In the “Golden Weekend”, the last weekend before the upcoming presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan, all the major parties held campaign rallies across Taiwan hoping to boost their momentum. The Central Election Commission announced that there are 354 candidates vying for 73 district legislative seats in the next Parliament. This is an increase of over 30 percent more candidates than four years ago — The 2016 legislative election is without a doubt the most intense election in years.

In addition to the district legislators, Taiwanese voters will cast another ballot, for the “party vote” to elect at-large legislators nominated by political parties. According to the Civil Servants Election and Recall Act (公職人員選罷法), 34 seats out of the 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan are legislator-at-large seats, which are filled by proportional representation (PR) according to the proportion each party receives in the nationwide party vote. Under the current electoral system, Taiwan only awards seats to parties that win at least five percent of the total party votes.

As Kevin Hsu explained in an earlier Ketagalan Media article, the district elections, with their first-past-the-post SMD system, mostly favour “majoritarianism”. Therefore the PR system is designed to “make the Legislature more representative, counteracting the majoritarian tendencies of the SMD seats”. However, the five percent threshold is still too high for most small parties. Hsu argues:

“With 34 PR seats, theoretically any party winning more than 2.94 percent of the national party votes would be entitled to one legislative seat (100% / 34 seats = 2.94 per cent per seat)…Smaller fringe groups cannot grab seats in parliament unless they truly command support from a substantial part of the populace”.

The rising “Third Force”

The legislators-at-large election is no less intense than the district election as there are 18 political parties vying for 34 at-large seats. Apart from two major parties – the Kuomingtang (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the spotlight is being shed on the “Third Force”, a growing political force which was formed in the aftermath of the Sunflower Movement. The New Power Party (NPP), seen as the strongest of the “Third Force”, is widely considered as the most likely to become the third-largest party in Taiwan, replacing the current third-placed party in the Legislature, the pro-Taiwan-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU).

Also part of the rising “Third Force”, the Green Party-Social Democratic Party Alliance also received endorsement from Sunflower Movement activists, including student leader Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆). “While the issues they focus on are slightly different, that is just because there are a huge number of social movement areas and topics. I feel that while they only have differences in electoral strategy- their objectives and ideas are practically identical [to the NPP]”, Lin said.

The Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the NPP emerged following a split among activists who sought to form a political party after the Sunflower Movement. However, integration failed over different campaign strategies and ties with the DPP. In the end, the SDP teamed up with the Green Party, forming the Alliance to field a joint slate of at-large candidates. The NPP, on the other hand, chose to coordinate closely with the DPP, which did not nominate candidates in four districts instead endorsing the NPP candidates.

Not-so-small Third Force to pose real challenge to the DPP

Although the electoral system might be disadvantageous to small parties, the “Third Force” is more than just a rising political force, and we could soon see a newly-formed political party become the third-largest party in the Legislature. Their growing momentum also poses a real challenge to the opposition DPP, which might see the party vote of its usual voter base divided.

Last week, DPP Deputy Secretary-General Hung Yao-fu (洪耀福) told Apple Daily that the NPP might win enough party votes to have all their six at-large candidates elected. Hung worried that the DPP would only win 13 seats if small parties dilute their party votes.

If the NPP performs really well and garners six seats as Hung worried, the party could get a caucus and the power of veto in the Legislature. A NPP caucus could potentially be a challenge for the DPP’s management of cross-Strait relations, given the NPP’s stance is deeply rooted in the Sunflower Movement and Taiwan-centric ideology.

The NPP’s rising momentum is worrying the DPP. At a weekly Central Standing Committee, as well as at last weekend’s campaign events, DPP Chair and presidential candidate Tsai Ing wen expressed her concern over the dilution of their party votes and called on supporters to “only vote DPP”. Similarly, former DPP Premier Frank Hsieh (@FrankctHsieh) tweeted that “As DPP party votes are being squeezed by small parties. We may lose legislators-at-large seats & not reach a majority. Therefore, we urge people to vote for the DPP”. To increase the number of the legislative seats, Hsieh suggested that his party should work harder in areas showing a 50/50 split between DPP and the ruling KMT.

Tsai’s running mate Chen Chien-jen last week even explicitly called on supporters not to give small parties their party votes as “reforms will only succeed if the DPP can win the parliamentary majority”. He said that if small parties cannot pass the 5 percent threshold on the legislators-at-large list, they cannot enter the parliament anyway.

The DPP released two campaign ads calling on supporters to vote only for the DPP on their party vote ballot.

Golden Weekend: Three small parties, different paths

NPP: a festive, lively carnival-like rally

The NPP held a mass rallyon Saturday night, with a few thousand young faces gathering along Jinan Road next to the Legislative Yuan. This rally was reminiscent of the 2014 Sunflower Movement. In 2014, it was in the same location where a large group of student protesters staged a huge sit-in expressing concern over the lack of transparency in the way the cross-Strait services trade pact was proceeding through the Legislature.

This time, however, there were no tears shed nor was there any police action. Instead, the energy from the audience was quite lively, with a festive vibe nearly making the rally feel like a festival.

Behind the stage, a large statue of a pregnant woman who was carrying “a new generation” watched over a sea of NPP supporters waving yellow flags and inflatable cheering sticks. A line of children and young adult statues stood among supporters, while the renowned Paper Windmill Theatre (紙風車劇團) played Don Quixote, a show hoping to remind the audience not to easily give up on their dreams, while the world around them is constantly immoral.

The NPP rally featured a group of octogenarian motorcyclists famous for touring Taiwan, a play performed by youth, and a Don Quixote show, aiming to awaken the youthful energy inside every supporter and encourage each of them to become part of the new political force.

With a slogan “Confront Politics, live courageously” (面對政治,勇敢生活), the NPP set a different tone from other campaign rallies. Traditional pro-Taiwan independence political parties, such as TSU, often emphasis how Taiwanese had lived under the heavy hand of the ruling of the Kuomingtang (KMT), which fled to the island from China at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. The rally of the NPP heavily focused on the concepts of “hope” and “youth”.  Lee Liang-ren (李良仁), the artist who created the 10m-tall statue, said that the pregnant woman symbolised the extraordinary group of youth who carry a nascent hope.

The highlight of the event was when former Academia Sinica President Lee Yuan‑tseh (李遠哲) openly threw his weight behind the NPP, saying “today is the happiest moment since I returned to Taiwan 21 years ago”. The Nobel laureate who used to be key advisor to former DPP president Chen Shui‑bian pledged his support to his two former colleagues at the Academia Sinica, NPP legislative candidate Huang Guo-chang (黃國昌) and DPP vice presidential candidate Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁). “The Academia Sinica was pleased to see two outstanding members enter the political arena”, Lee said.

The NPP, which advocates a Taiwan-centric identity, mostly tackled the issue of generational divide. Their rally exhibited the confidence of the party, with their supporters hoping that they could ride the wave of rising civil society to win a substantial number of seats in the Legislature.

Green Party-SDP Alliance

The campaign rally of the Green Party and SDP Alliance was held next to the Eslite Bookstore, the very first 24-hour bookstore in Asia.

Similar to the NPP rally, the Alliance featured supporters from labour and medical groups, as well as academic, and other professional, groups. During the rally, the Alliance repeatedly emphasized their central platform which is focusing on labour rights and environmental issues. To combat social injustice, they propose to shorten working hours; increase wages, strengthen labour unions, and increase corporate taxes.

For the first time in his life, Jiang Hsun (蔣勳), a writer and aesthetics scholar, attended the rally declaring his support for a political group at a public event. Jiang hoped that the Alliance can represent the voice of the people and become a “real opposition” at the parliament. He said “I hope our next generation can enjoy clean air, safe food, afford a house, and be themselves without being discriminated”.

Lurking behind Jiang’s personal plea and the social issues addressed by the Alliance are a series of challenges that are very much big picture in their concern and long term in their length.

Gan Chong-wei (甘崇緯), member of Executive Committee of the Green Party in Northern Taipei, told the author that the Alliance aims to become a solid left-wing political group safeguarding the interests of labour, farmers, and the minority in Taiwan. “Green Party Taiwan has been focusing on environmental issues and promoting same-sex marriage in Taiwan. We are glad to have the SDP to work with us and expand the scope of issues we can work on together”, Gan said.

The Green Party-SDP Alliance, with less mentioning of identity, portrayed itself as a left-wing party aiming to appeal to voters from both pan-blue and pan-green camps. The supporters at their Sunday rally, although not large in number, delivered a message that there is a group of Taiwanese youth who exhibit a strong support for the social liberal causes.

The growing awareness in Taiwan on social issues is generating more support for the left-leaning Alliance. According to Gan, the number of Taiwan Green Party members has increased to some 400 from 200 after the Sunflower Movement. The Alliance is confident that their cause will be recognised by Taiwanese voters who have been disappointed with the major parties.

TSU: Tsai can be the good cop, we can be the bad cop

The current third-largest party in the Legislature, the 14-year-old TSU, hosted a traditional street banquet “bando” on the Ketagalan Boulevard facing the Presidential Palace. The banner on the stage stated “Against red tide, support Tsai, vote for TSU”, which clearly claimed its support for the DPP and strong opposition to the rising economic ties between Taiwan and China.

A group of Moulin-Rouge dancers tried to bring the banquet to live, while thousands of supporters enjoyed the dinner under the old-fashioned tents which are usually used in wedding ceremonies or other celebrations. The TSU rally felt more like a big family dinner, where members of the party came from all parts of Taiwan and encourage each other to continue fight for Taiwan’s sovereign and independence status.

TSU Chair Huang Kun-hui (黃昆輝) vowed to uphold the party spirit of maintaining Taiwan’s sovereignty, saying the TSU could be the bad cop at the Legislature assisting Tsai and that they could counterbalance the influence from the Beijing-friendly KMT.

The TSU is taking the most radical path when it comes to cross-Strait issues. Diehard pro-Taiwan-independence supporters are the backbone of the party. In this election, they closely work with the Le Flanc Radical (基進側翼), aiming to deal with all the infiltration by Chinese political investment in Taiwan. It is difficult to tell if they can override the momentum of the NPP as the latter is deeply rooted in the Sunflower Movement and receives more media attention than other small parties.

A “Third Force” in future elections?

As a Mandarin saying goes, “the water that bears the boat is the same that swallows it up”. Despite the growing momentum, the first obstacle for the “Third Force” to overcome lies right in the hands of their supporters, especially youth – that of taking the first step and going out to vote. At the Alliance rally, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je’s campaign manager Yao Li-ming (姚立明) openly said that it would merely take a “last push” for the Alliance to cross the five percent threshold and get one at-large seat. Last week, Yao on a TV show asked young voters to make sure they participate in the upcoming elections, otherwise the “Third Force might lose 30,000 – 50,000 votes”.

As the supporters of the “Third Force” are composed largely of young people, if the turnout rate of the youth vote is high, then the Third Force might be able to gain legal significance at the upcoming elections. Even if they cannot pass the five percent threshold, they could still receive the annual subsidy of NT$50 per ballot, should they break the 3.5 percent threshold in the party vote. The subsidy will allow the parties to function for the next four years, and prepare them to take part in future elections, for instance the 2018 local elections.

This year will see 1.29 million first time voters that accounts for about seven percent of total eligible voters. As it is difficult to project whether the political landscape will dramatically change after the 2016 elections, what we can say now, is that young voters are no longer considered apolitical in the Taiwan voter spectrum. Instead their ballot papers, if used wisely, will substantially change the political arena and introduce a new breath into the Parliament.

Gwenyth Wang

Gwen is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Warwick. She has a Master’s degree in democracy and democratisation from the University College London. She has previously worked in Taipei, Los Angeles and London – in fields ranging from think tanks to academia. She is currently based in Taipei and tweets at @GwenythWR.