After KMT drubbing, all eyes turn to party's lone mayor, Eric Chu

Eric Chu held on to New Taipei City by relentlessly focusing on local issues, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 December, 2014, 7:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 December, 2014, 1:45am

The sole bright spot for the Kuomintang in last weekend’s Taiwanese elections was New Taipei City, where Eric Chu Li-luan was re-elected as mayor.

Chu succeeded through a campaign that avoided contentious island-wide issues in favour of municipal ones, and hewed closely to the political middle ground, analysts say. But if he decides to run for presidency, he will need to stake out his positions more clearly, they say.

Chu won the race, but only barely, receiving about 34,530 more votes than his main opponent, former Democratic Progressive Party premier Yu Shyi-kun, out of more than 1.91 million eligible ballots. That’s down from a cushion of more than 100,000 votes in 2010.

“I should bear sole responsibility for the dissatisfaction [of voters] over my administration,” Chu said after his victory. He insisted KMT members would not get distracted by the coming internal battle to choose a new chairman and would focus on reforms.

Analysts predict Chu, 53, will emerge as a key voice in 2016 when the island picks a new president, even if he stays on as mayor. “He is smart in politics. He manages to keep a good relationship with both KMT and DPP elites,” said Professor Arthur Ding shu-fan from National Chengchi University in Taiwan. “His performance [earlier] as Taoyuan County magistrate and New Taipei City mayor have also been good.”

Chu was born into a political family, the son of Chu Chang-hsing, a former KMT military official. He obtained a master’s degree in finance and later a doctorate in accounting at New York University.

After a stint teaching in the US and Taiwan, his father-in-law, Kao Yu-jen, an influential KMT politician in southern Taiwan and former provincial assembly speaker, inspired him to leave academia for politics. Chu was elected as a legislator in 1999, and two years later was nominated as magistrate of Taoyuan. He remained in the position until 2009, when then KMT chief Ma Ying-jeou appointed him as vice-premier. He quit the following year to launch a successful bid for mayor of New Taipei City.

Despite his princeling background, Chu managed to avoid last weekend’s fate of other political scions, like Sean Lien Sheng-wen and John Wu Chih-yang, who lost their bids to lead Taipei and Taoyuan county.

“He did much better in presenting himself as a grass-roots politician. He is good at pressing the flesh, and thus the general public does not see him as someone out of touch,” said Nathan Batto, an assistant research fellow at the Taipei-based Academia Sinica.

“Chu tried not to run the campaign as a campaign. He presents himself as someone busy solving problems as a competent city mayor, not as someone involved in a political fight.”

Unlike other leading KMT members, who advocated stronger financial and trade ties with the mainland, Chu avoided saying much about cross-strait relations.

“He has been very careful with his campaign speech to let voters project want they want as their dream candidate onto him, which is one of the reasons for his popularity,” Batto said.

But if he wanted to ascend the political ladder and run for the presidency, Chu would need to define himself more clearly, especially his stance towards the mainland, he added. He has responded to calls to pursue the party chairmanship by saying he would not evade his current responsibilities.

Ding said Chu’s smartest political move would be to maintain distance from the internal power struggle. “It would be better for him to privately assist other KMT politicians who want to run for the upcoming presidential election to build up his connections,” he said.

Batto disagreed, saying: “You have to grab the opportunity when it’s there.”