Ko Wen-je was upbeat on Saturday night after finishing third in Taiwan’s presidential election. The Taiwan People’s party founder told supporters that for the first time, a third party had stood as tall as the two dominant political forces in Taiwanese politics.
“This is a new political landscape,” Ko said. “This voice will be a key power directing the country.”
While Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive party was elected president in Saturday’s election, he won just 40 per cent of the vote in a three-way contest.
The DPP’s share of 113 parliamentary seats also fell to 51, while the Kuomintang, the largest opposition party, won 52, making the TPP’s caucus of eight enough to swing a majority and thrusting the once-marginal party into the heart of political decision-making as Taiwan contends with an increasingly assertive China. Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has threatened to attack if Taipei resists unification indefinitely.
“Their impact is huge,” said Tsai Chia-hung, a research fellow at the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University in Taipei. “They have become a viable third party.”
Founded less than five years ago, the TPP has achieved a rapid rise — as has its founder. A prominent trauma and organ transplant surgeon at National Taiwan University Hospital, Ko entered politics in 2014 when he ran for mayor of Taipei on the coattails of the Sunflower student protest movement.
He has proven an extremely flexible politician. Ko initially aligned with the DPP, the homegrown party which defines Taiwan as an independent nation and seeks to limit its dependence on China. But he has since shifted to positions more associated with the Kuomintang, which says Taiwan belongs to a greater Chinese nation but disagrees with Beijing over which state should rule that nation.
As Taipei mayor, Ko started calling Taiwan and China “members of one family”, and while he mostly sidestepped China policy issues during the presidential campaign, he advocated restarting negotiations on a cross-Strait services trade agreement, which he opposed alongside the Sunflower movement a decade ago.
Despite such flip-flopping, Ko, now 64, has built a loyal youth following thanks to his quirky rhetoric and a sophisticated social media operation.
“The DPP and KMT only ever talk about China, but they are not solving our real problems like high housing costs,” said Amanda Chao, a 30-year-old interior designer who voted for Ko. “I also like his style — he talks like a normal person, not in ideological terms.” Ko has ridiculed traditional politicians for being unimaginative, saying politics should be “fun”.
Observers said the mercurial TPP founder still struck many voters as too risky for the presidency. In late November, attempts to agree a joint ticket with the KMT broke down in an acrimonious live television broadcast, causing his poll numbers to tank.
Several voters told the Financial Times that Ko had allowed the KMT to take advantage of him, and the episode raised serious doubts over his ability to tackle an increasingly aggressive China and protect national security.
Now, his acumen will be put to the test to maximise the TPP’s kingmaker position in parliament. Despite backing a coalition with the KMT during the campaign, Ko, who won 26.5 per cent of the presidential vote, now says he intends to co-operate with different forces on various issues and will not align with any particular party.
“If there is a big winner in this election, it’s the TPP,” said Nathan Batto, a political scientist at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s top research institution.
“How Ko will use that position is the big question.”
For the DPP, policy priorities include addressing low incomes in the service sector, a lagging renewable energy transition that has raised fears of shortages as nuclear power is phased out and boosting Taiwan’s technology industry in global supply chains.
Even more important in a global context is maintaining increases in defence spending. When the DPP last led a minority government 10 years ago, the opposition-controlled parliament frequently blocked arms procurement from the US.
Although Ko has advocated raising defence expenditure to 3 per cent of gross domestic product from the current 2.5 per cent, DPP politicians are concerned the issue could fall victim to partisan battles.
Observers said the diverse backgrounds and interests within Ko’s party that led to infighting and chaotic decision-making during the campaign could weaken the party’s hand.
“Ko thinks that as the leader of the party, he’s making all the big decisions and has eight votes in his pocket,” Batto said. “But the eight members of the legislative caucus may not think that way.”
The most prominent challenges within the TPP may come from Huang Shan-shan, Ko’s former deputy in the Taipei municipal government who won a legislative seat through the TPP’s party list, and Huang Kuo-chang, an erstwhile Sunflower movement leader.
Huang Shan-shan built her political career in a KMT splinter party and has embraced pro-China policies, while Huang Kuo-chang co-founded a pro-independence party that was once a DPP ally.
“Both are very strong-willed and experienced politicians who won’t just nod their heads and who think they have the right to express their views publicly,” Batto said.
A KMT official said the TPP was at risk of internal discord as the party decided “who is running the show”.
People close to Ko disagreed. “It is true that different people around our chair are vying for his attention,” said one of his advisers. “But he is very good at making the right decisions. He respects power, and he believes in hard facts and numbers.”
The first test will come when the new legislature convenes next month and elects its speaker, who can shape the agenda and influence foreign policy through the Taiwan Foundation of Democracy, a government-backed non-profit used for exchanges with other countries that the speaker chairs.
The outcome will be crucial to preventing gridlock in Taiwan’s politics over the next four years and point to Ko’s political future.
The KMT is expected to seek the post, with the deputy role going to the TPP. Meanwhile, the DPP is considering offering the speakership to Huang Shan-shan and nominating one of its own lawmakers as her deputy.
The TPP offered a first indication of its intended approach on Monday, demanding that any DPP or KMT speaker candidates publicly commit to reforms that would require the president to report to parliament and strengthen lawmakers’ powers in confirming government appointments and access to government documents.
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