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Taiwan – More on Presidential Election 2016: The KMT Saga

Three months before a presidential election is usually crunch time when candidates are stumping through the nation to mobilize support, shaking hands and kissing babies of core constituencies at rallies and fund-raisers, and generally aiming to throw their best political punches at opponents to gain traction for the impending polls. It is, therefore, curious, that at this juncture, the Kuomintang (KMT) has chosen to switch presidential candidates: following an extempore party congress on October 17, 2015, the KMT has firmly, albeit apologetically, replaced the party’s nominee, deputy legislative speaker Hung Hsiu-chu, with KMT chair Eric Chu. The political saga behind the KMT nomination switch clearly deserves some attention.

The KMT presidential nomination had been notable for the lack of political heavyweights contesting the party’s nomination. Indeed, despite endless speculation and rumoured pressures within the KMT, two high-profile candidates – legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng and New Taipei City mayor and party chair Eric Chu – stayed clear of the nomination race. As a result, by the party primary registration deadline in May, only two hopefuls had thrown their names into race; of the two, only Hung mustered enough votes to cross the 15,000 minimum votes threshold to proceed to the next party nomination phase, the opinion survey. Hung subsequently also passed the 30 percent threshold of that phase to garner the party’s official nomination on July 19 at the KMT national party congress.

Despite these achievements, Hung battled uphill to maintain support, much less establish momentum, within the KMT. Some of the resistance to Hung’s candidacy was undoubtedly due to successive polls that showed DPP presidential nominee, Tsai Ing-wen, widening an already-strong lead over Hung and other possible candidates in a presidential match-up. Hung’s support in the KMT was thinned further by the entry of the chair of People First Party, James Soong, into the presidential race. A former KMT member who split from the party in 2000 to contest presidential elections then, Soong continues to draw support from KMT supporters and even within the KMT itself.

Consequently, Hung’s presidential electioneering is marked frequently by the absence of local and national party stalwarts, followed by vehement denials from the KMT that the party is considering replacing the nominee and equally vigorous dismissals from Hung’s office that she is contemplating quitting the race. Nevertheless, the rumours persisted, and Hung’s brief suspension of her election campaign in early September probably did not help to tamp down the rumours.

Still, the candidate returned to the campaign fore, only – it seems – in time to confront yet more bad news: a group of KMT members was rumoured to be considering splitting from the party to force leaders to replace Hung’s candidacy. This was followed by party chair Eric Chu’s public acknowledgment of divisions within the party; days later, KMT Central Standing Committee member Chiang Shuo-ping announced that he would seek the extempore party congress to officially assess replacing Hung.

Following the announcement of the October 17 party congress meeting, KMT officials confirmed that Hung was previously urged to quit the race in favour of other possible candidates. This may be aimed at demonstrating ongoing discussion – rather than abrupt change – within the party about the race. Notwithstanding, the new candidate has a significant feat to perform: it is, clearly, not a question of whether Chu will do better as a candidate but, rather, whether he will keep the KMT in the presidency and as majority party in the legislature. As far as the polls are concerned, DPP’s presidential nominee Tsai Ing-wen remains the person to beat in that race, and the numbers suggest that it will not be an easy contest. In the legislative race, the KMT’s routing in the 9-in-1 elections in November 2014 was followed by more balanced by-election results in February 2015. Still, there is little doubt that the legislative race will also be tough. Clearly, the new KMT presidential candidate has his work cut out for him.