Moving on towards “grassroots” 2023: The TPP’s post-election challenges and opportunities

Written by Chengyu Yang.

Image credit: 柯文哲/ Facebook.

“Break the Blue-Green Fierce Fighting.” The slogan of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) perhaps represents some of the people’s thoughts. Although they might not be their preferred choice, the TPP is undeniably the current most high-profile challenger party. Moreover, as its political position in the previous years is perceived as “vague and ambiguous” by the Taiwanese public, it also attracts the media’s attention. This makes it one of the most worth focusing topics in the coming year of Taiwanese party politics. In this mini-series, to offer a relatively holistic view of TPP’s past and future, we will take a quick look at the topics like TPP’s electoral strategies, its relations with the “pan-green camp” and “pan-blue camp”, its political positions, as well as TPP’s legislative performance.

On 14 January 2023, Ko Wen-Je, the former mayor of Taipei City and President of the TPP, and his former deputy, Huang Shan-shan, attended the inauguration of the TPP’s Wanhua United Service Office. The night before, Ko had announced on his Facebook account that he would officially retire from NTU School of Medicine and NTU Hospital

Ko’s choice to announce his retirement at this point – the exact one year away from the 2024 presidential race – is intriguing. Although he has not officially announced his candidacy for the presidency, Ko’s ambitions are well-known. In a recent Taiwanese political entertainment programme, BURN, Ko Wen-Je also semi-jokingly asked DPP Taipei councillor Wang Shih-Chien to “vote for Ko Wen-Je for president in 2024”, thus hinting at the possibility of his presidential candidacy in 2024.

As for his plans for his “early retirement life” in 2023, Ko told the media that “in 2022, after this election is over, we have done a review again. We decided that we should start from the grassroots and enhance the TPP’s local services and local systems”. Reviewing the results of the 2022 election, The TPP has nominated 86 county and city councillors for the first time and won 14 seats and Hsinchu City mayor, the most seats among the challenger parties. Nevertheless, we should not exaggerate TPP’s success – more challenges are waiting for the TPP towards the following year before the 2024 national election.

The transition between the two elections: The TPP’s practical challenges

In the context of the 2022 local elections, funding is a crucial aspect of challenges apart from the competition between the smaller parties. This is a practical problem, especially for the TPP, which has only existed for less than five years.

Under Taiwan’s Civil Servants Election and Recall Act, political parties with more than 3% of the PR votes will receive an annual subsidy of NT$50 per vote. Depending on the 2020 national election outcome, KMT and DPP could receive over $200 million annually, almost five times the funding for TPP. Although political parties also receive revenue in other areas, the disparity in grant funding still increases the resource gap between mainstream parties and smaller challenger parties like TPP.

In the 2022 local elections, the TPP nominated 84 candidates for county and city councils across the country, nearly double the number of NPP nominees. Such a large number of nominations is thought to be the TPP’s way of gaining more seats to receive more financial support from the local level. For example, a Taipei legislator could receive approximately NT$240,000 per month for assistants. In this sense, each city council seat in Taipei can sustain a team of three to six people with the financial assistance it receives. These teams, supported by taxpayers’ money, will be an asset to be used in the 2024 elections.

However, the reality may still differ from the TPP’s ideal situation at the time of nomination. The election success rate of the minor parties was relatively low compared to the KMT’s 80% and the DPP’s 73%. 14 out of 86 TPP nominations (16%) and 6 out of 46 NPP nominations made up 13% of the total. Regrettably, of the 72 seats lost, 11 of the TPP candidates were defeated by only a small margin.

The relatively low hit rate has resulted in many unsuccessful candidates within the party. The most realistic question facing the TPP is how to keep the large pool of unsuccessful candidates together and smoothly transition to the 2024 election. This will be the key to the TPP’s deepening of its local efforts and party transformation. The worrying thing is how the TPP will keep the losing candidate on the grassroots level, providing the same constituency service as the successors’ team. This will likely impose a significant cost burden on the TPP.

In fact, after the election, these fears have come true. On 26 December 2022, Chen Hui-Chun, a retired teacher who ran for the fifth constituency seat in Kaohsiung on behalf of the TPP, was accused of defaulting on the salaries of her staff after losing the election. As a result, Chen had to sell her real estate to settle the unpaid wages of the staff.

A more “grassroots” 2023: why necessary?

Local voters’ constituency services and grassroots organising are arguably one of the TPP’s most significant weaknesses compared to the mainstream parties. Thus, for the TPP, recognising the limitations of campaigning through social media and traditional media, cultivating and rooting in the local political landscape is a critical and necessary process before the 2024 national election.

 Before the establishment of the TPP, Ko’s campaign strategy was known for his ability to create a strong presence on social media and the internet to draw in voters. This strategy worked well at first, especially in gaining the support of civil society groups. Ko’s reliance on digital means of campaigning, such as the internet and social media, was later reflected in the TPP’s election strategy. However, although Ko is considered to be a pioneer in Taiwan’s political scene in terms of using digital media for election campaigning, it is clear that the TPP’s strategy of continuing to rely on the internet has hit a bottleneck against the backdrop of the increased emphasis on social media by the two mainstream political parties in the past two years.

The limitation is likely to be due to two factors. First, the preference-based social media algorithm has made the already homogenous community more centripetal, resulting in the Echo Chamber effect. This makes it more difficult for different opinions and disagreements to break through to the general audience. Second, most of the TPP social media content is aimed at a mass audience, making it difficult to target an effective audience for specific local policy issues. This means that social media content tends to be presented as ambiguous slogans or is perceived by voters as relatively irrelevant to their daily lives. In other words, it is difficult for the TPP to rely on online tactics to sway the voters who have day-to-day interactions with the mainstream party members at the local level.

There have been growing criticisms of the TPP about the party being the Ko Wen-Je-centric Party, as most of the TPP votes are focused on Ko himself. Such critics could be one of the negative effects of the social media-dependent strategy on the TPP. For the TPP, the 2022 local elections could be regarded as an attempt to move away from a ‘social media strategy’ to a more ‘grassroots strategy’. The mass nomination of candidates for county and city councillors nationwide could be seen as a potential shift in the TPP’s future path towards the grassroots; meanwhile, it is also a sign that the TPP hopes to break the paradox of its over-reliance on Ko’s popularity by building more social relations from the grassroots in the future.

Moving on towards the next national election, the necessity of the TPP being more grassroots in 2023 is not only on deepening the party’s local voters’ reach and familiarity of the specific local policies but also out of Taiwan’s specific political culture and voting phenomenon – “reciprocate votes” (人情票), which often be conveyed by the “constituency services”. Unfortunately, the vulnerability of smaller challenger parties like the TPP in the election for SMDs gives them less opportunity to participate in local voters’ daily lives, making it more difficult for these parties to gain party votes for PR without cooperating with mainstream parties in the next national election.

As Wang Tao points out, “all politics is local”; the constituency services in Taiwan are not just about the legislators/politicians listening to the district voters’ appeals and ensuring the representations in the parliament. It also includes more everyday-based relationship building, such as attending activities and hosting ceremonies, weddings and funerals. It is believed that the constituency service plays a remarkable role in “winning over the masses”. Often, kinship or reciprocity-based voting behaviours will transcend the party identification of voters in Taiwan.

Too late for the TPP to deepen efforts on grassroots?

For a more grassroots TPP in 2023, one of the concerns is whether, with limited funds and resources, it is too late to deepen efforts on grassroots. This concern is not superfluous. The KMT’s close relationship with local communities over the decades and the DPP’s emphasis on grassroots organisations in recent years have made it difficult for the TPP to cultivate local relationships in the future.

A telling example is the creation of the DPP party branch in Lienchiang County in 2020. The branch was founded by Lii Wen, the unsuccessful DPP candidate in the 2020 legislator race. After losing the election, Lii decided to serve his constituency in Matsu Islands, taking on volunteer teaching duties and building grounded relations with the local population. However, in 2022, when Lii ran for the magistrate of Lienchiang County, he was defeated by only 586 votes, even less than the 706 votes he received in 2020 when he ran for the legislator. In a social media video, a Lienchiang voter was asked if he would support Lii, saying, “Every street tree in front of my house was planted when the Kuomintang was in power, so I cannot live with myself if I don’t vote for them”.

In addition, some local forces outside the mainstream political parties are even more disjointed and difficult to shake quickly. For those forces that are difficult to shake, some suggest concentrating limited resources in Hsinchu, Keelung and six municipalities. This would not only focus on the scarce resources of the TPP but also prevent some unsuccessful candidates from being left out and eventually challenging the TPP in return.

As of 27 January, TPP has 20 party branches, 37 service offices and 30 candidate service offices across the country. In the coming year, the TPP will be challenged to optimise their resources to run the grassroots services. At the same time, this is also a necessary process for the TPP in preparation for the 2024 national election. Failure to deepen the grassroots connections and social relations will probably lead to even more difficulties in attracting the median voters in both legislator and presidential elections.

As Ko wrote in his Facebook announcing his retirement from NTU, “I feel like Columbus in 1492, sailing into the unknowable world”. For the TPP, after a bitter-sweet election year in 2022, the year ahead will also be filled with opportunities and challenges in an “unknowable world”.

Mr Chengyu Yang is the Project Officer of the Centre of Taiwan Studies of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. His current research interests are on the popular religions, commodities and human mobilities of Taiwan’s offshore islands (Kinmen and Matsu) in the post-military-civil administration period.

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Farewell 2022 and Welcome 2023’.

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