Saturday, June 17, 2000
Party congress meets to debateBy Richard Halloran
reforms that members hope will
revive the party of Sun Yat-sen
Special to the Star-Bulletin
Taipei -- After 50 years of ruling this island and a century as a fixture on the Asian political scene, the Nationalist Party here is struggling for its very survival.
The party, well known by its Chinese name, Kuomintang, will embark on a voyage of revival this weekend when a party congress meets to debate plans for reform. Party members acknowledged that they have only a little more than a year to recover before Nationalist candidates must run for office again in the legislative elections of December 2001.
A senior member of the party sipped tea in his office the other day as he pondered a question about the state of his party, then leaned forward and muttered one word: "Miserable."
In hindsight, it is clear that the Nationalists have been in trouble for several years but the shattering blow came in the recent presidential election, when they not only lost but ran a poor third.
Not all is lost, by any means. The Nationalists hold a majority of the seats in the national legislature, 115 out of 224. They are a wealthy party with property and business assets estimated to be between $4 billion and $10 billion. And the new president, Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), says he is a firm believer in a government in which political parties alternate control.
The unraveling of the Nationalists began even as the election returns came in on March 18, with 75 percent of the voters having cast their ballots against the Nationalists and for Chen or James Soong, who had left the Nationalist Party to run as an independent. The Nationalist candidate, Lien Chan, got only 23 percent of the vote. Minor parties got the rest.
Members of the party erupted in rage and stormed the streets around the Nationalists' headquarters yelling for the head of President Lee Teng-hui to take responsibility for the debacle in the election. He resigned as party chairman several days later but stayed in office as president until Chen was inaugurated on May 20.
A litany of charges against the Kuomintang erupted after the election, some of them repeats of allegations made during the election campaign. At the top of list was "black gold," meaning corruption. Nationalist officials have been accused of everything from favoritism in awarding construction contracts to bribery to association with organized crime.
The Nationalists have been charged with fatigue, complacency from their long rule, and being out of touch with the voters and taxpayers. The party secretary general, Lin Fong-cheng, was quoted in a Taipei publication as having said that party officials must get out of their air-conditioned offices to go see the real people. "Leather shoes off, sneakers on," he said.
The party is still perceived by many as a machine to keep political control in the hands of mainland Chinese who fled to Taiwan after the Nationalists were defeated by the Communists of Mao Zedong in 1949. Party members, DPP legislators and political analysts said the failure to bring more Taiwanese into the party had been a major deficiency of the Nationalists.
At a party meeting in April, a Taiwanese born member, Huang Chen-kuai, spoke in the Taiwanese dialect. "We don't understand," shouted the mainlanders. "Speak Mandarin." To which Huang retorted: "You have lived in Taiwan for so many years and you can't even speak Taiwanese. No wonder the Kuomintang can't get votes."
A generation gap has further weakened the Nationalists as they have failed to bring in younger people, either the offspring of mainland Chinese or native-born Taiwanese. Moreover, some of their brighter lights have left the party to join Soong's People First Party. In addition, the Nationalists are riven with factional rivalries that have sprung to the surface in the aftermath of defeat.
It has gotten to the point that former President Lee has suggested that the Kuomintang do away with its name and start over with a new name. A legislator, Lee Sen-zong, suggested that the full name be changed from China National Party to Taiwan National Party. Another member snorted privately: "Lee Teng-hui was a good president but he was not a good party chairman."
The Kuomintang was founded in Honolulu in 1894 by the exiled Chinese revolutionary leader, Sun Yat-sen. It was a time of ferment all over Asia as political parties were being formed to oppose Western colonialism. The Liberal Party, or Jiyuto, and Progressive Party, or Kaishinto, sought to prevent Japan from becoming a colony while the Congress Party and the Muslim League in British India sought to throw off colonial shackles.
The Kuomintang itself was the model of the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang, the VNQDD or Vietnamese Nationalist Party formed in 1927 to drive the French from Vietnam. It eventually succumbed to the Communist Party of Vietnam led by its revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh, while the Kuomintang was driven off the mainland by the Chinese Communists.
In Taiwan, the decline of the Nationalists might be dated from about 10 years ago when they regularly got 60 percent of the vote in local elections. Since then, as democracy started to take hold and opposition parties became stronger, the Nationalists have captured fewer and fewer of the votes. Then came the crash of March 18.
Even so, the Nationalists have vowed to make a comeback. On the two pillars outside the party headquarters here are posters in both Chinese and English. One says: "An Honor to Serve." The other: "We Shall Return."
Richard Halloran, a former Asia correspondent for the New York Times, is a freelance writer based in Honolulu.