Between internal conflicts, confused campaign messages and a position on China that has become a political handicap, Taiwan’s oldest political party is plunged into an existential crisis.
The Chinese Nationalist Party, better known as the KMT, or Kuomintang, was founded in mainland China but went into exile in Taiwan in 1949. It ruled the island for 50 years before losing its grip on power.
The party has long pushed for closer ties with China, a stance that has increasingly disconnected it from a younger generation that identifies as Taiwanese and is wary of the Chinese Communist Party’s designs on the island.
Now the 110-year-old KMT is turning to a rising star to burnish its image: Chiang Wan-an, who is favored to become Taipei’s next mayor – among thousands of local offices up for grabs in the national elections in Taipei. Saturday.
The 43-year-old charismatic former lawmaker and lawyer presented himself as a decidedly modern figure capable of leading the party into the future. He supports gay marriage and lowers the voting age from 20 to 18. Her good looks and young children haven’t detracted from her appeal either.
At the same time, he claims deep roots in the party’s past as the great-grandson of revolutionary Chiang Kai-shek.
It was under Chiang Kai-shek that the party fled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. Waiting to one day retake the mainland, the KMT often used brutal means to quell any political threats, eventually lifting martial law in 1987. as Taiwan began to democratize.
Now it’s the Communist Party that wants to take back Taiwan. In the face of growing aggression under President Xi Jinping, who considers democracy of 23 million people part of China, much of the national political discourse has focused on how best defend the Island.
Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, was againelected by a landslide in 2020, thanks to the rise of Taiwanese nationalism and anti-China sentiment. But this year the KMT has gotten a boost of support that could help it clean up in local races.
Taipei City Hall is often a stepping stone to the presidency. According to recent polls, Chiang is the leading independent candidate Huang Shan-shan, the former deputy mayor of Taipei, and Chen Shih-chung of the DPP, who as health and welfare minister oversaw the Taiwan’s response to the pandemic.
“He’s the younger, fresher, slightly updated face the KMT needs,” said Lev Nachman, a political science professor at National Chengchi University. “But a candidate does not make a successful political strategy.”
During local elections, cross-Strait tensions take a back seat to more immediate concerns. Mayoral candidates have been talking a lot about urban renewal, the rising cost of housing, grants for young parents and ways to make the city more pet-friendly. Chiang wants to improve health insurance for animals and expand programs to let them travel on public transport.
He also sought to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with the Tsai administration, pointing in particular to a lack of transparency in its rollout of vaccines at the start of the pandemic.
“It’s a contest of values: democracy against the black box,” he said during an election rally on Saturday evening. “Hard work against laziness, integrity against lies, light against darkness.”
In the crowd that night was Mark Chu, a 30-year-old computer scientist who found the event lifted the spirits of KMT supporters. However, he couldn’t help but notice a distinct lack of people his own age.
“There is a sense of distance between the KMT and young people,” Chu said. “They are moving further and further away from mainstream ideas.”
But Chiang was able to convince Bernie Hou, a 33-year-old public relations agent who has supported politicians from various parties over the years.
His decision to support Chiang is largely a vote against the DPP for its handling of the pandemic. He was also impressed with Chiang’s performance during the mayoral debate.
“He has all the trappings of a capital mayor,” Hou said. “And he looks very good.”
Yet even in local races, the tight relationships between Beijing and Taipei are an unavoidable factor.
The ruling DPP favors Taiwanese independence and has taken a confrontational stance toward China, an approach that appeals to those who has come of age under Taiwanese democracy and rebuke calls for unification from Beijing. These voters fear giving too much leeway to an authoritarian regime that has threatened to satisfy its land claims by force.
The president, whose term ends in 2024, has recently stepped up efforts to capitalize on those fears. But his calls to stand up to China did not translate into broader support for the DPP in this election.
“It’s a difficult balancing act,” said Sung Wen-ti, a political scientist with the Taiwan Studies program at Australia National University. “The DPP has been riding the wave of its Taiwanese nationalism map since 2014 and inevitably faces some voter fatigue.
The KMT wants to maintain the status quo of democratic governance in Taiwan, but favors a friendlier relationship with Beijing. Its support comes largely from older generations, who associate the party with their Chinese identities and continental roots. A minority within the party still hopes to see reunification with China.
As the KMT grapples with how to both appease its traditional base and reach a new one, Chiang could help bridge that gap.
His father Hsiao-yan, a former deputy prime minister and foreign minister, was born with the surname Chang, but he changed it after collecting evidence that he was the illegitimate grandson of Chiang Kai- shek. Although some still doubt this claim, her son also changed his last name.
Older KMT members revere the former generalissimo for his contributions to Taiwan’s industrial development and his experiences fighting against Japanese and Communist forces. Young Taiwanese see him as an emblem of the island’s authoritarian past.
Chiang Kai-shek’s legacy has come under greater scrutiny in recent years amid moves to compensate the families of victims who suffered under his rule and to remove statues glorifying him.
Chiang Wan-an sometimes found himself caught in the crossfire. Earlier this year, he advocated for the removal of Chiang Kai-shek’s name from a famous memorial hall in Taipei. But he dropped the proposal after KMT supporters criticized him for diminishing his own Chinese history and identity.
“Looking too far into one’s family history is a risk,” said Brian Hioe, founding editor of Taiwanese news outlet New Bloom. “Now there’s a lot more backlash against these second generations and political dynasties.”
The biggest challenge for the KMT in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election may be persuading voters that it can skillfully navigate cross-Strait relations without adhering to pressure from beijing.
Watching Chiang greet voters in Taipei on Monday, Wendy Chang, a 25-year-old visitor after studying business in the Netherlands, said he seemed more modern than traditional KMT candidates. Nonetheless, she finds it hard to swallow the party’s friendlier attitude towards China.
“I feel like the elections in Taiwan are ultimately about cross-Strait relations,” she said.
Yang is a Times writer and Shen a special correspondent.
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