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Third parties in Taiwan face rough road

TPP has had to overcome many obstacles to get where it is today

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Third parties in Taiwan face rough road

(CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — The Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) under Chair Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) has managed to carve out a position as Taiwan’s only significant third party, which is fairly remarkable considering how difficult it is with all the obstacles the system poses.

Taiwan’s oldest political party by far is the Kuomintang (KMT), which traces its lineage to Chinese anti-Manchurian Qing Dynasty groups in the late nineteenth century, but after their largely one-party state lost the Chinese Civil War and fled to Taiwan and established Taipei as their provisional capital in 1949. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was formed by Dangwai (黨外, “outside of the party”, ie the KMT) activists opposed to the KMT’s one-party authoritarian rule in 1986, eventually taking on a pro-Taiwan sovereignty and identity ideology by the early 1990s.

These two parties have dominated ever since. On domestic politics their ideology is broadly similar, the main dividing line being between Taiwanese identity and Chinese identity, being separate from China or working towards eventual unification with China and related issues such as how to handle national defense and at times how to handle the relationship with key partners such as the United States and Japan.

According to the Ministry of the Interior (MOI), a total of 389 parties have been registered over the years, with 92 currently active. The vast majority of these parties no one has ever heard of. The most recent party to register was a few weeks ago and is named the Beauty Infinite Party (美麗無限黨) whose policy platform is to beautify everything.

Including the TPP, since 1995 only five parties have managed to grow large enough to win enough representation to have much impact and spur hopes of challenging the KMT-DPP duopoly. There has been a market for alternatives among a portion of the voting public, yet historically third parties in Taiwan have not been able to sustain their support.

Ko Wen-je is well aware of many of the challenges and has spoken of them often. Broadly speaking the challenges could be broken into three categories: The structure of the political system, forming a party identity that appeals to the voting public, and the difficulties of forming new organizations created by human nature.

Civilized civil war

Ever since there have been rulers, there have been people and factions conspiring to seize power from them. Traditionally, when these conspirators decided to act to attain a change in rulership, this involved assassinations and armies marching about causing considerable unpleasantness.

They would need a leader, a strong and experienced leadership bench, many good foot soldiers, a clear mission to inspire and attract followers, and lots of money to buy useful items like food and weapons to sustain all the killing.

Constitutional republics operate basically by the same principles, but minus all the inconvenient deaths and with regularly scheduled bloodless civil wars every few years. Of course, in republics, the conspirators have to operate out in the open as political parties and are accountable to voters, which is a good thing, and that is what most people focus on. However, I think doing away with all that killing is a highly underrated benefit that does not get the attention it deserves.

Like the conspirators of old, political parties act much the same way, just metaphorically and on a schedule. They need a leader, a strong and experienced leadership bench, many good political operatives, a clear mission to inspire and attract followers, and money to buy useful things like marketing and campaign knickknacks to sustain all the politicking.

They engage in lots of character assassinations in the press and march about waving little flags and causing considerable litter. It is considerably less dangerous, but ultimately political parties are still conspiracies to seize power, even if they have to operate transparently and obey financial disclosure laws.

Both the KMT and DPP have considerable depth in all of those things needed to win elections, including widely recognized leadership, experienced campaign operators, dedicated teams to get out the ground game, and extensive networks in everything from media to friendly companies that will print little campaign branded tissue packs for the party at a good price.

The TPP has had to try to build a political war machine almost from scratch with few people, almost no institutional memory or experience, few recognized leaders, and very few resources. Worse, the very system is rigged against them.

Structural challenges

The DPP and KMT have come together in the past and passed some laws and additional articles to the constitution that made it harder for small parties. They claim it was to benefit and streamline the system, and in some ways, this was accomplished, but almost certainly it was for their benefit as well.

One big constitutional amendment was to change the method of electing legislators in constituent districts from multi-member districts to first-past-the-post single-member districts elected by simple majority. Previously, because multiple legislators came from each district, it was easier for smaller parties to get enough support to get at least one of the seats.

Starting in 2008, only one lawmaker is elected per district, which strongly favors parties with better name recognition and resources. The TPP tried to win in ten districts, but won none, though Tsai Pi-ru (蔡壁如) did surprisingly well after being parachuted into the Taichung 1 district against the DPP’s deputy speaker.

Another barrier is the way government subsidies are allocated to political parties. On the party list vote for lawmakers by party and not in districts, if a party gets over 3% of the vote the party gets a subsidy of NT$50 per vote paid out annually over four years. The New Power Party (NPP) this time got just under that 3% bar, which will be financially devastating for them.

There is also a subsidy for every vote for presidential candidates of NT$30. However, to get a candidate on the ballot is difficult, either having to have received at least 5% on the legislative party list vote in the last election, or go through an extremely expensive and logistically difficult process of collecting hundreds of thousands of signed pledges.

So a new party has to have enough resources and attention to get themselves to the 3% minimum subsidy level and win 5% to get a presidential candidate in the next election four years later to be eligible for those subsidies. This makes it not only hard to break into the game, it is still largely rigged against the new party because the two big parties will be getting massive amounts of subsidies from their larger vote draw compared to the new party’s relatively small numbers of votes.

Despite all the challenges, Ko has strategically managed to navigate the course so far and the TPP now has eight seats out of 113 in the legislature, two of the 22 city and county top leadership posts, and 14 of 910 city and county councilor seats. However, the main challenges still lay ahead.

After all, three parties in the past have achieved similar success, and the People’s First Party at one time was even stronger and held over 20% of the legislature. Yet today they are all irrelevant.

In our next column, we will look at how the TPP has successfully gotten to where it is today, but also the myriad of challenges the party still needs to overcome.

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. For more columns by the author, click here. Follow him on X (prev. Twitter): @donovan_smith.