Independent Candidates: How Independent Can They Afford to Be?Unless it wants to be the eternal outsider, the ‘third force’ in Taiwanese politics must agree to form strategic coalitions within the system
The decision by a number of social activists and academics in recent months to step over the line and dirty their hands in the muck of electoral politics is a healthy development in Taiwan’s contemporary history. In the past few weeks, two new parties — the New Power Party (NPP) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) — have come into being, promising to shake up a political environment that without doubt has ossified over the years. By bringing fresh faces and ideas to the political arena, new independent parties bring hopes of rejuvenation to the nation. But how independent can this third force really be?
The decision to form a new party already tells us a few things about the state of mind of its creators and points to a disagreement (usually along ideological lines) with existing parties and the system of which they are part. The goal is therefore to propose something new, to promote a specific issue (e.g., environmentalism), or to change the system from within.
With the NPP and the SDP, the decision to enter politics undoubtedly stems from the perception that the system is broken, that the main political parties — the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — and smaller ones (e.g., Taiwan Solidarity Union, New Party) are not viable channels by which to promote their policies. While it would be much easier for a fledging politician fresh off the streets or the classroom to join an existing party (and a number of them have done just that), they refuse to do so. They want a clean slate and to avoid being “tainted” by the parties whose perceived failures compelled them to enter politics. Some gone as far as to state that they will never cooperate with any of the main political parties. For example, Fan Yun (范雲), a professor of sociology at National Taiwan University (NTU) who will run for Taipei’s Daan District in the 2016 legislative elections on the SDP ticket, has expressed strong reservations about working with the KMT or the DPP, calling them both “untrustworthy.”
Be that as it may, independent candidates will never be truly independent. In the current environment, which is very much stacked in favor of the establishment, some form of cooperation with existing parties will be essential. Such a strategy certainly worked for Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) during the “nine-in-one” campaign. His victory in the Taipei election was in large part the result of his receiving the tacit support of the DPP, which chose not to field its own candidate. Had the DPP and Ko not acted strategically, there is a good chance that the “green” vote would have been split and that KMT candidate Sean Lien (連勝文) would be Taipei mayor today.
If and once they get elected, independent candidates will have to rely even more on strategic alliances if they are to have any influence in the legislature or at city councils. Unless their goal is to remain on the margins, they will have to put their pride and loathing for existing parties aside and form coalitions with likeminded individuals who are active within the system. And for the NPP and SDP, that means cooperating with the DPP and other smaller and ideologically compatible parties in the green camp to form a countervailing force against the KMT, perhaps even to break its majority in parliament.
Of course, for independent parties to agree to work with existing parties, the latter will have to show goodwill and agree to integrate the input provided by the third force. This is easier said than done, as conservative voices within existing parties have the unfortunate tendency to treat political neophytes and those who are not part of the system with condescension. The two sides will therefore have to meet halfway: existing parties will need to demonstrate their willingness to work with independents, while the third force will have to accept that their maximalist positions will sometimes have to pass through the grinder of compromise.
Based on how she handled the Ko candidacy in Taipei, DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has demonstrated her vision to work with a third force and thereby empower new politicians. Had her predecessor been in charge, Ko would very likely be back at NTU Hospital’s trauma unit and not in a position to bring the kind of change that he has brought to the capital in just a few months. Although there is admittedly some resistance within her party, Tsai is without doubt committed to working with independent candidates and civil society in order to form a grand coalition in the future. She is doing so already, though by necessity this must sometime occur quietly behind the scenes.
Change has been slow at the DPP, which continues to be weighed down by dinosaurs. But if Tsai gets her way, it will not be business as usual for much longer, and the DPP could once again be a force for progress in Taiwanese politics. By giving Tsai the benefit of the doubt, and by agreeing to cooperate with her party, small independent parties can help generate the momentum that is necessary to reform the DPP — and then the whole political structure in Taiwan. The DPP needs small allies, and small allies need the DPP. Conversely, zero-sum games only promise failure and more of the untenable same.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.