On Wednesday last week, Time magazine announced its “TIME100 Next” list, which includes Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) in recognition of the mammoth task in front of him changing the flagging fortunes of “Asia’s oldest political party.”
Chiang’s inclusion was something of a head-scratcher, not least because he might not last the year as chairman. He has undoubtedly overseen an upturn in the party’s poll ratings during his short chairmanship, albeit from a very low bar following its rout in last year’s presidential election.
Announcing his intention to seek re-election at a news conference on Saturday, Chiang made several remarks with a specific strategic purpose, aimed at a particular rival: former New Taipei City mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫).
First, Chiang said that he had become chairman at a low point for the KMT, in the immediate aftermath of last year’s defeat, when the challenges facing the fractured party were legion.
Second, he said that standing for chairman is about holding fast to one’s principles and to serving the nation, not only jumping in when things are on the rise, like a stock market investor.
Third, he said that he saw his role as “kingmaker” for next year’s local and the 2024 presidential elections, suggesting that he only has his sights on the chairmanship and would be willing to see somebody else nominated as presidential candidate.
It is not only Chiang and Chu vying for the chairmanship. Former Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics director-general Duan Wei (韋伯韜) has put his name forward, as has Sun Yat-sen School president Chang Ya-chung (張亞中) and KMT Central Committee member Sean Lien (連勝文). None of them enjoys sufficient support within the party to pose a significant challenge to Chiang.
Broadcasting Corp of China chairman Jaw Shaw-kong (趙少康) has said that he wants to run, but has yet to have the door to eligibility opened to him: The rules require that a candidate is a party member for at least a year prior to the vote. This rule might yet change, but a question hangs over Jaw’s eligibility.
Former Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) has yet to announce a run, although he clearly plans to, having set off on a public relations tour following months under the radar. Han remains the biggest variable in the race. He knows that he is not popular with the younger generation, but had previously tried to play kingmaker himself, strongly advocating for Jaw as his proxy. Now that Jaw is far from sure to qualify, Han is more likely to stand.
Chu’s problem is that there are legitimate questions over his intention — which he is expected to announce soon — to vie for the chairmanship now rather than in the immediate aftermath of Han’s defeat in last year’s presidential race.
Chu could have walked into the job back then, easily defeating Chiang and then-deputy KMT chairman Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌). Chiang and Hau stood up to the plate; Chu stood back from it. Now that the party is faring better, Chu has expressed his interest.
He has previous form with this, not wanting to enter the presidential race in 2016 even though he was chairman at the time and it was still conventional for the KMT chairman to automatically become its presidential nominee. Chu’s prevarication was widely interpreted as putting his career over party and nation. It was not a good look then, and is not a good look now, and it remains his Achilles’ heel, hence Chiang’s pointed remarks in the news conference.
Chiang’s purported expectation to limit his role as kingmaker might be a strategy to quell Chu’s concerns about his own 2024 presidential prospects. A lot can happen in a week in politics, let alone three years. Chiang has no reason to be held to this promise, and Chu knows this, just as he knows that 2024 might be his best shot at the presidency.
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