Hung Hsiu-chu: KMT's 'Little Chilli' spices up race

Ms Hung Hsiu-chu at the KMT congress in Taipei on July 19. Her support comes mostly from the party's "deep blue" faction - those who want unification with China.
Ms Hung Hsiu-chu at the KMT congress in Taipei on July 19. Her support comes mostly from the party's "deep blue" faction - those who want unification with China.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

For the first time in Taiwan's electoral history, both key candidates for the January presidential election - from the ruling Kuomintang and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party - are women and single. The Straits Times' Goh Sui Noi takes their measure

Nobody thought Kuomintang (KMT) presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu was serious about throwing her hat in the ring when she registered for the ruling party's primary polls - or that she would win the nomination.

There were murmurings that Ms Hung, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, would withdraw her candidacy for the January 2016 presidential election eventually, as her objective was really to be the parliamentary Speaker.

There were also those who thought she would most probably end up as the vice-presidential candidate partnering an A-list party hopeful, come nomination day.

Ms Hung, 67, did not respond to her detractors, but she showed her mettle by being the first to step forward in April.

This was as the heavyweight politicians of the KMT were jostling for support within the party to ensure nomination or simply hesitant about getting their feet wet in an election that the ruling party had little confidence of winning after its heavy defeat in local polls last November.

Ms Hung has been dubbed the Sarah Palin of Taiwan, not only for her outspokenness - which together with her fiery style also earned her the moniker "Little Chilli" early on - but also for her appeal to only a small bloc of voters, much like the vice-presidential candidate in the 2008 US presidential polls.

In the end, no one else stepped forward, and Ms Hung won confirmation of her party's nomination earlier this month, after winning the primary polls in June, to the surprise - and dismay - of many within the party.

She is seen not only as unelectable, but there is also a worry that she will drag down the party's performance at legislative elections that will be held at the same time as the presidential polls.

 

Ms Hung has been dubbed the Sarah Palin of Taiwan, not only for her outspokenness - which together with her fiery style also earned her the moniker "Little Chilli" early on - but also for her appeal to only a small bloc of voters, much like the vice-presidential candidate in the 2008 United States presidential polls. Ms Palin appealed to the religious right.

Support for Ms Hung comes mostly from the "deep blue" faction of the KMT - those who want unification with China. This faction is largely made up of those who went to Taiwan from China during or after the civil war that the KMT lost to the communists in 1949, or are descendants of those who did.

Ms Hung's own father moved to Taiwan in 1946 during the civil war and was jailed in 1950 for 31/2 years on suspicion of being a communist. He could not find work after his release, so the family lived in poverty.

Ms Hung supported herself through university and became a schoolteacher before entering politics in 1989.

Despite her father's misfortune, Ms Hung is a KMT loyalist. She is also openly pro-unification, a stance that is problematic for her candidacy at a time when the Taiwanese are wary of closer ties with China and when the great majority want to retain the status quo of de facto independence.

Her pronouncements - including pushing for a peace agreement with China and ending arms procurement from the US - since winning the primary polls have worried the party leadership.

And when party leaders called a meeting to persuade her to move to a centrist position on cross-strait relations, she reportedly told them: "The public must be made to understand our ideals; campaigning is not just about votes in an election, but more importantly about putting our ideals into practice."

Many in the KMT wondered if she would fight hard to win votes.

But their concerns were somewhat eased by her nomination acceptance speech last week, in which she appeared to have moved away from her strident views on unification.

She said she would adhere to "the party's political platform", including on cross-strait ties, and even cited a poem that said "we love Taiwan with a genuine heart and will safeguard the Republic of China with our lives". The ROC is Taiwan's formal name.

It remains to be seen how far to the centre she will move on cross-strait ties, but as the Taiwanese magazine The Journalist wrote, Ms Hung needs more than just guts if she wants to win the presidency.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2015, with the headline 'Hung Hsiu-chu: KMT's 'Little Chilli' spices up race'. Print Edition | Subscribe