Covid and KMT electoral strategy

In my last post, I hinted that the recent polls had suggested some interesting things about how the 2024 presidential race might unfold. I was thinking about what the polls said about the support of the various prominent contenders. However, since writing that, I have been obsessed with the idea that there was a much more important lesson. Perhaps these recent polls show that one of the KMT’s basic assumptions about how they can win a presidential election is flawed.

The contemporary KMT was rebuilt by Lien Chan, Su Chi, Ma Ying-jeou, and a few others after the 2000 presidential elections. After they purged Lee Teng-hui, they went back to their Chinese nationalist roots and reimagined the KMT as a party that could constructively engage with the PRC. The 92 Consensus was the linchpin of this new party, combining their nationalist urges with an economic strategy that was potent enough to win a majority of voters. That strategy ceased to be electorally effective in 2014, and the PRC ceased pretending to respect it a year later. Nowadays, the 92 Consensus is a heavy weight around the KMT’s collective necks while the KMT is struggling not to drown. Nonetheless, they are determined not to cast it aside. When interim party chair Johnny Chiang proposed altering or putting it in a museum (as the DPP did with its independence plank in 1999), the party decisively rejected his proposals. Chiang may sit in the party chair, but Ma demonstrated that the party still follows him. Ma made it crystal clear that he was not about to allow the party to move away from the 92 Consensus. Or perhaps that gives too much credit to Ma. Perhaps the party collectively demonstrated that its rank and file are still committed to the 92 Consensus. Either way, the KMT remains centered on an idea that is ballot box poison. (Back in the 1990s, the KMT frequently gleefully pointed out that Taiwan independence was ballot box poison for the DPP. Since the DPP was unwilling to distance itself from independence, it was unelectable. Ironically, the KMT finds itself in a mirror image of that same conundrum.)

Opposition parties often find themselves in unpopular positions, and it is hard to change. After all, they believe deeply in these positions. In USA in the 1930s and 1940s, Republicans were dead-set against the New Deal, and they lost landslide after landslide for two decades. In the UK in the 1980s, faced with the popular Thatcher government, the Labour Party decided to double down on traditional policies. Its 1983 platform was dubbed “the longest suicide note in history.” They did they same thing a few years ago by turning to hard leftist Jeremy Corbyn, and the result was another electoral disaster. Parties can change. Republicans nominated Eisenhower in 1952 who pointedly promised not to touch social security. In the 1990s, leftist parties in the USA, UK, and Germany all nominated centrists promising a third way. These produced victories, but the true believers were not all that happy with being in power since they couldn’t do all the things they really wanted to do. Sometimes, parties don’t have to make these sorts of painful changes. Sometimes society shifts in their direction. In the 1980s Republicans and Tories won with hard right leaders who did not have to make painful concessions. The DPP won the 2016 elections with only minor changes from the platforms they had been presenting since 2000. But most parties are not so fortunate. Returning to power usually requires some adjustment.

There are no indications that Taiwan society is becoming more open to Chinese nationalism and engagement with China (on the PRC’s terms). If the KMT is unwilling to move away from the 92 Consensus, how does it think it is going to ever win back power?

The only clear strategy I can see is that the KMT is depending on DPP failures. The KMT doesn’t seem interested in making any positive appeals that will persuade a majority to vote FOR them. They do not seem to have any fantastic ideas saying, “On the issues you care most passionately about, we are going to do A and B, so you should vote for us.” Rather their real argument seems to be mostly negative. “Things aren’t going well, and it’s the DPP’s fault. Throw them out! Vote against them (and we’re the only viable party to replace them).”

2018 was a perfect demonstration of how this strategy was supposed to work. The KMT did not abandon the 92 Consensus; it just avoided talking much about it. Instead, it told voters how unhappy they were with air quality, economic grown, the gays, Taipei City, President Tsai, Premier’s Lin and Lai, electricity blackouts, and generally everything else. As we all remember, this worked pretty well.

They were unable to repeat their success in 2020, but never mind that. From the KMT’s point of view, there were lots of extenuating circumstances. Han made mistakes, the DPP used lots of dirty tricks, and, above all, Hong Kong happened. Han didn’t win, but 2020 didn’t prove to KMT loyalists that their party platform was fatally flawed. (Note: I don’t buy any of these “excuses.” I think it showed exactly that.)

This is where we come to the last four months. If the KMT’s fundamental strategy is to argue that the DPP is doing a lousy job, May and June should have been a golden opportunity. KMT figures were screaming loudly every day about this massive failure of governance, and the media mostly played along. If there was ever an opportunity to persuade the general public that the current government was incompetent, this was it.

As I wrote last time, we did see a small dip in President Tsai’s approval ratings and DPP party ID. However, with such a salient crisis, I thought it was a relatively small dip. More strikingly though, we did not see any shift toward the KMT. In fact, the KMT lost popularity.

This is not how their plan was supposed to go. I’m not criticizing them for failing to get to 51%. It’s really hard to get that many people to support you, and the last 5% is the hardest. But they couldn’t even get the first 5%. Going from 17% to 22% should have been the easy part. Instead, they went from 17% to 13%. This is a failure of proof of concept.

The KMT’s assumption is that if the DPP is unpopular, voters will inevitably turn to the KMT. If it didn’t work this time, what will it take? The failure suggests an uncomfortable possibility. The KMT might be becoming so toxic with so many voters that people dissatisfied the DPP might not know where to turn. The KMT might be losing its status as the easy default option for voters who want to vote for “anyone else.”

That should terrify them, but it won’t. It’s much easier to bury your head in the sand, refuse to make any painful changes, and hope that things will get better. Such is life in Ma Ying-jeou’s KMT.

2 Responses to “Covid and KMT electoral strategy”

  1. rusty Says:

    I generally agree with the points in this post, but I have to point out that your UK example flies in the face of the 2017 election result, which produced the highest share of votes for Labour since 2001 (& by pure popular votes, since 1997.) Polls after the 2017 elections showed prolonged Labour leads too.

    The central thesis of this post can still be applied to recent UK politics IMO, but specifically, it was the 2nd referendum policy that was the “ballot box poison”, not leftist policies. Polls showed that even a solid number of remainers were not keen on the idea of a 2nd referendum, so committing to it torpedoed Labour’s chance in 2019.

  2. De verkiezingen voor de KMT’s partijvoorzitter laten zien hoe stuk de grootste Taiwanese oppositiepartij is – Sense Hofstede Says:

    […] gezien het gebrek aan jonge leden en de zakelijke belangen in China van veel bestuursleden. Electoraal is het kansloos. Er zijn stemmen te winnen onder mensen die de DPP te extreem vinden. Maar met de ROC-symbolen […]

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