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  • Writer's pictureIan Huang

Taiwan People's Party as the ‘Crucial Minority’ in Upcoming Legislative Yuan Session

Updated: Mar 18

By Ian Huang and Tatiana Van den Haute


In January, Lai Ching-te from Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) broke the eight-year party rotation cycle. He maintained power by defeating the Kuomintang (KMT) Party and the new third force, Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People's Party (TPP). This was the first time since Taiwan’s first direct presidential elections in 1996 that a party has held power past two terms. Lai’s campaign received support from 40% of voters, signifying substantial public backing and a desire for party change. His victory suggests that domestic and international stakeholders can anticipate a continuation of his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen's policies. 


However, concerns have arisen about the party’s capacity to effectively exert its influence. Despite Lai’s presidential win, neither the DPP nor the KMT secured a majority in the Legislative Yuan (LY). The TPP, meanwhile, won eight seats in the 113-seat body. This has sparked significant debate about its potential role as a 'crucial minority', essentially determining the direction of major policies. 


While this election may indeed be representative of a new dynamic in Taiwan’s political atmosphere, whereby an alternative to traditional two-party politics in the form of the TPP has gained traction, the practical realities are less certain.  The DPP and KMT have both recently voiced an aversion to cooperating with the emerging party, leading to fears of an effective series of deadlocks in the coming Legislative Yuan session.  The question here becomes to what extent the two dominant parties need the TPP – and vice versa – in order to exert any substantial influence in the next four years. 


The TPP’s Potential for Policymaking Influence 


“In order to move past the frustrations of ideological conflict, Taiwan must embrace a strategy that is more pragmatic and rational: a ‘Third Way’,” wrote Ko in his January 2024 article on The Economist.  While often critiqued for being more on the idealistic side and not grounded in practical ideology outside of its ‘alternative’ label, the strong performance of the TPP in January’s elections, particularly among the youth, indicates an increasingly present appetite for alternative representation beyond the blue and green poles.   


As CommonWealth Magazine columnist Nojima Tsuyoshi aptly put it, “this is an election with no losers” - the KMT has gained seats in the Legislative Yuan, the DPP won the presidential election and the TPP managed to break through the dominance of these two parties.  Given the place the TPP has earned as representative of a significant portion of the Taiwanese electorate, the question remains as to whether it will be able to exert any influence in the coming LY session.  The white party has not been as clear-cut on where it stands on certain major domestic and foreign policy issues, meaning that it could swing either way when the time comes for the legislature to vote. 

The TPP could be particularly influential when it comes to heavily contested policy areas where it touts itself as a ‘middle ground’, especially in areas such as national defence and cross-strait relations. 


When it comes to national defence and the arms budget, Ko Wen-je has voiced support for raising it from its current 2.6% to 3% without ‘wasteful spending’ - a number far beyond the 2% that NATO members are required to invest, for instance, reflecting the island’s confrontation with the growing threat that it faces and its responsibility in maintaining deterrence through a diversity of methods, both military and diplomatic. Ko has criticised both parties in the past for their more ‘extreme’ stances on relations with China, and so he calls for strong national defence while also increasing efforts to maintain peace with Beijing. 


In terms of international relations, the TPP’s seats will possibly be key in influencing major policy decisions in continuity of Taiwan’s strategy of parliamentary diplomacy, especially given the significant disparity in cross-strait policy between the DPP and the KMT.  The TPP presents itself as “being grounded in the broader consensus of all Taiwanese”, critiquing both other parties for taking more extreme stances.  At the legislative level, however, the TPP’s position in this regard may teeter in between both parties enough to be able to swing one side or the other when the time comes to vote on policies regarding Taiwan’s security and foreign relations. 


Nonetheless, there are instances where the TPP aligns unequivocally with one side. For instance, on the topical issue of food safety in Taiwan, the TPP's policies resonate with those of the KMT. Nonetheless, the TPP may encounter obstacles in influencing parliamentary decisions if the KMT does not reciprocate its inclination for collaboration. 

 

View of the TPP Outside of Taiwan 


The ramifications of the TPP's emergence transcend domestic policy arenas, capturing the attention of Taiwan's allies abroad. 


According to a report by the Diplomat, Ko’s approach to relations with both China and the U.S. was perceived to be “flexible” and one aiming to balance “the stimuli produced by Washington and Beijing” while looking for Taiwan’s de facto autonomy and maximizing national interests. 


The European Union has a much less straightforward, more fragmented attitude toward Taiwan strategically, meaning that it is less likely to have significantly strong preferences across the Union when it comes to the outcome of the elections, so long as the outcome is one of a democratic, free and open election. Several commentators pointed to the lower turnout, the emergence of the TPP and the lower stakes of the election as signifiers of a certain ‘maturity’ in Taiwanese democracy, transcending existential elections but also bipartisanship toward greater plurality and diversification. 


Furthermore, democracies around the world can stand to learn from these elections and Taiwan’s monumental efforts against information manipulation throughout: Taiwan’s expertise in this regard provides a unique front for collaboration within democratic societies such as the EU that are increasingly affronted by information manipulation. 

 

TPP’s Support of KMT Conveners  


In overall assessment, Taiwanese local media reports suggest that while the TPP's eight seats may appear pivotal in decisive moments, their significance may diminish without cross-party cooperation in the parliament. In a worst-case scenario, a lack of proactive engagement by the TPP with either the KMT or the DPP could precipitate a hung parliament, stymieing legislative progress, particularly on pivotal and far-reaching issues. 


Recent developments, however, hint at the TPP's inclination toward one of the major parties, potentially averting such a scenario. In the convener elections, both the incumbent DPP and the primary opposition KMT secured eight seats each in the eight legislative committees, with the TPP throwing its weight behind KMT candidates. 

The TPP's endorsement of KMT candidates and public displays of solidarity by KMT members underscored the strategic alliances and political dynamics within Taiwan's legislature. 


Strategically sound yet risky, the TPP's collaboration with the opposition party necessitates a delicate balance, as it strives to maintain its purported political independence while making decisions aligned with its principles. However, given its recent alignment with the KMT on parliamentary matters, verifying this independence poses a challenge. 

As Taiwanese voters observe, opposition party cooperation materializes only when issues at hand serve the shared interests of the TPP and the KMT on domestic policy fronts. Such cooperation may falter once these interests diverge. 


Take, for instance, the debate surrounding defence and the arms budget. While both the incumbent DPP and the TPP advocate for a budget increase to counter potential threats across the Taiwan Strait, it stands as a focal point for political contention, with the KMT advocating for budget reductions. 


For TPP lawmakers, navigating primary issues and policies demands nuanced collaboration with both the KMT and the DPP. This cooperation, however, remains reciprocal, offering a pathway for influence. Undoubtedly, the TPP's presence has charted a 'third way' in policymaking, dismantling the longstanding dichotomy of the two-party rivalry. 

Looking ahead, the TPP must balance its role as a minority opposition party overseeing the new government with pragmatic cooperation within the parliament, ensuring legislative outcomes reflect the will of their electorate and the broader Taiwanese populace. 

 



An edited version of this article was previously published on The News Lens International on March 11, 2024.


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