by Brian Hioe
DURING 2016 elections, although the victory of the DPP in the legislature and presidency was expected, what proved a greater surprise was the emergence of the New Power Party as a completely new party which had never run before in elections. Past election season, we saw the emergence of numerous third parties from post-Sunflower Movement civil society such as the New Power Party (NPP), the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and the Free Taiwan Party (FTP).
Of these three newly formed parties, only the New Power Party would be victorious in getting a representative into legislature. However, during the period in time in which the NPP, SDP, and FTP seemed like viable third parties that would get into legislature, we may note that there was in fact much anxiety raised from western observers of Taiwanese politics that this would result in an upset to stable two party politics in Taiwan. Nonetheless, despite the failure of other political parties to get into legislature, with the NPP currently seeking to expand its power base in other localities in Taiwan outside of Taipei by establishing regional offices, such questions about the possibility for multiparty politics in Taiwan remain salient.
Namely, in a period in which the KMT was doomed to be in decline, it was feared that the result of elections would result in an electoral system without two, equally matched parties in legislature. A possible situation which would provoke such worries would be the unquestioned dominance of a single party—or a situation in which more than two parties had to compete for influence within legislature, without there being more than two parties which counterbalanced each other.
Photo credit: UDN
In fact, it was suggested by some that despite the actions of the KMT which place Taiwanese democracy itself at risk, that preserving the KMT would be preferable. Why is this so? Those who claimed such raised the supposedly objective fact that within democracies, two-party democracy had been proven to be the most stable form of governance. In this framework, democracies with two-party systems are deemed to be “mature” democracies. Multiparty politics are deemed anarchic and messy, even dangerous.
Interestingly enough, even as members of Taiwanese third parties frequently claimed aspirations for multiparty politics in Taiwan analogous to Europe, the assertion that two-party democracy is the most stable form of government largely comes from American political science. American political scientists, prone to projecting America onto the rest of the world as the ideal model and endpoint of political development, conclude quite often that because two-party politics exist in America, it is therefore the most stable form of government for the world as a whole.
For example, one of the few principles in political science claimed to be so objective in nature as to be a “law”, Duverger’s Law, claims that electoral systems with first-past-the-post (FPTP) or winner-take-all elections with single member districts tend inherently towards the formation of two-party politics. A reason claimed for this is because only the top two parties stand any chance of winning, so voters will not vote for a party which does not stand any realistic chance of winning, such as a third party, leading to the gradual elimination of third parties. It is also claimed that because parties need to gain a plurality in a constituency to win a seat, a party needs to have a strong local basis in order to win, weakening the chances for political parties which have large supporter base but are geographically spread thin.
But Duverger’s Law does not seem to hold water when, even as the United States has a two-party system, there are examples of plurality systems which did not develop two party politics such as the UK, Canada, or India. There seem to be few examples of a two party system similar to that of the US except in several Caribbean countries. In such cases, even if Duverger’s Law has its uses, it cannot be applicable in all cases. Likewise, to begin with, how applicable is a principle such a Duverger’s Law to Taiwan, when Taiwan does not operate solely on the basis of a plurality rule system but also includes proportional representation in its voting system?
In other words, elected representatives to Taiwan’s legislature are not voted in purely on the basis of winner-take-all elections in single member districts, because Taiwan also has proportional representation by party vote. Voters do not only vote for local district representatives to legislature, but also by voting for a political party, who are assigned seats in legislature by representation.
This system, known as the mixed-member majoritarian system (MMM), is also used in other Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea. The similar system of mixed-member proportional representation (MMP), which differs by allowing for greater interaction between proportional components and district components, is used in Germany, New Zealand, and other countries. Wariness towards mixed systems in part probably stems from that they are relatively new, a number of countries pioneering the use of mixed systems being post-authoritarian or post-Communist countries and newly emergent democracies. In that light, it may not be surprising that Taiwan currently employs a mixed system, given Taiwan’s recently post-authoritarian nature.
Legislatures featuring proportional representation more commonly allow for the emergence of third parties—as well as their dissolution. We see this in, for example, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, which suffered after the switch to a plurality rule system for local districts in 2005 because of its geographically thin nature. And that while the TSU was able to retain seats through proportional voting in 2012, it would dissipate in past 2016 elections wholesale because of its failure to meet proportional voting benchmarks.
On the flipside, this would allow for the rise of the New Power Party to gain two seats by party vote from being a previously non-existent third party and three seats by competing in electoral districts. This was uphill struggle seeing as the NPP competed in districts that were historically pan-Blue, so as to not compete with the DPP. This was achieved by convincing the DPP that they stood a chance of winning in those districts where the DPP did not and persuading the DPP not to run candidates in those districts. This was because the NPP would likely struggle over the same voter base with the DPP, splitting the vote, and allowing for a KMT victory. Another reason for withdrawal would be that because the DPP stood no chance of winning and not having to allocate significant resource to certain districts by not running seemed like the more strategic choice.
Indeed, Duverger’s Law alleges the tendency for two-party politics in political systems, seeing as the possibility of splits in votes that would lead to mutual defeat, which leads to alliances between political parties. If there are not only two political parties on the scale of America’s Democrats and Republicans in Taiwan, it is true that the Taiwanese political spectrum still runs towards two major political camps, pan-Blue and pan-Green, which are comprised of multiple parties.
Tsai Ing-Wen of the DPP campaigning for the New Power Party. Photo credit: Hung Tzu-Yung Facebook page
Is there a possibility for multiparty politics in Taiwan, then? Even if the NPP is now running into possible issues of continued cooperation with the DPP, the NPP still largely operates within the pan-Green orbit. We will see as to how the DPP reacts to third parties in the future when in the past election, it was willing to accommodate them. It also is that the NPP has stated that it does not rule out cooperation with the KMT, which would be another issue causing possible tension with the DPP. Duverger’s Law is correct in pointing out that it is an uphill struggle for third parties to establish themselves within electoral systems dominated by two parties. Can the NPP set down roots firm enough to compete with the DPP? And could other political parties emerge in the future?
Nevertheless, it would be mistaken to conclude that two-party politics is the end-all-be-all of politics the world over, Taiwan included. Two-party systems, though far from being a normative standard the world over, provide for a certain amount of political stability. Limited choices in voting leads to greater clarity about which party is accountable for what actions, for example. But the plurality rule systems founded on local elections can lead to dominance by two parties which do not prove to be effectively politically distinguishable from each other. They can also exclude groups from participation in politics which may have popular support, but without strong local power bases in any particular area. Electoral politics in Taiwan are further complicated by ethnic issues of waishengren versus benshengren, not to mention the marginalization or exclusion of Indigenous peoples, meaning that political struggles in Taiwan are not only ones of political or ideological affiliation, but also of ethnicity. Ethnic exclusions from politics remain an unresolved issue in the current political system. Yet to begin with, Taiwan does not conform to the standards of Duverger’s Law, given its mixed system, but attempts are made to map two-party politics onto Taiwan nonetheless.
Thus, large sections of the population can be excluded from true political representation in the present system. Seeing as lack of political representation is already a major problem in Taiwan, alternatives to the hegemony of two party politics are worth reflecting on for future electoral politics in Taiwan.