Is the KMT up to the Challenge? ◎ Jerome F. Keating Ph.D./Tiaipei Times 03-21-2016

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Time and tide wait for no man; and so in Taiwan, though time has moved on, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), once again seems caught in a time warp. Once more it finds itself at yet another crossroads and another crisis of leadership. On Saturday, March 26, the party members must once more choose a new chairperson.

For the KMT, such dilemmas of choice unfortunately seem to have become a recurring annual nightmare. This occurred first after the disastrous nine-in-one elections of November 2014; at that time President Ma Ying-jeou stepped down from the chairman’s position to take responsibility for the party’s poor showing. New Taipei City Mayor, Eric Chu took his place.

Chu did not last long; last year when it came time for the party to choose a presidential candidate for the Jan. 16 elections, traditional party leaders once more held back. As a result of their reluctance, then deputy legislative speaker Hung Hsiu-chu stepped into the breach proposing to be a brick that would attract jade. No jade came forth and she became the KMT presidential candidate.

However, party powers were not satisfied with her election chances and so months into the campaign, they drafted Chu to replace her in the lead role.

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Barely a year into his leadership position, Chu not only lost the presidential race but since the party took a real drubbing in the race for the legislature, he was also forced to relinquish his role as party chairman thus leaving the vacancy once more to be filled in the by-election.

This coming election portends to be yet another challenging and defining moment. For some, the flip-flop of choices over the past two years has been like watching slow motion replays of a party train wreck. The continuation of this is something party members wish to avoid. But how? What challenges must the new leader overcome? What skills will be needed for the task? And who is up to doing the job?

The first major challenge is developing a new and clear strategy of “localization” and how to encompass the nation’s growing sense of “being Taiwanese.” Inherent in the party’s defeats has been the fact that more and more people identify as Taiwanese and not Chinese. The KMT has yet to adapt to this growing “new found” sense of national identity.

Then of course, there is the issue of the party’s ill-gotten assets. Ma promised to resolve this, but in eight years, he did relatively nothing. Further, with its past majority in the Legislative Yuan the KMT had been able to consistently block bills attempting to rectify the situation. That no longer holds. A new and hungry legislature, with a different majority is pushing for resolution of these matters. What skills will the new KMT leader need to handle such situations?

Not to be ignored is the on-going matter of corruption. This is not endemic to the KMT alone; it pervades all parties, but the KMT remains used to a sense of “privilege” from its one-party state days. The temptations and opportunities remain. The Ma years only maintained a temporary gloss and façade of anti-corruption. However, several of Ma appointees have been found guilty of corruption; further President Ma could easily be indicted when he leaves office. Any new chairperson would have to address all this as well.

Finally, and what might be the prime concern, the party must determine what are its core values and if they match a changing Taiwan? Much water has gone under the bridge from when the KMT first fled to Taiwan in 1949. The core values of a party that not only lost the Chinese Civil War, but also China and now lives in diaspora must be re-examined to see if they fit in a new democracy and new land.

Included in this is an examination of the past and outdated 1947 Republic of China (ROC) Constitution. That constitution was formulated when the KMT had a semblance of power in China and has since been regularly amended to adapt to the reality of being in Taiwan. In this regard even the hanging of images of Sun Yat-sen as the nation’s “founding father” is now being questioned as are the ROC claims to being the legitimate ruler of China.

The KMT has been a top-down party that prospered in a one-party state. Leadership roles traditionally followed a standard pattern of waiting in line for opportunities to progress.

In this milieu, thus far, none of the traditional party leaders has ventured forward to run for the chairperson’s role. Perhaps they either feared rejection or they know too well that they were not up to the task. The current applicants are relative newcomers to this level of power. This can be good but also can be bad. Whoever is chosen, they are set to face many continuing challenges.

So who are the KMT candidates? First there is Hung. She is the one that the party replaced as its presidential candidate last year. However, she gained the highest number of signatures for the position and she is supported by the old guard Huan Fu-hsing chapter. Hung downplays localization factors and ultimately believes in reunification. Her ideas of what the party is all about suggest that she is out of touch.

In contrast, is the acting party chairperson, Huang Ming-hui. She represents the pro-localization factions. That is a plus on her side, but is she up to all the other tasks.

Then there is KMT Legislator Apollo Chen, a more “middle way” person but it is unclear as to how much leadership he could command in this situation.

And finally there is Lee Hsin who seems the most reform-minded. Lee has said that he would buckle down and work with the public. He would also take the controversial assets and distribute them to party members. He has been the most vociferous, but how much of a following does he have?

The old guard is represented by people such as former premier Hau Pei-tsun who declared that the New Party is the true KMT. They have influence, but following such could be suicide. They favor the position of the almost defunct New Party.

As the continuing drama plays out in Taiwan, it is decision time once again for the KMT. Will the party and its new leader be up to the task? Or will it be in the memorable words of Yogi Berra, “It’s like déjà vu, all over again.”

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