One of the more interesting developments in Taiwan’s 2016 general election was the emergence of so-called “Third Force” parties—completely new entrants into the political system, rather than the Nationalist Party (國民黨 or KMT) or Democratic Progressive Party (民主進步黨 or DPP) splinter parties. These included the Social Democratic Party (社會民主黨 or SDP), which teamed up with the Green Party (綠黨) of Taiwan to run a joint slate of candidates as a kind of leftist-progressive alternative to the DPP; the Faith and Hope League (信心希望聯盟), a party appealing to religious conservatives and advocating the preservation of traditional family values; and the Civil Servants Party (軍公教聯盟黨), whose chief issue was the protection of pensions for retired government employees. By far the most prominent and most successful was the New Power Party (時代力量 or NPP), which was founded by activists closely connected to the Sunflower Movement.
All of these Third Force parties based their campaign appeals on issues they thought the leading parties were ignoring, calling for a move beyond “blue versus green,” KMT-DPP competition to address other economic and social issues such as labor rights, environmental protection, social welfare policy, and regulation of business.
More than a few observers of Taiwanese politics thought that the presence of these new parties presaged a fundamental realignment away from the KMT-DPP divide over cross-Strait relations that has structured Taiwan’s young democratic political system for a generation. Voters were certainly given the luxury of choice: 18 different parties ran their own party lists—a record in Taiwanese elections—and at least that many ran candidates in the district races.
Yet, in the end, the media prominence given to these “non-traditional” alternatives belied their weakness on election night. Of all the new parties that contested the legislative election, only one, the NPP, managed to win any seats; three of its nominees won their district seats, and the party secured 6.2 percent of the party list vote, enough for an additional two seats. All the others came up short of both the 5 percent threshold for party list seats and in the scattered district races in which they competed.
Instead, the main shift in the 2016 election was not to the “Third Force” parties at all but from the KMT to the DPP, which won both an easy victory in the presidential race and, for the first time in the party’s history, a comfortable majority in the Legislative Yuan. For all the talk about a fundamental change in the party system, the same two party camps soon took up their seats in the new legislature, and almost as quickly, restarted many of the same familiar partisan arguments that had driven politics for the previous decade and more.
The Realignment That Wasn’t: The Limited Success of Third Force Parties
Given the NPP’s success, it is worth examining further its apparent success in winning seats. When it first emerged as an offshoot of the Sunflower Movement, the NPP posed a serious threat to the DPP’s chances of winning a majority in the legislature. It positioned its message in a way calculated to appeal to pan-green voters, and it recruited high-profile candidates to run in district races, not just the party list. These district candidates had the potential to split the pan-green vote in what everyone expected would be a very anti-KMT year, and in a worst-case scenario for their side, help the KMT hold on to their legislative majority.
In the end, a pan-green split did not happen because the DPP headed off the threat early. The party formed a kind of pre-electoral coalition  by yielding 11 districts to the NPP and other non-DPP candidates in exchange for their support, and their promise not to run against DPP candidates elsewhere. And the districts that the DPP yielded were, with one exception, far past the critical 57th seat needed to deliver a legislative majority. In the end, it turned out to be a good deal for the DPP, which won 68 seats overall.
More surprisingly, the deal also turned out well for the NPP, which won all three district seats—winning five seats overall—and became the third largest party in the Legislative Yuan (LY). Indeed, the NPP candidates outperformed not only the other “Third Force” candidates but even the typical DPP challenger in the legislative races.
So is the NPP’s impressive performance in the district races evidence of the special appeal of the party’s message, and therefore of a hunger in the electorate for parties that would push beyond “blue versus green”? Not really: there are at least three reasons to be skeptical of this interpretation.
First, the three NPP district nominees endorsed by the DPP had “star power”: Hung Tzu-yung (洪慈庸), Freddy Lim (林昶佐), and Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌), already had high name recognition, and they all had distinct personal stories that allowed them to attract even more media attention.
Second, the NPP candidates coordinated their campaigns closely with the Tsai campaign, going so far as to appear together during campaign rallies. Most of the other DPP-endorsed candidates did not get that kind of support from the top of the DPP ticket, and they fared much worse, suggesting that the NPP’s success came despite their “Third Force” branding, rather than because of it.
Third, the NPP was also the party most closely associated with the Sunflower Movement. And by focusing mostly on their shared antipathy to Ma Ying-jeou, the KMT, and the incumbent party’s attempts to build a closer relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the NPP was in fact reinforcing the DPP’s core message, rather than campaigning as something completely different.
Thus, the simplest interpretation is that the NPP did so well precisely because it worked so closely with the DPP. In that respect, the new party system looks a lot like the old party system: all the parties in the legislature can be arrayed along a single dimension based on their approach to cross-Strait relations, with the NPP taking the place of the Taiwan Solidarity Union to the left of the DPP.
Thus, despite all the talk about the rise of a “Third Force” in Taiwanese politics, there is little evidence in the election results of a fundamental realignment in the party system around a new political cleavage. Rather, the same issue that most clearly divided parties prior to the 2012 election is the one that continues to divide them today: how to handle Taiwan’s relationship with the PRC.
The main point: There is little evidence in the election results of a fundamental realignment in the party system around a new political cleavage. Rather, the same issue that most clearly divided parties prior to the 2012 election is the one that continues to divide them today: how to handle Taiwan’s relationship with the PRC.
Marisa Kellam, “Why Pre-Electoral Coalitions in Presidential Systems?” British Journal of Political Science (24 August 2015): 1-21 doi: https://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0007123415000198.