Taiwan’s “Third Force” Political Parties and the Legacy of the Sunflower Movement

Taiwan’s “Third Force” Political Parties and the Legacy of the Sunflower Movement

Taiwan’s “Third Force” Political Parties and the Legacy of the Sunflower Movement

If policymakers and analysts want to understand how Taiwan’s political landscape functions today, it is imperative to understand the Sunflower Movement and the watershed moment it created for electoral politics in Taiwan. Eight years have passed since the 2014 movement. Ever since this critical juncture in Taiwanese politics, the world of electoral politics in the island-democracy has changed. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) went from struggling electorally to dominating national elections, while the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) continues to struggle to keep up with the DPP’s presidential success. One of the most important outcomes of the Sunflower Movement is the rise of new politicians and political parties that emerged out of this mass social movement. Although these new political parties are small, they continue to have a large imprint on Taiwan’s electoral scene and its increasingly Taiwan-focused domestic political agenda.

What Was the Sunflower Movement? 

The catalyst for the Sunflower Movement was the 2014 “Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement” (CSSTA, 海峽兩岸服務貿易協議), a treaty intended to facilitate trade between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The CSSTA was controversial for two main reasons. First, activists perceived that the contents of the bill disproportionately favored China, giving it exclusive access to much of Taiwan’s service sector—which made up nearly 70 percent of Taiwan’s GDP at the time. The second main controversy was the nature of negotiations: the specifics of the bill were negotiated behind closed doors in Shanghai by representatives of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨) and the KMT. Once written and ready to go to Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan (LY, 立法院), the bill was passed by the KMT without proper legislative review, and was formally discussed for only 30 seconds, a moment that became known as the “30 Second Incident.” In the wake of these controversial events, people began paying attention to the agreement’s contents and the context under which it was negotiated. Outrage ensued over the economic “black box” the bill put Taiwan into, as well as the KMT’s seemingly anti-democratic and questionable method of passing the bill. Organizers began to call for activists to gather in Taipei, and on March 18th, the Sunflower Movement officially began.

The main site of protest centered around the Legislative Yuan. Activists broke into the LY and occupied it for the duration of the three-week-long protest. Outside the LY, activists set up areas to sleep, eat, shower, and engage with other protesters and organizers. When the demonstrations started, commentators primarily framed it as a student movement, but it quickly expanded to include more than just college-aged protesters. Hundreds of thousands of citizens soon joined in, either briefly or as full-time occupants inside the LY. Social science professors were even known to bring their classes to Sunflower protests to show real-life examples of civil disobedience and social protest. Tensions between protesters and police remained high throughout the occupation. At one point, protesters attempted to expand the occupation to the Executive Yuan building, leading to a brief but harsh crackdown by police, who deployed water cannons and beat protesters. Nevertheless, organizers and politicians tried their best to keep the peace for the remainder of the protest.

After almost a month of protest, the government shelved the CSSTA, handing the KMT a bitter defeat and making the Sunflower Movement one of the most successful protest movements in Taiwan’s history. Following their victory, activists withdrew from the LY and student leaders turned themselves in to the authorities for having violated the law during the previous months. The Sunflower Movement’s success mobilized a generation of Taiwanese youth into political participation. The movement was also critical in building momentum for Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) first presidential victory in 2016. For the next several years, dozens of Sunflower activists entered formal politics—with some joining the DPP, some remaining independent, and some joining what became known as “Third Force” (第三勢力) parties

From the Sunflower Movement to Political Parties  

The initial wave of Third Force parties to emanate out of the Sunflower Movement—including the New Power Party (NPP, 時代力量) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP, 社會民主黨)—shared similar politics. These parties were pro-independence, progressive, and adamantly opposed to the KMT, but were also highly critical of the DPP. In the 2016 election, the DPP struck an alliance with the NPP, the most popular of the new political parties to emerge. President Tsai endorsed several NPP politicians, including the then-new-to-politics rockstar Freddy Lim (林昶佐) and Sunflower Movement leader Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌). The friendship was tricky, however. From the DPP’s perspective, the established green party “let” the NPP run against the KMT in certain districts. From the NPP’s perspective, the DPP was giving them districts in which the DPP itself struggled to win, making it a low-cost move by the DPP. Only in one district did the NPP, DPP, and KMT all compete against each other, resulting in a DPP victory. To the surprise of many, the NPP still managed to win three district elections and received 6.1 percent of the party vote. [1]

After the initial success of the NPP in 2016, additional Third Force parties began to join Taiwan’s political scene, including the Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP, 台灣基進) and Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 台灣民眾黨). The TSP originally started as a political organization back in 2012, but only registered as a political party in 2016; and did not run any candidates until the 2018 local election. The party’s first political victory came in 2020 with the surprise win of Chen Po-wei (陳柏惟) in Taichung. The TSP was unable to win enough party votes for any additional seats, but Chen’s victory was enough to show the TSP’s potential appeal. (Chen was later recalled in 2021, and subsequently replaced with DPP legislator Lin Ching-yi [林靜儀].) 

Ko Wen-je is perhaps the most controversial figure to emerge out of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement. Originally lauded by most Sunflower Movement activists for his quirky, unabashed rhetoric, Ko’s position as a registered independent was in line with many Sunflower activist’s desire for non-DPP and non-KMT aligned politicians. In 2014, however, many saw Ko as at least somewhat pan-green leaning. In the years following 2016, Ko’s politics became “bluer,” as demonstrated by his commitment to Taipei-Shanghai relations and his infamous “Two Sides of the Strait, One Family” (兩岸一家親) platform. When Ko finally founded his own political party—the TPP—in 2019, it became clear that his platform was more light-blue than light-green. Just as parties like the NPP and TSP provide an alternative for pan-green voters, the TPP increasingly appeals to pan-blue voters as a non-KMT alternative. 

Not all Sunflower Movement activists joined a Third Force party. Some joined the DPP and have since become influential in their own right. Perhaps the most prominent example is Lai Pin-yu (賴品妤), the cosplaying activist-turned-politician. Her decision to run in 2020 was largely due to the choice by the NPP’s Huang Kuo-Chang (黃國昌) not to run in their shared district. Out of fear of letting the KMT win the district back, Lai, whose father is also a former DPP legislator, decided to run. Her success has made her an icon for young politicians seeking to enter formal politics. 

The Electoral Success of Sunflower Parties and Politicians

The 2020 election in particular demonstrates how strong third parties have become in Taiwan. Besides the TSP, no other Third Force party won a district election, but they had continued success in the party votes. The NPP received 7.7 percent of the proportional representation vote, enough for three legislators. Meanwhile, Ko’s TPP won 11.2 percent of the vote, giving the party five legislators. Other activist-turned-politicians also saw success, including Freddy Lim and Lai Pin-yu, both of whom were re-elected and elected, respectively, in 2020. 

When compared to the KMT or DPP presence in the Legislative Yuan, it is easy to look past the electoral success of third parties. However, their popularity and appeal should not be understated. Although the 2020 election was a sweeping success for Tsai and the DPP in district elections, the party vote tells a more complex story about which parties Taiwanese people support. When forced to choose between the DPP and KMT in most district elections, the DPP wins more often than not. But, the party vote provides an opportunity to see how Taiwanese voters genuinely feel about which party they support the most. 

In the 2020 election, the DPP and KMT almost tied, with each receiving roughly one third of the party vote. Combined, third parties accounted for the last third of the party vote. This paints a much different picture of party support in Taiwan than a simple binary between the DPP and KMT. Instead, we see that there is real demand for other options beyond the big two parties. In fact, roughly one third of Taiwanese voters will support a third party if given the opportunity to do so. 

Why Do These Sunflower-Based Parties and Politicians Matter?

Not only have these parties enjoyed electoral success, but they have historically tended to push Taiwan’s domestic political agenda in a more pro-independence direction. Parties such as the NPP or TSP are often more outspoken on pro-independence policies than the DPP. Perhaps the best examples of their policy agendas in action are the new Taiwan passport cover, or the push for the government to change the official name of “China Airlines.” Originally proposed by the TSP and NPP, these two policy proposals show how pro-independence parties in Taiwan are pushing the agenda in a more pro-Taiwan, and less Republic of China (ROC)-focused direction. The TSP and NPP’s original hope with the passport change was to completely remove any sort of ROC symbology and only have “Taiwan” appear on the passport, a move viewed by many as a step towards de jure independence. The DPP, as the pragmatic and moderate pro-Taiwan party, managed to compromise with them: the word “Taiwan” is now larger in English, while the name “Republic of China” (中華民國) in Mandarin remains unchanged. 

Without the NPP or TSP, a passport cover change would likely have never happened. But combined with the DPP, this became a celebrated success for all pan-Green parties. Although these pan-Green parties are not always allied with each other, they have nevertheless demonstrated the ability to pull the DPP in a more pro-independence direction. 

Given the electoral success of Sunflower parties, policymakers and those committed to expanding the US-Taiwan relationship should be aware of the extent to which support for political parties in Taiwan varies. Although the DPP and KMT are often depicted as the only two parties in town, third parties are not only electorally popular, but also play a growing role in domestic politics. While surveys continuously show that Taiwanese citizens are increasingly likely to identify as exclusively Taiwanese, this by no means translates neatly into clear support (or lack of support) for a particular political party or political agenda. The more nuanced observers can become at understanding the complexity behind Taiwanese political identities, the better that US-Taiwan relations can develop. 

The main point: Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement was a watershed moment for Taiwanese politics. Understanding how these parties formed out of the Sunflower Movement, and how they affect domestic Taiwan politics, is critical for politicians and policy makers in both Taiwan and the United States. 

[1] For those unfamiliar with Taiwan’s electoral system, Taiwan uses a mixed system of both “first-past-the-post” and proportional representation voting. When citizens go to the polls on national election days, they cast three ballots: first for the president, then for their district representative, and finally for which party they support the most. The first two votes are first-past-the-post, meaning the victor is whoever receives the most votes. The party vote, however, gives certain parties a number of seats based on the proportion of votes they receive. For example, the NPP in 2016 received 7 percent of the proportional representation votes, giving them an additional two seats in the Legislative Yuan.