Eric Chu is the newly-elected Chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT) Party in Taiwan, an office he assumed on January 19, 2015 after President and former chairman Ma Ying-jeou announced his resignation following a humiliating rout by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the November 2014 local elections. Chu is also the mayor of New Taipei City, Taiwan’s largest municipality, a position he first won in 2010 and retained in last November’s elections. Although polls predicted a landslide victory for Chu, he only managed to edge the DPP candidate out by just over 1 percent of the vote.
Why is he in the news?
Chu’s ascendancy was precipitated by the KMT’s severe losses in November’s local elections. The KMT ceded control of eight mayoralties and magistrates, re-capturing only six out of 22 total. It also suffered a net loss of nearly 100 municipal head seats out of the 200 up for grabs, taking only 82. Ma stepped down as leader of the party because the elections were considered a referendum on his agenda of prioritizing better cross-Strait relations through business, as well as a protest against KMT crony politics and electioneering.
Chu’s task is an unenviable one: he must repair the image of the highly unpopular KMT, which some believe is sacrificing Taiwan’s freedom by cozying up to the mainland, which in turn does not benefit ordinary Taiwanese. At the same time, Chu must also sufficiently convince Beijing that he does not intend to roll back the economic links established during the KMT’s return to power, lest he provoke retaliation from the mainland.
What can we expect from him?
To rehabilitate the KMT’s image, Chu has squarely focused on domestic concerns, including reducing income inequality and investigating whether a large portion of the KMT’s wealth was ill-gotten, two of the biggest opposition attack points. Chu must also resolve his status within the KMT. According to the party charter, a KMT president automatically becomes the chair; no contingency exists for a president voluntarily resigning. This quirk in policy has led some party members to challenge his legitimacy, a headache that Chu cannot afford with a party already in disarray.
Chu must look to reenergize and replenish the demoralized and depleted party base. He must especially concentrate on Taiwan’s youth, who see the KMT as out of touch with their interests. Party membership has fallen from over 1 million during the Chen Shui-bian era to just 349,374 at the recent January 17 chairmanship election.
In the coming year, Chu will need to be more nuanced in his approach with the mainland than Ma. As of now, he enjoys the support of the mainland regime; last year he was one of a handful of top officials that met with Zhang Zhijun, head of the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office. Chu will certainly seek to apply pressure on Chinese businesses to bring more benefits to Taiwan, with the understanding from the KMT and Chinese Communist Party perspective that a DPP-controlled Taiwan is not in the interests of either party.
At 53, Chu is over a decade younger than President Ma, positioning him well to present a more energetic image in upcoming presidential elections. For now, however, cutting honorary titles, redundant positions, and excessive meetings will be a top priority of Chu’s to help the KMT reemerge as a leaner, and more importantly, humbler, organization.