Over the past decade, a key trend in East Asian public opinion polls has been a lack of trust in political parties. This is seen not only in Taiwan, but also in South Korea and Japan. One of the root causes of the growing number of social movements, such as the student-led Sunflower movement, is the alienation of young voters by mainstream politics.
Yet the unpopular mainstream parties have only grown more dominant in East Asian political systems as the space for smaller parties has been squeezed, as seen in the 2008 elections when smaller parties were almost completely wiped out of the Legislative Yuan.
The party system appeared slightly more diverse following the 2012 parliamentary election when both the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) and People First Party (PFP) won three seats each. Taking into account the New Party (NP), which has managed to maintain a foothold in the Taipei City Council, then it could be argued that the nation boasts five relevant political parties.
However, all three smaller parties are essentially splinters from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), both ideologically and in terms of personnel. These parties are what political analyst Paul Lucardie calls “purifier parties” that attempt to be more orthodox than their parent parties on their core issues.
The DPP and KMT remain centered on the entangled questions of national identity and China-Taiwan relations. Naturally they do discuss other issues, but these are of secondary importance and can be sacrificed. In contrast, parties centering their appeal on alternative issues that are neglected by the mainstream parties have struggled in national elections. Left-wing parties were nominated nationwide in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but failed to make a breakthrough. In short, Taiwanese voters have limited choices in elections.
On Sept. 5, registration was completed for local council elections to be held as part of the nine-in-one elections on Nov. 29. Despite the widespread dissatisfaction with mainstream parties, it seems that the DPP and KMT are set to maintain their dominance — it will be interesting to see whether there are any major changes in the ranking of smaller parties.
The splinter parties have nominated extensively, with the TSU nominating 41 councillor candidates, followed by the PFP with 36 and the NP with 19. There were also a significant number of registrations from social movement-linked parties and activists. These included 10 from the Green Party Taiwan (GPT), 13 from the People’s Democratic Front and 10 from the newly created Tree Party. All three parties are led by activists who partook in the Sunflower movement in March and who also have a social movement track record dating back into the 1990s.
In addition, many social movement activists have chosen to stand this year as independents. Thus, this year’s local elections will serve as a barometer not only for the 2016 presidential elections, but also as a space for smaller and alternative parties.
What are the prospects for the representatives of alternative politics? This year represents a historical window of opportunity. Mainstream parties are unpopular and the use of the multiple-member district electoral system gives greater space for niche parties to make a breakthrough.
The GPT is the nation’s most long-standing alternative party. Formed in 1996, it has contested numerous local and national elections over the past two decades. Its potential was revealed when it came fifth in the party list vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections, beating the resource rich NP in sixth place.
Since last year, the GPT has gone through significant organizational reform — it now has a genuine nomination system that requires candidates to gain sponsorship from local non-governmental organizations, and a constituent’s petition. The GPT has also nominated more extensively and its candidates have begun campaigning much earlier than previously. It has branded itself as a party representing Taiwan’s social movements.
It also has a range of niche issue appeals such as environmental protection, gay rights, opposing the death sentence, animal rights, opposing nuclear power, land justice, lowering the voting age to 18, constitutional reform and the decriminalizing of adultery. These are all issues which the DPP and KMT have tended to ignore, oppose or take vague positions on.
Even if representatives of alternative politics do make a breakthrough this year they will face severe challenges in the 2016 national elections. The single-member district electoral system means that smaller parties’ main opportunity remains the proportional representation party list, which requires parties to gain at least 5 percent.
One of the main achievements of the Sunflower movement was its ability to bring together a diverse range of social movements. Such unity will be hard to achieve in 2016.
For instance, the Tree Party is led by GPT defectors and the People’s Democratic Front previously worked with the GPT. Moreover, the Taiwan Citizen’s Union, which is closely tied to the core of the student leadership of the Sunflower movement, will form a political party and therefore has the potential to be a major force.
The failure to work together would result in the diluting of the alternative vote and it is unlikely any of the groupings would achieve the required 5 percent. It is also possible that these alternative parties would be more damaging to the DPP than the KMT.
However, if they are able to find a model for cooperative nomination, there is potential for a breakthrough in the party list.
Some activists are now household names who could potentially win single-member districts. Such a breakthrough would not only give voters more electoral choice, but, more importantly, bring a broader range of neglected issues onto the political agenda. Hence there is a real possibility for a more diverse party system to emerge that would strengthen the nation’s democracy.
Dafydd Fell is a reader in comparative politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies’ department of politics and international studies and director of the school’s Centre of Taiwan Studies.
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