Kuomintang on shaky ground

This picture, taken on Jan 8, 2012, shows a Kuomintang flag on display at an election campaign rally in Taipei. The party vowed to reform after a crushing defeat in elections last year, but it is still struggling to find its feet.
This picture, taken on Jan 8, 2012, shows a Kuomintang flag on display at an election campaign rally in Taipei. The party vowed to reform after a crushing defeat in elections last year, but it is still struggling to find its feet.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Taiwan's main opposition party is riven by infighting and struggling to win over voters

TAIPEI • The Kuomintang (KMT) dominated Taiwan for decades with its wealth and an iron fist, but now, the political party is battling to keep a foothold in the island's shifting political landscape.

Founded by Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen and later led by nationalist Chiang Kai-shek, the KMT is at its lowest ebb in its more than 100-year history as it prepares to select a new leader today.

Cultivating warmer relations with rival Beijing - which still sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory - backfired with a sceptical public that is increasingly embracing an independent Taiwanese identity.

As a result, the KMT lost the presidency last year and, for the first time, its control of Parliament. It vowed to reform, but has been riven by infighting and targeted by a government probe into its extensive assets that has seen its accounts frozen and hundreds of jobs axed. While it is still the main opposition party, analysts said it is struggling to find direction. "The demographic shifts in Taiwan do not bode well for the KMT," said assistant professor of political science Timothy Rich at the Western Kentucky University. More Taiwanese are opposed to eventual unification with the mainland, he said.

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As ties deteriorate rapidly between Beijing and China-sceptic President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, some in the KMT hope its cross- strait ties will remain a trump card.

But others disagree. "The KMT still believes its China card gives it an upper hand, but we can see from last year's elections that is not the case any more," said political scientist Fan Shih-ping of the National Taiwan Normal University.

Now, even Beijing is turning its back on the KMT, he said. "The communist party is very pragmatic. It wants to deal with people with influence and power."

The KMT retreated to Taiwan from the mainland after losing a civil war in 1949 to communist forces. The party ruled by martial law until 1987 but never formally declared independence from China.

When Mr Ma Ying-jeou became Taiwan's president in 2008, he acknowledged that Taiwan was still part of "one China", but that the two sides were allowed different interpretations. Warming ties were touted as a route to prosperity, but critical voters said the resulting trade deals benefited only big business.

Some in the party say it needs to look to younger members for ideas.

Among them is Mr Chiang Wan- an, the great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek. The US-educated former lawyer won his first legislative seat for the KMT last year and may stand for Taipei mayor next year - a position historically a springboard to the presidency.

Mr Chiang, 38, said his party needs to become more transparent and receptive to the younger generation.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2017, with the headline 'Kuomintang on shaky ground'. Print Edition | Subscribe