Politics & Law
Are Taiwan's political parties still relevant?
Has the personal popularity or charisma of individual candidates become more important than the parties they represent in electoral politics in Taiwan?
By Brian Hioe
After the results of nine-in-one municipal elections last November, some have questioned whether this reflects the declining importance of political candidates compared to parties. Namely, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) did quite well in the election, despite the fact that it has suffered in past election cycles, showing that it is not a spent political force in Taiwan. Yet others have questioned whether this was primarily due to the quality of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) candidates, seeing as the DPP fielded a number of candidates that later suffered scandals over plagiarism and similar issues. A good starting point in examining the question would be a review of the challenges to the dominant two-party system in Taiwan over the past decade.
In particular, the past decade has seen the rise of a number of third parties, as well as independent candidates, that have challenged the two-party dominance of the KMT and the DPP. This can be seen as one of the significant afterlives of the 2014 Sunflower Movement, following which a number of young people entered Taiwanese politics, either joining existing pan-Green parties or seeking to start new ones.
After the Sunflower Movement, then, we have witnessed the rise of pan-Green third parties including the New Power Party (NPP), Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP), Social Democratic Party (SDP), and Free Taiwan Party (FTP), which ran in 2016 legislative elections. Of these parties, only the NPP was successful in winning seats in the legislature. Of the other parties, only the TSP remains a viable political force, although it also has not been successful in replicating the NPP’s meteoric success.
This wave of new third parties led to some questioning whether the two-party stranglehold of the DPP and KMT could be broken. Namely, many young people involved in the Sunflower Movement had been protesting against policies of the KMT which was seen as drawing Taiwan too uncomfortably close to China, in developing economic links that could allow for more Chinese political influence over Taiwan. However, neither did they support the DPP, seeing the DPP as tainted by corruption going back to the Chen Shui-bian administration.
Tsai Ing-wen swept to power in 2016, with the support of the youth vote, and through the DPP making way for pan-Green third parties in areas where they ran rather than competing with them directly. Yet the results of the next presidential election in 2020 showed that the dominance of two-party politics had not been broken, nor that individual political figures had become more important than political parties.
Notably, the NPP splintered in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential elections over the question of whether to tacitly endorse Tsai or not, with the party becoming increasingly concerned about become a “little Green” flank party to the DPP that was mostly indistinguishable from the DPP in policy.
This ultimately led the NPP to splinter along the lines of internal party factions headed by its two leading political figures, chair Huang Kuo-chang and heavy metal singer turned activist Freddy Lim. Huang was the leader of the NPP faction that opposed openly endorsing Tsai for reelection, while Lim was more supportive of the notion. Combined with the personal differences between the two politicians, ultimately the NPP could not overcome its two political heavyweights to develop an internal party culture that was not reducible to them.
By contrast, the TSP consciously adopted a “flanking” strategy by which it would not directly challenge the DPP, but express more overtly pro-independence and more progressive views in order to widen the Overton Window for it. But this, too, has not exactly led to electoral success for the TSP, and the TSP also faced internal splits between its major figures, its lone legislator Chen Po-wei and party founder Shinichi Chen.
The outlook for pan-Blue third parties remains similar. The major pan-Blue third party at present is former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je’s Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). While Ko was elected as Taipei mayor in 2014 with the endorsement of the pan-Green camp, since then, Ko has drifted increasingly toward the pan-Blue camp.
Ties soured with the DPP after Ko continued to conduct city-based cross-strait exchanges between Taipei and Shanghai in which he would ritualistically refer to “one family on both sides of the Taiwan Strait” which shared “a common destiny”. As such, the DPP unsuccessfully ran its own candidate against Ko in 2018 Taipei mayoral elections, when Ko was seeking reelection.
Ko formed the TPP with the aim of building a support network for a future presidential bid, in the absence of being able to rely on either the pan-Green or pan-Blue party machine for his long-held presidential ambitions. The TPP has, in fact, been highly successful as a third party, currently having five legislators in office.
Yet the TPP’s future is in question at the moment because with Ko’s second term as Taipei mayor having ended, he has no formal political position at present. And the TPP’s legislators are not individuals that joined the party out of loyalty to Ko, but had preexisting political careers and aligned with him for their own ends, raising questions about the future of the party beyond Ko if he is unsuccessful in his presidential bid. This is a way in which the TPP faces the question of whether it is reducible to Ko’s political career or not.
It has sometimes been the rise of candidates characterized as “populist” that have led some to question whether the significance of political parties in Taiwan has eroded. Most significantly, this has been with regard to the “Han wave” phenomenon, referring to the wave of pan-Blue support enjoyed by former Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu. Han surprised by winning the mayorship in Kaohsiung, traditionally pan-Green territory, from which his rise to fame to become the KMT’s 2020 presidential candidate was rapid and took many by surprise.
Han’s rise from obscurity to fame in the lead-up to 2020 elections was because of his frank, non-traditional manner, winning him support even among young people. But by the 2020 elections, his support base was far more reliant on older voters keen on ROC nationalism, who felt that their sense of identity was under attack by the Tsai administration. Yet Han perhaps ultimately failed because of his dependency on traditional party bases of the KMT rather than seeking to expand to new bases of support.
Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Hon Hai (known as Foxconn outside Taiwan), proves another “populist” candidate of a sort, in that he is clearly of the pan-Blue camp, but has not always been part of the KMT. As the founder of Foxconn, his wealth hypothetically allows him to field independent political runs, and he has long had ambitions to run for president. But one notes that Gou likely still hoped to depend on the KMT party machine for a run, throwing his hat into the KMT’s 2020 presidential primary but losing to Han.
The KMT did surprisingly well in the 2022 local elections, but this does not signify that party politics have been done away with. The KMT has always performed stronger at the local level than the DPP, due to local patronage and clientelist networks that date back to the authoritarian period. This proves another reason why the DPP did less well in the 2018 elections, allowing for the rise of a figure as Han. In fact, this probably demonstrates the significance of political parties for electoral runs more than ever–particularly at the local level–given the importance of being backed at the local level by a party machine that is able to mobilize voters at the ground level.
Indeed, although traditional party politics are far from being done away with in Taiwan–whether through the rise of individual, charismatic pan-Blue candidates who are not as wedded to the KMT’s traditional institutions of party leadership or the rise of pan-Green third parties–the rise of Han Kuo-yu in southern Taiwan reflects demographic shifts across Taiwan as a whole. For one, the DPP has become increasingly troubled by issues regarding corruption in its traditional southern heartland, as open criticisms of the party from high-ranking officials such as deputy secretary-general Lin Fei-fan and a spate of corruption scandals in Tainan indicate. Voters may also feel that the DPP has not done enough to retain their vote.
One notes demographic shifts across Taiwan at present, with the “northern drift” phenomenon of young people moving northward for jobs and economic opportunities, and an increasing number of ageing public servants living in Kaohsiung. This has allowed the KMT to make inroads into southern Taiwan–but, so, too with the entrance of many young people into politics after the Sunflower Movement, who often ran in traditionally pan-Blue areas and were able to win office.
But the two-party system otherwise continues to be deeply entrenched in Taiwanese politics. In fact, 2022 election results show this more than ever, in that the KMT’s strength at the city councilor and mayoral level was primarily due to its strength at the local level. This occurs despite the fact that the party continues to struggle at the national level, with questions about its viability in 2024 presidential elections–particularly with a number of candidates expected to throw their hats into the race in a manner that may divide the vote. What is observable, however, is that while local party networks may still play a key role at the local level, this is of comparatively less importance at the national level.
Brian Hioe is a Taiwanese American writer, translator, and the founding editor of New Bloom