From A Two-Party System To Polarized Pluralism In Taiwan

Written by Yu-tzung Chang.

Image credit: Taipei Mayoral Election by Chiang Jacques/Flickr, license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In his 1976 classic Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis, Giovanni Sartori proposed three different types of party system: the two-party system, moderate multiparty pluralism, and polarised pluralism. The key characteristic of moderate pluralism is that parties use narrow-casting to appeal to segments of the electorate and then naturally form into two blocs after the election, as is the case in European countries with proportional electoral systems. As in two-party systems, party competition is unidimensional and centripetal. The formation of blocs involves political compromises. In contrast, polarised pluralism is defined by many cross-cutting issues, with parties taking extreme positions, producing centrifugal politics. Compromise is rare.

The Changing Party System in Taiwan

Scholars have long been interested in the effect of social cleavages on the development of party systems. However, outside of advanced Western democracies, social cleavages are often not politically mobilised. For instance, in Latin America, despite the existence of sharp class cleavages and in some cases ethnic cleavages, with the exception of Chile and to a limited extent Argentina, party competition has not developed around these social cleavages.

In the context of challenges such as worsening income distribution and growing illegal immigration, the rise of populism in Western democracies has undermined two-party and moderate multi-party systems centred on traditional left-right cleavages. Taiwan has not escaped this fate. Indeed, the recently completed Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) primary and the upcoming Kuomintang (KMT) primary suggest that the long-standing two-party (or moderate multiparty) system based around the national identity cleavage is weakening. The influence of individual politicians now exceeds that of political parties – for example, Tsai Ing-wen or Han Kuo-yu have been able to influence the rules of party primaries for their own benefit. If either Tsai or Han were not nominated by their respective parties, this would likely lead to a major party rupture.

Weakened party Nomination

In most Western countries, candidates are determined by party leaders or party members. Taiwan is unique in that it uses telephone polling to determine nominations. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) primary poll consisted of 50% landline and 50% mobile phone polling. The inclusion of mobile polling was widely believed to benefit Tsai whose supporters are more likely to be younger voters without landlines. The delay in the primary dates also benefitted Tsai, enabling her to mobilise support following the unexpected announcement of a challenge by her former premier, William Lai. Ultimately, Tsai won the primary easily. But if her opponent Lai had won, would Tsai have left the party to stand as an independent? The answer is very likely, yes. In contrast, the upcoming Kuomintang primary polling will combine telephone polling with household sampling. If Han Kuo-yu does not win this primary, there is a 95% chance that he will leave the party and stand as an independent – otherwise how would he face his more than a million “Han or bust” (非韓不投) supporters? Yet, if his main challenger, Hon Hai boss Terry Gou does not win the nomination, he is also likely to run as an independent. Gou has relied entirely relied on his own personal strength to participate in the primary, and during the process, his various suggestions to the KMT have been rejected. Therefore, an independent run would appear to have a high level of legitimacy. It appears that unless Han Kuo-yu can win an overwhelming victory in the primary, the risk of a split in the KMT is also very large.

Social Media and Echo Chamber

The main reason for deciding nominations through opinion polling is that parties want to find the strongest candidates for the election, regardless of their compatibility with the party’s ideology, their status within the party, or opinions of party members. As long as the candidate has strong mass support, the party comes second to individual charisma. This trend seems to be related to the growing role of social media. Mobile Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Line enables two-way interaction. These platforms allow the sharing of self-created content and memes with social media contacts, including users of different platforms. This is drastically different from the one-way transmission of information that characterises the traditional media. The interactive, dynamic, and immediate nature of social media is rapidly transforming electoral mobilisation in Taiwan.

In addition, social media is leading to the growth of political polarisation between different groups, each stuck inside their own echo chamber. Each echo chamber selectively receives information that is consistent with its own point of view and rejects information that contradicts this point of view. Echo chambers are potentially damaging to democracy because they reduce the likelihood that people will be exposed to new information and ultimately change their views. People actively filter out information that does not conform to their own viewpoints in order to avoid cognitive dissonance. At the same time, these echo chambers are controlled not by political parties, but by individual political figures. Anyone who dares criticise Tsai Ing-wen or Han Kuo-yu is likely to face strong pushback from these echo chambers, even if the critics are important people within the DPP or KMT.

As a result, Taiwanese parties have been “captured” and “marginalised”, gradually losing their vital functions such as political recruitment and aggregation of interests. Parties have become little more than support acts for politicians. The result will be increasingly fluid and polarised politics that has hidden dangers for Taiwan’s democracy.

Yu-tzung Chang is a Professor and Chair at the Department of Political Science and Associate Dean, College of Social Science at the National Taiwan University

One comment

  1. The cause of “Taiwanese parties hav[ing] been ‘captured’ and ‘marginalised’, gradually losing their vital functions such as political recruitment and aggregation of interests” is foremost that “parties want to find the strongest candidates for the election, regardless of their compatibility with the party’s ideology, their status within the party, or opinions of party members”. This is a completely open danger to democracy.

    It is dangerous to seek the cause of the marginalisation of parties in the rise of social media instead, such descending into a fatalistic stupor.


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