Not Just a Two-party System

Surprise winner for a Taichung legislative seat Chen Po-wei. Photo: Martti Chen

In Taiwan, the emergence of smaller parties has been part of the island’s democratic development.

The unexpected victory of political newcomer Chen Po-wei for a seat in the Legislative Yuan in this January’s elections has drawn fresh attention to the position of minor parties in Taiwan’s political arena.

Chen ran on the ticket of the hardline pro-independence Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP), which has been in existence only since 2016. What was even more surprising was that he was able to unseat incumbent Yen Kuan-heng in a Taichung district that had been held by either Yen or his father, Yen Ching-piao, for close to 20 years. The elder Yen was such a political force in central Taiwan that he first won a legislative election in 2002 while serving a prison sentence for corruption and attempted murder.

As generally occurs in Taiwan elections, the two major parties dominated the results in January. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) maintained its majority control in the legislature, although by a narrower margin, by taking 61 of the 113 seats. The opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) won 38 seats and five are held by independents.

The remaining nine seats are in the hands of three small parties: one for the TSP thanks to Chen’s upset victory, five for the Taiwan People’s Party founded last summer by Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, and three for the pro-independence New Power Party.

Legislative seats are mainly allotted in two ways – either from victory in one of the 73 single-member districts or by appointment by political parties to the 34 legislator-at-large positions. A party needs 5% or more of the national vote to qualify for legislator-at-large seats. In addition, six seats are reserved for Taiwan’s indigenous population.

Over the years, minor parties in Taiwan have come and gone, with the relatively more successful ones loosely allied with the major parties. Leading examples have been the Taiwan Solidarity Union’s cooperation with the DPP in the “green camp” and the New Party’s positioning with the KMT in the “blue camp.” Their main aim was to try to influence the major parties by taking harder-line positions on key issues such as cross-Strait relations.    

Reflecting the same anti-China trends that appeared to propel Chen Po-wei to victory, January’s vote also saw the end of an era for the more China-friendly People First Party led by 77-year-old James Soong, governor of the then Taiwan Province in the late 1990s before breaking with the KMT.

Soong’s PFP had dwindled from a substantial presence in the legislature elected in 2001 to holding only three seats after the 2016 elections. In this year’s balloting, the PFP fell short of the needed 5% in the national vote for party preference and Soong simultaneously lost his fourth bid for the presidency.

Considering that the minor-party lawmakers in the Legislative Yuan are few in number and ideologically divergent, they can be expected to have only limited clout in legislative proceedings. The New Power Party and Taiwan People’s Party will likely have more influence than the Taiwan Statebuilding Party, however, as holding three or more seats allows parties to form a caucus and participate in negotiation on pending bills.

Even so, notes Tunghai University political scientist Albert Chiu, small parties won’t make a huge difference to legislative outcomes. “The basic structure of the Legislative Yuan remains the same as before – divided between the two main parties,” he says.

Taiwan’s democratic system has spawned more political parties than is generally realized. Currently, 366 parties are registered with the Ministry of the Interior, although most of them lack the resources to compete in elections.

In January, a total of 43 parties running on platforms ranging from environmentalism to labor rights to unification with China took part in the district legislative races, according to the Central Election Commission. Voters had 19 parties and alliances to choose from in the party vote determining allocation of the legislators-at-large.

Chen Po-wei’s unprecedented win was considered part of a wider trend among January’s voters, who were deeply affected by the often-violent clashes between police and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, to seek to repudiate economic integration with China in favor of strengthening Taiwan’s autonomy.

Tunghai’s Chiu also views Chen Po-wei’s victory as reflecting sweeping demographic changes in Taichung. Many of the residents in Taiwan’s second-largest city are migrants from other parts of the island, he says, including many young people who cannot afford the cost of housing in Taipei.

“They have a different point of view from their parents,” Chiu says. “As Taichung gets more young people, we will continue to see changes like this.”

Chen Po-wei, who is in his mid-thirties, says the TSP began as a social movement pushing for an independent Taiwanese republic. He describes it as opposing both the “new China” (the People’s Republic on the mainland) and the “old China” (the Republic of China government that was brought to Taiwan by the KMT in 1949).

Before joining the TSP in 2017, Chen, a graduate of National Kao-hsiung University’s information management department, worked in the film industry. He was a post-producer for visual effects with the Taiwanese hit movie Kano and worked on various films in China from 2012 to 2014. It was his experiences of authoritarianism in China that inspired him to become an independence activist, he says.

Besides supporting Taiwan independence, the TSP regards itself as a left-wing party that promotes social equality and admires the social welfare systems of northern European countries. Chen Po-wei says he is open to cooperation with any political party, except for the KMT. He describes his relationship with the ruling DPP as “cooperative and competitive.”

Mayor Ko’s TPP

Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je at a news conference in his capacity as chairman of the Taiwan People’s Party. Photo: CNA

When the Taipei mayor founded the TPP in August last year, the former heart surgeon was openly toying with the idea of running for president in the 2020 election. Although he won the mayoralty as an independent, Ko reportedly concluded that he would need a political party behind him to be taken seriously nationally and internationally.

In the end, Ko decided not to launch a presidential campaign, but still found that having a political party fielding its own legislative candidates was a useful way to expand his political influence.

Carol Chen, the TPP’s Caucus Director, says the party wants to provide options for voters outside the traditional Taiwanese political spectrum that ranges from pro-China or “pan-blue” forces to pro-independence or “pan-green” politicians. “We are not green, we are not blue – we are white,” she says.

Among the party’s principles are financial discipline and openness and transparency. Carol Chen adds that it takes a middle-of-the-road position on most issues, seeking to solve social and economic problems in a pragmatic way.

She says that one of the party’s biggest aspirations is to reform Taiwan’s political culture, which in the past has been characterized by vitriolic squabbling between the two main parties, who tended to oppose each other’s new policies just for the sake of opposition. In contrast, the TPP seeks to examine policies on their merits rather than based on ideology, she says.

Ko has also imposed strict party discipline on its five legislators. For example, if any are targeted for observation by the NGO Citizen’s Congress Watch for subpar performance for two legislative sessions, they will be expelled.

As an example of the party’s approach to problem solving, Carol Chen notes that when the public complained about a shortage of face masks in early February, the TPP came up with the idea of preventing hoarding by having consumers produce their health insurance cards when purchasing masks. The Executive Yuan, Carol Chen says, has adopted many of the TPP’s proposals when formulating policies.

Regarding cross-Strait relations, Carol Chen says, the TPP rejects the notion of “one country, two systems,” the formulation that China applies to Hong Kong, as well as Taiwan’s exclusion from international organizations where statehood is a requirement, such as the World Health Organization.

While China has not made contact with the TPP, Carol Chen notes, Ko in his capacity as mayor has developed relationships with Shanghai government officials through the annual Twin City Forum co-hosted by Taipei and Shanghai. Without openly accepting the idea of “one China,” Ko has told Chinese officials that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are “one family,” drawing the ire of the DPP.

Carol Chen responds that as long as China does not try to bully Taiwan, it’s important to keep communication channels open. “It’s like having a neighbor. If you don’t talk to them, you don’t know what they’re thinking.”  

Product of the Sunflower Movement

The DPP’s Yu Shyi-kun (third from the left) and Tsai Chi-chang (second from left) pay a call at the New Power Party to ask its support in the election for legislative speaker and deputy speaker. Photo: CNA

Among the founders of the New Power Party in 2015 were activists who had been involved the year before in the student-led Sunflower Movement that feared growing Chinese influence over the Taiwanese economy. The party’s image suffered somewhat last August when famed heavy-metal star Freddy Lim quit over an internal party dispute.

NPP Secretary-general Alan Chen says the issue was how much clarification the party should demand from President Tsai Ing-wen and her administration over a cigarette-smuggling scandal involving government officials. At the time, President Tsai seemed to be in a tight race for reelection. Opting to give Tsai his full support, Lim decided to run for reelection as an independent.

Alan Chen stresses the party’s belief that Taiwan should be recognized as an independent, sovereign country. “We will do our best to have Taiwan normalized as a nation,” he says, adding that a new constitution is needed to affirm this independent status.

The NPP also supports civil liberties and human rights. It was a key proponent of gay marriage, even when some in the DPP were still adopting a more conservative attitude on the issue, Alan Chen says. It is pushing to further liberalize the recognition of same-sex marriages between Taiwanese and foreigners. Currently such marriages are recognized only if the foreign partner is from one of the 26 countries that already recognize same-sex unions.

Another part of the NPP platform is greater transparency in business deals, such as making public the sale prices in housing transactions to help clamp down on speculation. The NPP also wants to promote a Whistleblower Protection Act that would apply to private corporations as well as government agencies.

While the TSP is expected to be more or less allied to the DPP, Chiu of Tunghai University says the TPP and even the NPP may find they have more impact if they cooperate with the KMT, the major opposition player, on individual issues. Since the DPP has an absolute majority, it can afford to ignore them, he argues.

An added factor for the TPP, Chiu says, are the hard feelings between Ko and the DPP administration that arose after the DPP tacitly supported Ko’s first campaign for Taipei mayor in 2014. Many DPP members reportedly later felt betrayed when Ko seemed to get cozy with Chinese officials with his “one family” comments, and Ko’s presidential ambitions are also viewed as a threat.

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