Taiwan’s China-Backing Party Faces Crisis After Election Defeat

(Bloomberg) -- Taiwan’s main opposition party had pinned its hopes of winning the recent presidential election on convincing voters it would serve their interests, not China’s. But the Kuomintang’s central pitch was undercut by one of its own just days before polls opened.

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“You can never fight a war with the mainland. You can never win,” former President Ma Ying-jeou told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. The comments by Ma, who remains a senior figure within the KMT, indicated Taiwan is too powerless to stand up to Beijing, undermining the party’s messaging.

Hou Yu-ih, the KMT’s candidate, immediately distanced himself from Ma, saying their views “differed.” The former president was also reportedly not invited to the party’s election night rally. But voters were unswayed. The KMT lost an unprecedented third presidential term in a row.

The incident highlights a crisis within Taiwan’s oldest political party: How to appeal to voters who increasingly see themselves as distinct from China, while satisfying the party’s influential old guard who favor eventual unification.

“Its narrative on engaging with China is less favored by today’s young voters,” said Jason Hsu, a former KMT legislator. “In the past, we’ve seen efforts by members to be more modern, but those efforts were shut down.”

See: Xi Has Few Good Options After Winnable Taiwan Vote Slips Away

Tracing its origins back to 1894, the party was instrumental in overthrowing the Qing dynasty and establishing the Republic of China. The KMT ruled China through much of the first half of the 20th century until defeat by Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949 forced it to flee to Taiwan. There it ruled for decades as an authoritarian one-party state before implementing democratic reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Now, 28 years after Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election, it is facing a crisis of relevance. Hou lost by almost a million votes to Vice President Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party, which has defended Taiwan’s autonomy against threats from China.

The result marks a troubling moment for the KMT. While the party increased its share of the vote from 2020, many voters remain distrustful of its commitment to eventual unification with China, especially under the increasingly authoritarian government of President Xi Jinping.

“The KMT has a pro-China problem,” said Professor Chia-hung Tsai, a research fellow at National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center. “Certainly they can distinguish themselves from other parties by claiming they understand China more, but China is becoming more coercive and less popular in the world, so that’s why the KMT lost its presidential bid this year.”

The loss was also a blow for Beijing, which prefers the KMT as its negotiating partner in Taipei and has labeled the DPP’s Lai a separatist who risks sparking a war. And while the KMT increased its presence in the legislature to 52 seats, one more than the DPP, it fell short of its goal of a majority. The upstart Taiwan People’s Party now controls the balance of power in the assembly, with its eight seats vital to securing a majority in any vote on legislation.

With Hou’s campaign struggling to close the gap with Lai in the final months of the campaign, former President Ma emerged as a key player behind a bid to create a joint opposition ticket between the KMT and the TPP, which ultimately imploded in a public display of bickering.

Ma’s involvement indicates he remains “a pretty powerful figure” in the KMT, said Sarah Newland, assistant professor of government at Smith College in Massachusetts. “They haven’t been able to figure out how to move into a new ideological basis that will both satisfy the party’s old guard and appeal to Taiwan voters.”

In its charter, the KMT makes clear its wish to “unite the people,” “oppose separatism” and “champion the interests of the Chinese nation.” But there is a shrinking market for those goals in Taiwan. Only 11.8% of Taiwanese respondents support unifying with China, according to a Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation poll in August, while 48.9% back formal independence and 26.9% prefer the status quo.

The island’s roughly three decades of democracy have also fostered a growing sense of self-identity, according to a long-running study by National Chengchi University.

Another issue looming over the KMT is its finances. In 1998, it was the richest party in the world, with assets worth NT$91.8 billion ($2.9 billion), according to the party.

That’s changed. A government probe into improper gains during the KMT’s four decades of authoritarian rule hit party coffers. The KMT’s assets stood at $20.2 billion in 2022, of which $19.7 billion are frozen or limited in how they can be used, according to a party financial declaration.

Still, the KMT remains a significant force in Taiwanese politics, particularly on a local level. As well as being the largest party in the legislature, it controls 14 of Taiwan’s 22 cities and counties versus the DPP’s six.

“The KMT built an incredibly strong network of voter mobilization down to the ultra local level,” said Newland. “People don’t tend to vote on independence-unification issues in local races, so they’re much more willing to vote for the KMT.”

This latest loss could be a moment of reckoning for the party. “This defeat is not necessarily a bad thing if the KMT can change from within,” said Hsu. “It doesn’t mean it has to disconnect with China, but it needs to provide a more convincing narrative that it’s a party that can trusted when it comes to China.”

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