In 1949, Taiwan’s Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) was defeated by the communists and fled from the mainland to Taiwan. At that time the party’s future looked dim. Recently there is pessimism in the party not heard since those days. Thrown out of power for the first time in the March 2000 election, KMT is facing another crisis. This seems odd for a party that in the 1960s and after produced the Taiwan “economic miracle.” For a couple of decades Taiwan was the world’s fastest growing economy. This was a stellar accomplishment in view of Taiwan’s unfavorable land to population ratio and its lack of capital and resources. In the 1980s, the KMT engineered the “Taiwan political miracle.” It built the world’s fastest democratizing system and did that without bloodshed.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
What then went wrong? Some say it was complacency with its accomplishments. Others suggest corruption. Maybe the party was in power too long. It aged. Certainly it has suffered from internal splits. The present situation, however, seems immediately traceable to the March 2000 presidential election. Leading up to the election James Soong was the most popular politician in Taiwan. Under normal circumstances he would have been the KMT’s nominee and would have won the election hands down.
But President Lee Teng-hui and Soong had become foes. Lee kept the nomination from Soong, instead supporting his vice president Lien Chan. Lien got the party’s nomination and Soong decided to run as an independent. The KMT might have allowed a Soong victory and made amends after the election. But KMT leaders, apparently under orders from Lee, attacked Soong relentlessly and released information on his questionable financial activities when he was the party’s secretary general.
Soong, who had the reputation for honesty and caring for the common man, was fatally hurt by the accusations. He had trouble answering. The case diverted his attention and his energies. The opposition party’s Chen Shui-bian, as a result of the KMT’s vote base splitting, won the election. Even though Soong was less than three percentage points behind Chen, and the KMT’s Lien, one of Taiwan’s most qualified and able but not charismatic politicians, came in a poor third, the party did not try to bring Soong back into the fold.
Meanwhile, the KMT’s reputation had also been sullied by “black gold”-its association with criminal elements and corruption. This was a major campaign issue and an image problem for the KMT that persisted after the election. Out of power the KMT was an easy target. Investigations disclosed past misdeeds (though Taiwan’s other parties, including the now ruling DPP were hardly free from guilt).
Soon after the election Soong formed his own party, the People’s First Party (PFP). He recruited new members, including attracting KMT members of the legislature. After Chen became president the two parties at times cooperated to block or change legislation and obstruct the Chen presidency. This caused President Chen’s popularity to plummet. But so did the KMT’s and the PFP’s.
The KMT generally has not performed well in opposition. It didn’t know how. It has also failed to attract younger people. It needed direction and didn’t have it. It lacked a leader. After the election, the party expelled Lee Teng-hui from the chairmanship. Lien took over, but many felt that he should not be the party’s nominee for president again. He couldn’t win in a popularity contest type of election, which Taiwan’s presidential elections had become. Thus, many said he shouldn’t head the party either.
The party has also suffered from an internal split over the issue of Taiwan’s national identity. The KMT, under Lee, had become a Taiwanese Party. ( Taiwanese are an ethnic or sub-ethnic group of Chinese whose ancestors came to Taiwan centuries ago and who are 85 percent of the population, in contrast to the Mainland Chinese, who came to Taiwan after WWII). The DPP also claimed to represent Taiwanese and in power it did. This undermined the KMT’s support base and changed its image from a multi-ethnic party to a minority one.
Then in July this year, former President Lee Teng-hui, through one of his proteges, Huang Chu-wen, formed a new political party, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, from a group of KMT members loyal to Lee. Lee charged that Lien and Soong had conspired to weaken the Chen presidency and in the process created political paralysis.
OTHER PARTIES TO GAIN
Looking ahead to the year-end legislative election, it appeared that three other parties are all going to make gains in seats. The KMT will be the loser-perhaps a big loser. The KMT will likely not only lose its majority in the legislature, but the DPP (now with only one-third of the seats now) might emerge with a majority. Though this seems less than probable, the DPP might, in fact, build a majority coalition with the help of Lee’s party if both do well at the polls.
In late July, the KMT held its party congress. The meeting gave observers the impression the KMT was still in power: pomp and ceremony, few new ideas, the same old leadership. Some KMT stalwarts talked of the party hoping to win 85 seats in the year-end legislative election, down nearly 30 seats from what it holds now. One party heavyweight questioned the viability of the party if it does badly in the election.
But party leaders couldn’t decide whether or not to expel former chairman Lee Teng-hui. Some top officials said out loud that Lee was diverting party money to the DPP. A decision either way on Lee, many said, would damage the party. Public opinion polls for months have placed the KMT far behind the other two major parties (with Soong’s PFP usually leading the DPP slightly). The KMT’s lack of popularity is persistent and seems difficult to turn around.
Efforts to jointly sponsor (with the PFP) some candidates for the year-end election had also failed. This had been a hopeful tack for the KMT. The situation, however, is not completely bleak. KMT members of the legislature gained more clout at the party congress. Some younger leaders rose in stature. Ma Ying-jeou, mayor of Taipei, was the most notable. There were others.
It is also encouraging that Lien and Soong are still getting along and that Soong’s party may win most of the seats the KMT loses in December. The KMT and the PFP should also be able to cooperate after the election. This will mean the KMT’s political influence will not drop commensurately with its loss of legislative seats.
There are other variables: Taiwan’s economy has performed miserably in the last few months. GNP growth is lower than most citizens can recall, and unemployment higher. The stock market is down and Taiwan’s currency has devalued. This and the political paralysis Taiwan has experienced under President Chen should make the KMT appealing to voters. After all the KMT managed the economy well and maintained political stability when it was in power.
The December 1 election will likely deeply impact the KMT’s future. But it is doubtful that the party can regain its momentum and minimizes its losses, while showing some ability to lead and make policies for the country. Yet the 107-year old KMT has seen bad days in the past. Perhaps it should look back and consider what it did to recover before.
John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.