Why is Taiwan’s Kuomintang on the ropes?

The China-friendly party is struggling to reinvent itself as Taiwan changes, and the coffers are running dry too.

The KMT is struggling to win support among people under 40 as attitudes shift [Ann Wang/Reuters]

Taipei, Taiwan – Founded in 1912 during a deeply tumultuous period of Chinese history following the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, the Kuomintang (KMT) is one of the oldest political parties in Asia and for years dominated Taiwan, having retreated to the one-time Japanese colony as the Communists won victory in China’s civil war.

But the party that survived two world wars, civil war, exile, democratic transition, and a restorative justice campaign for victims of KMT-led atrocities, now faces an even bigger struggle – how to win the hearts and minds of Taiwan’s new generation of voters.

In Taiwan’s last presidential election in January, the incumbent Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) secured 72 percent of the vote among people under 40, according to a poll by Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s most respected research institution.

“The big problem is very few people under 40 voted for [the KMT] in the last election. It’s going to take a while, but they need to reinvent themselves in some way to have a long-term sustainable future,” said Kharis Templeman, an adviser to the Project on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

“The most obvious way to do that is to play up the Taiwanese side of their heritage,” he said. “They’ve been in Taiwan for 70 years. They could rename the party the ‘Taiwanese Nationalist Party’ or do other symbolic things to indicate they are really first and foremost for standing up for the Taiwanese.”

The KMT remains popular among older Taiwanese, Indigenous voters, families who emigrated after 1949, and overseas Taiwanese living in China, but by its own admission has less than 9,000 party members under 40.

Changing attitudes

Both Taipei and Beijing claim to represent the government of China, which they both formally define as including Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Taiwan and its outlying islands.

Members from the Kuomintang, Taiwan’s main opposition group, wave the Taiwan flag during the party’s annual conference in Taipei in September [Ann Wang/Reuters]

Nearly every country in the world, however, now recognises Beijing’s claim.

And under President Xi Jinping, China’s Communist Party has aggressively erased Taiwan from public discourse even as the island of 23 million people has developed into one of the region’s most vibrant democracies.

But attitudes in Taiwan towards China are also changing.

A September poll by Taiwan Thinktank found that only two percent of respondents identified as “Chinese”, while 62.6 percent considered themselves Taiwanese, and the rest identified as both.

A rising number also support Taiwan’s “independence” from the Republic of China, reneging on any claims to mainland Asia. They also reject Beijing’s offer of “one country, two systems” – sceptical about Beijing’s promises of semi-autonomy after the crackdown in Hong Kong.

Indeed, Tsai has won plaudits for her government’s quiet welcome to Hong Kong dissidents.

The political shift has created a conundrum the KMT.

“There is already an intense debate under way in the KMT about the best policy toward China. The older generation, represented especially by former President Ma [Ying-jeou], clings to the ‘1992 Consensus’, but the younger generation, represented by KMT Chair Johnny Chiang, recognises that the KMT must modify its stance if it is to win support in Taiwan,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The “1992 Consensus” refers to the agreement between Beijing and Taipei that there is “One China” although they disagree on who heads it.

“The next year is critical for the future of the KMT and whether it will be able to compete effectively against the DPP in local elections in 2022 and the 2024 presidential election,” Glaser said. “The party is split, and it remains to be seen whether it can unite and appeal to voters.”

Johnny Chiang was elected chairman of KMT in March after the party’s drubbing in the January elections [File: Fabian Hamacher/Reuters]

While the new party chairman, 48-year-old Chiang, was chosen in a bid to modernise the KMT, he has already faced a number of stumbling blocks, according to commentators. While Chiang appointed younger leaders to head key internal party committees, he did not succeed in other reforms such as moving away from emphasising the party’s claim to China.

Chiang has faced two equally formidable challenges to his campaign from his party’s powerful but greying heavyweights and the fact that neither his office nor the KMT have much money.

Chiang and a spokesperson for the KMT did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Patriarchal approach

Tsai’s DPP, meanwhile, has successfully tapped into Taiwan’s emerging identity, and while Tsai has not gone as far as to call for independence, she has won support for taking a more assertive stance in defending Taiwan internationally.

Yujen Kuo, Director of the Institution for National Policy Research at National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan, says the KMT’s patriarchal culture makes change much more difficult for the older party.

“I think the [KMT old guard] carry a very different mentality. It’s not that they cannot see the major mainstream of popular opinion, I think they know, but their mentality is more like a parent or teacher attitude. They think the general public the people should be taught the right direction for Taiwan,” Kuo said. “The older generation in KMT, especially from the Ma administration, they’re still trying to manipulate the agenda.”

The legacy of General Chiang Kai-shek (centre) continues to be felt in the paternal approach adopted by the KMT’s older guard [File: Planet News/AFP]

Kuo says the approach reflects the KMT’s history, which took organisational cues from Soviet advisers in the 1920s and developed more militaristic tendencies under General Chiang Kai-shek. Kuo compares its internal structure as closer to the Communist Party than to its rivals in Taiwan.

The KMT’s greatest challenge, however, may lie in its finances. In one generation, the KMT has gone from the “richest party in Asia” – which once had a reported $3.4bn – to one facing a massive funding crisis after its assets were frozen as part of an investigation into its activities during martial law, which lasted until 1987.

Even with most of its assets unavailable, the party still has to fulfil promises to its long-standing supporters.

A report on KMT assets in the Taiwanese media found that in 2018, the party had cash income of 430 million New Taiwan dollars ($15m), while its outgoing expenses topped 1.75 billion New Taiwan dollars ($61m), much of it to fund pensions.

“The retirement plans every month have been a very heavy financial burden and now with the burden assets being frozen, the party chair has to come up with money every month to cover the expenses so it will be a problem,” said Eric Huang, a former KMT spokesman and member of the party’s younger generation. KMT offices in recent years have shrunk dramatically and many, like Huang, now work as “volunteers”.

“The party’s assets are frozen so there is a problem of paying wages and we are all working for the KMT on a volunteer basis. This adds a layer to the fact that it’s hard to push for reforms when there are so many older people and when the people pushing for reforms lack resources,” Huang said.

Down but not out

But while the KMT might be down, analysts say it would be foolish to write the party off.

It still has wide support in some communities of Taiwan, particularly among business leaders.

Voters may also tire of the current administration’s more acrimonious relationship with Beijing that has seen China encroach into Taiwan’s airspace numerous times this year.

A possible free trade agreement with the United States, which could see Taiwan import cheaper American pork, has also proven contentious with many voters, riling the large agricultural sector Templeman compares with the “white working-class swing states in the US.”

And the KMT’s stable of younger party leaders, including Chiang and Hou Yu-ih, the Mayor of New Taipei, might yet prove appealing to a wide range of voters including those who identify as Taiwanese.

The KMT was once the dominant force in Taiwan politics, but is struggling to reinvent itself amid the island’s changing politics and popular appeal of President Tsai Ing-wen [File: Jameson Wu/Reuters]

Jessica Drun, a non-resident fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, said the KMT, while facing a contemporary crisis, has always historically been a party of reinvention.

“The debate on support for the DPP and the KMT along demographic lines is often oversimplified… [and] I think it misses the ability of parties to adapt and adjust their policies to better suit demographic realities,” said Drun.

“For example, after the KMT’s defeat in the 2000 elections, it revamped its messaging to include support for a multicultural identity, to include both Taiwanese and Chinese, in order to appeal to a larger swath of the population. The KMT is currently soul-searching and there’s infighting about its leaders and factions, but I would not discount its potential to adapt.”

Source: Al Jazeera