The “Taiwan consciousness” is currently stronger than ever in Taiwan. Polls show over 60% of citizens identify as Taiwanese and not Chinese, and 50% of citizens say Taiwan should become a new independent country someday no matter what. Taiwan’s young activists changed the course of the nation’s politics by occupying the Legislature to prevent ratification of a trade pact they believed would have made Taiwan more economically dependent on China. Meanwhile, these same activists have demonstrated great concern for the disadvantaged in their society, making headlines by protesting on behalf of laid-off workers, the Losheng Sanitarium residents, and citizens whose land was to be expropriated, among others.
This tide should be lifting the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), a political party explicitly devoted to protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty as well as its farming and working classes. The TSU won 9% of the party-list proportional representation vote in the 2012 legislative election. Yet, going into the 2016 legislative elections, the party is instead in danger of losing its legislative caucus, having failed to cross the necessary 5% threshold in any poll to date. In July the party asked its spiritual leader former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) to intervene to integrate small parties in order to improve the TSU’s chances of survival, but he expressed pessimism that such a thing could be done.
Why is the TSU caucus in danger?
The double-edged sword of strategic voting
To begin, support for the TSU itself was in fact less than 9% in 2012, in the sense that many of its votes came from DPP supporters who sought to prevent a repeat of the 2008 results. In 2008, the TSU got 3.5% of the party-list vote, too little to get into the Legislature but enough that the DPP would have gained an extra seat if it had received those votes instead. Voters were especially motivated to vote for the TSU in 2012 after Lee Teng-hui braved illness to take the stage with DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) just before the election.
Strategic voters need not express support for the TSU in polls. Moreover, there is a strong possibility voters will strategically break away from the TSU next January if they believe it will fail to clear 5% and want to limit the number of pan-green votes it takes away from stronger contenders. Besides that, there were probably also voters who sought to cast a protest vote against the DPP in 2012 but are satisfied with the party now.
Is it the platform?
The TSU typically makes news through the enthusiastic protests of its youth wing and the caucus’s steadfast opposition to various Kuomintang (KMT) motions in the Legislature, giving the general impression it is a deep green party willing to adopt more radical methods than the Democratic Progressive Party. The popularity of protests against government initiatives over the last couple years appears to disprove the notion this behavior is what is hurting the TSU.
Another possibility is that the party’s core positions are obsolete. I have translated a list of the party’s positions at my blog Solidarity.tw here. The TSU advocates, among other things, terminating the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China, referenda on all official agreements between China and Taiwan, opposing the trade in services agreement, finding a solution on the fourth nuclear power plant, and promoting legislative transparency.
The TSU’s views may not all be agreeable to everyone, but they are definitely capable of winning at least 5% support in an election. They have been vindicated by current events in a way the KMT platform has not. So we must look elsewhere for the cause of the party’s slump.
Living and dying by personal politics
Taiwanese politics are oftentimes driven more by charismatic leaders and their personal networks than by party platforms. This was true in the Martial Law era when politics were conducted behind the scenes, but it’s also been the case in the democratic era, with stars like James Soong (宋楚瑜) and Jaw Shao-kang (趙少康) making entire parties viable. In contrast, parties that have lofty ideals but whose leaders are not as well-known, such as the Green Party and MKT, find it hard to get off the ground.
The TSU’s champion is Lee Teng-hui, who helped form the party in 2001 out of native Taiwanese political forces that were, according to the present-day party brochure, “not in the DPP.” Basically, they were part of Lee’s power base when he ran the KMT and left the party with him after he was expelled from it. This was a sizable power base then. Under the old multi-member-district legislative election system, the TSU earned 7.8% of the vote in both 2001 and 2004 and won 13 and 12 of the 225 legislative seats in those races, respectively.
The constitutional amendment of 2005 (which the TSU strongly opposed) made it extremely difficult for the TSU to keep its district seats. Voters in the new single-member districts pushed the TSU aside for the far larger DPP in every district race the TSU contested; the party thus dropped out of the Legislature in 2008 as it mustered just 3.5% of the party-list vote and won zero districts. But thanks in large part to the aforementioned heroics of Lee Teng-hui, it roared back in 2012.
Lee is still alive, lucid, and going strong. But he has now been out of office for 15 years, so his power networks have withered through entropy. Moreover, he is more concerned with the overall direction of the nation than with third-party politics, and is no longer very involved with TSU affairs.
Still more importantly, the TSU itself has failed to produce a single political star. The average voter in Taiwan would be hard pressed to name a TSU member besides Lee. Even its best-placed politicians for the national spotlight, the three party-list legislators it put in office in 2012, have all been replaced mid-term—and by design, at that, since the party had promised this biennial rotation before the election. No matter how good its policies are, given Taiwan’s personality-heavy political culture, the TSU cannot survive anonymity.
The rise of the New Power Party
In contrast, some members of the New Power Party (NPP) are already household names, as well as some people you simply assume are part of it. (Its platform can be found here, which does not conflict with the TSU’s.) The party has big enough stars that in certain districts the DPP has stepped aside for the NPP, and publicly forbidden its own eager city councilors from running, despite the rancor this caused within the party.
In recent polls the NPP has performed a sight better than the TSU, sometimes breaking the 5% threshold. And recently a group of independence movement elder statesmen such as Peng Ming-min (彭明敏), who had broken from the DPP to create a new party, decided to instead join the NPP (and not the TSU) as advisors. The conclusion many observers are thus drawing is that the NPP is supplanting the TSU as the deep-green alternative to the DPP, in a generational changing of the guard.
The TSU has a youth wing of its own, and as Storm Media reports, it has been very active this year maintaining the TSU’s deep-green support. Recently, news also broke that the TSU is in talks with the activist group Flanc Radical about jointly promoting party-list candidates (can you name any members of the Flanc Radical, by the way?). However, the TSU’s top leaders are all one or two generations older than the NPP’s. If the TSU youth are playing a large role in party decision-making, they are not visible. Activist youths who wanted to run a party thus felt they might as well create a new one.
The NPP is running a rock star, literally, for Legislature in the middle of Taipei. But more importantly, it has successfully branded itself as the Sunflower Movement party, using the same black and yellow color scheme as the Sunflowers and anti-nuclear activists while bringing famous Sunflower activists into the fold, all loudly advertising that they have done so. One NPP member, Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌), is a legal scholar but well known for his involvement with Sunflower activists. He is running for legislator in his hometown of Sijhih (part of New Taipei’s 12th district), but I spotted a truck with his visage right in the center of Taipei, far away from his district. The Sunflower Movement became a launchpad for activists’ and lawyers’ political careers the way the Formosa Incident of 1979 was for several activists and lawyers who went on to lead the DPP.
But are the TSU’s and NPP’s voter bases identical? A TSU staffer has told me the two parties are not competing for the same voters, and I think there is some truth to that. A DPP city councilor once criticized Huang Kuo-chang as a political novice: “Who in the rural areas of New Taipei 12th has heard of you?” According to a recent report, a DPP internal poll (showing under 2% support for the TSU) estimated NPP support at 6.9% nationwide and greater than 10% in the Taipei metropolitan area. Even the parties’ colors indicate a difference of focus: black and yellow (urban hues) for the NPP, versus brown, blue, orange, and white (countryside colors) for the TSU.
The NPP appears to be an urban, northern Taiwan party appealing not only to deep greens but to the youth who feel disillusioned by the existing parties. This is great niche to carve out, because the youth are predominantly urban and northern, but it means the party is far removed from the countryside. The TSU, meanwhile, has previously elected legislative candidates from Kaohsiung County and Yunlin. If the TSU were to dissolve, some of its supporters would go to the NPP, but others would join the DPP, which is far above the NPP in terms of rural experience and presence.
What about the incumbency advantage?
The NPP’s advantage is that as a new party, voters can project their hopes and dreams onto it. The TSU’s advantage, on the other hand, is that because it has already held power for years, it has had time to cultivate relationships with voters. In fact, it already had this kind of incumbency advantage when it was founded in 2001, because so much of its leadership came from Lee Teng-hui’s faction of legislators.
Lee brought local politicians into the TSU, not political theorists. But the 2005 constitutional amendment was an earthquake that dislodged the TSU’s legislators from their support bases. Under the old legislative system, TSU legislators could maintain enough support to keep their seats through old-fashioned local constituency service, such as mediating disputes or appearing at weddings and funerals.
But once the TSU was wiped out of the districts and forced to depend on national party-list voting, its service-oriented voters (including those in the countryside) were naturally drawn to major-party candidates who would take over their whole district’s local service, and the TSU had to appeal more to ideological voters. Ideological voters, however, are more finicky than service-oriented voters. In retrospect, there has always been an opening for a party tailored to this constituency, like the NPP, to replace the older TSU.
What should the TSU do, and what will it do?
At present it appears that if the pan-green camp is to maximize the number of legislative seats it receives for its votes, the TSU must throw in the towel and drop out of the party-list race, and instead endorse the DPP and NPP. If the TSU wins more than 2% but less than 5% of the vote, it will have more than likely deprived the pan-greens of at least one seat. In this scenario, the TSU would sacrifice itself for the sake of its ideals, the way the New Party has by endorsing the KMT’s party list instead of running in the party-list election itself.
I broached this possibility during my visit to TSU headquarters. A staff member told me they aren’t considering dropping out because they consider the race a matter of their right to survive as a party. This is understandable. It is easy for a pundit to recommend that a party commit political suicide for the greater good, costing it its own future and the jobs of its members. It is very painful for any organization to actually do so. Maybe the other parties will find room for those staffers, but that’s far from a certainty.
Since a replacement of the TSU by the NPP would give the appearance of a changing of the guard, it’s doubtful the TSU’s voters would come back in future elections, even in the event that the threshold for party-list representation were lowered via a future constitutional amendment.
Therefore, I expect the TSU will stay in the party-list race. However, if the party is still behind the NPP in the polls closer to election day, pan-green voters may very well strategically move votes away from the TSU and toward the DPP and NPP. This will not be a pleasant process and it will probably be acrimonious. But there is so much at stake for Taiwan in the coming legislative election that many will be willing to go through with it.
This election aside, if current trends hold, the TSU will eventually melt into the DPP and NPP. The party must either find a new star and new ways to be relevant and unique, or make this integration process as orderly as possible.
(Feature photo of New Power Party campaign ad, from New Power Party.)
 Since a party receiving less than 5% of the votes get no seats allocated, they are in a sense “forfeited.” Voters would rather support another party, than have their votes forfeited.
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