Taiwan’s political future is wide open.
The ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is collapsing: their presidential nominee is fighting against her own party, which is forcing her to quit; party elders are withholding their support, traditional elites are almost entirely depleted, the local factional politicians are bolting, and their ideology is deeply at odds with public opinion.
Unlike the KMT’s electoral losses in the early 2000’s, there is no new generation of talent waiting in the wings—the next generation of the mainlander elite families is almost entirely of foreign nationality, disinterested and disqualified. While their pan-blue allies in the People’s First Party (PFP) may see some growth in support, for the first time it is unlikely that the pan-blues will be able to hold a majority in the legislature.
The KMT’s candidate for president, Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), is languishing at under 20% in the polls and has been espousing policies deeply unpopular with the public. As the KMT unravels, who will become the opposition to a ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)?
In the run-up to next January’s elections, the political scene is likely to be chaotic, with clarity in terms of a broad political realignment only coming clear in the 2018 local elections, or even later. The DPP is poised for an overwhelming victory in the 2016 legislative elections, and is the favourite to win the presidency (though new challengers could arise).
So what will the opposition to the DPP look like?
The established players
Initially, the KMT will remain the largest opposition party. They still have some advantages, and some constituencies will continue to support them. In Kinmen and Lienchang (Matzu) they will likely remain strong, with their main challengers there coming from the even more right-wing New Party. In the next election (but not necessarily in subsequent elections) they’ll likely hold big chunks of the Highway 3 Hakka belt, a few deep blue constituencies in the two Taipei metropolises, one or both of the Nantou seats, and at least two or three of the aboriginal seats. The KMT’s best friend may be the 5% minimum for gaining party list seats, as they will easily best that threshold.
But in the longer term, the KMT will likely continue to weaken. Many of their biggest support bases—a shorthand for which is anyone who doesn’t speak Hoklo at home—are vulnerable to poaching or are dying of old age. A new political force that appeals to voters across ethnic lines—such as Ko Wen-je did in the last Taipei mayoral election—will appeal to many of these voters. Ko’s victory in Taipei is one such example of a solid pan-blue constituency abandoning the KMT. In Hakka country, local boy and Sunflower Movement star Chen Wei-ting was leading in the polls for a Miaoli legislative by-election, before his breast-grabbing scandal broke. In the 2016 legislative elections, the KMT is being challenged in broad swathes of country, especially areas currently represented by factional politicians. In some areas, the factional politicians are likely to lose (central Taiwan especially), or switch parties. The situation for the KMT is so dire in many districts that they are struggling to find suitable candidates, and several incumbents have already withdrawn from the race.
The PFP and the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) are two parties with good chances to win some seats in the next election. The PFP is being boosted by the meltdown of the KMT on the pan-blue side, as several KMT politicians and some factions have swung to their side. The PFP is unlikely to emerge as the main opposition to the DPP, however. The party has much the same unpopular pro-Chinese unification ideology as the KMT, and is too deeply dependent on one politician: founder and martial law era bureaucrat James Soong (宋楚瑜). While Soong’s presidential campaign has gotten off to a good start, the public is going to remember why they didn’t vote for him the last two times he ran (three if you count running as Vice President in 2004). He constantly invokes Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Ching-kuo in his speeches, making him sound more suited for a bygone era.
The TSU will likely remain a minor player in the legislature, but is also unlikely to be the main opposition to the DPP. Their support base is deeply embedded in the same identity politics as their DPP allies, just more entrenched. This limits their potential and makes gaining the kind of broad appeal needed to be the main opposition party highly difficult. They will also be squeezed on both sides over the long term, by the DPP on one side and the fresher New Power Party on the other, giving the party some unique challenges.
The new players
There is a genuine hunger for new political forces, which means some of the new political parties have a shot at winning a handful of legislative seats. While they are negligible in the polls now, the public will be taking a closer look at them as the election draws close, and at least some of the new parties should see a significant uptick in support. The DPP (or Tsai Ing-wen), by stepping aside in some constituencies in favour of certain new parties, seems to be engineering its own future opposition as parties to their left.
However, disunity, driven by arguments over ideological purity, is a major hurdle. The New Power Party (NPP), which emerged from the same civic group as the Social Democratic Party (SDP), split with the SDP on whether to cooperate with the DPP (the NPP is for, the SDP and Greens against). But as illustrated by the fierce clash between NPP candidate Chiu Hsien-chi (邱顯智) and DPP’s legislative caucus leader Ko Chien-ming (柯建銘) in Hsinchu, a united front even between the DPP and the NPP has been hard to come by.
Furthermore, these new parties are too far to the left to have mainstream appeal, with some—such as the Tree Party—explicitly targeting the radical end of the spectrum and are unlikely to make a move to the centre. Of these parties, only the NPP seems flexible enough to possibly gain widespread support. Maybe.
Then there are the radical independence groups, such as the Free Taiwan Party. They are targeting many of the same pro-independence voters as the TSU and,to a certain degree, the youth demographic that are also the base for the new left wing parties like the NPP. This means competing over an already small slice of the population (though self-identification trends amongst the young are moving in their favour).
The three main new parties on the pan-blue side, the Minkuotang (MKT), MCFAP (軍公教聯盟黨) and the Social Welfare Party (SWP), seem to also have limited appeal. The MKT has attracted some factional politicians away from the KMT, but not many so far, in spite of being pretty obviously set up as a party for them to bolt to. The MKT is backed religious leader Miao-kong (妙空) and his followers, and might even win a couple of seats, but they don’t appear to be a major force. Factional politics and politicians are a fading force limited largely now to rural areas, with people under the age of 50 generally ignoring them. The MCFAP and SWP are essentially a single-issue parties focused on civil servants and social welfare. Below is MKT’s party anthem commercial, which some have compared to martial law era parades:
The new party that has the biggest chance of breaking out will be the one that gets the most seats in the legislature in the next election. The more seats they get, the more credible the party seems, and the more press it will get, as well as government subsidies for legislative staff. This sets off a positive feedback mechanism, as long as they sound serious and intelligent. The problem with all of these new parties is that they are currently all too far off the centre of the political spectrum for the mainstream electorate.
There are a lot of uncertainties about the form a new opposition would take. Would it be one party, or a coalition of smaller ones? Would it be led by a charismatic leader or a visionary, or would it be more broad-based movement of many pushing for change? I will attempt to answer these questions in the next installment.
(Feature photo of Freddy Lim at his campaign headquarters, from NPP Press Release.)