For decades, the head of the authoritarian Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was put on a pedestal and regarded as the unquestionable center of the universe for party members. This was particularly true when the chair also doubled as the nation’s president, such is the case of Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) or Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who helmed the KMT for five years out of his eight-year presidency.
However, KMT Chairman Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) has come in for ridicule over his perceived lack of a leadership presence, after some of the party’s candidates for the November nine-in-one elections have turned to other prominent figures instead of Wu — as candidates in past elections usually did — for advice or endorsement.
Local media have reported that several candidates, such as mayoral hopefuls Ting Shou-chung (丁守中) in Taipei, Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕) in Taichung and Huang Min-hui (黃敏惠) in Chiayi, as well as Changhua County commissioner hopeful Wang Hui-mei (王惠美) have been visiting former legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng’s (王金平) office in search of guidance.
Taoyuan mayoral candidate Apollo Chen (陳學聖) has hired former premier Simon Chang (張善政), who served just about four months under Ma, as his top campaign adviser.
Wu has been teased for going from “Chairman Wu” (吳主席) to “no chairman” (無主席), as his surname is a homophone for wu (無), meaning without or a lack of something.
Some attribute Wu’s diminished role to personal factors, but this could indicate a general decline in the chairmanship’s influence within the party or even in Taiwan’s political arena.
What fueled the post’s power and influence in the past was the right afforded to decide how to allocate the KMT’s considerable assets, as well as the party’s monopoly on cross-strait dialogue.
However, the KMT now has very little free cash available after the majority of its assets were frozen by the Ill-gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee pending investigation.
The KMT is already struggling to pay its overhead and employee costs, let alone provide campaign funds to candidates. Without money as an adhesive, KMT candidates are no longer captive to the gravitational pull of the party chair and are likely to put their own interests above the party’s in the long term.
The KMT’s monopoly on cross-strait dialogue has also been slipping away. This is not to say that China has shown any interest in a dialogue with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), but it has become noticeably less dependent on the KMT to advance its interests or further its unification agenda in Taiwan.
This can be evidenced by the fact that the flagship annual KMT-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) forum, which began in 2006, a year after former vice president and then-KMT chairman Lien Chan (連戰) visited China, has not been held since November 2016.
The forum was a platform to project the image of the KMT as Taiwan’s sole representative in cross-strait talks, in the hope of encouraging Taiwanese voters to vote for the party if they wanted to see cross-strait relations flourish.
That the CCP has been in no hurry to continue with the forum shows that the KMT is no longer an indispensable game piece on Beijing’s board.
Against this backdrop, the role of the KMT’s chair is likely to continue to diminish, leaving the pedestal once occupied by the party’s leader an empty plinth, a painful reminder that the party’s glory days are gone for good.
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