- Ko Wen-je from the Taiwan People’s Party finished last in the first competitive three-way race for the Taiwan presidency since 2000, but he garnered more than a quarter of the popular vote.
- The TPP has eight seats in the new 113-seat legislature where the major parties do not have a clear majority.
- “We need to take Ko’s rise very seriously,” said Wei-Ting Yen, an assistant professor in government at Franklin and Marshall College. “There is a clear social base rooting for him and willing to support his populist discourse.
- The former Taipei City Mayor resonated with the young and educated as he spoke plainly into their everyday bread-and-butter issues, including soaring housing costs and stagnant wages at a time of high inflation.
TAIPEI — “One day, we’ll get our victory,” Ko Wen-je, the vanquished presidential candidate for the Taiwan People’s Party, said at his concession speech two weeks ago.
He urged his disappointed young supporters, some of them crying, not to give up, and framed himself as a one-man social movement crusading for political change.
“For me, over the last 10 years, whether I was in office or standing for election, I have always regarded it as a social movement aimed at changing political culture. Since this social movement has not fully materialized, let’s keep working hard,” the former Taipei City Mayor told supporters in Mandarin.
While he may have finished last in the first competitive three-way race for the Taiwan presidency since 2000, Ko garnered more than a quarter of the popular vote — disrupting the usual stranglehold of the dominant political parties, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and Kuomintang.
The 63-year-old clearly resonated with the young and educated as he spoke plainly into their everyday bread-and-butter issues, including soaring housing costs and stagnant wages at a time of high inflation.
“We need to take Ko’s rise very seriously,” Wei-Ting Yen, an assistant professor in government at Franklin and Marshall College, told CNBC. “There is a clear social base rooting for him and willing to support his populist discourse. These are anti-establishment attitudes. Is Taiwan seeing the rise of populism?”
These shades of populism, along with his shifting political affiliations in the past, contrast against Ko’s self-association with the conviction and idealism of youth-led social movements in Taiwan.
A populist, often seen as anti-establishment and anti-elitism, can sometimes be deemed a threat to democracy; Ko has paradoxically aligned himself to past social movements in Taiwan that have enhanced the island’s nascent democracy.
Once a leading organ transplant surgeon in Taiwan, Ko went from being aligned with the DPP in 2014 when he entered the race as an independent running for the Taipei mayorship, to nearly entering an alliance with main opposition party KMT in the most recent presidential election.
Taiwan’s young and restless
In any case, Taiwan’s two major parties now face a battle to cater to younger voters that could come at the expense of older votes or a focus on broader strategic interests.
“My sense is that Ko’s personality and affect — his bluntness and willingness to criticize the existing parties, his position as a political outsider, etc.— appeal to people who feel disengaged with the traditional parties,” said Sara Newland, an assistant professor in government at Smith College.
“He has also given voice to and amplified the idea that both the KMT and the DPP are ignoring the main domestic concerns of voters, and that kind of populist messaging appeals to people who feel like Taiwan’s current economic and political system is not benefiting them,” she added.
In the final My Formosa poll released before a ban on opinion polls kicked in prior to Election Day, 53.7% of respondents aged 20-29 indicated they would vote Ko for president.
Overall, 21.8% of all respondents in that poll indicated they would vote for Ko — lower than the eventual 26.46% of the popular vote he earned at the Jan. 13 election. A similar breakdown on the election outcome was not immediately available.
“Even though the DPP emerged out of the underground pro-democracy movement under martial law, young people now see them as traditional and part of the political establishment,” Newland said.
Even though Ko lost the presidential race to Lai Ching-te from the ruling DPP, the Taiwan People’s Party — founded only in 2019 — won eight seats in the new 113-seat Legislative Yuan and now holds the balance of power when the new parliament take office Feb. 1.
In a split parliament where the two major parties do not have a clear majority, one of them will need to form a coalition government with TPP.
The KMT, Beijing’s preferred political partner, has 52 seats. The ruling DPP has 51, while independents hold the remaining two.
Ko’s party is “ideologically nebulous,” said Ming-sho Ho, a sociology professor at National Taiwan University who studies the working class and social movements.
“Ko once vowed to follow Tsai Ing-wen’s foreign policy, but at the same time maintained that ‘both sides of the Taiwan Strait are one family’ — these things just don’t add up,” he said, referring to the island’s incumbent Democratic president from the DPP.
“Ko is indeed opportunistically arguing different things at the same time.”
The DPP has rejected the so-called “1992 Consensus” — a tacit agreement between the then-KMT government and Chinese Communist Party officials that China and Taiwan belong to “one China,” and the basis of Beijing’s approach to cross-Straits engagement.
China has never relinquished its claim over Taiwan — which has been self-governing since the Chinese nationalist party, or Kuomintang, fled to the island following its defeat in the Chinese civil war in 1949.
Chinese President Xi Jinping regards reunification with the mainland as “a historical inevitability.”
‘Sunflower effect’ waning?
Ko’s association with Taiwan’s recent history of activism — driven by young people and civil society — could therefore be deemed opportunistic.
From the Wild Lily and Wild Strawberry movements to the Sunflower movement, Taiwan’s road to democracy and reform has been marked by student-led social movements in the last few decades.
The Wild Lily movement in 1990 was seen as pivotal to the self-governing island’s first direct, democratic presidential and legislative elections in 1996, while the Wild Strawberry movement in 2008 emerged out of a protest against alleged police violence and abuse of power.
Ho from the National Taiwan University pointed out that “the Sunflower Movement was of course a consequential event that contributed to the DPP’s victory in the 2014 local election and the 2016 presidential election. But as the time passed by, the effect waned.”
During the Sunflower movement in 2014, young protesters temporarily took control of the national legislature in protest against a free trade agreement with China which the then-ruling KMT government tried to ratify in an undemocratic manner. Protesters feared the agreement would lead to a greater dependence on China.
“Nevertheless, I would say the core values that undergirded the Sunflower Movement — such as the assertion of Taiwanese identity, the rejection of incorporation into a China-centered economy, and young people’s claim about rising inequalities — still remain till now,” he said, adding that these values “no longer empower the DPP.”
While those same values may have driven TPP at this elections, Taiwanese have also voted for other third-party candidates in the past — but they often fall by the wayside, unable to break the rotating KMT-DPP grip on power.
“If Ko and his party are able to work together to yield this power effectively, they could remain an important force in politics,” Newland said, referring to TPP’s eight seats in parliament.
“But that will require the party to be less focused on Ko as an individual, to set clearer policy goals, and to work together, and it’s not clear that those things will happen in a party that has until now been really centered on just one person,” she added.