Ko Wen-ji, a third-party presidential candidate, may permanently change Taiwan’s two-party system

Ko Wen-je's election campaign via Ko Wen-je's Facebook page.

The rising popularity of 64-year-old Ko Wen-je, the Taiwan People’s Party's (TPP) presidential candidate, makes the upcoming general elections in Taiwan distinctive from past elections.

Taiwan has evolved into a two-party system after Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took over the presidency in 2000 and ended the single-party authoritative regime under the Kuomintang (KMT). Since then, the presidential elections have been viewed as a race between pro-China KMT, known as the blue clan, and pro-Taiwan independence DPP, known as the green clan. 

This year, a new political colour, white, has emerged and, somewhat challenged the status quo of the Taiwanese two-party system, a choice between the KMT and DPP.

Established in July 2019, Ko’s party, TPP, has, by far, the fewest resources among the three political parties. However, according to several election polls, Ko’s popularity surpassed Hou's in July 2023, and the support rate between Ko and Hou was more or less the same until mid-November after Ko signed an agreement with KMT to form an election coalition:

Although the deal collapsed within one week, it has resulted in a significant drop in Ko’s support rate while Hou Yu-ih of the KMT saw about a 10 percent gain, according to a major election poll ET today.

This implies that the upcoming presidential elections are still a race between Wiliam Lai Ching-te of the DPP and Hou Yu-ih of the KMT.

While Ko may not reign victorious, his popularity cannot be ignored as it marks a shift in the political mentality of many Taiwanese voters.  

Ko Wen-je and the emergence of the white clan

Ko was a medical doctor practising at the National Taiwan University Hospital before he won Taipei’s mayoral election in 2014 as an independent candidate, though with the support of DPP. He was re-elected again in 2018, beating down both KMT and DPP’s candidates. 

In July 2019, he proposed to establish TPP as an alternative to DPP and KMT, and he was elected as the TPP’s chair in the political party’s founding assembly in August 2019. Ko entered the presidential race in May 2023.

Since 2014, white has been a theme in Ko's election campaign as the colour symbolizes medical doctors’ uniforms. 

In the current election campaign, the colour took on new meaning with the mainland Chinese “white paper protests”, which refers to a series of protests against COVID-19 lockdowns in mainland China at the end of 2022.  The colour came to represent the powerless pushing back against the authoritarian state.

In 2024, Ko Wen-je and his campaign team urged his supporters to write down their political goals on a piece of A4 paper and show them at his election campaign rallies.

Ko Wen-je invites his supporters to write down their hopes for Taiwan's future on an A4 paper. Ko's paper reads: I wish for peace and well-being for Taiwanese people. Image from Ko Wen-je's Facebook.

Ko’s supporters are mainly urban young people who are frustrated with the two-party system, which restricts their choice between pro-China blue and counter-China green, as explained by Hsiao Yi-ching, a research fellow of the Election Study Center:

In one major poll, Ko’s supporting rate in June 2023 was up to 67 percent among people aged 20–24 and 40 percent among aged 25-34. 

The young middle class hopes the ruling party can address domestic issues such as low income, surging property prices, inadequate labour rights protection, and more. Ko Wen-je’s policy platform, which focuses on domestic policies, such as increasing the supply of public housing and proposing taxation reform, provides them with an alternative choice. 

Since the beginning of his political career in 2014, Ko won strong support from the young generation because of his explicit support for the Sunflower Student Movement, a series of protests that occurred when the then-ruling KMT tried to pass the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) with China. The agreement would liberalize trade between the two economies in service industries such as banking, healthcare, tourism, film, telecommunications, and publishing.

Ko appeals to frustrated young people, who conventionally are DPP’s supporters, by slamming the ruling DPP's failure to improve people's livelihood despite economic growth: 

Notably, his campaign team tweaked the mainland Chinese buzzword “chives” 韮菜 into “grass” 小草 to describe the exploited majority.

In traditional Chinese literature, grass symbolises the resilience of the powerless, which can withstand a repressive environment. Ko urged the powerless grass to aggregate and stand up for change. Below is an unofficial election campaign video depicting Ko's grass supporters:

Read also: Why are Taiwanese politics and society still male-dominated: Interview with scholar Jhang Chu-cin.

However, as a result of the oppositional alliance talk between TPP and KMT and Ko's shifting political stand towards China — particularly his endorsement for resurrecting the CSSTA in order to restart communication with China —Ko's support rate dropped to around 20 percent in the final election polls on January 2, 2024.

As Ko has little chance of winning the presidency, the KMT is appealing to his supporters for their strategic votes to overtake William Lai of the DPP. 

On January 1, 2023, Hou Yu-ih of the KMT called on Ko Wen-je to join forces in the presidential elections, but Ko rejected Hou's proposal, stating that he would not negotiate with a China-backed candidate. Instead, his New Year campaign strategy is to mobilize his young supporters to lobby their parents and grandparents to vote for him. According to Taiwan's political demography, older demographics are more likely to support the KMT.

Although Ko Wen-je will likely not take charge in the foreseeable future, his popularity and middle-way politics may place the TPP as a pivotal force in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's parliament, and future elections, as Ko envisioned.  The TPP aims to become a critical minority party in the Legislative Yuan by doubling its seats to 10 out of 113 in the upcoming General Elections.

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