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News analysis

KMT needs fresh talent to rid itself of 'dinosaur party' tag

Once-mighty party has to find leaders who can win back support with a relevant narrative

The Kuomintang (KMT) is having a bad hair day. Make that a few.

One of its worst in recent times came two Fridays ago. During a campaign rally, KMT legislative candidate Lin Yu-feng urged voters not to elect his rival, heavy metal band singer Freddy Lim, who has "hair that is longer than a woman's and is mentally abnormal".

While Mr Lin later claimed the musician's tresses were not why he called him abnormal, the comment went viral and confirmed voters' perception of KMT as a "dinosaur party" out of step with society.

Last Saturday, the KMT heavyweight was among 29 legislators who lost their seats, alongside their chairman Eric Chu, who failed in his presidential bid.

It was a thorough drubbing for the once mighty party founded by Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen. For the first time in Taiwan's history, it has lost control of the legislature on top of the presidential palace.

Party members and analysts yesterday said much will need to be done for the 120-year-old party to pull itself out of the political abyss.

Taiwanese newspapers' front pages yesterday reporting on opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen's presidential election win.
Taiwanese newspapers' front pages yesterday reporting on opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen's presidential election win. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

NOT THE END FOR KMT

The Taiwanese people know Taiwan needs two parties, and can never have just one dominant party.

POLITICAL SCIENTIST GER YEONG-KUANG, of National Taiwan University, on why the electoral setback to KMT is unlikely to result in its collapse.

For one thing, it is now rudderless. Mr Chu has resigned his post as party chairman, as have vice-chairman Hau Lung-bin, who lost in Keelung city, and premier Mao Chi-kuo.

So finding a leader who can unite the party is the most urgent task. The KMT is riven by different factions - for instance, the waishengren (mainlanders) headed by Ms Hung Hsiu-chu and the Taiwanese "nativists" led by Speaker Wang Jyn-ping. This gave rise to its presidential candidate debacle - it nominated Ms Hung, and then discarded her when she proved too unpopular.

But the problem is the party is so short of fresh talent that talk of potential candidates is of old ones: outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou, 65, who resigned as chairman after its routing at local polls in 2014, Ms Hung, 67, and former Taichung mayor Jason Hu, 67.

It is imperative that the party find fresh blood who can make KMT's narrative relevant again, says political scientist Ger Yeong-kuang of National Taiwan University.

This could include re-examining sacred cows - including its endorsement of the 1992 Consensus which acknowledges that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one China, albeit with differing interpretations of what that means, says KMT legislator Lin Wei-chou. This policy is up against an inexorable rise of the Taiwanese identity, especially among the young, who believe that the self-governing island should be a separate sovereignty.

Says Mr Lin, who holds a more liberal stance in the party: "KMT will need to reformulate its cross-strait relations and supersede the 1992 Consensus. We are open to new ideas."

This is crucial as a reason for KMT's defeat is young Taiwanese believe it has become "pro-China". "We must let them know that we are not pro-China but that we believe good cross-strait relations are necessary for Taiwan."

The KMT has focused on the 1992 Consensus in the past eight years under Mr Ma, "but we have seen that people are not happy with it", he tells The Straits Times. "And as people change, the government needs to change too. The policy will need to change. So it depends on the Taiwanese wisdom - how do we manage this relationship in a way that will not harm us."

Any change in KMT's policy towards the 1992 Consensus is bound to be met with fury from Beijing, which views Taiwan as an inviolable part of China. President-elect Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has remained non-committal about it.

Beyond wooing the young, the KMT will also have its work cut out to win back its traditional bank of supporters - older Taiwanese.

Many stayed at home last Saturday, disillusioned with the party they usually support. Voter turnout was 66.27 per cent - a nadir in Taiwan's six direct presidential elections so far.

For all the chest-beating, KMT will not collapse. Says Dr Ger: "The Taiwanese people know Taiwan needs two parties, and can never have just one dominant party."

The past is also instructive.

The defeat that the KMT has suffered is no greater than that by the DPP eight years ago when Mr Ma won a record share of votes, says political scientist Wu Yu-shan of the Academic Sinica. The DPP was then in disarray over former president Chen Shui-bian's corruption charges, before Ms Tsai stepped in as party chairman.

"In short, KMT today needs its Tsai Ing-wen," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2016, with the headline 'KMT needs fresh talent to rid itself of 'dinosaur party' tag'. Print Edition | Subscribe