The effect of replacing Hung with Chu

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.


19 Responses to “The effect of replacing Hung with Chu”

  1. Anthony van Dyck Says:

    1996 Peng Ming-min was given the nomination mostly out of respect for his work in opposition to the KMT and advancement of Taiwan’s democracy. When LTH finally brought in national elections, everybody rallied around him, especially once China started threatening Taiwan. So it wasn’t so much a case of “running a loser” but making a pro forma gesture.

    Lien Chan’s candidacy in 2000 was engineered to lose by LTH, in my opinion. James Soong had to be neutralized, and Lee did it perfectly by making sure that the uncharismatic Lien got the nomination, forcing Soong to run independently, and splitting the vote beautifully. If Lee did in fact arrange the whole thing, it was a masterstroke of political shrewdness.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      2000 and 2016 aren’t as different as you are suggesting. LTH didn’t want to nominate Soong, and Ma didn’t want to nominate Wang. The real difference is that when Lien floundered in the polls (and his polling numbers were in the single digits through most of the summer and fall of 1999), LTH didn’t try to replace him with a more likeable candidate, such as Jason Hu, Vincent Siew, or Wang Jin-pyng. (At any rate, the comment is more directed at future elections than past ones.)

    • Kjchg Says:

      Peng was a man who garnered great respect !! A senior statesman in the Taiwanese independence sbd democracy movement. Peng was wish greatly respected by Lee. Lee and Peng are contemporaries of each other. Similar age. Both born during Japanese era and educated in Japan. It was a perfect and obvious choice to nominate him to run. He would’ve made a great president for Taiwan. Ive tried to locate video of the first presidential debates involving Lee and Peng on sane stage… No luck. They’ve also been on same stage comparing notes and paths to work for Taiwan’s freedom. One worked within Taiwan playing the good buy and rising within the ranks of the foreign kmt regime all the while watching what he says and not reveal what’s really in his heart and mind. The other spoke his mind while also given a position with the kmt regime only to have the kmt turn on him with a bounty on his head leading to his escape from Taiwan into exile and working overseas for Taiwanese democracy and freedom. It would take another 20+ years before he would be able to return back to Taiwan. When asked who had a harder time Lee or Peng. I believe Peng in exile said he was better off. At least he could express his thoughts and clear his heart and mind. Whereas Lee had to keep those thoughts bottled up although he was home.

  2. csempere109 Says:

    At least they won’t have legislative candidates actively leaving the party. And maybe fewer voters will stay home (though as you say, the party isn’t doing much to win them back). I remember you writing that Chu decided not to use party funds for Hung’s campaign. Was he setting her up to fail so he could save the day? I guess that doesn’t make sense because the party was already looking for a savior at the time.

    How’d Soong’s campaign collapse so badly? Was he doing anything besides awkward advertising? He’s good at speaking but doesn’t seem to have been very active.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      How did Soong’s campaign collapse? That’s a great question. I had expected it would collapse after the first week or two, but it seemed to be picking up strength throughout August, and the polls consistently showed Soong in second. It looked like Hung’s campaign was the one in danger of collapsing. The obvious and easy answer is that Soong was severely damaged by China’s military parade. Since Hung had the deep blue vote, Soong was reinventing himself as the representative of the light blue vote. When Soong’s longtime close aide went to Beijing for the parade (with no sharp rebuke from Soong), the light blue voters (who mostly identify as Taiwanese) may have reconsidered their support for Soong en masse. Tsai’s numbers jumped about 5%, and many of these could have been former Soong supporters who decided that he was too pro-Chinese to be trusted. It is also possible that once Soong’s support began to falter, the strategic voters jumped ship and went back to Hung (whose numbers also jumped up a bit). This is a plausible story, but I can’t shake the feeling that there is more going on. I also wonder if voters started taking a more critical look at Soong and found him wanting in some other important area. Maybe they just decided he is too old or he can’t be an effective president without loyal soldiers in the legislature.

      • Greg (@greghao) Says:

        Don’t quote me on this but didn’t Soong’s polling sink beneath Hung’s before the parade? Though I think your greater point about Soong appealing to a segment of the electorate that just isn’t really there is probably right.

  3. Tommy Says:

    I would think that the net gain from Chu’s entry into the race would be minimal at this point.

    As you noted, this is the first time a party has moved to replace its presidential candidate after the nomination, and the way it was done justifies all of critics’ complaints that the KMT is a party of back-room dealing. For every voter that is willing to overlook his/her misgivings about the party and vote KMT after Hung’s replacement there is likely another voter (or at least half a voter) who thinks the whole process has been a sham, and so is more likely to stay home or vote for the opposition candidate, legislative or presidential.

    It is for this reason that I do not understand the move to replace Hung at this stage. The KMT would have gained more by giving Hung a stern behind-the-scenes talking to to Hung in order to get her to tone down her rhetoric, then coming together to provide her with more financial and political support (Ex: Ma and Chu make joint conference calls with all KMT legislators and various support groups to say that they are turning over a new leaf). The bad blood within the KMT has probably made this approach impossible at this point, but replacing unpopular horse 1 with unpopular horse 2 through a non-transparent decision-making process is a way of working that is reserved for much more authoritarian political systems than what Taiwan has become.

    • Greg Says:

      This whole saga has been perplexing to no end. As I mentioned on Twitter; even though I had no intention of ever voting for Hung, the way she’s been treated by the KMT has made me much more sympathetic towards her. How the power brokers believe that this sort of wishy washy behaviour is going to save them down ballot is beyond me.

  4. Dan Stevenson Says:

    Probably a big stretch, but I wonder if you can use data from 2012 to predict if Chu will lead or lag KMT legislative candidates. For example, build a model that maps candidate and party favorability ratings to the delta in election results. So Tsai being personally popular (high favorability) relative to DPP favorability actually ran better than her party in 2012, and maybe opposite for Ma. Then map where Chu is on favorability and also KMT, and then predict lead/lag vs. his party. The KMT favorability wll be influenced by the Hung situation.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      When (if) I have time, I’m going to try to put together a rough model of the legislative races, though I’m not quite sure how this model will work. It probably won’t be based on running ahead or behind presidential candidates.

      My intuition/assumption is that Chu will trail KMT legislative candidates in almost every race. In 2012, Tsai and Ma ran almost exactly even with their party’s legislative candidates.

  5. Zla'od Says:

    I wonder how many Hung supporters will now stay home because they’re mad at Chu.

    Also, what do you make of the theory that Chu waited this long because he knew he’d lose either way, but a late entry would allow him to run in his own mayoral by-election afterwards? Is he really that clever? Of course he might well lose.

  6. Mr. Wang Says:

    Do you know why President Ma still has such power over the KMT? It doesn’t make sense to me that an unpopular lame duck President still has such a hold over the party.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      In the USA, his party would be in open rebellion and the presidential candidate would have tried to clearly differentiate him/herself from the president. However, Taiwan’s president is more powerful than the American president. He can exercise more influence over the economy, judicial system, and intelligence network. Taiwan also has more hierarchical parties, and the wing of Ma’s party that least likes his policies is the wing that is fatally compromised by its gluttony for local corruption.

  7. Kjchg Says:

    I disagree with one of your comments. Peng Ming min for DPP was NOT a lousy candidate. In fact he was an excellent one!!! A founding father of of Taiwan independebce and democratic movement. He was a statesman who is a contemporary of Lee Teng Hui who was going to win regardless. Lee also stood up and spoke for the Taiwanese and Taiwan in face of China’s middle threats. China detested both Lee and Peng. Just because one is to know SE doesn’t mean the candidate was lousy. A lousy candidate is one who is completely out of touch with the public… An election has many factors and circumstances surrounding it determine whether a candidate wins or loses. One can say Hsieh in 2009 better for Taiwan then Ma. Many of us knew then as the rest of Taiwan now knows. But lousy Ma still won. What dues that tell you ?? The first elections in 1996 to determine president can go down in history as a great success having both Lee and Peng. They’re both Taiwanese of great stature. It was an honor for Peng to be a part of that!! In the history books. There were also two insignificant and pro Chinese China candidates. The 1996 results reflected pro Taiwanese sentiments. Lee won by large majority… But Penf was a respectable 2nd. That’s what we Peng supporters hoped for. If failing to win… At least come a respectable 2nd beating the Chinese candidates. So Peng was a great candidate. Not lousy as you depicted.

  8. Irwin Says:

    Some voters may like their KMT district legislator and would vote for them regardless of who is at the top of the ticket. So changing the presidential candidate problem won’t help the district vote that much. But what is the impact on the party list legislators? Ticket splitting doesn’t seem that common even in Taiwan so I’m curious what’s your take on this?

    It seems to me that this whole episode boils down to Ma trying to maintain the raw number of KMT party list votes to ensure KMT still get a reasonable number of party list seats. With Hung at the top of the ticket, maybe the light blues stay home and KMT get’s hammered by party list allocation. With Chu at the top of the ticket maybe the light blues may come out and split the ticket (vote Tsai for President and KMT for party list). Admittedly, my theory works better if Wang is added back to KMT party list… that may or may not happen.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Replacing Hung with Chu might have an impact on the party list election, but the net effect on seats probably won’t be too great.

      It doesn’t make too much sense to focus heavily on the party list seats because there are so few of them. With 34 list seats, a party has to increase its national list vote by 3% to win one extra seat. In contrast, an extra 3% in the district races might be enough to swing several districts. To give an example, the DPP got 38.7% of the district vote in 2008, which won them 13 seats. In 2012, they got 44.4%, which netted them 27 district seats. A similar 6% increase in party list votes would have only been worth 2 extra list seats. As long as the KMT can stay above 35% nationally in the district races, their election strategy should be designed around winning district, not list, seats.

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