral disaster, but who knows which script it will follow.

I think I should start this post by reminding myself that the KMT presidential nomination is, contrary to everyone’s actions, a very valuable prize. First, the nominee might just win the presidency. Right now, it looks like Tsai can beat anyone the KMT puts forward, but there are still eight months to go. Lots of crazy things can happen in eight months. The world economy could crash, China could have a political crisis, someone could get assassinated, Tsai could have a huge scandal, a massive natural disaster could happen, or a massive street protest could change everything. Heck, it doesn’t even need to be that crazy. The British Conservative Party just won an unexpected victory when all signs pointed to defeat. Gerald Ford was down by over 30% when he was nominated for USA president in 1976, but he eventually lost by only about 1%. Weird things happen in politics. It doesn’t seem all that likely that the KMT candidate would win, but it isn’t impossible. Campaigns occasionally make up large deficits in the polls. Second, even if the KMT loses the race, the nominee can shape the KMT’s party image. After Ma steps down, will we see the Ma Era as an aberration, or will we see the Lee Teng-hui Era as the aberration? Or will we see the KMT as a conflicted party that switches back and forth between its two co-equal nativist and Chinese nationalist wings? Third, after the election, the KMT will need a new set of party leaders. Ma will clearly not be the face of the party. He will be more like Chen Shui-bian was in the 2008-2012 period for the DPP: someone who won’t go away but who the party would rather you forget ever existed. In 2008, the DPP leaders were all somewhat discredited, and they distrusted each other. Tsai Ing-wen emerged from relative obscurity to take over the party, and she has not yet relinquished control. If the KMT nominee performs reasonably well in the presidential race, he could become the post-Ma leader. At the very least, the nominee would be first in line for consideration. No one sets out to become leader of the major opposition party, but it isn’t the worst position to be in if you eventually want to win back power. The point is this: people should want to be the KMT nominee.

So why didn’t Wang Jin-pyng register for the primary? In the last few days, it had become clear that Chu wouldn’t register. Since Chu is the only person who could beat Wang in a polling primary, if Wang had registered, he would have won the primary. Wang was also clearly interested, but apparently he only wanted the nomination on certain conditions. I can think of a few possible conditions that may not have been met.

First, Chu has stated that the KMT will not use any of its funds on the presidential campaign. The nominee will be responsible for financing the campaign by himself. Wang might have been demanding that Chu relax this position and pledge a certain amount of money to the presidential campaign, and he might have been dissatisfied with Chu’s response.

As an aside, why the hell would Chu make such a stupid and self-defeating decision? Everyone knows the KMT is sitting on a mountain of assets, so no one is going to donate money to the KMT when the KMT isn’t willing to spend its own money on itself. Some have suggested that Chu wants to spend the money on legislative campaigns, but raising the presidential vote a few percentage points is a far more effective way of winning legislative votes than blowing money on lavish dinners for grassroots elites or a few more billboards of candidates promising good constituency service. If Chu really doesn’t release the money, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a rebellion within the party. Chu’s chairmanship might not make it to the end of the campaign.

Second, everyone has pointed to Ma’s opposition to Wang. Without Chu in the race, I don’t think Ma could have beaten Wang. However, he could have destroyed Wang’s campaign. Imagine if Ma had openly agitated against Wang during the polling period. Also, don’t forget that the current rules say that party member votes count for 30% and that the deep blue wing is heavily overrepresented among eligible party voters. Ma could have made it clear that the party was not united behind Wang.

I think what Wang must have wanted from Ma was a guarantee that Ma would act something like Lee Teng-hui did in 1998. In 1998, the KMT had a big dispute over who would challenge Chen Shui-bian for mayor. LTH and Ma were not allies, to say the least. Ma was something of a pop idol in this period. Media coverage fawned over his good looks, his jogging, and all the blood he donated. As Minister of Justice, Ma sent several crime lords in helicopters to prison on Green Island, making him even more of a media hero. LTH eventually forced Ma out, demoting him to Minister without Portfolio. When it became clear that Ma had no power in that role, he resigned from the cabinet, famously asking “What am I fighting for? Who am I fighting for?” 為何而戰、為誰而戰 LTH did not appreciate this criticism. During the mayoral nomination decision, the KMT considered a few people such as Jason Hu and (then) Chang Hsiao-yen. However, the polls indicated that Ma was the only person who stood a chance of beating Chen. LTH repeatedly and pointedly declined to ask Ma to run. Eventually, Ma recanted on his promise not to run, and LTH couldn’t block his nomination. During the campaign, LTH maintained distance from the election, refusing to say much in favor of either candidate. The Chen campaign even decided not to criticize LTH in hopes that he might come out and openly endorse Chen in the last few days. In fact, the opposite happened. LTH bowed to the logic of party politics and political power. The president went on stage at Ma’s rally and asked (in Taiwanese), “Ma Ying-jeou, who are you? 馬英九,你是什麼人?” Ma replied (in Taiwanese), “Reporting to President Lee, I am the eater of Taiwanese rice and drinker of Taiwanese water Ma Ying-jeou” 報告李總統,我是吃台灣米喝台灣水的馬英九。 Ma eventually won by 5%, and LTH’s late endorsement may have been a major contributor to this victory. I think it might be reasonable that Wang hoped for similar treatment from Ma. He certainly wouldn’t have expected Ma to enthusiastically support him, but he might have hoped that Ma would stay out of the race or perhaps make a symbolic gesture near the end.

If this is correct and Ma was unwilling to guarantee even this low level of support, the KMT’s toxic internal politics are destroying its post-2016 prospects. The deep blue wing’s refusal to accept Wang does not come from anything Wang has said or done. Wang has always been a party man, following whatever the party line of the day was. Rather, the deep blues have convinced themselves that Wang is a corrupt traitor. After so many editorials and talk show diatribes in the deep blue media echo chamber, they have poisoned their own well and are now unable to accept the one person who is willing and capable of running a moderately competent campaign at the top of the ticket. It seems the KMT will be paying the price for Ma’s ill-advised purge attempt for at least four more years.

After Wang announced that he would not run, some people in Wang’s camp seemed to direct their ire more at Chu than at Wang. One of them even suggested that if Chu didn’t start leading the party more effectively, his term as party chair might not last until August.

This suggests a third possible narrative. It is possible that Wang never had much hope for support or even neutrality from Ma. However, he needed united support from the rest of the party. When Ma objected to Wang’s candidacy, Wang expected Chu to make a forceful gesture of support. Chu, however, said nothing. If Ma was hostile and Chu was indifferent, Wang could probably see that his presidential effort would end in disaster. Further, if Chu wasn’t going to go all out for him, then Chu probably wouldn’t be willing to share responsibility for the inevitable loss. Wang would be hung out to dry. In other words, Wang backed away not because of opposition from Ma, but due to indifference from Chu.

So much for Wang, what about Chu? He’s the one who really is acting strangely. Just for the moment, let’s take him at face value. Chu said that he decided not to run for president when he committed to another term as mayor. He agreed to become party precisely because he wasn’t going to run for president. He has told us again and again of his intent, and we shouldn’t be surprised. When Ma said yesterday that Chu was responsible for this mess and he had the responsibility to run, Chu apparently responded by whining that Ma had insisted that Chu should run for re-election. Chu seems to want us to believe that he is doing the noble thing by acting as a neutral referee and not running. The chairmanship in an election year is a thankless job, he reminds us. If the party wins, the new president becomes chair. If it loses, he has to resign to take responsibility.

So apparently Chu always saw himself as an interim leader? He took over the party with no intention to pursue his own vision, no intention to seek power, and every intention of stepping aside when the next real leader emerged? So why did he bother taking over the party chair in the first place? He should have stuck strictly to running New Taipei City and let the power transition begin several months ago.

My opinion of Chu has dropped precipitously in the last month as Ma has repeatedly kicked him around. Ma first told Chu to attend the KMT-CCP forum. Then he called Chu to a MAC meeting where he informed Chu what his position would be at that forum. Chu dutifully adhered to Ma’s strategy of always taking things one small step further by adding the “we all belong One China” line, but when he came back to Taiwan Ma slapped him down again by “clarifying” Taiwan’s position. Then Ma blocked Wang’s candidacy and blamed Chu for it. When Chu complained that Ma had caused all this by insisting that Chu run for re-election as mayor, Ma rejected that complaint as well. Ma has shown that he is still the alpha dog in the KMT pack, and I’m no longer even sure that Chu has the desire, much less the guts or ability, to challenge him. At this point, if Chu announced that he wanted the nomination, my immediate reaction would probably be that he didn’t have the guts to resist the pressure from the rest of the party.

A week ago I thought it was barely possible, but now I’m starting to believe that the party will eventually turn to Wu Den-yi. First, however, they have to eliminate the two and a half actual candidates in the race. We won’t worry about the turkey who used to work in some local government office; he won’t pass the signature threshold. The problem is the other two candidates. Officially, there is a way out. If they can eliminate one of the candidates in the signature stage, the other will have to pass a 30% polling threshold. Hung Hsiu-chu claims that she has far more than the necessary signatures, but Yaung Chih-liang might not. I suspect the KMT workers will comb through his signatures looking for any excuse to claim that he did not get the necessary numbers. If they can do this, they will then launch a massive suggestive campaign telling voters that they don’t necessarily have to support Hung in the polls. It will be interesting to watch them talk down their potential nominee in public while trying not to say negative things about her or the party. On the other hand, if Yaung and Hung both pass the signature stage, the KMT will really be in a pickle. If there are two candidates, the rules don’t provide for any 30% threshold. The KMT talking heads will argue that the winner really needs to get 30% approval to be a credible candidate and suggest that the party shouldn’t nominate anyone who wins with a lower number than that. However, even that might not work. Yao Li-ming (the political scientist, former NP legislator, frequent talk show guest, and genius behind the Ko campaign) claimed that there was a poll done showing Yaung at 27.5% and Hung at 22% approval. Now, people make up poll numbers all the time, but this story included one important detail. Yao claimed that Hung Yung-tai had conducted the poll. Before he retired, Hung Yung-tai taught at Tunghai, NCCU, and NTU, and he is the godfather of political polling in Taiwan. Countless graduate students, including myself and probably half of all the serious pollsters in Taiwan, learned how the nuts and bolts of survey methodology from him, and we all respect him deeply. If Hung’s name is attached to that poll, it is credible. If that poll is real, there is a good chance that Yaung will pass the 30% threshold. I don’t think the KMT would nominate him, but it would be a public relations disaster for the party. The KMT has never been that committed to their internal party rules. However, to get out of this mess, they might have to blatantly repudiate their entire official process.

[Aside: I think it is legal for the party to ignore its nomination rules. I think the Central Committee always has the authority to overturn any other body’s decision and make the final decision. However, after the Wang Jin-pyng case, I’m no longer 100% sure. It has been pointed out that the Election and Recall Law has been extended so that it applies to party primaries. (This was done partially to make vote-buying in primaries a crime.) However, if party primaries are covered by law, could the primary winner – or a supporter – sue the party if they were denied the nomination, perhaps using the same law that Wang used to claim he had been unjustly denied his rights within the party? I doubt it, but wouldn’t that be fun to watch?]

[Second aside: I think Yaung’s real game is to become the next Tsai Ing-wen. He is putting himself in the public consciousness so that when the dust settles in January and the party needs a new leader, people will think about him. He is one of the few people who emerged from Ma’s government with a good reputation. While he may not be on the current short list of top party leaders, the KMT might be ripe for an outsider like him or former Interior Minister Lee Hung-yuan to take over. It’s a long shot, but it’s not impossible.]

It’s important to keep some sense of perspective here. It feels like the KMT needs to make a decision soon, perhaps because the DPP made its decision so comically early. However, there is still plenty of time. The election is still eight months away, and eight months is plenty of time to put together a presidential campaign. Heck, you can do this in three or four months if you need to. I’m fairly sure that the KMT will eventually get around to nominating someone. There’s a pretty good chance that there will eventually be a poll or two showing the KMT candidate to be fairly close to Tsai Ing-wen. At some point, all of us are going to seriously wonder if the KMT could actually win this race. This nomination fiasco isn’t helping the KMT, but it also might not be the end of the world. By the time October rolls around, we probably won’t be thinking very much about how the drawn-out nomination process doomed the KMT candidate.

6 Responses to “the KMT nomination fiasco (so far)”

  1. Pat Says:

    I think part of Wang’s calculation here is angling for control of the party after the elections are over. He must realize he that his chances of winning are slim even if he gets the nomination, and with Chu stepping down come January he will have a shot at the chairmanship. The impression that has been created this week that Ma has blocked the only willing candidate with a shot at winning plays right into his hands.

  2. David Reid Says:

    I agree that with Wang and Chu out then Wu Den-yih is the most likely KMT candidate. Indeed he is probably the only other KMT candidate that can run a credible campaign. It is important that the presidential election is a decent contest because it undermines democracy and the legitimacy of the winner if it isn’t.

  3. ジェームス (@jmstwn) Says:

    I’m pulling for Yaung to clear the signature barrier. He’s called their bluff. It looks like they designed their primary process with Hung Hsiu-chu and Wu Den-yih in mind. They knew Hung would run as a stopgap and set the bar just high enough that she’ll struggle to reach it (especially if they include Soong in the poll). If Wu ran, however, he’d have trouble clearing the 30% threshold himself, which might be why they didn’t require 30% support if there were multiple candidates. And then Yaung walked through the door and surprised them. I agree they’ll check his signatures very scrupulously and wonder if he might even have to challenge them about their count.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      The 30% threshold for single candidate races is not unique to the presidential race. I think it still applies to legislative races. Four years ago, only one person registered in Taichung 1. The main faction players didn’t take him seriously and continued to negotiate. He shocked everyone by passing the 30% threshold, and the KMT duly nominated him. The end result was that the DPP candidate, Tsai Chi-chang, had a fairly easy race.

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