KMT’s political strategy could hurt itself and Taiwan, say experts

Mr Eric Chu's first challenge as chairman would be to lead the party to win the mayoral and magisterial elections next year. PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI - Recalling elected politicians has become a tool for Taiwan's Kuomintang (KMT) in recent years, as the main opposition party seeks to gain some political ground ahead of local elections next year.

But some experts say the party needs to tread carefully or risk damaging not only its own interests but also those of Taiwan.

Last Saturday (Oct 23), Mr Chen Po-wei, who served Taichung's Wuri district, became the first legislator to lose a recall vote. The campaign against Mr Chen of the pro-independence Taiwan Statebuilding Party was initiated by a voter from his district.

Mr Chen was accused of failing his constituents by "behaving outrageously in Legislature" and supporting the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) lifting of a ban on US pork imports containing the addictive ractopamine. The campaign saw involvement and support from KMT while the DPP threw its weight behind Mr Chen.

The recall was one of KMT's major political campaigns this year, and will be followed by a series of referendums in December.

Among the issues are the KMT's proposal to ban imports of meat from pigs fed with ractopamine, which is used to enhance the leanness of meat; and a proposal to hold future referendum votes and general elections on the same day.

In August last year, the DPP reversed its ban on pork from the United States, where ractopamine use is legal, allowing imports to resume from Jan 1. The ban was lifted in hopes of progress in talks with the US on a potential trade deal.

While the KMT hopes the latest recall may gain it some leverage in the referendums, some observers say it is possible the recall result will not have the intended impact.

The referendums should be discussed by focusing on the issues, and not be portrayed as a political fight, said Dr Chu Chao-hsiang of National Taiwan Normal University's Graduate Institute of Political Science.

"If (KMT chairman) Eric Chu's stance is too obvious, then the referendums will be reduced to a blue-green (KMT-DPP) scuffle, which is a disadvantage to the KMT," he said.

National Taiwan University's political sciences professor Chang Ya-chung said the result of the recall could boost the morale of KMT, which is still "weak and recovering" from its chairman election last month that exposed deep divisions within the party.

He noted that there was only a 1.5 per cent vote difference between those in KMT who wanted to recall Mr Chen and those against it. "The narrow margin is what the KMT is worried about, meaning it should still be cautious in approaching the referendums and the 2022 local elections," said Professor Chang.

The KMT has been experiencing a political slump after losing the 2016 presidential election to DPP. It is struggling to keep the party united and regain lost votes as many younger voters believe its policies and ways are outdated.

Mr Chu's first challenge as chairman would be to lead the party to win the mayoral and magisterial elections next year.

But survey results last month by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy showed the DPP in the lead with a 30.1 per cent approval rate, while KMT lagged behind at 19.3 per cent.

Last Saturday's recall vote was the latest confrontation between the parties, and the latest in a string of recall elections in recent years launched by one party or the other.

In a recall vote in June last year, for example, KMT's Mr Han Kuo-yu was removed from his post as Kaohsiung mayor. That was followed by a recall election that removed DPP's Taoyuan City councillor Wang Hao-yu from office in January.

"What's most interesting in recent years is how the KMT doesn't seem to know how to be an opposition party," said Dr Chen Fang-yu of Taiwan's Soochow University.

The party's recent actions, including the recall vote and the referendum on US pork imports, were actions that "oppose for the sake of opposing", he said.

Dr Kharis Templeman, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, said: "The KMT now is like the DPP back in 2008, when they got wiped out in the presidential election, and want to get some traction back."

He called the KMT's referendum proposals "understandable", yet "damaging to Taiwan's geopolitical interests".

He said the KMT should consider why President Tsai Ing-wen had reversed the anti-US pork import stance. "This is for a potential bilateral trade agreement and closer ties between Taiwan and the US, but the referendum, if it passes, will kill those chances," he said.

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