What you need to know
Taiwan's third force parties have work to do, but there were some novel positive trends in the 2018 elections.
November’s nine-in-one local elections provided some shocking results. While many young Taiwanese are either grieving the referendum results as proof of Taiwan’s “conservative values” or expressing surprise that Kuomintang (KMT) mayoral candidates Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) and Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕) won by margins of over 100,000 votes in Kaohsiung and Taichung, respectively, it seems few people have paid much attention to the national “councilor-level” elections – especially the success of Taiwan’s “third force” parties at winning local seats.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at some basic information about Taiwan’s councilor-elects in the last five elections (1998-2018).
In 1998, about three quarters of councilor-elects were between 40 and 69 years old, and about a quarter were between 20 and 39. However, the percentage of young councilor-elects decreased in the following years. In 2014, only 11.6 percent of councilor-elects were 20-39-year-olds, while the percentage of 40-69-year-olds spiked to 84.7 percent.
In the 2018 election, however, the percentage of 20-39-year-old councilor-elects grew for the first time in 20 years, rising slightly to 16.98 percent. 40-69-year-old councilor-elects dropped by around three percentage points.
Perhaps some people wonder whether the increase in the overall age of councilors between 1998 and 2014 means the same group of councilors are occupying these positions.
We can find some clues by checking the percentage of incumbent councilors who got re-elected in each election. In 1998, incumbent councilors were re-elected at a rate of only 33.3 percent. In 2014, however, this rate jumped to 63.5 percent – a 30 percent increase.
In 2018, incumbents kept their seats at a rate of 61.3 percent. This means “old power,” still to speak, is still the majority and has a significant influence in local councils across Taiwan.
These “old power” local councilors usually rely on small parties, or the so-called “third force,” rather than the “Blue” KMT or the “Green” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) camps. (The “third force” usually refers to political parties or groups. Independent candidates, who do not belong to any specific organizations, are not classified as third force candidates in this analysis.)
Let’s take a look at the proportion of nationwide council seats by party over the past 20 years.
We’ll find that, apart from Blue and Green parties and independent candidates, the last time the “third force” flourished in local council elections was in 2002. It then dwindled in the next three elections until 2014, when it again started growing. In 2018, it continued its slight but steady rise.
But if we assess the “third-force” political parties from which those elected councilors came, during the peak in 2002, the People First Party (PFP) won 64 seats, while the New Party (NP) won 20 seats. When 2005 came around, the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) won 14 seats.
In 2009, the proportion of third force parties plunged to a historic low. One of the reasons for this was likely the switch to a single-district two-votes system in the 2008 parliament election, which made it even more difficult for small parties other than two major ones to obtain seats. No seats meant no subsidies, which directly affected the ability of small parties to continue to sustain their operations of managing local offices and nominating candidates.
2014, however, was the year of the Sunflower Movement. The Green Party Taiwan grabbed two seats in local councils for the first time, while the Trees Party won one. In 2018, the New Power Party (NPP) added to the third force count by earning 16 seats. The Minkuotang (MKT) won three seats, while the Social Democratic Party (SDP) gained one seat.
Now that we roughly understand the growth, decline, and subsequent rise of the national third force, let’s look at the rise and fall of each small third force party of the last 20 years in detail.
1. New Party
Established in August 1993, the New Party is categorized as a pro-unification party. Its predecessor was the New Kuomintang Alliance, a KMT secondary group in the Legislative Yuan. Opposing the then KMT chairman Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), the group quit the party and became independent. Chao Shao-kang (趙少康) was the first convener of its Legislative Yuan committee. He formed an alliance with the Chinese Social Democratic Party, the Labor Party and the Taiwan Labor Party in the name of counterbalancing two major parties in 1994. The New Kuomintang Alliance grabbed 21 seats in the 1995 legislative election and was the third largest party at the time.
The New Party put forward 118 councilor candidates across the island in 1998 (20 of them ended were elected), 17 in 2002 (eight elected), 13 during 2005-06 (six elected), nine during 2009-10 (three elected), 19 in 2014 (two elected) and 10 in 2018 (two elected).
2. People First Party
After James Soong Chu-yu (宋楚瑜), a former governor of Taiwan Province, was expelled from the KMT and lost the presidential election in 2000, he founded the People First Party (PFP), members of which mainly came from the KMT and the NP. In its early days, it was categorized as part of the pan-Blue coalition, allying itself with the KMT.
However, the PFP has collaborated with the pan-Green coalition several times since 2011. In the 2016 presidential election, Soong picked the Minkuotang’s chairperson Hsu Hsin-ying (徐欣瑩) as his vice-presidential candidate. The PFP now has three legislator-at-large seats and is the fourth largest party in the Legislative Yuan.
The PFP nominated 191 councilor candidates in 2002 (64 elected), 82 during 2005-06 (37 elected), 20 during 2009-10 (five elected), 36 in 2014 (nine elected) and 26 in 2018 (eight elected).
3. Taiwan Solidarity Union
Established in August 2001, the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) initially consisted primarily of members from localist groups within the KMT and pro-independence groups within the DPP.
Because it leans towards Taiwan independence and Taiwanization, the TSU is commonly considered part of the pan-Green coalition. Former president Lee Teng-hui is not a member, but he is its spiritual leader. The TSU was the third largest party in the Legislative Yuan in 2012, but it failed to win a single legislative seat in 2016.
The TSU nominated 52 councilor candidates in 2002 (nine elected), 58 during 2005-06 (14 elected), 25 during 2009-10 (five elected), 41 in 2014 (nine elected) and 10 in 2018 (five elected).
4. Green Party Taiwan
During its initial period in January 1996, the Green Party Taiwan was once called “Taiwan Green Party” and “Green Localist Fresh Party.” Its political views focus on environmentalism, social equality, labor rights and the rights of the disadvantaged. The Green Party Taiwan surpassed the NP and gained the fifth most party votes in the 2012 legislative election. When it and the SDP formed the Green Social Democratic Party in 2016, it still didn’t obtain any legislative seats but did take home 2.52 percent of the party votes.
The Green Party Taiwan nominated eight councilor candidates in 1998 (none elected), one in 2022 (none elected), two during 2005-06 (none elected), six during 2009-10 (none elected), 10 in 2014 (two elected) and 10 in 2018 (three elected).
Aside from the aforementioned parties, several “new stars” of the third force have emerged over the past four years:
1. New Power Party
Of all the political parties that emerged after the Sunflower student protests, the New Power Party (NPP) is most representative of the movement.
Founded in January 2015, the NPP is currently chaired by Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌). Its founding members include the metal band Chthonic’s vocalist Freddy Lim (林昶佐) and the human rights lawyer Chiu Hsien-chih (邱顯智). In 2016, the NPP won five seats in the legislative election, became the third largest party in the Legislative Yuan, and had a caucus. The NPP nominated 40 councilor candidates across Taiwan in 2018, with 16 ending up elected. The number of party votes won combined with the overall seats gained made it the third largest party in the country.
2. Taiwan Radical Wings
Originally named “Radical Wings,” it was the first political party that specifically appealed to the “pro-independence left.” Founded in May 2012, its headquarters is located in Kaohsiung and its current chairperson is Chen Yi-chi.
The Taiwan Radical Wings Party cooperated with the TSU and together nominated legislator-at-large candidates in the 2016 legislative election. The party nominated 12 councilor candidates in 2018. Even though none were elected, a total of 69,440 votes were garnered. Excluding the two major parties, it placed behind only the NPP, the PFP, the Non-Partisan Solidarity Union and the TSU.
3. Social Democratic Party
Established in March 2015, the SDP’s chairperson and National Taiwan University (NTU) Associate Professor of Sociology Fan Yun stressed that the Social Democratic Party (SDP) would never be bought by large corporations. The SDP, in alliance with the Green Party Taiwan, won no seats in the 2016 legislative election. It wound up nominating five councilor candidates in 2018, with Miao Poya (苗博雅) ending up elected.
4. Minkuotang (Republican Party)
Established in March 2015, the Minkuotang had the then-legislator Hsu Hsin-ying as its first chairperson, calling for “bluer than the Blue, greener than the Green.” Hsu was the vice-presidential candidate for PFP chairperson Soong Chu-yu when he ran for office in 2016. Hsu herself ran for the office of Hsinchu county mayor in 2018 and lost. However, her party nominated five councilor candidate nationwide and ended up grabbing three seats.
In terms of the number of seats, there was an indication that third force small parties indeed grew from 2014 to 2018 – but did the third force truly rise?
If we compare using the number of party votes won and extend the timeline to 20 years, we can observe that the third force rose in 2002 due to a plunge in the number of votes won by the KMT. Aside from gains made by third force parties, there was also a rise in votes won by independents.
On top of that, the third-force parties that grew in that year, including the NP, the PFP and the TSU, were all splinter parties that came from the KMT (and, to a lesser extent, from the DPP). It can be inferred that the 2002 rise was due to interior splits within the two major parties.
But as more than a decade passed by, the total percentage of votes gained by the two major parties has stabilized and has surpassed 70 percent. Those splinter parties failed to perform as well as before in both the number of candidates they nominated and the number of seats they won. Therefore, some people describe it as a “bubble.”
However, the third force that emerged in 2018 is a bit different. The NPP, the SDP and the Taiwan Radical Wings Party, for example, are all new parties that started from zero and are not splinter groups from the two major parties. As a result, they could not cause severe damage to the voter share of the two major parties.
Nevertheless, given the lack of major changes in the voter share of the two major parties in the last three elections, it is worth observing whether these small parties can go down different paths from those of the Blue and Green and continue to cultivate local areas and obtain the support of more voters – and whether they will grow steadily after four years, or begin going downhill.
Furthermore, there are some other points worth noting. One of the two seats that the NP won this year, for example, was won by the “new generation” Hou Han-ting (侯漢廷). The Labor Party, which has a history of more than 20 years, nominated candidates in the last three elections in a row and managed to have at least one elected in each. The Trees Party gained only one seat in 2014 and still nominated seven candidates in 2018. The For Public Good Party nominated three candidates with one elected this year. Although the Obasan Alliance, which is not a political party but still nominated 21 candidates, was comprehensively defeated, it received more than 80,000 votes. After the election, it also announced that it would form a political party.
If Taiwan’s third force keeps this same energy, the country’s unaffiliated parties and voters can consolidate their strength for elections to come.
This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.
Translator: Lin Ying-jen
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)