Whether the KMT puts forward Hung Hsiu-chu or someone else, the divided party has little hope of success in Taiwan's presidential election

Sonny Lo says the factional struggles, underlined now by an effort to force an unpopular party candidate to withdraw from Taiwan's presidential race, have been highly damaging

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 October, 2015, 1:56pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 October, 2015, 1:56pm

Recent reports from Taiwan saying Kuomintang presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu is refusing to quit despite low poll ratings and internal factionalism have significant implications not only for Taiwan's politics but also for the island's relations with mainland China.

First and foremost, the factional struggle within the KMT stemmed from efforts to rescue the party's public image by forcing the unpopular Hung to withdraw. To that end, the party leadership has called a congress this Saturday.

Under Ma Ying-jeou, the KMT lost a golden opportunity to formulate a more consistent policy towards mainland China

It is further evidence that the party is drifting from its traditional "blue" stance - supporting reunification with mainland China - to a "light green" position of maintaining the status quo for an indefinite period, with no prospect of reunification. Hung's bold claim in May that the mainland and Taiwan should have the "same" understanding of "one China" was quickly rejected by the party leadership, including chairman Eric Chu, who is most likely to succeed her as presidential candidate. Hung made another provocative move when she insisted on the need to reach a peace accord with Beijing, further antagonising party leaders and members who have abandoned the old KMT principle of supporting reunification in the long run.

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

Hung's ideological position harks back to the stance adopted by previous KMT leaders, including Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo. Under the leadership of Lee Teng-hui, the KMT turned quickly to support maintenance of the status quo. This is also the pragmatic stance adopted by the Democratic Progressive Party's presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen. It is ironic that while the DPP's pragmatic position of keeping a distance from the mainland has won the hearts and minds of many Taiwanese, the KMT is seeking to ditch a candidate who harps on the same ideological theme as the Chiang family.

Under President Ma Ying-jeou, the KMT lost a golden opportunity to formulate a more consistent policy towards mainland China. When Ma was elected in 2008, overseas observers saw the prospects of the KMT reaching out to Beijing in such a way that a peace accord would perhaps be reached. But as it turned out, the KMT under Ma has been very cautious in its mainland policy, particularly following the "Sunflower Movement" led by students. That protest against mainland influence, sparked by a contentious trade pact with the mainland, has had a far-reaching impact on the leadership, which is now loath to further antagonise voters.

READ MORE: Eyes on frontrunner Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan presidential poll may mark shift in ties with Beijing

Nonetheless, the KMT's move to ditch Hung will hurt its image for many years to come. Under Ma's leadership, succession politics has remained fierce. His rivalry with Legislative Yuan president and party veteran Wang Jin-pyng undermined party unity. The early reluctance of Chu to participate in the presidential race also revealed the party's chaotic succession planning. Thus, Hung emerged as the only KMT candidate in July, although members affiliated with Wang reportedly said her nomination would lead to "the end of the KMT". The divided party has failed to produce a candidate unanimously supported by leaders and members.

If Hung ideologically represents the "blue" tradition of the Chiang family, her imminent fall reflects the KMT's internal transformation and external challenges. Internally, it has been engulfed in factional rivalries. Externally, it has struggled to strike a balance between the need to forge a closer economic relationship with Beijing while remaining relevant for a more independent-minded electorate. All this points to the likely defeat of its presidential candidate in January.

If the DPP returns to power, as looks likely, Beijing-Taipei relations will take a turn for the worse, especially as Tsai has cultivated closer relations with America and Japan while maintaining a distance from Beijing. It is unlikely that a new DPP government would advocate independence, as that would force Beijing to react strongly. But as the KMT drifts from dark blue to light green, a DPP government looks the most likely scenario.

Professor Sonny Lo is head of the department of social sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education