TAIPEI: The Kuomintang party dominated Taiwan for decades with its wealth and an iron fist—but now it is battling to keep a foothold in the island’s shifting political landscape.
Founded by Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen and later led by nationalist Chiang Kai-shek, the KMT is at its lowest ebb in its more than 100-year history as it prepares to select a new leader Saturday.
Cultivating warmer relations with rival Beijing—which still sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory—backfired with a skeptical public that is increasingly embracing an independent Taiwanese identity.
As a result, the KMT lost the presidency last year and, for the first time, its control of parliament.
It vowed to reform, but has since been riven by infighting and targeted by a government probe into its extensive assets which has seen its accounts frozen and hundreds of jobs axed.
While it is still the main opposition party, analysts say it is struggling to find direction.
“The demographic shifts in Taiwan do not bode well for the KMT,” said Timothy Rich, an assistant professor of political science at the Western Kentucky University.
More Taiwanese are opposed to eventual unification with the mainland, Rich says.
As ties deteriorate rapidly between Beijing and China-skeptic President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, some in the KMT hope its cross-strait ties will remain a trump card. But others disagree.
“The KMT still believes its China card gives it an upper hand, but we can see from last year’s elections that is not the case anymore,” said political scientist Fan Shih-ping.
“If your only hand is no longer working, what market do you still have in Taiwan?” added Fan, a professor at the National Taiwan Normal University.
Now, even Beijing is turning its back on the KMT, he says.
“The communist party is very pragmatic. It only wants to deal with people with influence and power,” he told AFP.
Under Tsai, Beijing has cut all official ties with Taipei. Cross-strait interactions have been limited to unofficial dialogue between academics and city-level exchanges.
The KMT retreated to Taiwan from the mainland after losing a civil war in 1949 to communist forces.
Under Chiang Kai-shek and his son, the party ruled by martial law until 1987 but never formally declared independence from China.
Beijing has said it would respond with force if Taiwan were ever to try to formally split.
Democratic reforms eventually led to fully free elections in 1996, and the KMT lost the leadership for the first time in 2000.
Ma-Ying-jeou regained the presidency for the KMT eight years later, launching an unprecedented rapprochement with Beijing by acknowledging that Taiwan was still part of “one China,” but that the two sides were allowed different interpretations.
Warming ties were touted as a route to prosperity, but critical voters said the resulting trade deals only benefited big business, not ordinary citizens.
With Ma’s conciliatory approach now rejected by the public, some in the party say it needs to look to younger members for new ideas.
Among those in the frame is Chiang Kai-shek’s great-grandson.
Chiang Wan-an, a US-educated former lawyer, won his first legislative seat for the KMT last year and may stand for Taipei mayor next year—a position historically a springboard to the presidency.
Chiang, 38, says his party needs to become more transparent and receptive to the younger generation.
“We need to broaden our vision,” he told Agence France-Presse.
But the six candidates in the running for the party leadership on Saturday are very much the old guard.
They include straight-talking current chairman Hung Hsiu-chu, who is pro-reunification with the mainland.
Analysts say she would marginalize the party even further if she won again.
“Their problem is that they don’t have a vision for Taiwan right now beyond Ma Ying-jeou’s vision,” says Nathan Batto, an associate research fellow at the Academia Sinica in Taipei.
“They need to have somebody come up with a new formula for what Taiwan is, what Taiwan’s relationship with China and the rest of the world is.”