(This is Part Four of a series on the collapse of the KMT and its implications. Read Part One, “Can Anyone Beat Tsai Ing-wen?”  Part Two, “Who Will Stand Against the DPP?” and Part Three, “Can Anyone Save the KMT?”)

In the previous articles in this series, I have discussed the reality of Taiwan’s current political landscape: the KMT is collapsing even with party chair Eric Chu running for president; the DPP is set for a historic victory, even winning a majority in the Parliament for the first time, and the crop of new parties are still too weak, trying to carve out a space outside the political mainstream.

Truth is, for any of the smaller parties, or “The Third Force” as they are known, to gain mainstream credentials, it will need to appeal to the voters on ideals and change, rather than be ethnically driven like the current pan-blue/green divide.

Historically the tangwai (黨外) and the early DPP had higher voter support from the north of Taiwan—something widely forgotten today. However, the originally ethnically and ideologically diverse alliance that formed the early DPP gave way to one that was dominated by Hoklo-speaking, pro-independence advocates. The appeal of the DPP at its founding was about democratization and freedom—in other words, ideals and change.

A similar coalition emerged in the last Taipei Mayoral race that led to the stunning win of Ko Wen-Jie (柯文哲). Ko ran a successful campaign that cut across ethnic lines by promising new ideals and change. The younger generations (and to a large degree older generations as well) are wary of the ethnically-divided political system in Taiwan today.

Left vs. Right

Therefore, what ideals and what changes? There are two distinct possibilities here. One is that the new force that resembles either a right or left wing party in other countries. Currently, the DPP and the KMT have both left and right wing politicians. In my home town of Taichung, for example, the previous KMT mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) was quite left wing (including laws dictating a certain percentage of corporate profits to go to employees) but deeply pan-blue on China issues, while the current mayor Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) resembles a pro-business conservative in the European mold, but is deep green on Taiwan identity issues. There are some signs that the DPP is drifting more towards the centre-right, pro-trade, pro-business position, so this would suggest a void for a new left wing force.

In this scenario, a new left wing force would arise, possibly from one of the new parties like the NPP, Green Party or the Social Democrats, plus defecting members of the current political parties. Wu’er Kaixi (吾爾開希), a Tiananmen Square activist who is running for legislator in Taichung, predicts that the bulk of any new political force would be defectors from the pan-green side, the opposite of what happened when the pan-blues broke off to form the NP and the PFP. There are a fair number of fairly left wing politicians (pro-welfare, pro-labor,  pro-social change) in the KMT and the PFP who would be interested in such a venture, and would help provide some more cross ethnic supporters. Such an entity would need to come up with a China policy that appeals across ethnic lines, but that is easier done today than in generations past—virtually no one supports union with China any time soon, and a majority supports no unification at all. If this possibility were to come to pass, Taiwan’s politics would more resemble Western democracies. A move to the right could be strategically smart for the DPP as a party, as it would allow for them to begin to attract broader conservative groups that previously would never have voted for them.

Conversely, the DPP could move to the left, causing many right-wing members to split and form a new party—again possibly with like- minded KMT and PFP defectors. A DPP swing to the left might gain them some support in the north. The DPP’s strongholds in the centre and south of Taiwan are far more traditional and conservative than people in Taipei, though. Regardless of which way a split occurred, there are some good reasons for the DPP to break up into right and left wing entities.

Another possibility

However, there is another distinct possibility that is intriguing: that Taiwan could create a new type of political party or force. Chieh-Ting Yeh, an important observer of Taiwan in an international context (and the editor of this publication), noted that Taiwan is at the forefront, or leading, international trends and is almost ideally positioned economically, culturally and geographically to do so.

A good example of this was the Sunflower Movement. This movement was vastly more popular and effective than any social movement of recent times overseas and was non-violent on the protesters side. Occupy Wall Street accomplished little, for example, and never really caught on with the public. By contrast, the Sunflower Movement managed to gain the support of the general public, and to this day, the services trade pact they had opposed is stalled. The protesters proved themselves organized, thoughtful, clean, respectful of the safety of the police and settled on a cause that resonated: that trade pacts with China should be negotiated in the open, not behind closed doors (in a “black box”). Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement was explicitly influenced by the Sunflower Movement, and would have likely spread influence further if the international press covered Taiwan more.

What made the Sunflower Movement so successful was that various civic groups came together and crafted a goal that was acceptable to all, even though many of the groups wanted to go much further. For example, imagine a coalition of groups or parties reaching a consensus-based political platform. They could register as one political party, but with each retaining it’s own self-identification. Some core common issues would need to be agreed on, and a mechanism for choosing which party gets to run in which districts (and be allotted party list seats), but these are surmountable challenges.

If such a new party were to form on these lines, what would it look like ideologically?  If it grew out of the kinds of groups that supported the Sunflower Movement, it would almost certainly be steeped in a Taiwanese identity that blurs old distinctions and eschews old enmities as Brian Benidictus and Michael Turton explain. It would likely be more sensitive in general to identity issues. It would almost certainly be open to ideas like gay marriage and environmental responsibility that are now supported by a majority of the population (but has opponents in both the KMT and DPP).

It would be against corruption and the kind of cronyism seen in the construction industry and government, against the open rigging of the system for large corporate interests. But it would also be supporting free markets, free trade, and an economy built on the development of small or medium-sized enterprises, each playing by the rules (example from Fan Yun 范雲 of the SDP). In short, a more idealistic, principle-oriented force to counterbalance the more centrist and traditional DPP, organized along different lines and possibly more responsive to changes in the public mood.

Who will take the lead?

Whichever of the above options arises to fill the void hole left by the KMT’s collapse, it is certain that a person or persons is going to take the lead in articulating a path forward. Though so far he has not shown any indication he would be interested in doing so, someone like Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je, with his proven ability to cross ethnic and traditional barriers, is one possibility (here is a hint he may be pulling together a support base).

Unfortunately currently there are two barriers to this taking off, the 5% party list threshold, and the ideological and interpersonal squabbling by the very political parties and groups who could help form such an alliance. But if a powerful enough movement to do this took hold, many broadly allied civic groups might join.

Ultimately for this new opposition to the DPP to emerge, activists will have to evolve into statesmen, and cliques will have to evolve into coalitions.

Watch who joins the race for president, in 2020 if not this year. Likely someone will see this gap in Taiwan’s politics and seize the moment. Any plausible candidate who joins the race, especially as an independent, would be a very likely person for a new opposition to form around. This candidate wouldn’t need to win the race, only do respectably well and attract a base of supporters to from which to grow. A presidential campaign will be the ultimate declaration of a new vision for the future of Taiwan. Whether such a run succeeds this way will depend much on the candidate, and there is no obvious person.


(Feature photo of volunteer canvassing for Fan Yun of the Social Democratic Party, by Zhen Feng)

About C. Donovan Smith

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is co-publisher of the Compass Magazine. He hosts the weekly Central Taiwan News report and is a regular guest on Taiwan This Week, both on ICRT Radio. He sometimes blogs at www.TaiwanTake.com.