Written by Brian Hioe
The Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) has been unusually displaced in Taiwanese politics as of late. Perhaps this can be traced back to the competing pressures that the party has faced from its inception.
With its formation in the lead-up to the 2020 elections, the TPP tried to stake out a claim for itself as being a politically independent party that was neither pan-Blue nor pan-Green. This was in line with its founder, Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je’s own claims to be a political independent. Ko had originally taken power in 2014 by running as an independent with the DPP’s endorsement.
However, relations between Ko and the DPP soured by 2018, when the DPP ran Pasuya Yao for Taipei mayor instead of endorsing Ko. One of the factors that led to this souring of relations was the controversial city-based exchanges with Shanghai that Ko conducted as Taipei mayor, which were accused of being a United Front stratagem. Incidents such as the beating of student demonstrators protesting the exchanges by pro-unification gangsters linked with the China Unification Promotion Party on the National Taiwan University campus did not help matters when Ko continued to defend the exchanges as pragmatic.
Early signs that Ko intended to form a political party were visible in the 2018 elections, as well, with Ko forming a political group referred to as the “White Force” (白色力量) to back his mayoral reelection bid. This was an alignment of primarily Taipei city councillors. This formation also claimed to be politically independent, even if there were already signs that the “White Force” skewed more heavily toward the pan-Blue camp. It was thought that Ko intended to form a political party in preparation for a presidential bid.
The name “White Force” seemed to be in imitation of the “New Power Party” (時代力量), with the “White Force” imitating the NPP’s rhetoric of being pan-Blue and pan-Green distinctions and orientation as a youth-oriented model. However, arguably, the rise of the NPP in the 2016 elections had itself been influenced by Ko’s successful mayoral campaign as an independent, at a time in which Ko was still more closely aligned with the pan-Green camp.
Though few party members took this up, the TPP had the unusual provision in its party charter to allow members of other political parties. It proved more common for party members to be former members of the KMT or other pan-blue parties, however, though there were some members of Ko’s Taipei mayoral administration that joined the party and a handful of former DPP politicians that joined. Moreover, with Ko’s growing alienation from the pan-Green camp, it became increasingly common for Taiwanese media to characterize the TPP as a “Light Blue” party that was part of the pan-Blue camp but not as deep Blue as the KMT.
Yet, in a time when the KMT has pledged to turn itself around under recently elected chair Eric Chu, that raises questions about the future of the TPP. Namely, like its opposite number, the NPP vis-a-vis the DPP, the TPP faces the challenge of distinguishing itself from the KMT.
Indeed, there may be space for the TPP to survive within the pan-Blue camp. For example, the KMT still struggles to attract younger politicians. The KMT recently announcing that it was opening the door to former members who had since left or been expelled from the party may reflect its inability to recruit younger, fresher faces, pushing it to reliance on former party veterans. The TPP could potentially position itself as a more youth-oriented, lighter Blue party, while the KMT takes up a much more ideologically hard-line, deeper Blue demographic.
That being said, much with the NPP regarding the DPP, there are very few core fundamental issues that the TPP can distinguish itself from the KMT. For example, one notes that with the recent national referendum, the TPP supported banning American pork imports. Moreover, it also halted the construction of the liquified natural gas terminal off the coast of Datan in Taoyuan while opposing the restart of Nuclear Reactor No. 4 and appending the date that referendums take place on to national elections.
Nevertheless, with the KMT voting in favour of all four referendum questions and the DPP voting against all four, it is somewhat unclear why the TPP settled on these issues strategically. The differences between the TPP and KMT that would lead to different referendum responses are opaque. As it is now, the TPP seems to be positioned for closer cooperation with the KMT in the future. This contrasts with the NPP, which will likely alienate the DPP in the near term due to its disagreement with the DPP on all but one of the referendum questions.
A fundamental question facing the TPP from the beginning was whether it would simply be a party reducible to its founder, Ko Wen-je. Indeed, some elements of the party’s initial establishment even bear personality cult-like aspects vaguely.
The TPP is named after Chiang Wei-shui’s political party from the Japanese colonial period, with the party forming on the same date as Chiang’s birthday of August 6th. However, Chiang’s birthday is the same as Ko’s. As a result, the party’s formation was on Ko’s birthdate.
This is not a problem exclusive to the TPP. One notes that the NPP, too, struggled to develop party heavyweights beyond its first chair Huang Kuo-chang and heavy metal singer turned politician Freddy Lim. Huang and Lim’s conflict regarding differing views on whether the NPP should endorse Tsai’s 2020 election bid or not eventually provoked splits within the party and mass departures.
Yet the TPP has no other politicians with fame comparable to Ko. And, in examining the other prominent politicians of the TPP, these are individuals with political agendas of their own that aligned themselves with Ko Wen-je out of self-interest, not due to political loyalty.
Legislator Lai Hsiang-lin, for example, is a long-time labour activist associated with pro-unification Left groupings. Her joining the TPP after serving as the head of Ko’s Department of Labour was likely aimed at establishing a more socially progressive pan-Blue political party.
Arguably, Ann Kao, the other of the most prominent TPP’s legislators, was initially best known as a close aide and confidante of FoxConn CEO Terry Gou. Her entrance into the party was part of moves by Ko aimed at courting Gou and former KMT majority speaker Wang Jinpyng, potential allies of Ko in a presidential bid. Yet since then, it has generally seemed more likely that Gou would run as a KMT presidential candidate rather than a TPP presidential candidate.
While Huang Ying-ying, better known by her nickname of “Xuejie,” was effectively the youth spokesperson of the party, Ko reportedly fired her on the spot when she was questioned by Taipei city councillors for the use of administrative expenses while campaigning. Huang, then, may not have a future with the party.
Indeed, KMT chair Eric Chu has suggested willingness to work with Ko in the past, but the issue of whether to align or contend with the TPP has rarely come up in comments by Chu. As a result, the TPP largely seems to be an afterthought for the KMT at present.
Yet the question ahead of the TPP regarding its relationship with Ko is whether the party will have an independent existence of Ko or whether the party’s prospects will always be tied to Ko’s political prospects. Ko is approaching the end of his term as Taipei mayor. So, it is a question of whether he will have a political career afterward, having come under scrutiny for handling the COVID-19 outbreak in Taipei in May.
There have been some suggestions that Ko might next seek to run for mayor of Taoyuan or Kaohsiung if a presidential bid seems remote. Beyond Ko’s Taipei mayoral term, however, it is a question as to whether the TPP’s politicians are sufficiently well-known for the party to continue without Ko fronting it in one of Taiwan’s most powerful local government positions.
Brian Hioe was one of the founding editors of New Bloom. He is a freelance writer on social movements and politics, and occasional translator.
This article was published as part of a special issue titled ‘Taiwan 2022: Reflections, Predictions and Trends”.