KMT party chair election

(I’ve been working on this post on and off for a couple of months now. Rather than revise it again, I’m just going to post it.)

 

The votes are in and Wu Den-yi has been elected the next KMT party chair, so I guess it is just about time for me to write up my election preview.

 

Here are the results:

吳敦義 Wu Den-yi 144408 52.2%
洪秀柱 Hung Hsiu-chu 53063 19.2%
郝龍斌 Hau Lung-pin 44301 16.0%
韓國瑜 Han Kuo-yu 16141 5.8%
詹啟賢 Chan Chi-hsien (Steve) 12332 4.5%
潘維剛 Pan Wei-kang 2437 0.9%

That is roughly twice as many votes (and KMT party members) than the last KMT party chair election. However, before you get too excited about a certain member mobilizing new members, remember that this is actually quite a bit fewer votes (and party members than the 2005 party chair election when over a million people were eligible to vote and over half a million votes were cast.

I was out of the country when the accusations of vote buying exploded, so I mostly missed that. However, I did watch both debates on Youtube, and I learned quite a bit from those forums about how each candidate was presenting him or herself. I’ll discuss the candidates in reverse order of their finish.

 

Pan Wei-kang

Pan was elected to the legislature in 1992 and has spent most of the last 25 years in the legislature, often also serving on the KMT central committee. For someone who has been at the center of national politics for so long, I was somewhat surprised by how little I knew about her. She is a second generation politician, and she comes out of the Huang Fu-hsing (military) system. However, I can’t remember hearing her speak very many times, and I never thought of her as particularly extreme. As such, I was a bit taken aback when she came out in the first debate breathing fire, demanding state reparations for the current wave of Green Terror against the KMT. She seemed determined to displace Hung Hsiu-chu as the candidate of the reactionary nostaligists. She toned down the rhetoric a bit in the second debate, but she managed to redefine herself in my eyes.

I don’t know what Pan was doing in the race. She never seemed to matter, and she never carved out a distinct niche for herself.

 

Steve Chan Chi-hsien

Chan was a complete mystery to me when this contest started. He had served as Economics Minister, but I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to governing. I’m into politics. I had heard his name bandied about as a possible running mate for the KMT presidential candidate, but that came to nothing. In retrospect, the high moment for Chan’s party chair campaign might have been when they announced the final results of the signature drives. All six candidates easily passed the minimum threshold, but Chan somewhat surprisingly finished second, edging out Hung and Hao. This turned out not to be predictive of the voting results though, as Chan actually got fewer votes than signatures.

In the second debate, Chan mentioned that his mother had been a Changhua county councilor and his brother had been Yuanlin town mayor. This was news to me, and I’m supposed to know these sorts of things. However, there was a reason I had never heard of them: they were elected back in the dark ages. Chan’s older brother was elected mayor in 1973, and we don’t have systematic records from town elections that far back. In fact, Chan comes from an elite local family with several prominent doctors. A bit of googling revealed that he is distantly related in some way to most Taichung and Changhua local faction families and even a few opposition politicians. However, the family’s electoral activities were decades ago and the old nework is almost certainly long gone today.

In the debates, Chan was the embodiment of a bureaucrat. He exuded as little charisma as possible and gave me the impression that he understood all of the details of problems without necessarily grasping the big picture. He spoke of visiting grassroots party members as if they were some abstract idea. People who routinely interact with ordinary voters don’t talk about those interactions as if they require some special effort. Someone told me that Steve Chan is close to Lien Chan. I don’t know if that is true, but they have very similar styles.

 

Han Kuo-yu

Five of the candidates sounded rather similar. Han sounded completely different. During both debates, Han didn’t talk about things like the 1992 Consensus, KMT party assets, or other partisan topics. Instead, he talked about the difficulties of everyday life for lower income and less educated people. Good jobs are scarce, drug use is common, things are too expensive, and life is generally hard. Notably, he did not blame all of these woes solely on President Tsai and the DPP. He was complaining about the effects of President Ma’s policies just as much. His discourse was limited to expressing the pain felt by the lower class. He did not bother to offer any solutions, not even Trump-esque claims that everything could be easily fixed if only someone really wanted to. This was a campaign aimed at the people who know the system is rigged against them and will continue to be rigged against them. It was also aimed at young men, especially the types who might drive a truck or join a gang. This may not have been the best strategy for a KMT party chair race, since I would wager that KMT members are less likely than the general population to be young, unemployed, financially struggling, or to feel that the system is rigged against them. Nevertheless, Han didn’t do terribly. I wonder how many candidates will pick up this campaign strategy for the city and county councilor elections next year.

 

Hau Lung-pin

Hau Lung-pin had exactly one remarkable idea. He stressed repeatedly that if he were elected chair, he would not personally run for president in 2020. Instead, he would ask Hon Hai boss Terry Gou to be the KMT candidate. Let’s think about this for a minute. There are a few reasons that this might be a good idea. 1) The KMT doesn’t exactly have a stable of qualified, charismatic candidates foaming to challenge President Tsai in 2020. Everyone is flawed, and no one is terribly popular. 2) The conventional approach failed dramatically in 2016, so the KMT needs to try something new. 3) Public opinion surveys show that Gou is more popular than any current KMT politician. 4) Donald Trump just showed that the USA was willing to vote for a business tycoon with no political experience, so maybe Taiwanese voters will follow suit. There is the small matter that Gou is currently busy running Hon Hai and may not have the time or desire to run for or serve as president. Nonetheless, Gou didn’t shoot the idea down, and there have been a few discreet trial balloons hinting that he might be willing. Rich people think they can do anything, that their immense wealth proves their superior wisdom and vision. Gou’s availability may not be the fundamental flaw in Hau’s plan.

There are two basic problems with Hau’s plan. The first is that Gou would probably bomb miserably as a presidential candidate. Gou has reasonably good poll numbers now, but the public hasn’t thought carefully about Gou as a potential president. He is a very successful business leader – with a far more impressive record than Donald Trump – and the public evaluates him mostly as a business leader. Once he becomes a politician, the media scrutiny will intensify and become much more critical. The halo surrounding Eric Chu in 2014 melted away in only a few months under the harsh spotlight of national politics in 2015. Gou’s current good (not great) polling numbers are almost irrelevant; six months after entering the political fray the public will think of him in a completely different light.

What about Gou’s fantastic business record? (Unlike Trump) Gou has built an enormous, world-class company. Hon Hai is one of the pillars of Taiwan’s economy, and it employs over half a million people around the world. Gou is good at business. Unfortunately, his business talent might not translate into a political appeal. For one thing, Taiwan does not have the traditional reverence for free enterprise that America does. Especially for Republicans, you often hear voters say that they prefer a person who understands business. As the chair of General Motors once said, the business of the US government is business. There is a significant slice of the electorate that sees pro-business policies as a moral appeal. Taiwanese voters are different. Among traditionalists, Confucianism views commerce with a skeptically. Politics and agriculture are honorable and create a better world; people in commerce are not much better than parasites and must be carefully regulated and restrained by the state. Contemporary mainstream Taiwanese society views business more favorably, especially since the Taiwan economic miracle was built on exports by small and medium sized business. Still, there is nothing like the American or British reverence for the invisible hand of the market. Not many people believe that an unregulated economy would produce a better society. Moreover, there is a growing worry about the increasing gap between rich and poor, and business tycoons may not be the ones preoccupied with addressing these concerns. Suffice it to say, Trump’s victory in the USA doesn’t necessarily mean that a business leader in Taiwan will do well in Taiwan. (Also, there is the strong possibility that by the time 2020 arrives, Trump’s disastrous presidency will be widely seen as evidence that business leaders do not make good politicians.)

Trump’s international dealings were never more than a side note among the perpetual storm of astounding news swirling around his campaign. For Terry Gou, it is unthinkable that his ties in China would not be at the center of his campaign. Hon Hai is the single biggest private employer in China. One way to interpret that is that Hon Hai has some leverage over the Chinese economy. Another interpretation is that China has enormous leverage over Hon Hai’s (and Terry Gou’s personal) fortunes. When China demands that Hon Hai does something, Hon Hai has little choice but to comply. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the prime duty of Taiwan’s president is to defy China. There is a fundamental conflict of interest on the overriding question in Taiwanese politics. Gou’s loyalties would be continually questioned, and he would have no way to reassure the dubious public. Moreover, it isn’t like Gou is a strident democrat. The Gou Doctrine (“You can’t eat democracy.”) might find sympathy in a society that takes democracy for granted, like the USA. In Taiwan, democracy is what keeps Taiwan from being absorbed by a voracious China. (Note: Many people believe Taiwan’s economy keeps it independent. Hong Kongers wish that were true.)

I don’t care what the current polls say. I can’t see any way that Terry Gou wouldn’t be a disaster as a presidential candidate. Hau Lung-pin bet his political career on a terrible idea.

The second problem with Hau’s plan to ask Gou to be the presidential candidate is that it shows that Hau fundamentally misunderstands the nature of power in Taiwanese politics. Quite simply, power flows from the presidency. This is not unique to Taiwan. When there is an elected president with significant power, parties organize themselves to capture that big prize. Parties are presidentialized. Regardless of who holds the formal position of party leader, the de facto leader of the party is the incumbent president, the presidential candidate, or the person who could potentially become the presidential candidate. By promising not to run for the KMT’s presidential nomination in 2020, Hau basically ensured that he would never wield any power. His campaign appeal boiled down to, “Elect me as your leader so that I can refuse to be your leader.” Not only is this an illogical appeal, we’ve just seen how badly it works in practice. Eric Chu tried being a neutral referee in early 2015 when the entire party was practically begging him to run for president. That didn’t work out well for either Chu or the KMT.

To recap, Hau made a terrible choice in choosing to outsource the KMT presidential nomination, and he made another terrible choice by selecting Gou as his target. He deserved his humiliating third place finish with a pathetic 16% of the vote.

Where does Hau go from here? He probably won’t leave politics simply because the KMT has so little talent at the top levels. However, I think he is probably spent as a serious political force. It has been a very bad few years for him. As a two-term mayor, he was not on the ballot in 2014 and so was spared that humiliation. Nonetheless, his satisfaction ratings were routinely among the lowest of all the mayors and magistrates. It certainly isn’t good for your reputation when the other party wins your formerly unwinnable city after your eight years of lackluster performance in office. In early 2015, when the KMT was casting around desperately for a presidential candidate, Hau was one of those who boldly decided to sit on his hands and watch Hung Hsiu-chu’s rise. He bears a share of responsibility for the damage she inflicted on the party. Instead of running for president, Hau managed to secure the KMT nomination for Keelung City, one of the few safe KMT seats remaining. His calculation seemed to be that he did not want to sacrifice himself in the coming DPP tidal wave. Someone else could do that. He would position himself as leader of the KMT legislative caucus, which would be the de facto center of KMT power after the election. He would be able to pick up the pieces and lead the party back from defeat. There was one flaw in that plan: he lost the Keelung election. It wasn’t that there weren’t enough votes. The winning DPP candidate only got 41%. The problem was that MKT and PFP candidates combined to siphon off 24% of the votes, leaving him with only 36%. He was not able to unify the blue voters around his candidacy. The same thing happened in the KMT chair election. He did not lose because the general electorate rejected him. He lost because KMT party members – supposedly the group most enthusiastically supporting him – looked at him and collectively mumbled, “meh.”

 

Hung Hsiu-chu

I don’t have a lot to say about Hung that hasn’t been said many times over the past two years. She is far too extreme for the Taiwanese electorate. She was a disaster as a presidential candidate and party chair, and if it had elected her to another four years as party leader the KMT would have been sentencing itself to political oblivion. This wasn’t working, and even most of the KMT members who like what Hung stands for could see that the party needs to go in a different direction if it ever wants to return to power.

 

Wu Den-yi

It wasn’t a surprise that Wu won the race. He acted like the front-runner and the other candidates and the media treated him like the front-runner throughout the campaign. His first-round victory was perhaps a surprise, though. I had thought that he would get somewhere around 45% and need a second round to dispatch Hung or Hau. Instead, he won 52% and beat the second place candidate by 33%. In a race with five candidates getting significant numbers of votes, 52% is a fairly impressive result.

Wu’s strategy can be summed up quite simply: Let’s party like it’s 2011! In this view, there was nothing wrong with the party that won the 2008 election and was re-elected in 2012. Everything was going well until the party got derailed during Ma’s second term. The KMT flubbed things like the gas and electricity pricing and the capital gains tax. They failed miserably at political communication, and the population came to believe that nuclear power was dangerous and that the Services Trade Agreement would somehow risk Taiwan’s political sovereignty while transferring enormous wealth to the rich elite. The KMT failed most disastrously by shifting away from the 1992 Consensus under Hung Hsiu-chu. The task at hand is simply to return to that winning strategy. That means the entire package. For example, the KMT has to rebuild its ties with the local factions, assuring them that they are still a critical component of the KMT coalition. It also means returning to the greater ambiguity of the 2008 campaign, in which Ma repeatedly promised “no unification, no independence, no war.” In subsequent years, the KMT seemed to forget the “no unification” part of that formula. However, this does not mean that Wu Den-yi is a modern-day version of Lee Teng-hui, secretly scheming to lead the KMT and Taiwan toward independence. Wu is a deeply conservative person who believes in traditional values and deference to authority. He is well-schooled in the Church of Sun Yat-sen, and there is very little evidence he is not a sincere and committed believer. Lin Yang-kang and Wu Po-hsiung are much better models for Wu than Lee Teng-hui. Wu firmly supports returning to the 1992 Consensus, including the part about insisting that there is only One China. The Ma presidency was built on the premise that Taiwan’s economy should be further integrated into the larger Chinese economy for both economic and political purposes. Economically, Ma believed that integration would lead to faster economic growth for Taiwan. Politically, Ma saw an economic appeal as a way to win votes from a public skeptical of the glorious history of the Republic of China. The message was, “Don’t worry so much about China. We won’t take any steps toward unification. Instead, we will use them to make ourselves rich.” Of course, this strategy depended on negotiating a better economic relationship, and China would not negotiate with Taiwan unless Taiwan accepted the One China principle. The ambiguity that Ma was so proud of involved telling China, “Look, One China! Don’t worry about independence!” while simultaneously telling Taiwanese, “Look, each side with its own interpretation! Don’t worry about unification!” This delicate balancing act arguably produced two election victories before, in Wu’s interpretation, the KMT blundered by walking away from it. Wu promises to resume the friendly (but still arm’s length) relationship with China by reaffirming and adhering to the One China principle.

Is Wu correct to think he can simply put the old band back together? I have some doubts. For one thing, China in 2017 (and 2020) is not the China of 2005 or even 2012. Today’s China is much less deferential to the international order and much more aggressive about pursuing its international interests. In 2005 the world was still talking about the peaceful rise of China, and it was marginally plausible that Taiwan could have an exclusively economic relationship with China (win-win!). These days, China looks far more predatory and menacing. Further, in 2005 the two economies were more complementary, matching Taiwanese capital and technology with Chinese labor. Today, the two compete directly in many critical sectors. Finally, the Chinese economy is no longer growing at miraculous rates; it is now entering phase of relatively slower growth.

A second and more important point is that Taiwan of 2017 (and 2020) is no longer the Taiwan of 2005 and 2012. Identity has shifted. I assume that my readers are all familiar with the NCCU Election Study Center trends on national identity. Prior to 2008, more people held a Chinese identity (either exclusive or dual) than an exclusive Taiwanese identity. After 2008, that has no longer been the case. Nowadays, exclusive Taiwanese identity outpaces Chinese identity by a large margin (58.2% to 37.7% in the most recent data point). This is partly due to generational replacement, partly because some people have changed their minds, and partly because the language of political discourse has changed and Taiwanese are simply less likely to use the term “Chinese” to refer to themselves regardless of their political stance. Nonetheless, a KMT promising One China will face a far more skeptical electorate in 2020 than in 2008.

The third problem for this strategy is that the 1992 Consensus is no longer the same thing. In 2008, no one knew how the 1992 Consensus would work in practice. If you wanted to project optimistic or pessimistic visions on it, you could. Now we have eight years of experience. By the last few years, China was increasingly unhappy with Taiwan’s reluctance to take more concrete steps toward unification, and the Taiwanese electorate was increasingly unhappy with the continual degrading prostrations and erosion of sovereignty necessary to keep the official channels open. Ma’s implicit promise to voters, “Don’t worry about the political implications; this is just going to be pure economics,” was increasingly far-fetched. Instead of the wink-wink-nudge-nudge promise that the 1992 Consensus would allow Taiwan to enjoy both political sovereignty and close economic relations, it became increasingly apparent that the two were, in fact, inseparable. Accepting One China would have political consequences. In Taiwanese politics, whenever one issue (in this case economic strategy) clashes with the China cleavage, the China cleavage subsumes and absorbs the other one. I don’t think Wu can simply ignore eight years of history and pull them back apart.

My guess is that Wu will be fairly successful at holding the broader KMT coalition together. I don’t expect a spate of new splinter parties from the blue side, at least not in the next year and a half. However, I think Wu is overestimating the number of voters who are waiting to be pulled back into the KMT coalition. In 2012, 54% voted for Ma or Soong. In 2016, only 44% voted for Chu or Soong. Wu might consolidate that vote, but his plan to return to the good old days of 2011 doesn’t seem to me to hold much promise of expanding it much. Wu Den-yi is betting otherwise. I guess we’ll see.

One Response to “KMT party chair election”

  1. Peter Zarrow Says:

    I enjoy and learn a lot from your blog. A bit more precision on the US quote side: It was Pres. Calvin Coolidge who said: “The chief business of the American people is business.” Charles Wilson, long-time head of GM said in 1953: “I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa”. (He didn’t quite claim the juicier “What’s good for General Motors is good for America”–he was trying to explain why, nominated by Eisenhower as Secretary of Defense, he didn’t face any conflicts of interest. He did in the end, however reluctantly, sell all his GM shares–those were the days.)

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