- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

TAIPEI, Taiwan — The Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, has moved from its imposing headquarters on a broad avenue close to the presidential office building to more modest quarters in a different part of this capital.

The shift is emblematic of an effort by the party, widely known as the KMT, to revitalize itself after having fallen on hard times politically and financially. Says the party chairman, Ma Ying-jeou: “I am hoping to transform the party from an authoritarian, corrupt party to a clean and efficient party.”

The KMT ruled Taiwan, often with an iron hand, from 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s forces fled to the island after being defeated by Mao Zedong’s communists, until 2000.

The party’s former headquarters near the presidential office suggested that the KMT was synonymous with Taiwan’s government. But the KMT lost presidential elections in 2000 and 2004 to the Democratic Progressive Party, led by Chen Shui-bian, president of the Republic of China (Taiwan).

Mr. Chen is a native Taiwanese who appealed to the Taiwanese majority rather than to those who took haven from the mainland and their offspring. Meanwhile, the KMT was splintered by quarreling internal factions.

Although the KMT and its allies have a slim majority in the national legislature, they have acquired a reputation for unrelenting opposition since they lost the presidency. Even some of the KMT’s old guard lament that image.

“All they have done for six years,” says a senior member, “is oppose, oppose, oppose.”

The party once known as “KMT Inc.” because of assets estimated at up to $10 billion has seen its bank accounts shrink. Mr. Ma was reluctant in an interview to say where the money had gone, other than to suggest that it had been squandered.

Perhaps most important, what was long seen as the party of the mainlanders who arrived in 1949 has suffered as native Taiwanese have moved into business, the government bureaucracy, the universities and newspapers, and finally into politics.

To reverse the party’s fortunes, Mr. Ma and his associates have sold the headquarters to a private firm and cut the staff to 900 from a high of 4,000. They also have closed the party’s newspaper, Central Daily News, which was losing money at a steady pace.

Mr. Ma, who is also mayor of Taipei, said the watchword from now on would be “frugality.” When a visitor suggested that “frugality” was not usually associated with the KMT, Mr. Ma laughed but said it would be so in the future.

The KMT’s revival appears to have started. The party won handily in local elections in December and again this spring.

Mr. Ma will step down as mayor at the end of this year to concentrate on preparing for the next presidential election.

One key to the party’s prospects is its effort to erase the distinction between mainlanders and Taiwanese and to reorganize itself into a Taiwanese party. Mr. Ma noted that 70 percent of the party’s current members were born in Taiwan.

Although his parents came from the mainland and he was born in Hong Kong, Mr. Ma said: “I consider myself to be Taiwanese.”

Su Chi, a party stalwart and member of the national legislature, reinforced that thought. “We are here to stay,” he said, rejecting a KMT aspiration that they would return to the mainland one day. “We are Taiwanese.”

“The old guard is slowly fading away,” Mr. Su added. “Many young people have joined our party. This year, we may take in 50,000 new members, 60 percent of whom will be less than 40 years old.”

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