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Taiwan People’s Party faces a maze and obstacle course ahead

Ko Wen-je's party has done well so far, but challenges lie ahead

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Image: Facebook

Image: Facebook

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — The path ahead for the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) is both a maze and an obstacle course to avoid the dead-end paths and pitfalls that doomed the last four significant third parties to irrelevance.

The challenges are enormous, but the TPP and its party chair Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) have a few advantages that could see them through.

In the previous two columns in this series, we examined the structural and institutional challenges facing third parties in Taiwan and what went wrong for the previous third parties. In this column, we will examine what the TPP has gotten right in the past, what they are doing now strategically, and the challenges it faces to survive and challenge the Kuomintang (KMT)-Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) duopoly.

From the get-go, Ko has positioned himself and later the TPP as being “scientific,” “pragmatic,” “rational” and “beyond pan-blue and pan-green ideologies.” These all sound good, especially to centrist voters tired of politics as usual, but it is a double-edged sword.

On the positive side, the chances that the party becomes too extremist for the public, like the New Party (NP) or the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), are extremely low. It also allows for the party to at times work with other political parties to accomplish goals, and to serve as a home for defectors from those parties.

On the downside some issues require a moral core and ideology. The TPP’s philosophy works well for planning sewage systems and insurance allocations, but if there was a chance the TPP could become the ruling party, voters would need to think long and hard about how well those qualities would work in handling the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Xi Jinping (習近平).

It also makes it hard to form a clear identity. Voters know what differentiates the DPP from the KMT and why. In most ways, the TPP is defined by what it is not, rather than what it is. If it is not the DPP, nor the KMT, what does it stand for?

Follow the money

Ko has made some smart strategic moves. Crucially, he formed the TPP just in time to join the 2020 legislative race and successfully qualified the party for subsidies and to get himself on the presidential ballot this time. This has paid off financially.

This time, the annual party list subsidies to the TPP going forward will be NT$152 million, according to calculations by Storm Media. That is lower than the DPP’s estimated NT$249 million and the KMT’s NT$239 million. The presidential race subsidies for the TPP this time will be NT$111 million, which is lower than the DPP’s NT$168 million and the KMT’s NT$140 million.

The TPP will also not get as much money as the two bigger parties from corporate donors or membership dues. Though the TPP is growing and has surpassed 32,000 members, the two main parties have hundreds of thousands of members.

The TPP will still be significantly outgunned by the DPP, which not only will get bigger subsidies and fundraise far more money, but in recent years has been running surpluses, adding to its war chest. At most, the TPP might have half the money the DPP does going into the next election cycle.

However, on paper, they might have around two-thirds of what the KMT does. In practice, they may end up stronger financially than the KMT, which has around NT$20 billion in liabilities and could potentially go bankrupt.

The TPP has been adept at adopting low-cost but high-impact marketing and campaign techniques, especially on social media. Combined with all this new money, they are going to be more of a force to be reckoned with.

Wish upon more stars

While Ko has improved the TPP’s financial prospects significantly and can hire more professionals, his team is still far from able to compete on every level in terms of the people involved with the bigger parties. Money pays the bills and buys marketing, but ultimately it is the people in the party that will be necessary to carry it forward.

Ko must attract or cultivate stars in the party, as the party cannot be all about himself. This is tricky because the party was built around him following his two wins running as an independent for Taipei mayor.

The risk is that if the party is only associated with himself and no one else, the entire party’s popularity is pegged to him. That was a big failure of the People’s First Party (PFP), which at one time was even stronger than the TPP today. It too was associated with and dominated by its leader James Soong (宋楚瑜), whom the public eventually got tired of.

To Ko’s credit, he seems to be aware of this. Besides Ko, the party has four or five politicians who are widely known to the public, though that still pales to the many more that the public could name in the KMT or DPP.

Internally, he has cultivated former lawmaker Tsai Pi-ru (蔡壁如) and Hsinchu City Mayor Ann Kao (高虹安). Tsai is a smart and able politician and lost by only around 7000 votes in the DPP stronghold district of Taichung 1, which was especially impressive considering she was parachuted in.

Ann Kao is similarly impressive, but a guilty verdict in her ongoing corruption trial could end her political future. However, if she is exonerated or the charges she is guilty of are minor, she could have a bright future.

Ko’s vice presidential nominee Cynthia Wu (吳欣盈) was also cultivated internally and showed some potential, though her inexperience showed during the campaign. If she perseveres with her political career despite the beating she took during the campaign, she might do well once she has more experience.

Imports

Ko also imported two well-known politicians in the form of Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌), co-founder and former chair of the pan-green New Power Party (NPP), and Vivian Huang (黃珊珊), whose background is with the pan-blue New Party (NP) and then the People’s First Party. Both have added considerably to the party.

There will likely be more defections to the TPP from other parties. Considering the dire financial situation in the KMT and recent infighting, this is the party they are more likely to come from, as well as from unfunded independents at the councilor level.

Ko has to consider the careful balance between the need and desire to grow, and taking in too many figures from a single party. The PFP was dominated by former KMT members and in the end, was not able to sufficiently differentiate itself as a party.

It takes considerable time to cultivate new stars within a party and many election cycles to move them up the chain from councilor to lawmaker to leading a city or county. Not all those elected as councilors will move up the chain, and the TPP only has 14 at present compared to the 367 that the KMT and 277 DPP have. The DPP and KMT have had decades to build out a vast network of politicians and future stars, and as the younger party, the DPP still has not yet caught up at the councilor level with the KMT.

Another track to build up talent is to poach academics or appointed officials from the government and try running them as legislative candidates. This only sometimes works.

A clever move

To cultivate more stars, Ko is employing a truly innovative tactic that takes clever advantage of the party list system, which is the 34 seats out of 113 that are set aside for parties that win over 5% on the vote set aside for parties. The TPP has eight party-list lawmakers, and all have signed a pledge to resign after two years. This allows the TPP to let the next eight on their party list take their place.

This is a very smart move because it allows two years for the six TPP lawmakers not well known to make a name for themselves in the legislature and on the television talk show circuit. They have all also been assigned geographic areas of responsibility to develop relationships and visibility in that area specifically, which has never been done before with party list legislators that I am aware of.

In two years it will be time to start campaigning for the 22 county commissioners and city mayors. If these TPP lawmakers do a good job making a name for themselves and gain visibility in their geographic area, then potentially all eight could be considered as candidates.

Even if they run and lose, just by being the candidate they will gain name recognition. Only months after the local elections are held in November 2026, campaigning begins for the presidency and district legislators for the January 2028 election.

Instead of having only eight legislators having had a chance to make a name for themselves, Ko will have turned that number into 16. However, including himself, the two government heads in Hsinchu and Kinmen, Tsai Pi-ru, and the 14 councilors, that is still only 34 compared to hundreds in the two bigger parties.

Staying relevant

This is going to be difficult because of the lack of a clear ideology. To truly remain viable, two somewhat contradictory things will have to happen: maintain popularity with their young base, while simultaneously making inroads with the voters over 50 that spurned the TPP.

Ko’s campaign was by far the most exciting and full of youthful vigor. His supporters, dubbed “little grass” (小草), came out in force, many wearing adorable deeley-boppers with a little sprout on top.

Taiwan People’s Party faces a maze and obstacle course ahead

His campaign was even popular with high school students who could not even yet vote. He especially dominated the 20-29 demographic but also did well in the 30-39 demographic.

One could say that this is a good base for future expansion. Maybe. The problem is that his campaign was fashionable. Will it be so again in four years? It is possible, but it is hard to predict.

It is possible a new political party will come along, or a particularly charismatic candidate will appear in one of the other parties. Ko and the TPP will have to work hard to maintain their appeal.

Another problem is that younger voters are demographically smaller and continue to shrink due to the declining birth rate. They also usually have the lowest voter turnout.

If the party can chip away at the skepticism of voters over 50, that could turn the TPP into a powerhouse. These voters are more stable and vote in greater numbers.

The catch is that much of what appeals to older demographics does not appeal to younger demographics, and vice-versa.

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.