Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang party has appointed Eric Chu as its new leader following its worst-ever local election setback. But analyst Alan Romberg tells DW Chu's challenge to reinvigorate the party will be significant.
Eric Chu (also Chu Li-luan), mayor of New Taipei city, stood unopposed for the party leadership on Saturday, January 17, and was elected with 99.6 percent of the total votes cast by party members, the Kuomintang (KMT) said. Shortly after his election was announced, China's President Xi Jinping sent his congratulations to Chu.
The election became necessary after Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou resigned as KMT chairman over a defeat in local polls last November, a move seen as reflecting the voters' disillusionment with the party and its management of ties with mainland China. The government faced unprecedented protests in March last year against a planned trade pact calling for closer ties with Beijing.
Alan Romberg, director of the East Asia program at the US-based think tank Stimson, says in a DW interview that if there is anyone in the KMT capable of reinvigorating and reunifying the KMT, it is Chu Li-luan. But even though he has started with an impressive level of energy and determination, only time will tell whether even he can manage it, the expert adds.
DW: Who is Eric Chu?
Alan Romberg: The new KMT chairman, Chu Li-luan, has been active in Taiwanese politics for over 15 years. He was first elected to the legislature in 1999 and subsequently served two terms as county magistrate in Taoyuan County (2001-2009), Minister of Consumer Protection and Vice Premier (2009-2010), magistrate of Taipei County (2010-2012), and finally mayor of the newly formed major municipality of New Taipei in 2012, a post to which he was reelected in November 2014.
'Chu is probably the figure best placed to reinvigorate the dispirited and fractured KMT,' says Romberg
Chu has also had considerable experience in the KMT apparatus, having been a party vice chairman for about a year in 2008-2009 and again starting in April 2014.
In the November 2014 New Taipei contest, Chu was expected to win reelection by a landslide, even bettering his first victory when he won by over 100,000 votes and 5 percentage points. In the event, he won by slightly over 25,000 votes, or just above 1 percentage point. That said, the KMT as a whole suffered a stunning rebuff across Taiwan, and Chu was the only KMT mayoral candidate in a major municipality to win.
So even if weakened when measured against his earlier success and in comparison with pre-election predictions, he emerged head and shoulders above others in the party and well ahead of President Ma Ying-jeou, whose support rate has consistently lingered in low double-digits or even single digits and who, fairly or unfairly, is generally assigned much of the blame for the KMT's devastating defeat.
Is he really the best hope to turn the KMT around?
Chu's challenge to reinvigorate a now dispirited and fractured party will be significant, but he is probably the KMT figure best placed to do it. In a poll taken three weeks after the election, Chu emerged as the third most popular politician on the island with a support rate of 60 percent, slightly behind two very popular DPP mayors in that party's southern Taiwan stronghold. He even edged out DPP Chair Tsai Ing-wen, the party's presumed presidential candidate for 2016.
Previously, Chu was seen as the only credible KMT presidential contender for 2016 against Tsai and, despite his pre-election pledge to serve out a new four-year mayoral term if reelected, it had been widely assumed he would be open to a draft.
However, after the party's spectacular defeat in November, and after Ma Ying-jeou resigned as party chair to take responsibility for that debacle, Chu announced his candidacy for the position in mid-December, once again ruling out a presidential run in 2016, promising to focus on his party duties and his responsibilities as New Taipei mayor.
Ma Ying-jeou resigned as party chair to take responsibility for the debacle in the elections held in November 2014
What measures does the KMT plans to implement to regain the voters' confidence?
Chu has said the KMT's tsunami-like defeat in November was an opportunity for the party to reform itself so as to regain public trust by "rediscovering the spirit of the party" and "listening to the voice of the people." He has pledged to concentrate on issues that have turned voters away from the KMT, promising to stop the Executive Yuan (the prime minister and his cabinet) from proposing "misguided policies" that do not serve the people well.
Although some within the KMT consequently criticized Chu for seeming to separate himself from the current government, his proposals to reexamine everything from the form of government - perhaps moving from a presidential system to a parliamentary system - to more equitable wealth distribution, garnered considerable support. As a result, all other candidates for party chair dropped out, and he was elected on December 17 with 99.6 percent of the vote.
How are Taiwan's ties to mainland China likely to change under Chu?
In addition to the challenge of recapturing public trust for the KMT in terms of domestic governance, Chu will also need to demonstrate that the KMT is still more capable of managing the critical relationship with Beijing than the DPP. Following eight very troubled years the last time the DPP held the presidency (2000-2008), cross-Strait relations have flourished during Ma Ying-jeou's presidency.
But that success has brought with it concerns that Ma has leaned too far in the Mainland's direction, creating vulnerabilities for Taiwan's economy and potentially laying the ground for Beijing's ultimate goal of unification, a goal overwhelmingly opposed on the island.
Moreover, there is a growing sense in Taiwan that the benefits of the 21 cross-Strait agreements reached since 2008 have been unevenly distributed, with major corporations reaping the gains while little advantage has accrued to the rest of Taiwanese society. Chu has made a point of saying he will work to ensure the rewards of cross-Strait relations are fairly shared.
On the political side of the cross-Strait ledger, an underlying premise of the improved relationship with Beijing since 2008 has been what is called the "1992 Consensus." Basically it is a shared acceptance of the existence of "one China" (even if it is not currently unified), though the two sides have held to different interpretations of what "one China" is (the Republic of China for Taipei, the People's Republic of China for Beijing).
This "consensus" has been of critical importance as a "foundation" of the relationship, and the DPP's rejection of that concept, and its adherence to the dream of an independent Taiwan someday, has been a principal factor in Beijing's favoring the KMT and its refusal to deal with the DPP as a party, even as it has been courting individual DPP members for some time.
The issue of the "1992 Consensus" - or "one China" - will likely play an important part in the 2016 presidential election. The DPP will seek to demonstrate it can effectively manage cross-Strait relations without accepting it, while Chu has already made clear in an exchange of messages with PRC leader Xi Jinping that he does accept it, though he has called on Beijing to "respect" the differences between the two sides rather than simply "setting them aside," as has been the Mainland's standard position.
How the DPP shapes its cross-Strait policy over the coming twelve months leading up to the election, and how Beijing positions itself, will be key issues. The Mainland has learned from past experience that seeming to interfere in Taiwan's elections is more likely to backfire than to produce Beijing's desired result. That said, it will want to make sure that voters in Taiwan understand that election of any government in Taipei that rejects "one China" will have negative consequences.
Meanwhile, as KMT chair, while Chu will not have a direct role in conducting official cross-Strait relations, he will guide the ongoing cross-Strait party-to-party dialogue and he will have a central role in shaping the KMT campaign platform and in demonstrating the advantages of that platform for the people of Taiwan as against the DPP's policies.
Taiwan's government faced unprecedented protests in March last year against a planned trade pact with Beijing
What challenges lie ahead of Mr Chu should the KMT want to remain in power?
Clearly, the challenge for Chu Li-luan will be substantial: to reinvigorate and reunify the KMT, to demonstrate that the party is truly standing side-by-side with the people through effective and fair policies, to attract younger people who have suddenly become a much larger factor in Taiwan politics, and to show that the party can better manage cross-Strait relations than the DPP albeit in a way that is equitably beneficial and that does not compromise Taiwan's de facto independence.
This may be mission impossible. But if there is anyone in the KMT capable of succeeding, it is Chu Li-luan. Only time will tell whether even he can manage it, but he has started with an impressive level of energy and determination.
Alan Romberg is a distinguished fellow and the director of the East Asia program at the US-based think tank The Stimson Center. Before joining Stimson he worked on Asian issues, both in and out of government, including 27 years in the State Department, with over 20 years as a US Foreign Service Officer.