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Taiwan Green Party 2016 Elections: Q&A with Ken-cheng Lee, former Party Co-Chair

  • Interviewee: Ken-cheng Lee (李根政), former Taiwan Green Party Co-Chair
  • Interviewer: Keli Yen (顏克莉), Global Greens Coordinator

Question: In what ways were Taiwan’s 16 January 2016 general elections significant for Taiwan and the Taiwan Green Party?

Answer: Taiwan’s presidential elections this year led to a shift in power from the formerly ruling Kuomingtang party (KMT or Nationalist) to the Democratic People’s Movement (DPP), and the third time in which Taiwan experienced a change in the government party since the end of martial law in 1987.  This is an important achievement for a country with a relatively recent transition to democracy.  The election outcome is a result of the many social conflicts experienced in Taiwan during the time in which the KMT have been in power, from 2008 to 2016, resulting in clashes between civil society movements and the KMT.  Despite the DPP actually contributing little to civil society movements in recent years, the DPP gained the most politically.

My second observation from this election is the exceptionally high competition for the Party Vote, an increase from 11 parties in 2012 to 18 parties in 2016 contesting the party vote.  Consequently voters now have a relatively better understanding of the importance of the party vote compared to 2012.

In 2012 the Greens received nearly 230,000 votes (1.74%), and this year the Green Party and the Social Democratic Union coalition received 308,000 votes (2.53%).  Although there is growth, we were still unable to cross the party vote threshold of 3.5% and the non-constituency (list) threshold of 5%. Pre-election polls had indicated that we could break through, but in the end there was a significant gap between our expectations and the election results.

A third observation is that the ratio of our supporters using Facebook is quite high.  Commentators have joked that on Facebook the Green Party appears to be the largest party because our supporters turn up everywhere.  This is likely because members of both parties in the coalition are active community which cares about the environment, labor and social issues.

Although our election result was not as we expected, but compared to 2012, we gained a lot more support from civil society organisations and communities and 308,000 supporters of the coalition is a very important foundation for our subsequent development.


Question: What were some of the key political issues in this election?

Answer: Taiwan’s relationship with China remains a contentious issue.  The incident just prior to election day in which the Taiwanese singer Chou Tzu-yu (周子瑜) publicly apologised to China for holding a Taiwan flag stimulated a great deal of conscious and emotions about Taiwan leaving many Taiwanese feeling bullied by China.  Young Taiwanese today are referred to as “naturally independent” (“天然獨”) because have throughout their life considered Taiwan as a sovereign and independent country.  We have our own national institutions, elect our own president and legislators, have our own army, territory and social system which has nothing to do with China; so they naturally feel that Taiwan is an independent country.  The Chou Tzu-yu incident affected voting behavior, causing citizens to prioritise a party that they think has the most strength in confronting China, and concluded perhaps it’s still the DPP.  So many votes that would have gone to the Green Party coalition went instead to the DPP on that basis.

Many of the Green Party’s supporters of our position on environmental protection, distributive justice and labour issues did not however vote for us.  For instance, after the election the Greens launched a fundraising call and when we asked those who donated to us whether they had voted for the coalition, the answered turned out to be “no”.  They replied that although they are long time time supporters of the Greens, this time they did not vote for us because in this election their first priority was to remove the Nationalists from government.

In conclusion, I think that the most important factor influencing the vote is still Taiwan-Chinese relations.  On this basis, for many people their priorities are: 1) Defeat the Nationalists, 2) resist China; and these two things are often mixed together.


Question: What is the Taiwan Green Party’s position on relations with China?  And to what extent does that influence voter’s political choice?

Answer: Taiwan Green Party’s position on China is actually very clear.  We believe that Taiwan is a sovereign and independent country and that in the same spirit of the Global Greens Charter we emphasize people’s right to decide their own future, the principle of self-determination.  Although Green Party Taiwan played an important role in the 2014 social movement against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, the public still does not have a strong impression of our policy on China.  At the 2015 Asia Pacific Greens Federation congress, Green Party Taiwan passed a resolution on Taiwan Self-Determination, but our declarations and activism on this is indeed relatively small, so I think Green Party Taiwan needs to work harder on our China policy.

However, given Taiwan’s special national situation, even if we strengthen our publicity, the majority of those with a Taiwan consciousness would still choose a party that could strongly confront China.


Question: Was there a debate in this election on each political party’s China policy?

Answer: The DPP adopted a vague strategy to “maintain the status quo”, while the Nationalists’ approach over their eight years in government generated a social discontent that they could not correct.  Because of the enormous benefits that KMT senior officials and financial groups both received from their relationship with China, they became known as a “cross-strait political and business elite group”, that reputation was a major reason for the Nationalists’ election defeat.


Question: What other political issues are voters concerned about?

Answer: Issues such as food safety are often absorbed by the DPP.  Although there remains disagreement between the conservatives and progressives within the DPP, the party put forward a few legislative candidates who have a background in social movements which made them more approachable to civil society.  Of course the Green Party’s policies are more clear and progressive than the DPP, there are still too few voters who know what we advocate.  The Green Party is not well known enough nationally; if the electorate doesn’t know about the Green Party then it would be even harder for them to know about our policies.  Voters are used to first getting to know a person (the candidate), then knowing the party, and only lastly knowing the policy.  “Political celebrities” have a significant influence on election outcomes.  It’s difficult to educate voters about the party and policy.  In my experience as a candidate of the Green-Socialist coalition although I’m well known in social movement circles, I’m not a well known political figure among the general public.


Question: What next steps will the Green Party take now?

Answer:  I have been reflecting a lot since the elections.  Some people have commented that the Green-Socialist coalition is not “grounded” (不接”地氣”) which means that we’re too far away from people.  Actually in this election the Green Party put forward many candidates who have for a long time stood with vulnerable persons, the environment, labor and social struggles.  Our coalition received a lot of support from civil society groups, trade unions both politically and materially which was unprecedented in Taiwan.  But the election results show that these communities who defend social minorities and the voiceless environment are still relatively small in society or not necessarily reflected on the ballot paper.

In recent years hundred of thousands of people took to the streets in the anti-nuclear and anti-trade agreement movements.  But participants in such large scale social movements are not necessarily the Green Party or the coalition’s core communities.  The protesters might support particular issues but do not necessarily feel that Taiwan needs a new political choice.


Question: Following this reflection, what adjustments does Green Party Taiwan want to make?

I can think of a few questions.  One is how do we manage the political media?  The media is an important channel through which voters to get to know us, but Taiwan’s mainstream media does not discuss public policy.  Media around the world has the same problem of manipulation by financial groups, and in such an unhealthy media environment, how does a political worker cater to the tastes of the media?  For example, I am also not used to being exposed to the media every day; and in the end is it appropriate when the politicians do so?  This is a difficult issue and does not necessarily have an immediate answer.

A second question is how can the unfair electoral system be changed?  The 5% threshold is too high and election expenses are too high.  For small parties raising tens of millions of NT dollars for an election is too difficult, but without that level of election expense voters may not even have the chance to know you.  In this election the Green-Socialist coalition spent about NT$15 million nationally, which is possibly less than the campaign expenses for a single KMT or DPP legislative candidate.  And using that same amount for a national campaign is really inadequate.  So what are our next steps moving forward, my view is: because it’s difficult for us to immediately have advantage in the media, we must therefore grow our roots (扎根).  Continually be in contact with voters and recognise that building our political success will take time.  We must be hard-working and recognise that even with long-term planning, overcoming the 5% threshold in the 2020 election will still not be easy.  However at the next local elections in 2018, because it is a plural constituency election, we have a better change. If we have good candidates, plus our 2016 electoral base, and work hard to gain the support of voters, we will have the opportunity to win seats.

Finally, I feel that training our candidate’s political skills is very important.  Enabling our party management to take root requires resources, which usually means that candidates need to get a job in order to affording doing political work, but their employment also prevents candidates from fully focusing on their political work, that’s the dilemma.  So I used to think that political talent should grow from social movements as they are already working on political issues, however in actuality there are not many people in social movements who are both interested and able to contest in elections.  So we need to continually deepen our community base and develop political talent.  In politics one must always work to find resources and people in order to take our next steps.


Question: What kind of qualities do you think most need to be cultivated in political talent?

Answer: This relates back to the dilemma we just spoke about.  Having media attention is very important, but it’s hard to find someone who can both attract the media and be a team player.  I think that the ideal political figure must to a certain have team spirit!  Politicians are not a “god”, our power comes from the people, realising our our political ideals depends upon social progress and communities working together.  Depending upon upon one’s personal ability to influence the media, for example in the case of the Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je who’s popularity is inflated by the media’s excessive attention, the politician’s ability to deal with a variety of problems tends to be rough and problematic.


Question: At the Green Party’s upcoming general assembly, how do you plan to discuss the party’s experience in the elections and future direction?

Answer:  The general assembly will be held May 28, 2016, and will hold elections to fill the indigenous seat vacancy in the party’s Executive Committee.  The full Executive will be re-elected at the end of its term next year.  

Each assembly is quite exhausting and there will only be enough time to discuss the proposed motions.  Unless we increase the duration of the whole meeting, we won’t be able to also have a dialogue or discussion on our experience in the elections.  Just after the elections the Green-Socialist coalition did hold three discussion sessions, in Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung.  If there’s still need for discussion, we can arrange a time after the general assembly, particularly to begin preparing for the 2018 elections.


Question: During the elections you served as both candidate and party Co-Convenor, you must be very tired; how do you feel?

Answer: Political work is really not easy, and it’s a lot of learning.  The Green Party needs more people to participate and assume responsibility in order to move forward and generate a positive cycle.


Question: What kind of participation?

Answer: Contributing their time, abilities, social networks so that we can together fundraise for the party to find more resources, connections and social power; that’s what we mean by taking root, by linking our communities to grow stronger together.


Question: so in that spirit, how can I and the Global Greens help Green Party Taiwan?

Answer: International exchanges has always been an important quality of Green Party Taiwan.  Hearing you speak about the experiences of Green Parties in other countries, I think it would be really useful for us if you could write these experiences down and provide to us in Taiwan for reference.  Green Party Taiwan is indeed caught in a dilemma, and the internal operations of the party is quite laborious.  In the past the Green party had accumulated some negative issues, and we’ve spent a lot of time to resolve them since we’ve always wanted to generate positivity, but some old issues still return and distract our efforts today.  Moreover, the process of forming a coalition in this election was very difficult due to differences of opinion in the party.  So I am very curious whether Greens in other countries have gone through a similar process and how they dealt with it.  

Keli: Green Parties around the world all experience ups and downs throughout their history.  That’s normal, so don’t worry, the future if full of potential for further growth, success and sunshine!

05/24/2016 – 19:58


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