April 26, 2017 5:00 am JST

Taiwan's opposition party faces uphill climb

China-friendly image taints Kuomintang as leadership election nears

KENSAKU IHARA, Nikkei staff writer

The Kuomintang's Hung Hsiu-chu at a party congress in 2015.

TAIPEI -- Taiwan's leading opposition Kuomintang faces a steep climb to recovery, diminished in the legislature and distrusted for its friendly stance toward China as it nears a May 20 vote to elect its new leader.

There are about 480,000 voting members in the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party), which for decades led Taiwan under one-party rule. If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff will decide the winner. The committee overseeing the election published a list of six candidates Friday, but the race probably will come down to three: incumbent chair Hung Hsiu-chu, former Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin and former Vice President Wu Den-yih.

The previous president, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang, aimed to broaden relations with China to kickstart economic growth, but faced backlash from a populace wary of Beijing's influence. Weighed down also by an economic slump, the party was trounced in the January 2016 election by current President Tsai Ing-wen's Democratic Progressive Party, which aims for an independent Taiwan. The Kuomintang shrank to 35 seats in the legislature from 64, as Tsai's party won an absolute majority with 68 seats.

Only about one-tenth of Taiwan's population favors unification with the mainland. Hung, who assumed her seat in March 2016, strongly supports unification, setting the party further apart from the will of the people.

Hung met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November, aiming to show that she had Beijing's ear as relations cooled following Tsai's election. But this only deepened the rift within the Kuomintang. It will be a test for the next chair to see whether the party can be unified.

As of April 17, Wu had the most support in the party at 30%, followed by Hau at 17% and Hung at 11%, according to a poll by local TV network TVBS.

Hung and Hau hail from families that are relatively recent arrivals from the mainland, coloring them to many as friendly to China. Wu's Taiwanese ancestry goes further back, earning him support from those in the Kuomintang who favor independence.

Coziness with China can no longer win the support of the electorate, notes one party affiliate, and this fact should benefit Wu. But Wu's age, at 69, and his prior post as vice president under the unpopular Ma shadow him.

The Tsai administration is losing public support as personnel troubles and other difficulties persist, polls indicate. But the Kuomintang faces an uphill battle nonetheless.

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