The Failure of the KMT

On January 11, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡 英文) from the DPP defeated her rivals: Han Kuo-yu (韓 國瑜) from the KMT and James Soong (宋 楚瑜) from the PFP and won the 2020 Taiwanese (ROC) presidential election with near 58% of the vote. (All election data in this article comes from the database of Taiwan Central Election Commission) This election campaign was a great failure for the Pan-Blue coalition and especially Han Kuo-yu, the KMT presidential candidate with a strong populist background.

Han had been widely considered as a dark horse because in 2018 he won the mayoral election in Kaohsiung, the DPP’s traditional stronghold. He then went on to defeat his KMT rivals and win the presidential primary for the KMT in summer 2019. After the election result in 2020 was released, various Taiwanese parties, Beijing, and Washington all paid huge attention to the unexpected great failure of the KMT & Han Kuo-yu. 

His failure is widely ascribed to two reasons. First, the Hong Kong issue in 2019 stimulated Taiwanese people’s fear of Beijing which pushed them to support the DPP. Second, the party infighting of both the KMT and the Pan-Blue coalition (including the KMT and the PFP led by former KMT senior politician James Soong) reduced Han Kuo-yu’s share of the vote. While I would say, these two reasons can both be considered as factors that have influenced this election but neither of them can count for the root cause of Han Kuo-yu’s failure. The root cause is the identity-shifting of Taiwanese society and generational change since the 1990s.

Through the short history of Taiwanese presidential elections, it is obvious that both the two reasons listed above are not new phenomena, and neither of them reached a historical peak in 2020. These familiar situations caused totally different outcomes in different historical periods, and the main trend is since 1996, the popularity of both the Pan-Blue coalition and the KMT are decreasing. 

First, through the whole history of Taiwanese presidential elections, Beijing has never given up pressuring Taipei. Much commentary has focused on how Beijing’s handling of the Hong Kong issue and advocation of “one country, two systems” model are beneficial for the DPP’s election campaign since the DPP holds a tougher position towards Beijing. These recent actions have taken the form of HKSAR police force actions and Xi’s new year speech

Historically, the method Beijing used to pressure Taipei in 1996 was through missile testing and military exercises on the Taiwan strait. Before the 2000 Taiwanese presidential election, Beijing also showed a harsh attitude by delivering a public speech to warn Taiwanese people “Anybody who runs for Taiwan independence will have no good ending”. In the 2000s, the way Beijing pressured the Chen Shui-bian (陳 水扁) administration was by adopting an Anti-Secession Law which authorized PLA forces to attack Taiwan under certain political situations.

Actions like these, just like the situation in Hong Kong, can all stimulate fear of Beijing, but the facts are, the DPP has often lost elections or received a smaller vote share even when faced with pressure from Beijing. Hence, Beijing’s pressure on Taipei cannot explain the root cause of the Pan-Blue coalition’s failure in 2020. 

Secondly, the KMT’s splintering is also explained as a key reason of its failure in 2020. After Han Kuo-yu became the KMT presidential candidate, one of his most important rivals, Terry Gou, a successful businessman as well as KMT senior politician, quit the KMT and converted to support James Soong’s PFP to run the election to compete with Han. This is widely considered as the Pan-Blue coalition’s separation.

However, if we go back in history, what we can see is even before Taiwan entering democracy, the Pan-Blue coalition has continually fractured. The struggle between different KMT factions started in the late 1980s and has already lasted for more than 30 years until today. After Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣 經國)’s death, Lee Teng-hui’s (李 登輝) pro-localization faction defeated the opposite faction led by Lin Yang-kang (林 洋港) and Chiang Wei-kuo (蔣 緯囯) in the last indirect presidential election of Taiwan (ROC) in 1990. KMT factional politics began in this time and have occurred in almost all presidential elections since 1996. From 1993 to 2015, former KMT politicians founded the  “New Party”, the “People First Party” (PFP)  and the “Minkuotang” (MKT) outside of the KMT.

Whether the Pan-Blue coalition is separated or not, their share of the vote in presidential elections has been decreasing since 1996. Through the whole history we can also find that the splintering of the KMT exists in most Taiwanese presidential elections, but there’s strong evidence to show that besides splintering, the whole Pan-Blue’s share of the vote keeps shrinking whether taking James Soong into account or not. This means that even if the Pan-Blue could gather together, it is getting more and more difficult for the KMT candidate to win the presidential election.

Beijing’s pressure on Taipei, and KMT’s factional politics & separation, are two stable phenomena through almost 30 years, none of them are new for either Han Kuo-yu, James Soong, or Tsai Ing-wen. What is changing through the history is both the KMT and Pan-Blue coalition’s share of the vote–a steady decrease. The explanation behind it could be the shifting of identity politics in Taiwanese society. 

According to a survey released by the Election Center of National ChengChi University in 2019 (graph below), in 1992, only 17.6% of surveyed people self-identified as “Taiwanese”, while in 2019 it is around 57%. In 1992, 25.5% of surveyed people self-identified as “Chinese”, and the number reached its lowest point at only 3.0% in 2019. Most of the surveyed people self-identified as “Both Chinese and Taiwanese”, while the number was 46.4% in 1992 but only 36.5% in 2019. 

(Graph link: made by the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University) 

Another observation worth noting is, in Taiwan, different generations have totally different political views. Most of the supporters of KMT are from older generations who have witnessed the economic miracle growth like the Ten Major Construction Projects under the rule of Chiang Ching-kuo, and who were educated by the KMT authoritarian education system during their childhood & teenage years. Most of the younger generation support the DPP. For the young people who grow up in post-authoritarian era, their memory of childhood could be totally different from their parents’ and grandparents’, hence their self-identifications are shifting away from the “ROC” myth constructed by Chiang Kai-shek (蔣 介石) and Chiang Ching-kuo. Demographic changes like these are the root cause of KMT’s failure in elections.

 Although Han Kuo-yu used emotional speeches and populist political views to gather some grassroots supporters, the base of voters for the KMT are shrinking due to the shifting of identity politics in Taiwanese people, especially the young generation, so Han Kuo-yu’s failure is an epitome of KMT’s historical failure. Different people have totally different views on Taiwan, and my intention is not to judge nor support any particular political views. My aim is to merely tell the story that the historical data is telling us. 

(Image source: Han Guo-yu Facebook)

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Henry Cheng

Henry Cheng is an alumnus of the School of Global Policy and Strategy, UC San Diego. He obtained his MA degree in International Politics at UC San Diego in 2020. Now Henry is pursuing his second MA degree in history at the University of Chicago. His research interests mainly focus on the political and social history of the Greater China Region in the 20th century.

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