This weekend, the KMT will hold an extraordinary party congress in which it plans to retract its presidential nomination of Hung Hsiu-chu and instead give it to Eric Chu. I have a few scattered thoughts on this.
In the next few presidential election cycles, trailing candidates will have to constantly answer questions about whether they should be replaced. In the past, the nomination settled that question. Once a party nominated someone, the choice was final. That was even true for lousy candidates (read: Lien in 2000, Peng in 1996). Now a precedent has been set. Underperforming candidates can have their nominations retracted. Trailing candidates will have to spend energy and resources fending off that possibility, which will make it even harder for them to close the gap with the leader.
This is the backroom dealing everyone was waiting for and expecting to see in February through May. The KMT power brokers sat down, came to an agreement on how to run the party, and the inconvenient procedural barriers to that decision simply melted away. Precisely because this is so easy once the big boys came to a decision, everyone was shocked that the party actually followed its official rules in the spring and summer and ended up nominating Hung.
When I say “party leaders” came to a consensus, I primarily mean Ma and Chu. President Ma has been the real power the entire time. Chu may be the party chair, but Ma was the one who vetoed Wang’s candidacy and legitimized Hung’s. Several months later, Ma has retracted his support of Hung, and decided to find a new person to represent the party. Once Ma indicated his decision, most of the KMT rank and file fell quickly into line. Chu’s role in this is the same it has always been: he had a veto over his own candidacy. Once he decided not to exercise that veto, Ma was free to throw Hung overboard. Without Chu, Ma may have still decided to replace Hung, but there are no good options to run in her stead. The fact that it took Ma and Chu so long to come to this consensus is an indictment of their political acumen. They both willfully ignored the impending train wreck, insisting on only thinking happy thoughts. This was always the obvious best choice; they should have reached in in February when they still had an outside chance to win.
The replacement of Hung with Chu is not a fundamental policy change for the KMT. This is more like replacing the advertising agency for a product rather than revamping the product itself. Hung was perhaps too overt and too shrill for the general electorate in her advocacy of ever-closer relations with China. However, her position was not too far away from that of the Ma administration. In fact, she defended herself precisely by saying that she wasn’t saying anything that Ma hadn’t already said first. Lest one think that the KMT leaders (including Ma) have decided to fundamentally rethink their party platform in the face of electoral pressure, Ma’s National Day address should have put that notion to rest. He defiantly insisted that the country was solidly on the correct path, and it would stick firmly to that path. You can be sure that Ma would not be willing to endorse Chu for president if Chu were about to repudiate Ma’s line on relations with China. Chu might present the policy to the public in a more soothing tones or less incendiary verbiage, but it will be essentially the same policy.
Electorally, I don’t expect this move to have much of an impact. Remember those polls from late last year and early this year showing Chu running neck and neck with Tsai? (For example, a February 6 TVBS poll had Tsai leading Chu by only 2%, 43-41%.) Back then, Chu was the Golden One. We didn’t know too much about him, and people were eager to project all their hopes and good will on him. Those days are long gone. When he entered the national fray as party chair, he stepped into the harsh light of daily scrutiny. He hasn’t shown much policy leadership. In his biggest opportunity to carve out a unique identity for himself, he simply echoed the Ma administration’s positions in his trip to China. He has been distracted from focusing exclusively on national politics by the responsibilities of running New Taipei City. (That also hasn’t gone well. His current approval ratings are far below those from his first term.) However, his biggest failing has been his bewildering indecisiveness and refusal to take an active leadership role. As party chair, he had the responsibility to ensure that the KMT nominated one of its two viable candidates, himself or Speaker Wang. When he took the party chair, most people assumed he would also accept the presidential nomination. Inexplicably, he staunchly refused that responsibility. However, he also never had the guts to stand up to President Ma and insist that the party should nominate Wang. Instead, he tried to dodge responsibility by insisting on being a neutral referee. He didn’t even seem to want to take responsibility for the technicalities: all the rules and decisions – many of which were quite important – were announced by Secretary-General Lee Si-chuan or Deputy Chair Hau Lung-pin. At one point, Chu even tried to absent himself from the KMT Central Standing Committee weekly meetings. The result was that the KMT ended up nominating Hung, a decision that pleased the DPP more than the KMT. And now? Now Chu has reversed himself again by deciding that maybe he is willing to accept the presidential nomination. Apparently the convictions that were so powerful eight months ago when he was still a viable contender have evaporated into thin air. I suppose it is simply one more self-inflicted body blow. (I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he repeats this indecision on the question of whether to resign as New Taipei mayor. I can easily see him insisting for two and a half months that there is no need to resign, panicking and resigning in the last week, getting no political gain because both those who want him to resign and those who want him to stay in office will be unhappy, and then losing the seat to the DPP in the by-election.) At any rate, a TVBS poll last week shows him trailing Tsai by 48-29%, only slightly better than Hung’s 48-24% deficit. (Remember, KMT candidates generally do better in TVBS polls than in most other polls, so a 19% deficit may be overestimating Chu’s current popularity.)
Of course, the KMT has long since given up on the presidential race. They are changing presidential candidates in an effort to save a few more of their legislative candidates. I don’t think this will very effective.
The KMT probably isn’t winning any new votes this year; their challenge is to simply maintain as much of the 2012 coalition as possible. The problem is that many former supporters have withdrawn their support in the 2016 presidential election. Some specifically dislike Hung, but many others dissatisfied President Ma’s performance or the entire KMT. The real root of the problem is that the KMT has been bleeding party ID for four years, probably because of the high levels of dissatisfaction with President Ma’s policies and actions. Hung hasn’t helped. The fact that the party has happily spent half a year with her as its main presidential contender has probably solidified the image that the party is resolute in its desire to move ever closer to China. However, merely retracting her nomination does not undo that damage. Rather than fundamentally repudiating her (and President Ma’s) position toward China, the KMT has apologized to her for the retraction. At any rate, most of those voters aren’t coming back to the KMT regardless of who is on the top of the ticket unless the KMT undergoes fundamental change.
With Hung Hsiu-chu as the KMT’s presidential candidate, I expected most KMT legislative candidates to run ahead of the presidential candidates. There are a certain number of voters who are unwilling to vote for Hung but would still be willing to vote for the local KMT nominee. These voters might specifically dislike Hung or they might dislike the current KMT more generally, but they are willing to overlook these negatives because they like the local legislative candidate. Hung isn’t costing the KMT these legislative votes, so replacing her with the (presumably less offensive) Chu doesn’t add any extra votes here. In other words, Chu might run 5% better in the presidential race, but that doesn’t mean that the KMT’s legislative candidates will do any better with him at the top of the ticket.
Instead, we need to imagine that there are some voters who dislike Hung so much that they will refuse to vote for a KMT legislative candidate that they prefer to the DPP candidate. That is, they would penalize the legislative candidate – who they like – for associating with Hung. The local candidate will certainly remind them that Hung is not the party leader, she has no chance to win, she is ready to retire will be out of the picture on January 17, and that the best way to repudiate her faction is for her to be humiliated in the presidential election while the other faction proves it can still successfully appeal to voters). Still, these voters will refuse to be swayed. However, with Chu (who also represents President Ma’s KMT and has no chance to win) at the top of the ticket, these same voters will overlook any misgivings and vote for the local KMT candidate. Are there really that many of these voters? My guess is that there are fewer than most pundits would have us believe.