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For Taiwan’s DPP, an Unprecedented ‘3-peat’ Depends on a Third Party

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For Taiwan’s DPP, an Unprecedented ‘3-peat’ Depends on a Third Party

Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party could play spoiler in the 2024 election – likely to the DPP’s benefit.

For Taiwan’s DPP, an Unprecedented ‘3-peat’ Depends on a Third Party
Credit: Facebook/ 柯文哲

With Taiwan’s January 2024 presidential elections fast approaching, the field of candidates has taken shape. From the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Vice President William Lai seeks to make his party the first in Taiwanese history to win three popular elections in a row. Challenging him from the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), former police chief and current New Taipei City Mayor Hou Yu-ih hopes that a first KMT presidential victory since 2012 will unlock warmer cross-strait relations with China. 

However, the victor of this historic election will likely depend on the candidate from a third party, not for the first time in Taiwan’s history. The Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), despite marketing itself as a new, unique political force in Taiwanese politics, is set to revive an old phenomenon that has been a friend to the DPP for decades: vote-splitting.

Ready Player Three

In 2024, Taiwan is likely to see something it has not seen since the turn of the century: a meaningful third-party presidential run. The TPP’s chairman and candidate, eccentric former Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je, has built his campaign on the appeal of a “third force” in Taiwanese politics and promises of good governance. He controversially considers cross-strait politics a lower priority than either of the two major parties. 

His party boasts high levels of support amongst Taiwan’s youth, reflecting the reality of a generation dissatisfied with traditional political powers. Ko has labeled the ruling DPP as “pro-war” and the opposition KMT as “corrupt,” and has himself wavered between being an informal ally of both parties since his first foray into politics in 2014. 

As Ko himself is quick to remind the public, his TPP has consistently gained support since its founding in August 2019, in contrast to previous Taiwanese third parties, which have peaked in the elections immediately following their establishment. In October of 2021, the TPP polled as the second most popular party in Taiwan for the first time, surpassing the KMT, and on May 30, 2023, Ko passed Hou in favorability polling for the first time since the three candidates were nominated.

This is not the first time a third party has been poised to decide a historic election for Taiwan. Much of the ruling DPP’s meteoric rise to power, from its roots in the dissident dangwai movement to the presidency in just 13 years, can be traced to the interference of third parties or independents. At several critical junctions in Taiwanese history, the KMT has been plagued by splits in the pan-Blue (conservative, KMT-aligned) vote, allowing the DPP to win major elections without popular majorities. 

During the race for the mayoralty of Taipei City in 1994, Jaw Shaw-kong, a co-founder of the nascent pro-unification New Party, interrupted the contest between DPP Caucus leader Chen Shui-bian and incumbent KMT Mayor Thomas Huang. The two pan-Blue candidates, Huang and Jaw, split 56 percent of the vote, gifting the KMT stronghold of Taipei, the most high-profile mayoralty in the country, to Chen and the DPP, who garnered only 43.17 percent of the vote.

In 1997, rampant disorganization within pan-Blue ranks led to the DPP winning 13 of Taiwan’s 21 mayoral and county magistrate seats. In seven races, two or more pan-Blue candidates ran against one another, allowing DPP candidates to prevail with as little as 31 percent of the vote. The DPP’s 1997 victories expedited their plans of challenging for executive office by sweeping the counties and cities in the north of the island, enabling them to make a strong challenge for the presidency years ahead of their own projected timeline.

In 2000, Taiwan’s second-ever full popular presidential election came down to a three-way race between Chen Shui-bian (by then the DPP’s biggest star, thanks to his tenure as Taipei mayor), incumbent KMT Vice President Lien Chan, and independent James Soong, a former governor of Taiwan and KMT pariah. Lien and Soong split a pan-Blue vote of 60 percent between them, allowing Chen and the DPP to take office with just 39.3 percent of the vote. Chen thus became Taipei’s first DPP mayor and Taiwan’s first DPP president without winning a majority in either election, at a time when the DPP was still massively outmatched in finance and experience, due to the effects of pan-Blue vote-splitting. 

With the knowledge that a third party has traditionally been a harbinger of chaos for the KMT, Ko Wen-je and the TPP’s involvement in the 2024 race could spell success for the ruling DPP. While the pan-Green (center-left, DPP-aligned) camp has included several smaller parties, including the New Power Party (NPP), Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), and Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP), no pan-Green party has ever challenged the DPP candidate for the presidency. While pan-Green competition exists, it is almost entirely confined to the local level.

Three’s a Crowd: Why the TPP’s Involvement Will Decide The Winner

Ko, for all his success at this early stage of the campaign process, has created a split among pan-Blue voters, which is causing both him and Hou Yu-ih to poll well behind William Lai. While the KMT has been mostly successful in curbing pan-Blue vote-splitting since the 1990s and early 2000s, the TPP, in its guise as a “non-partisan” third party, represents a silent recursion of the vote-splitting phenomenon which has doomed Blue candidates and made Green candidates in years past.

In contrast to previous “spoiler” parties whose conservative, China-friendly policies explicitly siphoned voters from the KMT, Ko’s TPP resists the “pan-Blue” label, and deliberately positions itself as a centrist option in order to attract the disillusioned from both major camps. However, the composition of his base tells a different story. Ko may present his candidacy and the TPP as a whole as being non-partisan, but he draws more support from the Blue portion of Taiwanese politics than from the Green. The overlap is less stark than Blue parties like the People First Party and New Party, but the Blue leaning of Ko’s candidacy is clear. 

Ko himself has not been shy about appearing publicly with Terry Gou, billionaire founder of Foxconn (who himself had ambitions for the KMT nomination) or courting KMT heavy hitters like former Legislative Yuan President Wang Jin-pying for roles in the TPP. If Ko were to withdraw, polling suggests that 51 percent of his voters would go to Hou, compared to just 24 percent for Lai, likely giving Hou the presidency. 

As a result, a massive 65 percent of KMT supporters are hoping for a unity ticket between Hou and Ko, with the knowledge that such a ticket would be a formidable electoral force. However, Ko insists he is “99.99999 percent” likely to run as the TPP’s candidate to the end, and has repeatedly reminded the press that his platform is incompatible with the KMT’s. Ko’s candidacy will also lend momentum to the TPP candidates running for seats in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s lawmaking body, another factor working to keep him in the race. Even if Ko himself falls short, the legislative seats his party earns will be critical for its future in government.

While Ko has the power to decide the race, he is unlikely to become president himself, and his campaign of domestic politics and good governance is likely to flag as time goes on. This is because Taiwanese presidential elections have the tendency to turn into referendums on national identity and cross-strait relations, two issues on which the KMT and DPP have crafted their party brands over decades. 

Taiwanese elections are also almost inevitably influenced by political flashpoints related to China. These flashpoints are often bizarre and accidental, and tend to favor the DPP, as was the case in 2016 when the Chinese cyberbullying of a Taiwan-born K-pop star led many young voters to cast their votes for current President Tsai Ing-wen. The TPP’s lack of historical policy on China means Ko does not stand to benefit as much as Lai from the inevitable politicization of cross-strait events that the latter stages of the campaign will hold.

Ultimately, the stories of Taiwanese elections past portend January’s outcome. Several of the DPP’s biggest historical successes have been aided by poor organization within the Blue side of politics and uncontrolled third-party vote splitting, and the field of candidates for 2024 appears to be setting the ruling party up to make more history. If Ko Wen-je and the “third force” TPP keep the faith all the way until election day, Lai and the DPP will feel optimistic about their chances of winning a historic third term in a row for the party, and pursuing their vision for Taiwan’s future. 

However, at any time from now until January 24, Ko Wen-je holds the power to hand Hou and the KMT the support they need to prevent a historic third straight DPP victory – by either joining Hou’s ticket or dropping out. This makes Ko’s campaign the one to watch above all others for a glimpse at January’s outcome and Taiwan’s future.