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TPP attempts to avoid sorry fate of previous Taiwanese third parties

Ko Wen-je can learn from four previously prominent third parties that eventually fizzled out

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TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — Following the last local and national election cycles, the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) is now unambiguously Taiwan’s third party but if history is any guide the party could soon become largely forgotten.

Previously, we examined how difficult it is for third parties to gain traction in Taiwan. It is difficult to build a large-scale organization with a deep leadership bench, institutional knowledge, brand image, and the resources to field an army of experienced foot soldiers to run large-scale political campaigns.

Some factors are due to the system, including legal changes backed and enacted jointly by the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to intentionally favor large parties and protect their duopoly. They would defend those legal changes as being more “rational” and “simplifying” the election process, which in some ways they were, but the two parties were the biggest beneficiaries politically.

The TPP has managed to achieve some success in navigating those obstacles so far and has grown significantly. However, this needs to be put in context. 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. While those are impressive achievements for a party founded less than 4.5 years ago, the TPP is still tiny compared to the DPP and KMT.

Despite its growth, the TPP faces major hurdles ahead. The party's success, in perspective, reveals the monumental task of competing with the established giants. Future challenges, including ideological differences among members and potential internal conflicts, loom large.

Examining the trajectories of previous third parties — the New Party (NP), People’s First Party (PFP), Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), and the New Power Party (NPP) — provides insights. Understanding why these predecessors faltered is crucial.

New Party

New Party was founded in 1993. What had been New Kuomintang Alliance was so upset with the direction the then President and KMT Chair Lee Tung-hui (李登輝) was leading the country that they broke away to form their party.

They initially were viewed as a less corrupt, younger version of the KMT and quickly gained significant support. In 1995 they won 21 of 161 legislative seats, and in 1998 and 2001 won 11 and 13 out of 225 seats respectively.

By the 2004 election, they were largely a spent force and only won one legislative seat. Today their sole remaining elected representative is a single councillor seat. In the party list vote in January they were the 11th most popular party at 0.29% of vote.

Many politicians today were once in the NP, including both the TPP and KMT vice presidential candidates, Vivian Huang (黃珊珊) and Jaw Shaw-kong (趙少康) were once members.

Jaw was even one of the party’s cofounders and came in second in the 1994 Taipei mayoral race on the party’s ticket. He beat out the KMT candidate but lost to the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), whose charisma would later see Chen elected president in 2000 in a similar three-way race.

By the late 1990s the party was having problems with personal and ideological conflicts and by the early 2000s had become so deeply tied to unification with China that it became unelectable. There was a mass exodus from the party in the early 2000s, including both Jaw and Huang, and many either re-joined the KMT or the new People’s First Party.

Unlike the NP, the TPP by design does not have an ideology, so there is little worry of becoming too extreme. However, the TPP does still have to worry about ideological infighting as its members come from different ideological backgrounds. For example two of their lawmakers, Vivian Huang and Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) come from pan-blue and pan-green backgrounds respectively.

Personal infighting is also another potential problem, Huang Kuo-chang for example is a notoriously prickly person, and even he finally came out and admitted what everybody already knew about him: that he is not good at personal relations.

People’s First Party

The PFP is unique in that it was strongly relevant for about five years, but retained a sliver of relevance for another decade. The party was founded by the charismatic and at the time popular James Soong (宋楚瑜) in 2000 soon after losing the presidential race by a narrow margin after running as an independent.

Soong was furious that the KMT did not nominate him as their candidate and left the party. After founding the PFP many in the KMT did the same, making the PFP the second KMT splinter party.

The PFP was the most influential of the third parties, even more so than the TPP is today. In 2001 they won 46 of the 225 legislative seats, roughly two-thirds the 68 seats won by the KMT.

They won a respectable 34 seats out of 225 in 2004, but started to decline thereafter. They only won one seat out of 113 in 2008 and three each in 2012 and 2016.

All that remains now are two council seats. They only managed 0.51% of the vote in the latest election on the party list, ranking as the eighth most popular party.

Though he was later exonerated, in 2000 Soong was accused by the KMT of having stolen millions of NT dollars intended for the family of former President Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), which tarnished his image and may have contributed to his loss in the presidential race. This case dogged him for the next few years.

In the legislature the PFP allied with the KMT and in 2004 Soong joined the KMT on a unity ticket as the vice presidential candidate in an attempt to keep Chen Shui-bian from winning re-election, but failed and lost by a slim margin. Both of these actions blurred the lines between the PFP and KMT, leaving the public with the sense there was no real difference between the parties.

As discussed at length in the previous column, the change in how legislators were elected starting in the 2008 election almost certainly hit the PFP hard. However, by that point, the PFP was already in decline.

Bigger and better financed, the KMT started to absorb, or in many cases re-absorb, PFP figures. There was little benefit to these politicians staying in the PFP.

Another major problem was that this remained James Soong’s party and no one else’s, and Soong has remained the party chair since it was founded. No other personalities were cultivated that could outshine Soong, except ironically Vivian Huang, who never relinquished her party membership.

She has been ordered by the TPP evaluation committee to relinquish it before Feb. 1, when she takes office as a lawmaker, and she has indicated she would comply.

Eventually, the public grew bored with Soong and moved on. There was nothing left holding what was left of the party together once the voters stopped caring.

Ko and the TPP are currently in negotiations on whether to back the KMT or DPP candidate for the speaker of the legislature and which party to partner with. The TPP should think very carefully about working too closely with one of the other parties or risk losing what identity they have in the public’s eyes — as the PFP did.

Like Soong, Ko is the founder of the TPP and remains its leading light and party chair. He needs to continue to cultivate high-profile talent and keep the party from being all about himself.

Taiwan Solidarity Union

The TSU, founded in 2001, was the third KMT splinter party, but in this case by pro-independence members of the party, which the KMT was probably happy to be rid of. They called Lee Tung-hui their spiritual leader, though he never joined the party.

They won 13 seats out of 225 in 2001 and 12 in 2004, and in 2005 were the third largest party in the National Assembly with 21 of 300 seats. At the National Assembly, they got to watch the constitutional amendments passed that led to the current system of voting for the legislature that effectively wiped out the TSU.

Like the PFP with the KMT, the TSU allied with the DPP in the legislature. With the KMT, PFP and what remained of the NP voting as one bloc, and the DPP and TSU voting as another, in 2001 the terms “pan-blue” and “pan-green” were coined to describe each bloc based on the primary colors of the KMT and DPP flags.

Like the PFP, the TSU struggled to maintain an identity different from that of the DPP. To try and do so, they increasingly resorted to protests and stunts, but their antics had the effect of turning off the public.

Today they have three council seats and only garnered 0.31% of the vote on the party list, placing them as the tenth most popular party.

New Power Party

The NPP was founded in 2015 following the Sunflower Movement to bring forward a new, pro-Taiwan political force. The founders were all high-profile, young, and known for their staunch idealism, including rock star Freddy Lim (林昶佐), who served as the first party chair, and Huang Kuo-chang, who served as the second party chair. They got off to a good start and in 2016 won not only three party-list legislative seats, but also two district seats, a feat the TPP has yet to accomplish.

Right from the beginning there were disputes in the party. One bone of contention was how closely to work with the DPP, with some wanting a close relationship and others wanting to maintain some distance. In the end, mindful of the fates of the PFP and TSU, it was the ones wanting to keep some distance that won out.

During Huang’s tenure as party chair things were tense, largely due to his personality. Scandals also played a big role in the downfall of the party.

One candidate for the legislature was found to have a record of grabbing the breasts of random women, then one of their legislators had to step down for corruption, and then yet another legislator and party chair at the time was busted for corruption. The party’s idealistic image was hammered.

In two waves, almost all of the party’s leading lights quit the party, eventually leaving the party with no high-profile figures left.

In the 2020 election, they managed to win three party list seats, but in the 2024 race they only garnered 2.57%, below the 5% necessary to win party seats. Today they only have six councillor seats remaining.

While the NPP still has a little more juice left in it than the NP, PFP or TSU, a turnaround will require some inspired leadership and some new candidates able to generate a buzz. While that is certainly possible, there is as yet no sign of it happening and most indications are not looking good for the party’s future.

Like the NPP, Ko has to worry about the various personalities in his party, including Huang. Ko also needs to be concerned about his own personality.

He has been known to be at times temperamental and offensive and some have called his managerial style “dictatorial,” though others dispute that. Like the NPP, the TPP has had a fair number of defections, but fortunately for the party they have all been low-profile figures. So far.

Additionally, Ko needs to be concerned with potential corruption. One of the TPP’s leading lights, Hsinchu City Mayor Kao Hung-an (高虹安) is on trial for corruption, though no verdict has been rendered yet.

Ko has so far done well and there is considerable momentum behind the party. Later, we will examine how he has succeeded so far, what the party is doing now to avoid the fate of other past third parties, and the challenges they have yet to overcome.

Courtney Donovan Smith 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 from the author, click here or follow on X @donovan_smith.