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World & Nation

Taiwan’s Nationalist Party looks to be heading toward a historic defeat

Taiwan candidate
Nationalist Party candidate Hung Hsiu-chu, seen in July, has little support from voters in Taiwan, some of whom say they find her off-putting and unpresidential.
(Sam Yeh / AFP/Getty Images)

Imagine you’re a presidential campaign director. With just four months to go before election day, which of the following would you not want your candidate to post on Facebook?

A) She’s worried about the “sense of defeat” within your party.

B) She regards voters as complacent about the nation’s problems, comparing them to “frogs being boiled in water.”

C) She feels she can’t calm down, appeals for Buddha to help her, and says she’s going to lay off the trail for several days to “start a deep rethinking process.”

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D) all of the above.

For the strategists in Taiwan’s Nationalist Party — also known as the Kuomintang, or KMT — scenario “D” is no hypothetical.

With autumn arriving, the establishment party’s campaign machinery had hoped at this point to be shifting into high gear, riding on its longtime dominance and the accomplishments of President Ma Ying-jeou, who’s termed out after eight years in office.

Instead, the KMT looks to be heading toward a historic defeat come voting Jan. 16.

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The party of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek appears on track to lose not just Taiwan’s presidency, which has happened only once before, but is also in danger of forfeiting control of parliament. That would be unprecedented since Chiang and millions of his supporters lost China’s civil war in 1949 and set up a completely separate government on the island, 100 miles off the mainland’s southeastern coast.

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Despite the KMT’s longtime anti-Communist stance, Ma has pursued closer economic ties with mainland China. While pleasing business interests, his approach has worried many voters — especially those in their 20s and 30s — who see themselves as distinct from mainland Chinese, fear becoming too fiscally integrated with their giant neighbor, and say closer links have failed to deliver widespread benefits.

That partly explains why polls show KMT presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu, 67, a teacher-turned-legislator, was drawing as little as 13% support even before her recent Facebook posts, though others simply find her off-putting and unpresidential. After a four-day pause, Hung returned to campaigning Sept. 5, vowing to fight on until the votes are counted in January.

The possibility that the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party will win the presidency, and have a supportive legislature to work with, is stoking anticipation and anxiety both in Taiwan and mainland China.

Karen Cheng, a translator and activist who participated in the spring 2014 “Sunflower” student movement that occupied Taiwan’s legislature for nearly a month to protest a trade pact with mainland China, is eager for the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen to win the presidency. Tsai, a 59-year-old lawyer-turned-politician with a law degree from Cornell University and a doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science, is leading opinion polls with about 40% support.

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FOR THE RECORD

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8:49 a.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that Tsai Ing-wen has a doctorate from the University of Cambridge. She has a doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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“Tsai will open a new era for Taiwan,” Cheng said.

A new era, though, is anathema to Communist Party authorities in Beijing, who regard Taiwan as a renegade province that must one day be reunited with the mainland — by force if necessary.

That stance has kept Taiwan out of the United Nations and other international bodies and left it with a dwindling number of formal diplomatic allies.

Beijing has ramped up its rhetoric against Tsai, carping at U.S. officials for receiving her on a visit to Washington in June. In August, the state-run Global Times tabloid carried a commentary warning that the DPP advocates Taiwan independence and that “once Tsai assumed office, Taiwan would be heading toward a cliff if the separatists … gain momentum.” Calling Taiwanese independence “nothing but a dead end,” it said the democratic island’s “future will be in jeopardy if it sinks deeper in the daydream.”

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At Tsai’s campaign headquarters on a rainy Friday in August, construction workers were busy installing a cafe-like space to soon open to the public; upstairs, a gaggle of graphic designers were churning out campaign posters and pamphlets with hip green logos, and even a CD of pop songs. Someone hung a banner on a bookshelf that read: “Taiwan is an independent country.”

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Even if most Tsai supporters believe so, the extent to which she might try to shake things up remains unclear. Tsai hasn’t suggested any bold moves to resolve Taiwan’s awkward limbo, though in Washington she did say it was important that U.S. and Taiwanese military relations “continue to intensify.”

Ma’s administration has inked agreements with Beijing opening direct airline flights, ramping up tourism and educational exchanges, and allowing some mainland Chinese investment in Taiwan. Tsai hasn’t suggested canceling those deals and has pledged to “uphold the status quo.”

The last time Tsai’s party held the office, from 2000 to 2008, President Chen Shui-bian’s various initiatives to assert Taiwan’s status as a sovereign, independent country — such as proposing that Taiwan rejoin the United Nations — irritated Beijing and at times even chafed the United States, which has pledged to aid the island in the event of an invasion or attack by the mainland. Dino Lee, a trade union worker and father of three from the eastern city of Taitung, says the DPP is like “an annoying, naughty child” while the KMT is more “responsible.”

Ma, in an August interview, cited his overtures toward Beijing as one of his signature accomplishments that have helped lift Taiwan’s GDP and create jobs. “Cross-strait relations have been at their most stable and peaceful in the last 66 years,” he said. But “relations are very sensitive and fragile and we have to make every effort to maintain what we have achieved over the last seven years.”

The president suggested that a “silent majority” of Taiwanese disagreed with the Sunflower movement.

Some younger Taiwanese, though, say they are tired of walking on eggshells. “The KMT has scared people, saying if we claim independence, China will invade us,” said Tseng Po-yu, a 24-year-old Sunflower activist who’s running for parliament on the Green Party ticket. “So people choose not to think about it.”

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Tseng and her cohort have no memories of the “White Terror,” which began in the 1950s when the KMT persecuted many Taiwanese intellectuals and social elites as political enemies; nor do they recall the island’s 38 years under martial law, which ended in 1987. Multiparty elections began in the 1990s. “We have the experience of being born in an era of freedom and democracy,” said her friend Bruce Lin, an art broker.

Younger Taiwanese like Tseng and Lin are frustrated that wages for young graduates have slipped back to about 1999 levels — roughly $1,000 a month — while real estate prices in the capital and other large cities have soared out of reach. Women like Cheng say they can’t afford to start a family. “If I can’t support myself, how can I support a baby?” she asked.

Chang Chau-hsiung, vice chairman of the People First Party, whose presidential candidate, James Soong, is outpolling the KMT’s Hung, understands the discontent.

“After eight years of close communication with the mainland, only a few high-end people are really making more money,” he said. The benefits, he said, “need to be distributed to the middle class and lower income families.”

Many voters expect that a non-KMT president and parliament might begin the process of constitutional reform, altering or replacing the national charter brought by the KMT to Taiwan.

Chang and others say constitutional change is needed to make the government more efficient and effective. “The old leaders always thought they’d go back to China, so they kept that structure,” he said.

“But the function of government is rapidly deteriorating” because the structure is ill-matched to Taiwan’s needs, he said. “The whole thing needs reorganizing.”

Whereas many from the generation of activist Cheng’s parents were born on the mainland and identified as “Chinese,” polls today show most islanders regard themselves as “Taiwanese,” and distinct from mainlanders. Such feelings of “otherness” have only been heightened as Ma’s policies have brought millions of Taiwanese face-to-face with mainland tourists — and their different social norms — in recent years.

This assertion of a strong Taiwanese identity, said Lin Jih-wen, a political scientist at Taipei’s Academia Sinica, is a phenomenon that has exploded since Ma’s election. “There is generational change just by nature,” he noted, “but this is also a generation disgruntled at the system because they have been so disadvantaged by the current system.”

The professor, though, isn’t necessarily optimistic that a new group of non-KMT officials can easily satisfy the lofty aspirations of many young Taiwanese.

“I don’t think Tsai can solve the problems much better than Ma did,” he said. “The problems are tougher than they were eight years ago — there’s an economic downturn, enterprises are moving out of Taiwan, and real estate market is high. I would not be surprised, if we get a DPP-led government, to in a few years see young people protesting the DPP.”

For news from Asia, follow @JulieMakLAT

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