Is Taiwan’s Party System Headed for a Crackup?

Written by Kharis Templeman.

Image credit: 中華民國107年元旦總統府升旗音樂會 by Office of the President, Republic of China/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Taiwan’s party system is unusual among young democracies for its stability. In 1992, the Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) finished first and second in elections for the Legislative Yuan. In 2016, they finished second and first, and in the six elections in between, neither party ever finished outside the top two.

The KMT and DPP are also well-institutionalised. They have centralised party organizations that integrate local branches into a hierarchical national structure. Both have many loyal supporters who make up a significant share of the electorate. Both have staked out distinct positions on the ‘China question’—the most fundamental divide in Taiwanese politics. And, despite going through major reversals of fortune at different times, each remains today the primary threat to unseat the other in almost every election. For better or worse, Taiwan has effectively been a KMT-DPP duopoly for the entire democratic era.

Why a Stable Party System is Good for Democracy

These are all signs of what political scientists call party system institutionalisation (PSI)—the degree to which interactions among significant political parties, including the issues they advocate for, their membership and bases of support, and the shares of the vote each wins, are stable across multiple election cycles.

Is PSI good for democracy? In general: yes. As I argue in a new article at the International Journal of Taiwan Studies, Taiwan’s stable party system has reinforced the high quality of its democracy—an empirical pattern that shows up in comparative studies as well. The institutionalization of party systems helps to mitigate several fundamental problems in the chain of accountability between voters and elected representatives.

First, PSI effectively restricts who can compete for elected office. Stable party systems are a stout bulwark against the anti-democratic threats posed by extremist anti-system parties and populist, “outsider” candidates who do not have previous political or policy experience. It is hard for these alternatives to break through when few voters will even consider voting for a new party, and when existing parties nominate only their own party loyalists to run for office.

High PSI is usually a good thing for electoral accountability as well, because it increases the importance of parties relative to individuals, generates greater collective responsibility among politicians, and increases the value of good party reputations. When elected officials win or lose based mostly on how voters view their parties, they have strong incentives to stick together and support policies that benefit broad majorities of the electorate. By contrast, when belonging to a party doesn’t matter much for their reelection chances, politicians can often avoid defeat by switching parties or running as independents, and they can break ranks whenever tough, unpopular collective decisions have to be made.

Third, PSI is associated with durable policy coalitions. If leaders think their parties will compete for power well into the future, they have incentives to make long-term investments that pay off only years down the road, because they expect to be around to claim credit for the benefits those investments eventually deliver to voters. Politicians who do not plan to be in office very long, by contrast, have incentives to adopt policies that provide immediate payoffs while imposing longer-term costs—or worse yet, to simply grab whatever they can from the public coffers before their time in power is up.

Finally, PSI leads to better-informed voters. When party systems are stable, individual parties develop “brands” that establish reputations for certain kinds of policies or priorities within the public imagination. Most Taiwanese know, for instance, that the KMT is more China-friendly than the DPP—so if your top priority as a voter is better relations with Beijing, vote KMT, and if it is instead to lessen economic dependence on the Chinese mainland, vote DPP. This clear differentiation is extremely valuable for democratic representation, because it allows the electorate as whole to signal which policy direction elected officials should take, without most voters having to know the specifics. By contrast, when all the parties are new, neither the party choices nor the policies they will enact if they win are credible or clear, and voting becomes a stab in the dark.

Is Taiwan’s Party System Headed for a Crackup?

If high PSI is good for democracy, then signs of party system upheaval in Taiwan should concern us. In cases as varied as Venezuela and Peru, Italy and France, and Hungary and Poland, the collapse of support for mainstream parties has created openings for more radical, “outsider” candidates to win seats and take power, with deleterious consequences for democracy.

Is Taiwan facing a similar danger in the 2020 elections? Yu-tzung Chang has recently argued that it is, pointing to the rise of independent, personality-driven campaigns in the form of Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je and Foxconn chairman Terry Gou, the selection of Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu as the KMT’s official standard-bearer, and President Tsai Ing-wen’s re-nomination in the face of an intra-party challenge from her former premier, William Lai.

Yet the bulk of evidence to date is not consistent with the deinstitutionalisation of Taiwan’s party system. First, the share of partisans in Taiwan, at over half the electorate, is still relatively high in comparative perspective. The Election Study Center at National Chengchi University has measured party identification since the early 1990s; while these data track a decline in overall party ID from 2016-18, the most recent survey shows a sharp increase in both DPP and KMT partisans. This sudden rise is hard to reconcile with Chang’s claim that the “influence of individual politicians now exceeds that of political parties”; partisanship appears not to be collapsing but instead surging, and it will probably continue to climb as the 2020 election campaign shifts into high gear and activates latent partisan leanings among some of the remaining “non-partisans.”

Second, the electoral success of independents has actually been quite limited. Many of the claims about the rise of independent candidates are based on projections about what could happen in 2020. Much more revealing is what already has happened, or rather, what has not: victories by independents in the previous local elections. In 2018, for instance, when Tsai Ing-wen’s popularity slumped, voters registered their dissatisfaction with her and the DPP by voting en masse for KMT candidates—not independents, or renegades from one of the two major parties, or even candidates of newer “Third Force” parties. The major exception to this pattern is Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je—but it is too often overlooked that he won his first campaign in 2014 only because of the DPP’s backing. When the DPP decided to run its own candidate in 2018, Ko’s share of the vote dropped by over 16 points, and he barely won reelection despite high personal approval ratings.

Third, neither the KMT nor the DPP’s party organisation is clearly weaker now than in past election cycles. President Tsai managed to secure her re-nomination in part because of her influence over the party machinery, which delayed the primary and reset the rules to favour her. That outcome suggests that the DPP leadership still retains considerable influence over party nominations, despite the use of public opinion polls to decide contested primaries. Han Kuo-yu’s selection was more dramatic, but it, too, does not quite fit the image of a weak party being hijacked by an outsider. Han was recruited into participating in the KMT’s primary by the party chairman Wu Den-yi because he was leading in national public opinion polls at the time. And like the DPP, the KMT set the rules to ensure Han would be favoured over other challengers, including Terry Gou. Now that Han is the party’s presidential candidate, most of the KMT heavyweights have duly lined up behind his campaign, despite some misgivings about his suitability for that office.

The 2020 Elections: a Test for Democratic Institutions

Nevertheless, 2020 will pose a challenge for Taiwan’s democratic institutions. The inexperienced, “populist” Han Kuo-yu heads the KMT ticket. Mayor Ko has founded his own political party to compete for seats in the legislature. The once-ascendant New Power Party has fragmented into multiple groups. Other “Third Force” parties—the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party—have again pledged to run their own party slates. The DPP is being challenged by multiple new parties to its pro-independence left, including a possible spoiler presidential campaign by the former vice president Annette Lu. And although Terry Gou surprised just about everyone by declining at the last minute to register as an independent, he could still try to jump into the presidential race by running on the People First Party ticket. Voters looking for alternatives to mainstream politicians or the two big parties will certainly have a plethora of other options.

But while there is ample supply, it is not obvious there will be much voter demand for them. The China question has not gone away—indeed, with the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and rising tensions in the US-PRC relationship, it is arguably the most salient it has been in a generation. Perhaps most Taiwanese now really do care about other things more, and will cast their votes based on the personalities of candidates rather than their parties or policies. But my bet is that the contrasting approaches to cross-Strait relations offered by the KMT and DPP will, once again, ultimately determine who wins in 2020.

Kharis Templeman is an advisor to the Taiwan Democracy and Security Project, Stanford University. He tweets @kharisborloff

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