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Opinion

Taiwan's new centrist political party is struggling for space

Issues of sovereignty and Hong Kong protests dominate discussions

Taipei city mayor Ko Wen-je's new political party is having a hard time carving out space between Taiwan's two largest parties   © AP

The first half of August in Taiwan's political party scene has proved to be rowdier than usual as next year's presidential and legislative elections draw closer. New Power Party, the current third largest political party, lost two influential members in a dispute over the party's direction, and its chairman resigned.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je, has decided to give forming a new political party a go. His hope for the Taiwan People's Party is to capture votes from the center ground. This is unlike the NPP, which occupies the "pro-independence" political space, with its advocacy for Taiwan to become a normal sovereign nation.

Ko told reporters during the launch of his party that, as a trained surgeon, he would be able to clean up the political scene and introduce necessary reforms. His view on what matters to the Taiwanese was grand, however in a muddled, even chaotic, political scene, his party's future as the "alternative choice" will be extremely challenging.

The two major parties, the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, and the Nationalist Chinese Party, known as Kuomintang or KMT, already occupy most of the political space in Taiwan.

In Taiwan, the major difference between the two largest political parties is their policies on dealing with the People's Republic of China. The KMT still attempts to adhere to the so-called "1992 Consensus," which says there is only "one China but with two interpretations," leaving open whether sovereignty rests in the Republic of China, that is, Taiwan, or the PRC. The KMT's presidential candidate, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, has repeatedly said that he accepts the "1992 Consensus."

President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP, on the other hand, rejects the "1992 Consensus" and responded defiantly to PRC President Xi Jinping's message to the Taiwanese earlier this year that the only option for Taiwan is a version of Hong Kong's "one country, two systems," which the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese opposed.

Tsai has also emphasized that the election of 2020 is going to be a fight to maintain the freedom, democracy and values that come with a democratic system and said Taiwan will not succumb to pressure.

Tsai further elaborated her position by promising that "Taiwan will not become the second Hong Kong as long as I am president" and declaring: "Hong Kong's example has proved once and for all that democracy and authoritarianism cannot coexist."

President Tsai Ing-wen has taken a defiant attitude about Taiwan's independence   © Reuters

President Tsai's poll numbers this week in a survey by an organization which normally favors her opponents, surpassed Mayor Han for the very first time, leaving Mayor Ko in the last place if he become a presidential candidate.

With so much discussion on unification, anyone who attempts to form a new party will immediately have to face the elephant in the room, the PRC.

Mayor Ko's method has been, on the one hand, wooing anti-China votes by claiming that he was "deep green" in 2014, which means a strong advocate for Taiwan independence. But then after he was elected, he said that "both sides of the Strait [of Taiwan] are of one family" and has since received harsh criticism for the statement.

On the other hand, his party also faces challenges capturing votes from the more China-friendly side due to his former close affiliation with the pro-independence camp.

More recently, Ko jokingly commented that Hong Kongers who were protesting "were tainted by the Taiwanese, because they come to Taiwan too often, so they behaved in such manner."

Netizens flooded Ko's Facebook page with angry comments, criticizing Ko for appeasing China. In the last two weeks, more than 100,000 people retracted their "likes" for Ko. As the result, his "likes" have slipped to around 2 million.

Moreover, while the situation in Hong Kong has captured the attention of most Taiwanese, especially the youth, it has also forced potential political candidates to declare their position regarding "one country, two systems" and the defense of Taiwan's democratic way of life.

Ko, now as the Taiwan People's Party chairman, has decided to remain relatively silent on China's deplorable human rights records.

Unless the third political party can produce a policy platform or form an alliance that can capture constituents' attention about how it will improve their lives, the new party will find itself in a struggle for the already cramped political space and for support from the general public.

Mayor Ko, Foxconn’s Chairman Terry Guo -- who lost the KMT primary -- and Wang Jin-pyng, former Speaker of the Legislative Yuan, are planning an appearance together this week as a demonstration of possible collaboration.

Whether a third party can be influential in Taiwan's political scene remains to be seen, but this does make an exciting campaign season.

Ketty W. Chen is vice president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.

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