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T[hird] P[arty] P[olitics]

Illustration by Yan (Jessica) Jiang

As Taiwan prepares to elect a new president in January 2024, former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je has sent shockwaves through the Taiwanese political establishment by running as a third-party candidate under the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). Since announcing his candidacy, Ko has emerged as a serious challenger to Lai Ching-te of the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT). In contrast to both the DPP, which supports Taiwanese independence, and the KMT, which maintains close ties with the government of mainland China, the TPP has promised a practical approach that focuses on domestic issues and seeks to maintain a “dynamic equilibrium” in foreign policy. 

The TPP’s platform has resonated with younger voters and contributed to growing demands for alternatives to the two-party system. As the TPP argues, a new third party could “avert the one-party-domination and winner-takes-all style of democratic autocracy in order to further deepen democratization in Taiwan.” However, the TPP has struggled to escape the two-party binary and briefly attempted to create a joint ticket with the KMT. The TPP’s struggles illustrate how the looming risk of intervention from the mainland continues to impact Taiwanese politics, limiting the ability of a third party to bring about serious political reforms.

For Taiwan, democracy has been hard-fought. After decades of Japanese colonial occupation, the KMT took power in 1945. On February 28, 1947, security forces killed an estimated 28,000 protesters for challenging the government’s legitimacy. Two years later, the island began a 38-year period of martial law under the nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek. This era—now commonly referred to as the “White Terror”—was characterized by brutal repression of political activists and democracy advocates as the government used secret police to arrest, torture, and kill those suspected of being communists or opposing the nationalist government.

In the decades since the end of the White Terror, Taiwan has made remarkable progress to become one of the world’s youngest democracies. It elected its first democratically-chosen president in 1996 and its first president from the opposition party—the DPP—in 2000, only four years later. With power regularly shifting between the DPP and the KMT, Taiwan now has an open and vibrant democracy. Politicians from both parties have acknowledged difficult events in the country’s history like February 28, and a new generation of activists has been able to influence the government through peaceful protest and lobbying. 

The TPP believes this progress is under threat by political consolidation under the DPP. Plagued by allegations of sexual misconduct, modest levels of economic growth, and an unpopular decision to increase military conscription, the DPP, according to the TPP, has failed to enact needed reforms while maintaining electoral dominance. The TPP has promised to offer “pragmatic solutions,” focusing on “social security, economic prosperity, environmental sustainability, housing justice, and fiscal discipline.” Since many voters refuse to vote for the China-friendly KMT, a third party could inject competitiveness into debates about domestic politics, providing anti-KMT voters with a genuine democratic choice. 

Yet today, the TPP fails to realize that the primary threat to Taiwanese democracy is not the two-party system but the People’s Republic of China. Many in Taiwan rightly fear that Taiwan’s democracy will falter in the face of either Chinese coercion or a full-scale invasion, particularly with the recent erosion of civil rights in Hong Kong. President Xi Jinping has said that “resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification” is “an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China,” which will “take resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward Taiwan independence.” 

The TPP has tried to stake out a middle ground in relations with China—sending representatives to both mainland China and the United States—but their (failed) attempt to work with the KMT to create an electoral coalition capable of defeating the DPP casts serious doubts on the TPP’s neutrality. Even as tensions with China have increased, voters in Taiwan have shown a consistent desire to resist becoming too close to Beijing. For example, during Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement in 2016, activists occupied the national legislature for three weeks to protest the KMT government’s attempt to increase trade with Beijing. The subsequent election of President Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP reflects growing opposition to reunification and increased support for cooperation with the United States. 

The DPP maintains strong levels of support by promising to preserve Taiwan’s ability to maintain an independent electoral political system in the first place. While the TPP has made a compelling case to reorient Taiwanese politics around domestic issues, it may fall flat as a party if it does not couple its platform with serious attempts to safeguard Taiwan’s political system from foreign interference. Voters may now have three serious parties to choose from, but the threat of Chinese intervention ensures that the presidential race will continue to focus heavily on foreign policy considerations.