Taiwan’s electrifying elections, lauded by citizens and global observers alike, proved to be a rip-roaring exercise in democracy. Emboldened by the country’s electoral structure, candidates from a vast array of political parties campaigned across the island.

Besides ballots for the president and a local legislator, voters in Taiwan cast a third ballot for a political party they believe in. This “party ballot” gives smaller parties an additional channel to enter the Legislative Yuan and impact government affairs, without having to win a majority in any particular electoral district. Instead, if a party surpasses a minimum 5% threshold of support nationwide, it is entitled to take “at-large” legislative seats proportional to its level of support.

This time, voters could choose from 18 different parties, including the incumbent Nationalist Party (KMT) and the main democratic opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which ultimately won the most “party ballot” votes.

29% of Taiwanese voters lent their support to one of 16 minor parties—or 3.5 million out of 12.19 million party ballots cast, according to the Central Election Commission. Two of these parties, the People First Party and the rookie New Power Party, each won over 700,000 votes, surpassing the 5% threshold and enabling them to grab at-large seats alongside the DPP and KMT.


Political Party Party-list Votes

[# votes, %]

Party-List Seats Won

[# seats, %] 34 seats total

Democratic Progressive Party 民主進步黨 5,370,953 44.1% 18 [52.7%]
Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) 中國國民黨 3,280,949 26.9% 11 [32.2%]
People First Party 親民黨 794,838 6.5% 3 [7.8%]
New Power Party 時代力量 744,315 6.1% 2 [7.3%]

Out of 113 total legislative seats, 34 are “at-large” seats for parties that meet the 5% nationwide minimum. All at-large seats are filled in a specific order, with parties listing their candidates in advance of the election, so they are also known as “party-list” seats. (Source: Central Election Commission (2016))


However, among the voters who voted for a minor party, more than half—16.39% or nearly 2 million people—voted for parties that were left out of the final makeup of the legislature, such as the left Green Party-Social Democratic Party Alliance (Green-SDP), the socially conservative Faith and Hope League, and the independence-touting Free Taiwan Party. Though some of these 14 unsuccessful parties attracted meaningful levels of support, none surpassed 5% nationally, so at the end of this process, their supporters’ votes would appear to be discarded.

Where do the “discarded” votes come from?

The accompanying map shows all of the townships and city districts in Taiwan where minor parties made inroads, gaining at least 2%, 5%, or even more than 8% of the “party” ballots cast within its boundaries. Each administrative division is highlighted in the color of the best-performing minor party that ultimately did not make it into a party-list seat.

The map also lists each unsuccessful party’s total support across Taiwan (all below 5%), and pinpoints the single township or city district where the party achieved the greatest share of votes. For example, the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), which had three seats in the last parliament, but will send no lawmakers to the next, performed its best in the city of Taichung’s Houli District, where it garnered 11.93% of the votes. The New Party, a conservative, unification-leaning party, performed best in Kinmen County, securing 15.32% of the party ballot vote there, but once again nationally, fell short of the electoral threshold and failed to pick up any seats.



All is not lost: consolation prizes

Just because a party does not make it to parliament does not mean all is lost. As artfully reported by the Taiwan Law Blog, parties that reach the 2% threshold can run a party list in the next three elections without also having to register in 10 other individual/aboriginal legislator races. At NT$200,000 ( about US$5,960) per race, this is not a cheap proposition, and for many parties, these races are not even competitive, but are filled solely to meet the legal requirement.

Parties that reach 3.5% of the PR vote also unlock central government funding to run their campaigns, receiving NT$50 per vote annually, lasting through the next general election in 2020. Indeed, several environmental activists and students at National Taiwan University, who voted for the Green-SDP Alliance, expressed disappointment that the party did not breach this critical funding threshold.

Some parties may be in danger of fading away after unsuccessfully contesting the elections, but other parties may become perennial players who plan to stick around, regardless of the electoral outcome. The Free Taiwan Party, born out of a long-standing effort to call a referendum on independence, won only a little under 50,000 votes, yet maintains its 24/7 vigil around the corner from the Legislative Yuan, distributing flags and political literature.

The democratic road

Constitutional engineering requires trade-offs between governability (the ease of making and implementing decisions) and representation (incorporating a greater diversity of viewpoints). The elections of 2016 have empowered four parties to take at-large party seats and represent the Taiwanese public.

Though nearly 2 million voters did not see their top choice enter parliament, their voices have been heard, and their opinions will still echo in the minds of the lawmakers taking office on February 1. The multitude of active participants has engendered national conversations, and as a consequence, Taiwan’s political landscape is all the more vibrant.

(Feature photo of Green Party / Social Democratic Party Alliance Rally, by Gwenyth Wang)


Kevin Hsu

Kevin Fan Hsu is Lecturer in Urban Studies at Stanford University and co-founder of the Human Cities Initiative. He crafts open online courses and designs other educational experiences with a social mission at Skyship Design (www.skyshipdesign.net)