Taiwan's embattled ruling party KMT looks to new leader to turn tide

TAIPEI (AFP) - Taiwan’s Beijing-friendly ruling party appointed a new leader on Saturday in the hope of reversing its fortunes after its worst-ever local election setback reflected growing fears over Chinese influence.

President Ma Ying-jeou resigned as chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT) over the election defeat in November, seen as a public backlash over warming ties with China since he took power in 2008.

Rising star Eric Chu, the mayor of New Taipei city, stood unopposed for the party leadership on Saturday and was elected with 196,065 votes, or 99.61 per cent of the total cast by party members, the KMT said. He will formally take the reins Monday.

“We appreciate that many party members are willing to come forward to encourage us and cheer the KMT on today,” Mr Chu told reporters after casting his ballot.

The 53-year-old former accounting professor is seen as a safe pair of hands to strike the delicate balance of building relations with China and appeasing a frustrated electorate.

"The KMT will not be destroyed. The KMT will rise again as long as we... always stand by the people’s side,” Mr Chu said last week at a party event surrounded by supporters.

Taiwan and China split in 1949 at the end of a civil war but Beijing still claims the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification – by force if necessary.

Voters feel that trade deals with Beijing have been agreed in secret and have not benefited ordinary Taiwanese people.

There were mass protests against a service trade pact last year which led to a three-week occupation of the island’s parliament by students. A stuttering economy and a string of food safety scandals also contributed to the disastrous local elections, seen as a key barometer ahead of the 2016 presidential race. 

Mr Chu was the only KMT politician who won in Taiwan’s six large municipalities to maintain his position as New Taipei mayor. The victory propelled him forward as the party’s next leader – and possible presidential candidate.

He has ruled out running for president in 2016 to focus on the mayoralty, but is seen as a strong contender for future leadership. Mr Ma will step down next year after serving the maximum two terms.

Seen as clean and prudent, Mr Chu has said the KMT’s exchanges with China would not be suspended, though he was tight-lipped when asked if he would like to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“I don’t think it will be a plus for Chu to visit China or meet Chinese leaders in the current climate,” said Mr Joseph Cheng, a Taiwan expert at Hong Kong’s City University.

Instead he should focus on the economy, job prospects and salaries to allay discontent and appeal to young voters, says Mr Cheng.

Mr Chu has served as a lawmaker and vice premier, but has a tough road ahead as party leader.

“Chu’s main challenges are to unite the party and reform its image so the KMT has a chance of maintaining its majority in parliament in the legislative elections and not losing too terribly in the presidential race in 2016,” said Mr Cheng.

“He made a smart choice not to run in 2016 since it’s difficult for the KMT to win. He is still young and he can run in 2020 or after.”

The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had its best ever performance in the local polls and is widely tipped to win the presidency in 2016.