Over the past few days, bad news for presumptive KMT presidential nominee Hung Hsiu-chu has continued to mount. She made strange statements about not recognizing the ROC, she is not doing well in several recent polls, and rumors continue to swirl about KMT legislative candidates who will jump ship if she is nominated. In the face of this, the KMT secretary-general suggested that the KMT might actually hold a formal vote on her nomination at next weekend’s party convention, rather than by using the customary method of coronation by applause. For Hung, this last bit of news is … fantastic.
If the KMT is going to deny Hung, it has to do it through its normal channels of power. That is, it has to do it in back room dealings out of the public eye. She needs to worry about the word coming down from the presidential office that she is no longer acceptable. However, if the party’s mechanism for dealing with discontent is an open floor vote, she is home free. Once the decision is entrusted to the rank and file, there is almost no chance that Hung’s nomination will be overturned.
I haven’t been able to find a breakdown of the delegates to the party congress, but the rough outlines are as follows. There will be about 1600 delegates. Most will be elected by the various party branches, Central Committee members are automatically delegates, and Central Standing Committee members can designate some other delegates. Recall that the KMT has lots of party branches other than simply the various local city and county branches. They also have a youth branch, a women’s branch, and, most importantly, they have the Huang Fu-hsing party branch. The Huang Fu-hsing branch represents military veterans, and it is so big that it has its own local branches in every city and county. Moreover, since party members over 75 no longer have to pay dues, these military veterans are all party members in good standing. They all get to vote, and their votes will be overwhelmingly in favor of Hung.
However, the severe underrepresentation of the nativist faction isn’t the main obstacle to a floor rebellion. The more fundamental problem lies in the nature of those party members themselves. Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives in the 1930s and 1940s, used to tell new members, “To get along, go along.” In the USA, Rayburn’s advice meant that new members shouldn’t cause any problems, they should vote with the mainstream of the party, and they would slowly but surely rise up the seniority-ordered hierarchy and get real power. In Taiwan, the nativist wing of the KMT has also committed itself to a “to get along, go along” bargain, though it is slightly different from the American version. Here, the local politicians go out and win votes for the national KMT, but they are not expected to rise up in the power hierarchy. Important national policy was, for the most part, decided at the center by the (mostly) mainlander elite and their technocratic allies. Some isolated individuals might emerge (eg: Wu Po-hsiung 吳伯雄, Chang Feng-hsu 張豐緒, Lin Feng-cheng 林豐正), but the more common final post for the most successful local politicians was a spot in the cabinet of the Provincial government (entrusted with executing policy), not in the Executive Yuan (entrusted with deciding policy).
In return for winning votes and not making too much noise about national-level politics, the nativist wing was allowed to get rich. Most times a road was paved, a public building was built, or farmland was rezoned, some KMT local faction politician was taking a cut. When politicians bought 10,000 votes at NT3,000 apiece to get elected mayor of some minor township, it was with the expectation that they would be able to recoup this investment several times over. This corruption was endemic, though it was never allowed to get completely out of control. KMT politicians could expect lenient treatment from the judicial system, but they could not expect complete immunity. The most blatant cases were punished, but the law looked the other way in less serious instances. Moreover, if a conviction were rendered, it was often reduced or overturned on appeal. Even if a politician had to go to jail, he or she could often arrange a flimsy excuse and be granted medical parole. (“Ouch, my ankle is sprained!”) Farmers associations were also a key institution in this political model. Faction politicians went to great efforts to win control of the local farmers association, not so much for its access to farmers and their votes as to control the financial assets in the affiliated credit unions. However, in the 1980s and early 1990s, these credit unions grew bigger, and “lax management” led to several spectacular bank runs. Eventually, the central government stepped in and fundamentally reformed the entire banking system, stripping the farmers associations of much of their usefulness to local politicians.
This was the model of politics that Wang Jin-pyng and his allies in the KMT grew up in. They kept their heads down, didn’t ask questions, and enjoyed the benefits of power. Just as they stayed out of high politics, they also learned to look the other way in political struggles. Time and time again, a KMT figure would be on the losing side of a political fight and suddenly find that all his erstwhile allies were studiously staring nervously at the ground rather than backing him up. How many times have I heard a KMT person who had been denied a nomination scream bloody murder about the unfair and arbitrary use of power in the party headquarters? Let’s just say that Huang Ching-tai’s 黃景泰 (the guy who in 2014 was stripped of the KMT nomination for Keelung Mayor due to low poll ratings and then hit with corruption indictments) case wasn’t exactly a new story to me. (The corruption case is also part of the model. Most faction members are guilty of something, and they all know that a corruption investigation can be launched if they do not behave.) More importantly, when he screamed bloody murder about the new White Terror being inflicted on him, it wasn’t surprising that his local KMT comrades kept quiet. He had done the same in countless previous cases. People who learn how to get along simply are not good at collective rebellion. They have spent their whole lives learning how not to react to injustice.
Even if there is deep dissatisfaction with Hung Hsiu-chu in the KMT rank-and-file, a rebellion on the floor is highly unlikely. People in the True-Believers wing of the party could lead a rebellion; they have a strong sense of agency. People in the nativist wing will grumble in private and try to avoid a public conflict. Many of them will decide not to attend the party congress, and many of the ones that do attend will simply “go along” and begrudgingly vote with the party. If they actually do hold a vote, we might see as many as 10-15% vote against Hung. However, there is almost no chance that she will actually lose the vote. In fact, by daring her opponents to stand up and be counted – which most of them will shy away from – she might emerge from the party congress significantly strengthened.