TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — The Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) party central is “stagnating,” and if TPP Chair Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) continues to rely on the people around him, the party will “bubble away” (泡沫化), faster than the People’s First Party and James Soong (宋楚瑜), and Ko “does not have the skill to manage people.”
These comments were made by Tsai Pi-ru (蔡壁如), sometimes called the “mother of the TPP” and over the years probably Ko’s staunchest ally and closest aide.
She went on to sarcastically call the “special characteristics” of the people on Ko’s side “elitist,” “not grassroots,” and living in the clouds thinking they can control Ko’s “little grass” (小草) ardent followers. Regarding Ko, she said he likes to read statistical reports (polling and other campaign data) and pursue “voice volume,” (聲量) which is a term used to describe online impact using various metrics.
She added that Ko fundamentally does not understand how to run local party organizations and praised the Kuomintang’s (KMT) strength on this front. Tsai also said she was the only person in the party who “dared” to tell Ko the truth.
It appears the two have had some kind of serious falling out. The comments were made in an interview with Storm Media, and have, well, taken the media by storm.
The context of the interview is that Tsai has accepted a position as advisor to Taichung Mayor Lu Shiow-yen’s (盧秀燕) administration and refused Ko’s offer to bring her back to a role at TPP party central, and also follows her analysis of why Ko lost the presidential race. She said about returning that “I just do not want to” and “would die a wretched death” if she did.
As of this writing, Tsai has not left the TPP, but regardless, her comments are bad news for both Ko and the party and could undermine the confidence of voters, party workers, and volunteers. Tsai is widely known for her competence and political talent and is one of the few stars in the party with widespread public awareness.
It also raises two questions: what happened and are her comments accurate or simply venting of anger? She is not the first to make these sorts of comments about Ko’s management style, so there may be some truth to that.
Her comments about the TPP’s operations and Ko’s fundamental lack of knowledge on how to run local party organizations are almost certainly accurate, at least when compared to the KMT, which has been conducting political campaigns for generations and naturally is highly professional and competent, with plenty of experience and institutional knowledge. The TPP was only founded in 2019.
Her more personal attacks on Ko and those around him are harder to gauge without more corroboration from other sources. However, Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌), a current TPP legislator, has been described by many people in similar terms going at least as far back as his term as chair of the New Power Party (NPP).
Tsai entered politics with Ko
Tsai Pi-ru’s relationship with Ko goes back to when both worked at the National Taiwan University Hospital, where Ko was a doctor and Tsai a nurse. The two worked together on two editions of a book on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, which sounds like a fun read.
When Ko ran for Taipei mayor in 2014, she joined his campaign team and once he was elected, she went on to become his chief of staff. She was reportedly highly effective at getting things done, with some referring to her as the “underground mayor.” No wonder Taichung’s Mayor Lu wanted her.
In 2020 Tsai was included on the TPP party list for a proportional representation legislative seat.
During the wave of accusations of plagiarism against politicians that characterized the 2022 local elections, Tsai was accused of having plagiarized her master’s thesis at Takming University of Science and Technology. She vehemently denied it and said she would resign as a lawmaker if their investigation ruled against her. They ruled against her, saying that 16% of her thesis was copied. She resigned. Ko stood by Tsai the entire time, and Tsai maintains that she is innocent to this day.
In a move that surprised everyone, in 2023 she announced she would be running for the legislature in the Taichung 1st District, which encompasses the less urban northwest of the city. The district incumbent is Tsai Chi-chang (蔡其昌) of the DPP, who is not only a heavyweight in his district, but also in the party and the New Tide faction and who at the time was deputy speaker in the legislature.
Her explanations for picking such a difficult district in a city she had no connection to were interesting and said something about her character and thinking. She noted she wanted a completely new challenge but also spread the brand of the TPP and encouraged party members to take on difficult challenges. She emphasized, “I am a courageous Taiwanese, I must challenge New Tide,” which is about Tsai Chi-chang being a major player in the DPP’s New Tide faction, with which the TPP has a particular animosity.
The KMT “politely yielded” (禮讓) the nearly hopeless district and did not nominate a candidate of their own, backed her campaign, and Taichung Mayor Lu stumped for her. This was an eye-opening experience about how well-oiled and professional the KMT political machine is compared to the TPP’s operations.
Though she lost, she impressed everyone by only losing by a little over 7,000 votes out of 160,000. Remarkable for a parachuted-in candidate with a recent plagiarism scandal and someone who never campaigned for office herself before. She announced she was going to stay in Taichung and “deeply plow” (深耕) locally, which is a term conceptually similar to the English term “to set down roots” to truly get to know the city for a future run.
Earlier signs of trouble
When and how this rift between Tsai and Ko formed, whether it was sudden or built over time, I do not know. There were signs of it following the election in January.
Nearly a week after losing the election, Tsai claimed that after the opposition unity talks broke between the the KMT and TPP, Ko became an “impediment” to her campaign and would not add votes, but rather detracted votes from her campaign. She said that her campaign team could not hand out a “single” campaign promotional tissue pack that featured her posing with Ko on the front, so they flipped them over to the other side when handing them out because it only showed a picture of her alone.
She also asserted that while campaigning, when she called out for people to vote her number on the ballot, which she coincidentally shared with Ko, number one, and would called for people to“vote number one for legislator, vote number one for president,” they would glare at her in the street, so she resorted to just calling for people to “vote number one” because Ko supporters would vote for him anyway. She said this upset KMT supporters who were angry because they felt he was splitting the anti-DPP vote. She also claimed when volunteers visited from Taipei, they picked up on the atmosphere in this district.
Soon after the TPP held their year-end banquet, Tsai claimed she was not invited, which Ko denied. There may have been a simple misunderstanding due to Tsai having left one particular party LINE social media group, or maybe she was not invited; it is not clear who is telling the truth here.
Ko initially appeared to blow off this incident as irrelevant, which came across as arrogant and dismissive. Eventually, they met at another party banquet and had a good talk, or at least they described it that way.
Could this be factional warfare?
Unsurprisingly, Ko has tried to downplay Tsai’s latest comments, but he is worried by them. He seemed to support Tsai in her decision to remain in Taichung and work for Mayor Lu and said after the Lunar New Year he planned to meet with Tsai and to pay a visit to Lu.
When asked about her comments about the people around him and the party “bubbling away,” Ko replied that Tsai is anxious, but that due to limited resources, the party is strategizing on campaigning in the cities. Presumably, he was referring to less emphasis on rural and grassroots areas like the district Tsai was campaigning in, and the “elitist” and “not grassroots” nature of their strategy. He also denied her comment about her being the only one brave enough to tell him the truth.
When pressed by the reporter, who suggested that Tsai had a problem with people in the party, Ko scolded the reporter, saying “Every day you journalists sow dissension, it is troublesome.”
Whether Tsai's comments are more accurate or Ko's response that she is referring to what strategic imperatives that the party had to make, considering the circumstances, is hard to know for sure without more information. It is also possible that there is some truth to both sides, or that both simply have differing views on what each side needed to accomplish at the time.
There is the possibility that this dispute also involves other personalities in the party. Asked about Tsai’s comments soon after, TPP Legislator Vivian Huang (黃珊珊) simply replied “Celebrating the new year, say positive things.” This was followed by a Facebook post by Ko’s wife Peggy Chen (陳佩琪) praising Huang, saying that “without Vivian Huang’s support, it might have been just like the pundits were saying, our TPP might be left with only three party list seats, and the party would be on the verge of extinction.”
It could have been coincidental that Chen posted those comments, but the timing following Tsai Pi-ru’s comments makes that seem unlikely. There has been talk of factions forming in the TPP before, could it be that the real issue is a struggle between a Tsai Pi-ru faction and a Vivian Huang faction?
We can not rule that out.