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Supporters of the Kuomintang’s presidential candidate at an election rally in Taipei on January 9, 2020. The party votes in a new chairman on Saturday. Photo: Reuters

Taiwan: will dark horse pushing cross-strait union upend two-way race for KMT chair?

  • Chang Ya-chung, 66, has won over ‘deep blue’ Kuomintang members with his hardline pro-unification stance and scorn for Taiwan-centric rivals
  • As Chang also pulls ahead in opinion polls, the question remains whether he would make a viable presidential candidate were he to become KMT chief
Days before Taiwan’s main opposition Kuomintang party elects a new leader, a hardline pro-unification candidate has dramatically emerged as the front runner, to seriously threaten what was to have been a two-way race between the incumbent and former chairman on Saturday.
Four candidates are vying for the KMT’s top post and, even until late last month, all eyes were still on the fierce campaign between ex-chairman and New Taipei mayor Eric Chu Li-luan, 60, and incumbent chairman Johnny Chiang, 49, who is also a legislator.

But now, thanks to a September 4 televised debate and a controversial KMT decision to discipline him, NGO chief Chang Ya-chung, who is little known outside Taiwan, has successfully established himself as a tragic hero fighting to steer the century-old party back to its mainland China-centric road.


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If the KMT were to hold the election now, 66-year-old Chang would emerge victorious, the latest opinion polls indicate.

Survey results released by the TVBS cable news network on Thursday showed Chang, head of the NGO Sun Yat-sen School, had a support rate of 30.6 per cent, leading Chu by 3.1 percentage points and trumping incumbent Chiang by nearly 18 percentage points.

Trailing far behind was former Changhua County magistrate Cho Po-yuan, 56, with a support rate of just 0.9 per cent.


Polls by TVBS in early August had shown Chang still trailing with just 4.8 per cent, but later that month his support rate soared to 15.4 per cent.

Another recent opinion poll by Taiwan’s Apple Daily showed that, as of Tuesday, Chang commanded 37.5 per cent support, compared with Chu’s 37.3 per cent and Chiang’s 24 per cent, with Cho again a distant fourth with an identical support rate of 0.9 per cent.

“The KMT has long been lacking a charismatic chairperson, and members are looking for a leader who is able to uphold the party’s principles and is promising enough to lead the KMT out of incessant infighting,” said Wang Kung-yi, head of the Taiwan International Strategic Study Society, a Taipei-based think tank.


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Wang said Chang was the only candidate who dared to openly embrace cross-strait unification, unlike his three competitors who had been criticised for siding with the Taiwan-centric stand in general but raising their mainland-friendly profiles come election time.

A recent decision to discipline Chang for repeated verbal attacks on Chu shortly after his rise in popularity also allowed the NGO head to fashion himself as a righteous figure unfairly wronged by the party central command, according to Wang.


Although the KMT finally rescinded its decision on Thursday, many members were sympathetic towards Chang, Wang said.

“KMT members need a hero like former presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu who was able to rekindle their passion towards the century-old party, and hardline pro-unification members also pin their hopes on Chang over his political platform of securing cross-strait peace and stability before achieving eventual cross-strait union,” Wang said.


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With his political charm garnering support from grass-roots supporters and hardline KMT members alike, Han created a whirlwind in 2018 by winning the Kaohsiung mayoral election. He was drafted by the KMT to run in the 2020 presidential poll and lost to incumbent Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party who was seeking re-election. Han was later removed as mayor as a result of a recall poll.

In a televised policy presentation on September 4, Chang succeeded in soliciting strong support from “deep blue” KMT members – hardliners who seek cross-strait peace and unification, and oppose independence for Taiwan.

His denunciation of late president Lee Teng-hui appeared to soothe the souls of hardline members who regarded the former chairman as a promoter of Taiwan independence and a KMT traitor despite years of grooming. Lee was expelled by the party in 2001.

Chang’s harsh criticism also of President Tsai over what he sees as her high-handed rule and tolerance of alleged corruption also greatly pleased the deep blue members.


But what appealed most was his pledge to end hostility across the Taiwan Strait, enter into a peace pact with the mainland and seek cooperation with Beijing in various areas before eventual reunification.


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The political views presented by the three other candidates appeared relatively mild in comparison, especially with regard to cross-strait issues, Wang said.


While Chu said the KMT should promote cross-strait exchanges in line with the party charter and platform, and resume peaceful development of cross-strait relations, he also stressed the importance of maintaining amicable ties with the United States.

Chiang, on the other hand, called for the establishment of a cross-strait peaceful development committee to resume and promote peace talks with Beijing, but he too supported maintaining a close relationship with the US.

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Observers said deep blue members, the decisive factor for the KMT chair election, are more concerned about a stronger relationship with the mainland instead of the US, and many of them care about the prospect of a future cross-strait union, which is absent in the campaign platforms of Chiang and Chu.

As for Cho, his manifesto just states he would invite mainland Chinese leader Xi Jinping to visit and hold a cross-strait summit in Taiwan, if elected.

“A study of the KMT membership structure can explain why deep blue members are key to the KMT chair election,” said Stephen Tan, president of the Cross-Strait Policy Association, a Taipei-based think tank.

Around 380,000 KMT members are eligible to vote in the election for chairman, and more than 70 per cent of them are aged 65 years or over, Tan said. Of those 70 per cent, a large number are deep blue members and more willing to vote.

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Tan said not only is Chang an eloquent speaker, he has also long been known for his integrity in adhering to what he says when it comes to cross-strait issues, thus winning support from deep blue members.

“But [electing Chang] could mean that the KMT would have little chance of winning the 2024 presidential election, because his pro-unification platform veers too far from the mainstream Taiwan-centric opinion,” Tan pointed out.

Having Chang as chairman would see the heads of the 14 city and county governments controlled by the KMT face a hard time soliciting support from voters in next year’s local government elections as well, he said.


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But there could still be last-minute changes in the final stretch of the race, as both Chu and Chiang are expected to do all they can to try to secure their chances, Tan noted.

Indeed, in a Facebook post on Sunday, Taipei City councillor Lo Chih-chiang said a Chang victory could mean a “destructive defeat for the KMT in 2022 and 2024”. Echoing his comment, at least three KMT city and county magistrates offered their support for Chu over the weekend.

According to the latest opinion poll by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation in August, 76.8 per cent of the island’s public identified themselves as Taiwanese, while only 7.5 per cent identified as Chinese. Only 11.3 per cent said they were both Taiwanese and Chinese.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: dark horse hardliner in lead for kmt top job