Between internal strife, confusing campaign statements, and a stance on China that has become a political liability, Taiwan’s oldest political party is in a deep existential crisis.
The Chinese Nationalist Party, better known as the Kuomintang or Kuomintang, was founded in mainland China but went into exile in Taiwan in 1949. She ruled the island for 50 years before she lost control of power.
The party has long insisted on closer ties with China, a stance that increasingly cuts it off from the younger generation who self-identify as Taiwanese and are wary of the Chinese Communist Party’s designs on the island.
Now the 110-year-old Kuomintang is looking for a rising star to revamp its image: Chang Wang-an, who is favored to be Taipei’s next mayor, is among thousands of local offices running in Saturday’s national elections.
The charismatic 43-year-old former MP and lawyer positions himself as a fully modern figure capable of leading the party into the future. He supports same-sex marriage and lowering the voting age from 20 to 18. His attractive appearance and small children also did not affect his attractiveness.
At the same time, he claims deep roots in the party past as the great-grandson of the revolutionary Chiang Kai-shek.
It was under Chiang Kai-shek that the Party fled to Taiwan after being defeated in the Chinese Civil War by the Communist Party of Mao Zedong. Expecting to someday retake the mainland, the Kuomintang often used brutal means to suppress any political threat, finally lifting martial law in 1987. when Taiwan began democratization.
Now the Communist Party wants to take back Taiwan. In the face of growing aggression under President Xi Jinping, who sees a democracy of 23 million as part of China, much of the national political discourse has focused on the best path. protect island.
President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, was re-elected landslide dramatically in 2020 thanks to growing Taiwanese nationalism and anti-Chinese sentiment. But this year, KMT has received support that could help it clean up in local races.
The post of mayor of Taipei is often a stepping stone on the path to the presidency. Chiang is led by independent candidate Huang Shan-shan, a former deputy mayor of Taipei, and DPP member Chen Shi-chung, who oversaw Taiwan’s response to the pandemic as minister of health and welfare, according to recent polls.
“He’s a young, fresh and slightly rejuvenated face that the Kuomintang needs,” said Lev Nachman, a professor of political science at Chengchi National University. “But one candidate is not a successful political strategy.”
In local elections, cross-strait tensions take a back seat to more pressing issues. Mayoral candidates talked a lot about urban beautification, higher housing costs, subsidies for new parents and how to make the city more pet-friendly. Chan wants to improve animal health insurance and expand programs to allow them to ride public transport.
He also sought to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with the Tsai administration, specifically pointing out the lack of transparency in vaccine deployment early in the pandemic.
“This is a competition of values: democracy versus the black box,” he said at a campaign rally on Saturday evening. “Hard work against laziness, honesty against lies, light against darkness.”
In the crowd that evening was Mark Chu, a 30-year-old IT professional who saw the event as an important moral boost for Kuomintang supporters. However, he couldn’t help but notice the apparent absence of people his own age.
“There is a sense of distance between the Kuomintang and the youth,” Chu said. “They are moving further and further away from the mainstream ideas.”
But Chang was able to convince Bernie Howe, a 33-year-old public relations professional who has supported politicians from various parties over the years.
His decision to support Chang is largely a vote against the DPP for how it has handled the pandemic. He was also impressed with Chang’s performance during the mayor’s debate.
“He has all the makings of a metropolitan mayor,” Howe said. “And he looks really good.”
However, even in local races strained relationship between Beijing and Taipei are an inevitable factor.
The ruling DPP is leaning towards Taiwan independence and has taken a confrontational stance towards China, which pleases those who came of age under Taiwanese democracy and reject Beijing’s calls for unification. These voters are wary of giving too much leeway to an authoritarian regime that threatens to enforce its territorial claims by force.
The president, whose term ends in 2024, has recently stepped up efforts to capitalize on these concerns. But her calls to resist China did not translate into broader support for the DPP in this election.
“It’s a tricky balance,” said Sun Wen-ti, a political scientist at the Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Program. “The DPP has been on the wave of its Taiwanese nationalism card since 2014 and inevitably faces a certain degree of voter fatigue.”
The Kuomintang wants to maintain the status quo of Taiwan’s democratic government, but is in favor of a friendlier relationship with Beijing. Its support comes mainly from the older generation, who associate the party with their Chinese identity and mainland roots. A minority within the party still hopes for reunification with China.
As the Kuomintang tries to appease both its traditional base and conquer a new one, Chiang can help close that gap.
His father Xiao-yan, a former vice premier and foreign minister, was born with the surname Chiang, but changed it after gathering evidence that he was Chiang Kai-shek’s illegitimate grandson. Although some still doubt this statement, his son also changed his last name.
Senior Kuomintang members respect the former generalissimo for his contributions to Taiwan’s industrial development and his experience in fighting Japanese and communist forces. Young Taiwanese see him as a symbol of the island’s authoritarian past.
In recent years, Chiang Kai-shek’s legacy has come under increased scrutiny amid initiatives to compensate the families of victims who suffered during his reign and to remove statues that glorify him.
Chang Wang-an sometimes found himself trapped in the middle. Earlier this year, he campaigned for the removal of Chiang Kai-shek’s name from a famous memorial hall in Taipei. But he turned down the offer after being criticized by Kuomintang supporters for belittling his own history and Chinese identity.
“Relying too far on his family’s past is a risk,” said Brian Hyoe, founding editor of Taiwanese media outlet New Bloom. “Now there is much more backlash against these second generations and political dynasties.”
A bigger problem for the Kuomintang in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election may be convincing voters that it can skillfully manage cross-strait relations without joining pressure from Beijing.
Watching Chiang greet voters in Taipei on Monday, Wendy Chang, a 25-year-old visiting home after studying business in the Netherlands, said he looks more modern than traditional KMT candidates. However, she finds it hard to accept the party’s more friendly attitude towards China.
“I feel that the elections in Taiwan are ultimately about cross-strait relations,” she said.
Yang is a staff correspondent for the Times and Shen is a special correspondent.