Part of a continuing series, Lighthouse: Dispatches on Taiwanese Democracywhere we explore how democracy has deepened its roots on this island nation.


Dispatch #5: Citizens form new political movements to join in the national conversation.

Instead of simply adopting existing vehicles for political expression, Taiwanese citizens dissatisfied with “politics as usual” are building their own movements. In the January 2016 race, a total of 18 parties ran for “at large” seats in the legislature. Even more registered candidates to run for specific seats in districts around the island. (Read a primer here on how the election process works.)

One of the newest political groups, the New Power Party, rode a wave of activism following the Sunflower protests to gain a remarkable five seats in parliament. From this perch, it intends to play the role of auditor and gadfly.

A record 18 parties contested the “at large” parliamentary elections by submitting lists of party candidates. (Photo credit: Kevin Hsu)

The New Power Party represents the more radical edge of Taiwan’s “pan-Green” coalition—i.e. the bloc committed to a Taiwanese identity for the island, which won a resounding majority in this election. They lean toward independence and are wary of China’s ambitions.

NPP activists are keen to bring more transparency and accountability to politics, and have refused to be bound by traditional rules. They express suspicion toward old-guard politicians, sometimes even toward members of their erstwhile ally, the mainstay Democratic Progressive Party, which was the backbone of democratic opposition for decades. The new NPP legislators appear to have displaced the Taiwan Solidarity Union, a more elderly pan-Green party that had previously held three seats, but this time was left with none.

The new team of legislators is an eclectic collection of youthful politicians, including Huang Kuo-chang, a Sunflower leader; Freddy Lim, a heavy metal musician who frequently voices Taiwan’s international aspirations when performing abroad; Hung Tzu-yung, the sister of Hung Chung-chiu, whose death during compulsory military service kicked off a storm of national protest over abusive in the armed forces; and Kawlo Iyun Pacidal, an aboriginal activist from the Amis community. Despite their youthful representation, the NPP’s supporters included a wider demographic, as evidenced by their frantic and energetic rallies. These voters want a voice for Taiwan that represents Taiwan, and are generally less patient with political niceties.

The NPP even won in some districts that had historically voted for candidates of the “pan-Blue” coalition: the Nationalist Party (KMT) and its junior partners, the People First Party, Minkuotang, and New Party. The pan-Blue are seen as harder line conservatives vis-à-vis the ROC identity of Taiwan, and thus generally favor more extensive ties to China. In this election, they lost resoundingly, not only for their China-leaning stance, but also being out of touch with problems plaguing everyday citizens, cozying up to big business to the detriment of workers, and some extremely tone-deaf campaigning. Despite the pan-Blue’s scare mongering about cross-Strait relations, Taiwanese citizens delivered a message: “We don’t have to vote for you if you don’t respond to our concerns. More choices exist.”

Indeed, even small parties unlikely to surpass the 5% minimum threshold to enter parliament fiercely contested the elections. This is no small feat, requiring solid organizational capabilities, the ability to field enough candidates to meet national regulations, and the financial wherewithal to pay significant registration fees. Collectively, the smaller parties won some 3.5 million votes, or 29% of all ballots cast, putting the major parties on notice that they cannot take people’s support for granted.

That so many groups were able to organize indicates great vitality among the Taiwanese grassroots. That so many people voted for them also shows great interest in citizen-led political participation.

The Greens-Social Democratic Party Coalition were one such party that didn’t pass the minimum 5% threshold, but they proved especially popular among university students, as discussed in the last Lighthouse dispatch. According to Fan Yun, the party leader and a student activist herself in an earlier era, this augurs a new wave of support in the future. The coalition has a strong focus on social equity issues, leaning to the left in terms of social welfare and concern for workers. The cleavage they highlighted throughout the election was not about Cross-Straits relations or identity issues—what they labeled an old way of doing things. The Greens-SDP shifted the terms of political discourse by treating Taiwan like “any other country.” They claim that the debate about cross-Straits issues is already settled, because Taiwan is clearly Taiwan. Instead, they have turned their attention to fully domestic issues, also a departure from politics as usual.

Political movements sprouted in the face of unpopular policies, such as the anti-nuclear power campaign that swept the island or protests to uphold citizens’ land rights. But instead of simply engaging in street protest—legal in Taiwan and still periodically deployed—these movements have also coalesced into new political choices. This organizing reveals people’s belief in their responsibility to make change and a strong sense of agency. Instead of settling for the same old choices, Taiwanese citizens have crafted political alternatives to make their points of view heard.

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)