TAIPEI, Taiwan – Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party has set the stage to oust its presidential nominee mid-campaign, a first for the island and the latest setback for a party that has lost public support over its friendly ties with political rival China.
The Nationalists, or Kuomintang, are ready to decide at an emergency meeting Saturday whether to replace Hung Hsiu-chu as their candidate in the Jan. 16 presidential race. In opinion polls she is about 20 percentage points behind the chief opposition party's candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, who advocates more caution in relations with China.
The expected switch over the weekend makes the Nationalists look fractured, and may come too late to help the party win the presidency, political experts say.
Hung's nomination in July formed Taiwan's first presidential race between female candidates from the two major parties. The veteran legislator and former teacher lacks experience on the executive side of government, disappointing voters, and has publicly advocated close ties with Beijing. Her comments have focused much of her campaign on the party's already embattled China policy.
A party spokesperson declined to say whether Hung would definitely be replaced on Saturday, but Chairman Eric Chu apologized to her in a statement this week and said "a decision must be made." Political analysts widely believe Chu, also mayor of Taiwan's largest city, New Taipei, will be the new candidate.
Hung hopes for a favorable outcome Saturday but will respect whatever the party decides, her campaign's international media spokesman Philip Yang said. Hung was surprised, however, that party officials would consider replacing her after her efforts since July to campaign, Yang added.
Analysts say a stronger Nationalist candidate would probably still lose the presidential race but could salvage the party's majority in the 113-seat Parliament.
"If you switch to another candidate now, you're weak," said Hsu Yung-ming, political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei. "You've just got three months left and the most you can hope for is to hold the legislative majority."
Victory for the opposition party would freeze relations with China until the two sides agree on new conditions for dialogue. However, Tsai is not pushing for Taiwan's legal independence from China, as fellow Democratic Progressive Party member Chen Shui-bian did when he was president, prompting threats of force from Beijing.
Chen, who served from 2000 to 2008, is the only non-Nationalist to lead Taiwan and was at times stymied by a Nationalist Parliament. In 2003, it moved to block any voter referendums related to Taiwan's sovereignty or on whether to change the island's official name, moves that would have enraged China.
The Nationalists once controlled mainland China but rebased their government in Taiwan after losing a civil war to the Communists in 1949. Beijing claims sovereignty over Taiwan despite decades of prized local self-rule, though China is also Taiwan's top trading partner and investment destination.
Since President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008, the Nationalist government has set aside disputes with China to sign 23 deals that promote investment, tourism and trade. That momentum has eased tensions between the two sides to their lowest in six decades.
Last year, tens of thousands protested in Taipei against the deals with China, calling them too fast and not transparent enough. Some fear they will eventually give China political control over the island.
Under Ma, Taiwan and China have negotiated as two parts of one country, a condition required by Beijing but one that Tsai says should end.
Chu, the Nationalists' possible replacement candidate, has been described as a China moderate, meaning he is less outwardly eager than other party heavyweights about working with the mainland's Communist leadership.
Sean King, senior vice president with consulting firm Park Strategies in Taipei and New York, said that in any case, Chu is stepping in too late.
"That's because the party has mounted such a feeble campaign effort to date and voters want to reset the balance they feel has tilted toward China in recent years," King said from his office in New York.