January 11, 2024
SINGAPORE – When Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) legislative candidate Jennifer Lee Yo-yi drove through New Taipei city to canvass for votes recently, the person standing next to her atop the vehicle was not a fellow party member.
It was Mr Han Kuo-yu, the influential former Kaohsiung mayor of her rival party, the Kuomintang (KMT).
“We’re from different parties, but I admire the excellent Lee Yo-yi,” Mr Han told the crowd at the Jan 4 event.
“Give her a chance – let new energy and new change enter the Legislative Yuan,” the 66-year-old added, referring to Taiwan’s Parliament.
It was a striking sight. Mr Han had donned a baseball jacket in his party’s signature blue, with the letters KMT emblazoned on the front, while Ms Lee wore a TPP campaign vest in her party’s white. Yet, the two were campaigning together.
Ms Lee, 33, is gunning for the legislative seat in New Taipei’s second electoral district, which covers the areas of Wugu, Luzhou and parts of Sanchong.
It is seen as a tough fight as she is up against Ms Lin Shu-fen of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who has been the district’s legislative representative since 2012.
“There is a common goal (between the KMT and the TPP) to replace the DPP here,” Ms Lee told The Straits Times.
“The ‘green camp’ has held on to power here for too long in this district,” she added, referring to the DPP’s party colour.
It was only one of several instances in recent days when the two opposition parties collaborated to secure more legislative seats. The moves appeared to make good on their October 2023 promise to “support each other and maximise their seats” in Parliament to “deepen democracy”.
This is despite the fact that the two parties had failed in spectacular fashion to form a joint presidential ticket in November 2023, when they could not come to an agreement over which candidate would lead such a unity bid.
Taiwan heads to the polls on Jan 13 in a pivotal vote that will shape cross-strait relations for years to come.
But while much attention has been focused on the presidential election, the concurrently held legislative elections are just as important and their outcome will be key to an effective government.
Analysts have noted the likely event that the DPP will lose its legislative majority in the legislature, which would limit the powers of its presidential candidate Lai Ching-te even if he were to secure the top job.
Mr Lai is seen as a front runner in the presidential race, ahead of Mr Hou Yu-ih of the KMT and Dr Ko Wen-je of the TPP.
“Lai might win the presidency, and even then it probably won’t be by a wide margin. There is a sense of fatigue with the ruling party after eight years in absolute power,” said Associate Professor Huang Jaw-nian, a political scientist at Taipei’s National Chengchi University.
“People are dissatisfied with how the DPP handled policy areas such as stagnant wages and housing unaffordability, so they want change.”
The DPP currently has 62 seats in the legislature, while the KMT and the TPP have 37 and five seats, respectively.
In Taiwan’s 113-seat legislature, 73 are elected from single-seat constituencies, six are reserved for indigenous candidates, and the remaining 34 are reserved for a proportional-representation party list vote.
Should the ruling party lose its legislative majority, debate over Taiwan’s defence programmes would likely intensify, said Associate Professor Chen Shih-min from National Taiwan University.
“There are questions on whether the progress of some of President Tsai Ing-wen’s most high-profile defence programmes, such as the domestically built submarine, will be stalled by the opposition camp, who may want to focus more attention on fostering trade links with Beijing,” he said.
Prof Chen noted how former president Chen Shui-bian of the DPP had difficulty advancing his agenda during his first term between 2000 and 2004 due to the pan-blue coalition in the legislature.
For instance, he had faced challenges securing approval from the legislature to terminate the construction of a nuclear power plant, which was one-third complete at the time, Prof Chen said.
During this election season, Mr Lai himself has ramped up calls for his supporters to ensure that his party maintains its legislative majority so that “current progressive policies” will not be disrupted.
“There is only one Ma Wen-chun in the legislature right now, but if the KMT secures a majority, many more Ma Wen-chuns may enter Parliament and block policies in foreign affairs and defence,” he said at a Jan 8 rally in Yilan, northern Taiwan.
Ms Ma, a KMT lawmaker, has stood in the way of some foreign affairs and defence policies.
She was accused in October 2023 of leaking classified information about Taiwan’s domestically built submarine – one of President Tsai’s most high-profile defence programmes – to the South Korean government. Ms Ma has denied the accusations.
Observers believe that neither the DPP nor its main opposition, the KMT, will gain a majority in the legislature – which would leave the smaller TPP with an outsized role in how the government will function.
Even though the KMT and the TPP are working together at this stage to secure legislative seats, the TPP’s chairman and founder, Dr Ko, remains an unpredictable force, analysts say.
“Ko is an opportunistic politician, and says things to suit the situation. It’s hard to predict if his party will block or advance the president’s legislative priorities,” said Prof Chen.
“The TPP could hold the balance of power in the Legislative Yuan.”
Taiwanese legislative candidates to watch
Ms Hsu Chiao-hsin, 34, KMT
Considered one of KMT’s rising stars, Ms Hsu is seen by some to be key in the party’s attempts to appeal to younger people, despite her penchant for courting controversy.
Known for being brutally honest – though some critics would say, offensive – she once called a DPP politician a “pervert” after he was photographed holding a female friend’s hand.
Ms Hsu started out in politics in her mid-20s as a spokeswoman for former KMT chair Hung Hsiu-chu, before eventually winning a seat on the Taipei City Council in 2018.
She was re-elected in 2022, and is now running for a legislative seat in Taipei’s seventh electoral district, which covers the areas of Xinyi and parts of Songshan.
Ms Hsu is up against four other candidates, including veteran DPP politician Hsu Shu-hua.
Ms Su Chiao-hui, 47, DPP
The lawyer-turned-politician debuted on the political stage in 2016 as the eldest daughter of former Taiwanese premier Su Tseng-chang. But she has since come into her own as a two-term legislator of New Taipei’s fifth electoral district, which covers Shulin, Yingge and Xinzhuang, where she claimed credit for helping to kick-start the construction of a new metro subway station.
Ms Su is now hoping to retain her seat in the constituency against a challenge from the KMT’s Ms Hung Chia-chun.
Ms Huang Shan-shan, 54, TPP
Ms Huang is a veteran politician who started out as a Taipei city councillor with the pro-unification New Party in 1998, before working as a city councillor with the People’s First Party.
In 2019, she was tapped to work under then Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je as his deputy. It was a working relationship, which was cordial enough for him to back her candidacy to replace him in 2022 despite her not being a member of his party at the time.
She lost the race, but joined the TPP in April 2023, and has since been seen as a trusted member of Dr Ko’s presidential campaign team.
Ms Huang is now ranked first on the TPP’s legislator-at-large list for the legislative elections.
In Taiwan, 34 of the legislature’s 113 seats are reserved for a proportional-representation party list.
This means she will be guaranteed a seat if the TPP receives at least 5 per cent of the total votes on the party ballot, something it is expected to achieve.
Dr Puma Shen, 41, DPP
Dr Shen, a criminology professor with expertise in disinformation, is listed as No. 2 on the DPP’s legislator-at-large list.
This essentially guarantees him a seat in the legislature, as the party is expected to easily surpass the required 5 per cent of the total votes on the party ballot.
He is also the co-founder of Kuma Academy, a non-profit civil defence organisation that gives training to civilians on everything from first aid to modern warfare strategies and invasion scenarios.
The organisation gained prominence in 2022 when Taiwanese billionaire Robert Tsao said he would fund NT$600 million (S$25.7 million) to train more than three million “civilian warriors” through the academy to help defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.