KMT ditches presidential candidate

Mr Eric Chu (centre), chairman of Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang, waving after being nominated as the party's presidential candidate yesterday, replacing Ms Hung Hsiu-chu, who was unceremoniously ousted after she failed to win over the public ahead of th
Mr Eric Chu (centre), chairman of Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang, waving after being nominated as the party's presidential candidate yesterday, replacing Ms Hung Hsiu-chu, who was unceremoniously ousted after she failed to win over the public ahead of the Jan 16 election. Mr Chu had earlier pledged that he would not run in the polls.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Deputy Legislative speaker Hung Hsiu-chu,
Deputy Legislative speaker Hung Hsiu-chu,PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
DPP chairman Tsai Ing-wen is leading in the game, and has jokingly referred to herself as the next President of Taiwan.
DPP chairman Tsai Ing-wen is leading in the game, and has jokingly referred to herself as the next President of Taiwan.
People First Party chairman James Soong previously ran in 2004 for Vice-President and in 2012 for President.
People First Party chairman James Soong previously ran in 2004 for Vice-President and in 2012 for President.

Attempt by Taiwan's ruling party to lift support level seen as unlikely to succeed

For the past few months, the Taiwanese have been watching in morbid fascination a political train wreck unfolding before their eyes.

Yesterday, it climaxed with the once-mighty Kuomintang (KMT) booting out the person it had nominated just three months ago as its presidential candidate.

With 91 days to go before election day on Jan 16, party members breached their own rules and jettisoned Deputy Legislative Speaker Hung Hsiu-chu.

  • THE CANDIDATES

  • TSAI ING-WEN, 59

    Democratic Progressive Party chairman

    The front runner in the campaign, Ms Tsai is so far ahead in the game that she - rather uncharacteristically - jokingly referred to herself as "the next President of Taiwan" in an interview with a news magazine.

    The bespectacled former law academic first rose to prominence when she was picked by then President Lee Teng-hui to head a group of legal experts to conduct research proving that Taiwan was not part of the People's Republic of China and to formulate a two-states theory.

    In 2008, she became chairman of the DPP. In 2012, she ran and lost against KMT's Mr Ma Ying-jeou.


    ERIC CHU, 54

    Kuomintang chairman

    The former accounting professor was appointed Taiwan's vice-premier in 2009, becoming the youngest, at age 48 then, in that position.

    Urbane and articulate, he took over from Mr Ma Ying-jeou as party chairman after KMT's routing at local elections last year, and has long been touted as a possible future president. But he disappointed party stalwarts by not initially stepping forward for the 2016 poll, leading to the current Hung Hsiu-chu fiasco.


    JAMES SOONG, 73

    People First Party chairman

    Previously a powerful leader in the KMT, Mr Soong turned "rogue" in 2000. That year, he ran as an independent in the presidential race after failing to obtain the party's nomination, splitting the pan-blue vote and giving the presidency to DPP's Chen Shui-bian. He later founded the People First Party and ran again in 2004 for Vice-President and in 2012 for President.

    He is now vying for the top post again, he said, after being saddened by controversial changes to school curriculum guidelines and the longstanding bickering between the blue and green camps.

    Li Xueying

STAYING LOYAL

The party can not want me, but I will never abandon the party.

DEPUTY LEGISLATIVE SPEAKER HUNG HSIU-CHU, on being replaced as the KMT's candidate for the presidency in the Jan 16 election.

Instead, party chairman Eric Chu, backtracking on his pledge that he will not run for election, will now be doing so.

Known for her bluntness - she is nicknamed "xiaolajiao" or little chilli - and flaming red hair, Ms Hung sought to put up a dignified front, saying: "The party can not want me, but I will never abandon the party."

The KMT debacle comes after Ms Hung failed to narrow her gap with the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairman Tsai Ing-wen in the race, making defeat for Beijing-friendly KMT an almost certainty.

In July, Ms Hung, who represents the "deep blue", pro-unification faction in the KMT, became the ruling party's surprise choice of candidate after its more senior members, including Mr Chu, proved reluctant to enter the fray.

Since then, polls have had her flailing with just over 10 per cent of voters' support - sometimes even falling behind the third candidate, Mr James Soong, 73, chairman of the People First Party, a splinter party of the KMT. Meanwhile, Ms Tsai's support hovers at the 30 to 40 per cent level.

Yesterday's move by the KMT was thus a desperate grasp for survival. Even then, admits its supporters, it stands "no chance".

Indeed, the unorthodox decision could even worsen the situation.

Says political scientist George Tsai of Chinese Culture University: "This will further alienate supporters - both the deep-blue ones who support Hung, as well as the moderates who fear that KMT didn't follow procedural rules in kicking her out like this."

The only possible silver lining, he says, is that it may hold at bay a bloodbath in the legislative polls to be held on the same day, Jan 16.

KMT now holds the reins in the presidential palace - Mr Ma Ying- jeou will be stepping down after eight years - and in the Legislative Yuan, where it has a super-majority.

But the tide in Taiwan has turned against it amid a lacklustre economy and apprehension over warming cross-strait ties, the centrepiece of Mr Ma's government.

In this environment, Ms Hung's cross-strait relations platform proved toxic.

She has called for Taiwan and China to forge consensus on what "one China" means. She has also said that both sides should start political talks and sign a peace accord.

Such starkness contrasts with the deliberate ambiguity that has governed cross-strait relations - the so-called "1992 Consensus" under which both sides acknowledge there is only one China, leaving both free to come up with their interpretations of what that China is.

Meanwhile, Ms Tsai, whose party's charter calls for "the establishment of an independent sovereignty known as the Republic of Taiwan", has remained vague about her stance, saying she will promote peaceful and stable relations in accordance with the "will of the Taiwanese people".

Polls show about two-thirds of voters supporting Ms Tsai's cross-strait policy - a stunning turnaround from January 2012 when she lost to Mr Ma. Many then expressed uncertainty that ties between the two rivals could develop peacefully under her watch.

But the past three odd years have seen shifts in Taiwanese society.

Mr Ma presided over warming cross-strait ties, arguing that this would benefit the economy. Under him, 23 pacts in trade, tourism and transport were signed and historic government-to-government talks began for the first time since the civil war between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party ended in 1949.

But the overwhelming sense is that China benefits more than Taiwan from the heightened engagement, and that within Taiwan itself, Big Business benefits more than the man in the street, says Professor Tung Chen-yuan of National Chengchi University, who is also president of the Cross-Strait Policy Association.

The doubts come in tandem with an ever-strengthening Taiwanese identity. Polls show that the proportion of those who believe the two sides do not belong to one China rose from about half to nearly two-thirds in the past year, says Prof Tung.

Social media and the rise of civic society also helped focus such sentiments, which propelled the Sunflower movement last year, when young activists occupied the legislature to stop a cross-strait services trade pact from being passed.

With Ms Tsai now looking a shoo-in as Taiwan's next President, cross-strait relations will enter a phase of uncertainty, analysts say. Beijing looks upon Ms Tsai warily. Professor Tsai says: "Without her recognising the 1992 Consensus, there will be no negotiations. They will wait and see if she will provoke them or not."

And Prof Tung says Beijing may impose sanctions, such as reducing the number of Chinese tourists and investments, to force Ms Tsai to accept the 1992 Consensus or discuss a new mutually acceptable consensus.

But military action is unlikely, as Ms Tsai "will not fight China's bottom line" by declaring independence. Beijing, he believes, can be equally pragmatic.

Together with the United States, they "will negotiate an implicit decision to maintain peace", he adds.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 18, 2015, with the headline 'KMT ditches presidential candidate'. Print Edition | Subscribe