Chu wins. Now what?

Eric Chu was elected KMT party chair yesterday.

  votes%
Eric Chu朱立倫8516445.78
Chang Ya-chung張亞中6063232.59
Johnny Chiang江啟臣3509018.87
Cho Po-yuan卓伯源51332.76
Eligible voters: 370711, turnout: 50.71%

On the one hand, this was utterly predictable. From the moment Chu announced his candidacy, he was the strong favorite to win. A month ago, 45% would have seemed about right to me.

On the other hand, this campaign when dramatically off script in the last ten days. Up until that point, this was an utterly ordinary race. The candidates all professed admiration for traditional KMT positions and complained that Tsai and the DPP were doing a terrible job. The biggest point of contention was about whether it was ok that Chu had not renounced a run for president in 2024. Yawn. And then lots of dubious “polls” appeared, showing that Chang was running a very close second or maybe was leading. And then Chu started attacking Chang as a “red unificationist,” something that I never expected to see.

This turned the race into a clear choice between Chu and Chang. Chu was the defender of the ROC, and Chang stood for political talks toward a peaceful arrangement with the PRC. To put it more bluntly, while Chang didn’t like the red unification label, he never tried to distance himself from red unification policies.

One way to look at this election is that we now have a pretty good estimate of how much of the KMT is serious about unification. One-third of party members heard Chu – a cautious stalwart party leader, not some radical Taiwan independence pundit – tell them that Chang’s pursuit of political arrangements with the PRC was a threat to the continued existence of the ROC, and they basically said, “Yeah, I’m ok with that. I’m for that guy.” Since Chang is something of a blank slate – he’s never run in a general election or held a political office – his support is untainted by his record. What I mean by that is that party members may have loved Hung Hsiu-chu in 2017, but she had just run a disastrous presidential race. (Chang’s 60,632 votes is better than the 53,063 Hung Hsiu-chu got in the 2017 race, especially considering there were 85,000 more votes cast in 2017.) If there had been an election in early 2019, Han Kuo-yu would have swept in partly because of his pro-China stance but partly because he seemed like he could win support from average voters. We don’t have that kind of history with Chang, so no one can say for sure what kind of public appeal he would have. One-third is a sizeable minority. In a previous post, I wondered if a victorious Chu might try to marginalize or even purge Chang. If Chang represents one-third of the party, that seems unlikely. One-third is just too large to ignore, much less actively marginalize. From another point of view, though, one-third is not close to a majority, much less a consensus. Chu’s defense of the ROC and vocal rejection of unification on the PRC’s terms is firmly in the mainstream of the KMT.

Enough about Chang. Let’s talk about Chu. This may turn out to be a transformative moment in Chu’s career. For a decade, we have known Chu as a congenial, cautious, reasonable, capable, somewhat bland, never strident, consensus-seeking fellow. He is the guy solidly in the center of the KMT who everyone in the party can agree on. He might not be their first choice, but he is at least their second choice. From a policy standpoint, it’s the same thing. He doesn’t take positions that make other KMT members nervous. He is for the ROC, the 1992 Consensus, prosperity, new MRT lines, clean air, baseball, moon cakes, and mangoes. He thinks Tsai and the DPP are doing a terrible job in office, but even when he is attacking them, it doesn’t seem as venomous as other people’s attacks. Or at least that’s how I understood him two weeks ago.

His broadside attacks on Chang were completely out of character. He laid out his guiding principle as maintaining the ROC. If you attack the ROC, you are his enemy. This includes both Taiwan independence advocates and red unificationists. He attacked someone inside the KMT as not merely misguided but as an outright enemy. By extension, he was also declaring all of Chang’s supporters – KMT party members! – in favor of aggressively pursuing unification as his enemies. He equated red unification with Taiwan independence, suggesting they are both similarly repugnant to him. This is not the Eric Chu I thought I knew.

Changing the starting point from “One China, each side with its own interpretation” to “unconditionally maintain the ROC” could have monumental implications for Chu and the KMT. If taken to its logical conclusions, I think it could be a platform powerful enough to restore the KMT to electoral viability. However, I’m not convinced Chu is prepared to follow through, since what I have in mind would require significant revisions to KMT discourse.

To illustrate this, consider the repeated incursions of PRC fighter jets into ROC airspace. The current KMT response is that this is all a result of the DPP’s rejection of the 92C and the loss of trust between the two sides. Implicitly, they seem to believe that since there is One China, military threats are inevitable and reasonable if one side seems to deny that it is part of that One China. A KMT dedicated to maintaining the ROC might react differently. First, condemn the PRC’s military actions. They have no right to violate the ROC’s airspace. When civilized people disagree, they use civilized methods to express their unhappiness and seek resolutions. Military threats are unacceptable and inexcusable. Second, vocally and publicly support the ROC military. (Not the retired veterans; I mean the active duty forces.) Take photos with fighter pilots, and support weapons purchases. The ROC military has a sacred duty to protect the ROC, and the KMT should support that mission enthusiastically and unconditionally. Don’t hesitate to single out the PRC as the primary threat to the ROC. The KMT traditionally likes to complain about the Japanese and the Senkakus, but this is not an existential threat to the ROC. If the primary goal is to maintain the ROC, you must face the fact that the PLA is the only military power seeking to destroy to ROC. Third, after posing for photo-ops with DPP politicians and ROC military to clearly present a united front demonstrating the determination of all sides to maintain the security and sovereignty of the ROC – only after that – then proceed to partisan attacks on the DPP. “PLA incursions are absolutely wrong and unjustified, but DPP policies aren’t wise or helpful.” ROC first means national security comes before partisan politics.

I hope that example illustrates how hard this would be for the KMT and why I don’t think it is particularly likely. However, I do think that a KMT refounded on protecting the ROC could win an election. It would lose active support from businesses who want government support in China, and it would probably some votes from pro-unification voters. However, this party would be much better equipped to compete for the median voter, who identifies primarily as Taiwanese. If the DPP had a corruption scandal or some other massive failure of governance, this KMT could be one that people would feel comfortable voting for as an alternative. You wouldn’t need to worry about this KMT undermining Taiwan’s sovereignty or security.

This election may turn out to be the healthiest thing that has happened to the KMT in years. It originally seemed that they were sluggishly drifting along on the same path that had already led them to two dismal defeats. They seemed resigned to insisting that Ma’s path and the 92C were the right way to win in 2024. Suddenly, new alternatives may have opened up. The virulent clash between Chu and Chang forced the two to stand up for different visions of the future, and Chu’s vision is surprisingly viable. Now all Chu has to do is make that vision a reality.

It isn’t clear that he really wants to go down this path. The old Chu and the old KMT could re-emerge. But if he does, it won’t be easy. Chu won a clear victory, but 45% doesn’t automatically confer a mandate. He will have to glue together the 67% who didn’t vote for Chang and make them the foundation of his agenda. It will take tremendous political skill to articulate this vision in a way that both KMT members and average voters can identify with. This is essentially the same program that Chiang proposed last year, and last year it was an utter failure. It can be attacked as a return to the Lee Teng-hui era, and that is a damning accusation within the current KMT. Chu will have to package it as stemming from the genius of Chiang Ching-kuo and thread the needle of persuading the electorate that his is moving away from 92C orthodoxy while not inciting a rebellion from Ma and other defenders of the 92C. Nothing I have seen from Chu in the past decade leads me to expect that he is a brilliant politician capable of this. Then again, nothing led me to expect the previous two weeks either.

One Response to “Chu wins. Now what?”

  1. Is the KMT’s Future Brighter under Eric Chu? – Taiwan Insight Says:

    […] As of a month ago, Chu’s victory was seen as a sure thing. But in the last few weeks, some dubious polls showed Chang was suddenly on the rise. Unfortunately, people bought into the hype around these […]

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