KMT's gamble on dogmatic presidential hopeful Hung Hsiu-chu may backfire

Jonathan Sullivan considers the KMT's self-defeating choice of an ideologue for the 2016 presidential poll

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2015, 5:35pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2015, 7:01pm

The Kuomintang is expected to confirm Hung Hsiu-chu as its first female presidential candidate, ahead of the 2016 election, at its party congress next month. Hung, currently the deputy speaker in Taiwan's legislature, has already passed the first step to nomination: a combined party and public vote. If, as expected, Hung's nomination is confirmed, it will pit her head-to-head with Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party.

For an East Asian polity with a significant "Confucian heritage" still manifest in patriarchal social norms, an all-female contest for the presidency is no small matter. Many Taiwanese are rightly proud of improvements in gender equality. But the gender of the two candidates is not the real issue here.

When Tsai stood for president for the first time in 2012, gender was a conspicuous non-issue. Tsai lost, not because of her gender but because voters did not trust her hastily assembled China policy. Tsai has since sharpened her thinking on China, and has adopted a position that appeals to the moderate middle. The same cannot be said for Hung, whose views on China are not shared by the majority of Taiwanese.

Hung is an advocate of faster economic integration leading to unification. In a long and undistinguished political career, she is best known for her strident ideological views. Until now a marginal character in the KMT, Hung has a reputation for pugnacity and a sketchy electoral record. She secured the deputy speaker position as a balance to the "local wing" speaker, Wang Jin-pyng, who prizes pragmatism in terms of future political solutions. Although her father was a victim of the KMT's White Terror, a political purge during the martial law era, Hung has shown strong commitment to the party. In a polity where pragmatism is the norm, at least at election time, Hung's commitment to old ideals and pursuit of unification with China is unusually steadfast.

This would not be a story if Hung's nomination were consistent with the trajectory of Taiwanese public opinion. But the attitude of the majority of the electorate is moving firmly in the opposite direction, both on China and "traditional" attitudes.

The past four years have seen large-scale public protests against the policies of the incumbent Ma Ying-jeou administration. Widespread dissatisfaction was manifest in the KMT's humbling losses in local elections in November last year. While many Taiwanese have been alarmed by the haste of Ma's embrace of China, Hung has lavished praise on the outgoing president, and, if elected, would seek to deepen his integration policies.

There is nothing to suggest that Hung is capable of competing with a battle-tested and increasingly confident Tsai. Lacking Ma's veneer of urbane sophistication and carefully packaged image of Confucian temperance, Hung has been compared by some observers to Sarah Palin or Barry Goldwater, candidates known for their "challenging" views and electoral failure. With the KMT already vulnerable due to dissatisfaction with Ma and facing an uphill struggle against a resurgent DPP, why is Hung set to get the nomination?

The simple answer is that the party is bereft of choices. Hung is an accidental candidate, the last woman standing when all others sought to avoid what looks like a poisoned chalice, or were blocked by factional battles.

KMT chairman Eric Chu is the candidate with the best chance of challenging Tsai, but he has refused to stand from the outset. His promise to constituents in New Taipei City, where he was re-elected mayor last November, not to run, has provided him with the perfect cover. Wang, the figurehead of the "local wing", was willing to stand. But his possible candidature was halted by his embroilment in a long and bitter battle with Ma's China-leaning faction.

Ultimately, facing the need to draft a candidate rather than execute its normal primary procedures, the party has settled on the undaunted Hung. Cynics note that Hung's unexpectedly strong performance in the public nomination poll and subsequent opinion polls may have been boosted by DPP supporters eager for her to run.

If and when Hung's nomination is confirmed, the impact on Taiwan's political landscape could be significant. Hung's political beliefs are out of sync with mainstream public opinion - although they do represent a segment of society. As a candidate espousing non-mainstream views, magnified by an uncompromising personal style that is likely to turn off younger voters, Hung could inflict lasting damage on the KMT.

At this juncture, six months out from the election, it is unlikely that Hung could beat Tsai. A more likely outcome is one that has, to date, been unthinkable: that the KMT may lose both the presidency and control of the legislature for the first time.

If the KMT suffers a heavy loss, the party will face potential ruptures. Factional cleavages in the party are long-standing. Despite several splinter parties breaking off, the core party has held together because it has had superior resources and political capital. But if substantial losses in 2016 compound the loss of its control over local politics, the KMT will be weakened to the point that it may no longer be able to cover over the cracks in its ranks.

Despite his unpopularity, Ma's faction retains influence. On the other hand, Chu is the obvious leader of a younger generation of more Taiwan-focused KMT politicians. A catastrophic performance in 2016 could go a number of ways. If Chu is held responsible, more conservative, China-leaning elements will have the upper hand. Yet, a disastrous electoral performance may be what the KMT needs to renew itself, post Ma.

Hung's candidacy is a risk for all involved; except for Hung herself, who has nothing to lose and appears to be relishing the spotlight. With typical chutzpah, she has offered Chu the chance to be her running mate for vice-president (which he declined).

Moving the KMT back to the political centre and waiting to fight again in 2020 was the party's best option. An ideologue fighting against the tide of public opinion will take the party in a different direction.

Jonathan Sullivan is associate professor and deputy director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham