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Taiwan People's Party positions itself for power politics

TPP tries to get back to its stated roots, a centrist party between DPP and KMT

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Ko Wen-je being escorted to meet then DPP party Chair Su Tseng-chang in 2013. Ko was considering running for Taipei mayor race on behalf of DPP.

Ko Wen-je being escorted to meet then DPP party Chair Su Tseng-chang in 2013. Ko was considering running for Taipei mayor race on behalf of DPP. (CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — From the founding of the Taiwan People's Party (TPP) in 2019, they have stylized themselves as a rational, pragmatic, non-ideological and science-based party. For the most part, they do seem to have tried to keep those principles in mind, even if they are often hard to quantify and open to interpretation and debate.

Whilst the TPP sided with the KMT in debates over the importation of pork containing ractopamine, KMT lawmakers hurled pig guts on the floor of the legislature. The TPP objected to that behavior, which they characterized as buffoonish.

Overall, the party has had trouble carving out a clear identity and came across as only half-formed up to now, but due to some offhand comments by TPP Chairman Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) and with the TPP often siding with the KMT in the legislature, the sense was that they were light-blue. The TPP, however, characterized their working with the KMT as providing necessary oversight of the DPP administration in their role as an opposition party.

There have been polls that placed the TPP in the blue camp, in spite of the party insisting it is centrist between the two camps. It is estimated that about one-quarter to one-third of the TPP’s support comes from the light-green camp or green-leaning independents, especially in younger demographics.

The party’s color is explicitly a mix of blue and green, which Ko has called Tiffany blue, and at other times Tiffany green. The color is named after Tiffany & Co's packaging, and according to one author, it is actually Tiffany blue, but the same author provides helpful charts showing the difference between the green and blue variants.

On some issues, TPP supporters are in the middle between the two camps and this is illustrated by the TPP's position on a series of cross-strait issues. It appears there is a market for what the TPP is representing.

When Ko was asked why he was running for president, local pan-blue media outlet UDN summarized his response as: “Because by electing him the problem of pan-green and pan-blue fierce infighting can be broken through, and Taiwan can once again be a nation that works together, not a divided nation (as it is now).” He says if elected he would appoint a cross-party coalition government, and asked if you want Taiwan to be a united, harmonious society “(you have) only got Ko Wen-je, if not (me) who else?”

'Coalition government, united Taiwan'

Ko's campaign slogan is “coalition government, united Taiwan.” Considering that the TPP is small and the party’s legislative caucus is likely to be smaller than the two main parties by a wide margin, this strategy makes sense. Ko could not pack out his cabinet with TPP heavyweights even if he wanted to, there simply aren’t enough of them to make his administration credible.

Interestingly, Ko is proposing limiting the president’s powers through one of two possible methods. Either to restore the right of the legislature to give final approval on the choice of premier, or the president must personally report to the legislature as well as be ready to take questions from lawmakers.

Ko put it this way: “Now the president has the authority (but) no responsibility.” Ko may be right on this point. Currently, the president appoints the premier and cabinet with no oversight, check or balances from other branches of government.

Earlier this year, some in the pan-blue camp started proposing a “non-green” alliance to “take down the DPP.” Initially, Ko didn’t totally rule it out.

There was even talk in some pan-blue circles of absorbing the TPP into the KMT, but Ko ruled it out, saying the DNA of the two parties differed too much, and joked he, himself, would be hard to digest.

Ko pointed out that in his envisioned coalition government and his proposed national convention to try to reach a domestic consensus on dealing with China “you don’t want to exclude any party.” Ko also took a sarcastic dig at the KMT: “Take down the DPP, what then? Could it be that the KMT will bring in corruption?”

Even after that, however, the KMT is still calling for an alliance with the TPP, but it’s clear that it makes no sense for the TPP. Much of the appeal of the TPP is that they are not part of the highly partisan green-blue wars.

Belittling opposition

Ko has also gone after the DPP for corruption, and even said that the TPP is the DPP without the corruption. Touting the accomplishments of the TPP in it’s three and a half year existence, he commented: "Three and a half years after the founding of the DPP, it still didn't know where it stood; three and a half years after the founding of the KMT, it was still in exile overseas, clearing out the communist bandits; and three and a half years after the founding of the People First Party, it relied on a small number of members."

He even blasted the New Power Party (NPP), contrasting their 800 members with the TPP having in excess of 8000. Ko is even trying to recruit Sunflower Movement luminary and former NPP Chair Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) to join his party, though he’s already declined and the NPP is trying to get him to be high on their party list for the upcoming legislative elections.

On choosing his vice presidential candidate, Ko has ruled out what most would consider the obvious choice, his former vice mayor Vivian Huang (黃珊珊), because he thinks they are too similar. He said he is looking for someone complementary, and outlined his three qualifications: “A woman, from central or southern Taiwan, from the corporate or financial and economic world.”

Those qualifications would indeed help balance the ticket and might help boost his chances in demographics in which he is currently weak.

Commenting on the process of picking his running mate, Ko said: “When choosing someone, that person is also choosing me. It’s like before when I was choosing a spokesperson, I wanted someone left-wing, pro-independence, a woman and someone young, but of course it’s impossible for all four conditions to be met, so three or two is good enough.”

Interesting he was specifically looking for someone left-wing and pro-independence, whereas many had expected him to look for someone more centrist.

Back to the future

Back in the 2014 Taipei mayoral race, Ko was widely perceived as leaning pan-green, and the DPP supported him and didn’t run a candidate. His relationship with the KMT wasn’t good.

However, once the DPP won the national elections in 2016 and Ko began to criticize them on a regular basis, his relationship with them soured. Conversely, his relationship with the KMT then improved.

Now it appears that Ko and the TPP are carefully and self-consciously separating themselves from both sides, and positioning themselves to genuinely appear as something in between the two sides, and therefore working as the party that can unite the country by rising above the partisan politics and work with everyone. By finally putting forward both a clear vision and policy proposals, the TPP may actually get that form and identity they have been so sorely lacking.

It also might encourage voters over 40 to take them seriously, which currently is not the case. It’s going to be interesting to watch how this plays out. This is novel for Taiwan politics.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw) and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce. Follow him here and on Twitter: @donovan_smith.