What next for the KMT?

A calamitous performance in Saturday’s local elections confirmed 2014 as an annus horribilis for the Kuomintang (KMT) and its Chairman Ma Ying-jeou. The embattled Ma signaled on Tuesday that he is ready to give in to calls to relinquish his chairmanship of the party. Many of his lieutenants have already beaten him to the exit. Ma has just over a year remaining until he is constitutionally obliged to stand down as president and many colleagues and supporters are counting down the days until he leaves office, taking (they hope) his toxic approval ratings with him. Hamstrung by widespread opposition to economic policies that have not yielded promised results and predicated on rapprochement with China that has moved too far and too quickly for most Taiwanese, the prospects for Ma’s policy agenda are dim. The salient question for the remainder of Ma’s tenure is this: how much damage will he inflict on the KMT’s chances of rebounding in national elections scheduled for early 2016?

However, in their enthusiasm to rationalize their performance in the “9-in-1” elections – the first time that nine different elections at local levels were combined into a single voting day – Ma’s colleagues would do well to look beyond scapegoating the outgoing president. The fact is the KMT’s woes run deeper than the unpopular president. With its gerontocracy and princelings, the party has lost touch with the electorate, neglecting its changing demographics and preoccupations. The extent of their estrangement should have been clear in the spring, when two years of large-scale popular protests culminated in students occupying the legislature for three weeks. Inexplicably, the party that had once skillfully adapted from authoritarian rule to democratic competition failed to heed the warnings. Even as changes in Taiwanese society became increasingly obvious, the KMT clung to its traditional electoral playbook of using vastly superior financial resources to run negative campaigns and leveraging long nurtured local networks. Although these tactics have worked well in the past, they failed to connect with voters in a rapidly changing post-Sunflower era. This is particularly true of younger voters who are the most alienated of all thanks to stagnant wages, poor job prospects and rising property costs.

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