The student occupation of the legislative chamber is tantamount to a declaration that the parties in the legislature have become dysfunctional, that the legislature has lost legitimacy and that the public has lost faith in party politics.
Both the ruling and the opposition parties seem to be unaware of this unprecedented crisis for party politics. Their leaderships are at their wits’ end, as the legislative caucuses remain unable to reach an agreement, despite having met for talks on six occasions.
There are 250 political parties in Taiwan, mostly small with few members or resources, making it difficult for them to bring their message to the public and build support. Party politics remains the playground of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Their political wrangling has stopped Taiwan from moving forward and created a lot of public frustration.
While these parties have stubbornly continued their mutual antipathy over the past year, the public has turned its attention toward non-party-affiliated, non-governmental forces with regard to the demolition of houses in Miaoli County’s Dapu Borough (大埔), the Wenlin Yuan (文林苑) urban renewal project in Taipei’s Shilin District (士林), opposition to nuclear power, the death of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) and so on, showing the strength of civic society. The ongoing Sunflower movement has attracted support for its demands, successfully mobilizing students who were previously indifferent to politics. About 500,000 protesters were mobilized in three days for Sunday’s demonstration. This successful campaign and the movement itself poses a new challenge to the structure of Taiwan’s party politics.
Although David Brown, a board director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), and others believe that the DPP is behind the movement, the party is lending its support in a low-key manner and keeping the party banner out of it because it does not want to make this movement about party politics.
There is a historical comparison with the “red shirt” movement which opposed former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). Those involved refused to be equated with the pan-blue camp just because many KMT members had joined the campaign.
The student movement not only differs from political parties by the nature of their support or their demands, but also by the way it is spreading its message and mobilizing support.
The movement has no media organization of its own. As it lacks the support of mainstream media organizations, the students rely on smartphones, computers and social media. The students have set up their own Web site and broadcast events live. They have also translated their demands into several languages to explain their position to the international community. This shows that a small organization can fight an effective media campaign against the establishment.
The two-party structure of Taiwanese politics is well established. Both parties have used the electoral system and party subsidies to leave smaller parties behind and create a system led by a minority. However, the weaknesses of the two main parties have become clear as they are unable to resolve issues, lead public opinion and bring forward new and talented leaders.
Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) and Lin Feng-jeng (林峰正), who play important roles in the movement, and others have advocated that civic organizations establish a civic association, and the success of the civic movements has offered an opportunity for a fresh challenge. Although not a political organization that could compete with the two main parties, the association would at least be a semi-political force with the power to attract voters.