Taiwan’s Independence Hardliners Down, Not Out

Taiwan’s Independence Hardliners Down, Not Out
Photo Credit: 台灣團結聯盟

What you need to know

Will Taiwan’s independence hardliners re-emerge from the political wilderness?

After failing to win any seats in the Jan. 16 legislative elections, Taiwan’s keenest pro-independence political party is on the verge of political oblivion. But the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), despite being at perhaps at its lowest ebb in the party’s dogged history, is vowing to fight its way back once again.

The TSU was formed in 2001 amid political turmoil and fracturing among the political establishment. Its founding members supported former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝).

After winning 9 percent of the party vote in 2012, support waned and the TSU failed to pass the 5 percent threshold in the January elections. As several commentators have noted, its decline in support coincided with a historic shift in Taiwanese civil society, with an increasingly politicized young generation who oppose China's encroachment on Taiwan.

In an interview with The News Lens International at the TSU’s Taipei office, former legislator Chou Ni-an (周倪安) said she blamed the election failure on party’s image of being too associated with “old people,” and a flawed campaign strategy of nominating too many candidates rather than concentrating the party’s resources.

The TSU is currently taking stock, thinking of how to best restructure and fund itself to stay in the public eye long enough to compete for seats in parliament come January 2020.

Losing hurts. The party has downsized and the remaining staffers occupy what was once the warehouse; the kitchen is now used for storage and printing. Unlike the legislative offices of the New Power Party (NPP), which formed in 2015 and won five seats in January in part because of its anti-Beijing stance, there is no room for electric drum kits, guitars and David Bowie posters.

Has the younger, hipper and tech-savvy NPP simply replaced the TSU? Chou does not think so. The NPP, she says, was given a hand in the election via certain candidate endorsements from the now-ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

After “riding the coattails” of the DPP, the NPP must now “follow” DPP positions, she says. This is a position the NPP would obviously disagree with.

She points to the recent Taipei-Shanghai Forum, where the TSU made headlines by protesting the presence of a Chinese Communist Party official, Shanghai Municipal Committee United Front Work Department Director Sha Hailin (沙海林). Two of the party’s youth wing members were detained by police.

“Only TSU stood up,” she says. “We didn’t see NPP or DPP.”

Chou says it is this closer scrutiny of “evil” China and cross-Strait relations that separates the TSU from what it sees as the more moderate NPP and the pragmatic DPP.

While the party does not want to be seen as “fundamentalist,” the path back to the Legislative Yuan, Chou says, will involve continued protest and social activism to build support.

“We are a political party, but we have to do social action,” she says.

In addition to protests, the party is hoping to be better engaged in digital news and social media.

Chou believes that being seen as “more pro-Taiwan” than other parties is still attractive to voters and donors. Therefore as issues arise that involve Taiwan’s international status and cross-Strait relations, like the questions surrounding United Nations membership, the TSU will continue to speak out.

There is no hiding from the financial pressure facing the party. The party staff are self-deprecating about their humble, cramped offices, and Chou concedes that fundraising is the “most important” focus at present.

Still, Chou is optimistic. She notes that the TSU was out of parliament from 2008 to 2012 and fought its way back. She adds that the party still has six of its members serving in local government positions.

The first test of its new strategy will come in the 2018 local body elections.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole