Congress’s Third-largest Party
Can New Power Be an Effective Watchdog?
The New Power Party, founded by social activists, has become the third-largest party in Taiwan’s Legislature. The capacity of these political neophytes to exercise oversight will soon be put to the test.
Can New Power Be an Effective Watchdog?By Yu Pei-hua
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 590 )
The New Power Party (NPP) (時代力量), a political party formed by social movement leaders, captured three district representative seats and two at-large legislator positions in the Legislative Yuan in last Saturday’s election.
Less than a year since its formation, this performance makes the NPP the third-largest party in the Legislature, allowing it to form a party caucus and take part in inter-party consultations and negotiations. The NPP’s victory signifies the rise of a third force outside the sphere of the two major parties (namely the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive party (DPP), which captured the presidency and majority of legislative seats in the election). With its ascendance, the NPP becomes the farthest-left party on the political spectrum in the new Legislature.
The three NPP members elected as local representatives to the Legislature, Hung Tzu-yung (洪慈庸) of Taichung’s 3rd District, Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) of New Taipei’s 12th District, and Freddy Lim (林昶佐) of Taipei City’s 5th District, were all first-time political candidates.
Office Worker, Activist, Rocker
Lacking local organizational background, with no campaign experience, running for office had not originally been part of their plans.
Hung Tzu-yung, 33, admits that before the death of her brother, army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘), she was totally ambivalent about politics. Following the death of her brother in July 2013 shortly before his discharge from military service, she and her aggrieved family received the assistance of human rights lawyer Chiu Hsien-chih (邱顯智) and civic groups to seek justice from the military in court. Their action triggered two 10,000-person public demonstrations, and led to the swift amendment of the Military Justice Act (軍事審判法).
Former Academia Sinica researcher, 42-year-old Huang Kuo-chang, who was also president of the student union at National Taiwan University in his university days, is a long-time observer of social movements. He took part in the 2012 movement against media monopolization, and the subsequent 2014 Sunflower Movement spawned out of resistance to a trade and services agreement with China.
Huang claims that he never had designs on being more than a “water carrier” for others, but when comrades Hung Tzu-yung and Freddy Lim entered the fray and strongly encouraged him to join, he declared his candidacy in July 2015, simultaneously resigning from his tenured position at Academia Sinica.
Freddy Lim is the 39-year-old founder and lead vocalist of metal band ChthoniC. Over the 20 years since its founding, Chthonic has largely focused thematically on Taiwanese history and mythology. Lim has also long been a champion of human rights, having served as the chair of Amnesty International Taiwan. Lim became a founding member of the New Power Party last January.
All three of the NPP’s candidates defeated political veterans for legislative seats, their opponents multi-term incumbents. Huang Kuo-chang’s vanquished opponent, Lee Ching-hua (李慶華), had been a legislator since 1993; Hung Tzu-yung’s foe, Yang Chiung-ying (楊瓊瓔), had been undefeated in five consecutive legislative elections; and Freddy Lim unseated his opponent, Lin Yu-fang (林郁方), after he had served four straight terms.
Lin Chiung-chu (林瓊珠), associate professor of political science at Soochow University in Taipei, offers that various factors including favorable association with the Sunflower Movement and other social movements, popular distrust of the two major parties, and strong new media acumen, helped the New Power Party attract votes. Still, forging an image is relatively simple, and their ability to put their platform into action in the Legislature will be placed under a microscope moving forward. Also of interest is how well they interact with their supposed allies in the DPP.
Beyond the NPP’s party platform and association with student activism, all three elected candidates used victorious DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen’s picture on their campaign materials. DPP support can be said to be a critical factor in their successful campaign.
The DPP did not nominate candidates in any of the three districts with NPP candidates, not just avoiding direct conflict but even pouring resources into helping their campaigns. For instance, Taichung mayor Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) chaired Hung Tzu-yung’s campaign, with current city councilman Tseng Chao-jung (曾朝榮) as director. Former Premier Yu Shyi-kun (游錫堃) accompanied Huang Kuo-chang on neighborhood campaign sweeps, and stumped on the rostrum for Freddy Lim.
In contrast, the NPP’s Chiu Hsien-chih, who failed in his bid for election in Hsinchu, did not make an effort to “consolidate” forces with DPP candidate Ker Chien-min (柯建銘). Despite support from lawyers and youth activists from different areas, Chiu’s team engaged in little cooperation with grass-roots organizations, which limited its local visibility.
The NPP’s two at-large legislative seats went to Kawlo Iyun Pacidal (高潞．以用．巴魕剌), executive director of the Millet Foundation, a Taiwanese indigenous rights advocacy group, and Soochow University Professor Hsu Yung-ming (徐永明).
Scrutiny of Expertise
Despite partial cooperation with the DPP in the elections, the New Power Party has always styled itself as Taiwan’s “third force” in politics. At a press conference leading up to the election, party chairman Huang Kuo-chang said that the NPP will lend its full support to Tsai Ing-wen’s reform bills, but will take a “rational oversight” approach to preserve the balance of executive and legislative powers.
However, as the DPP will have an absolute legislative majority, the impact of the NPP’s five legislators’ oversight in the Legislative Yuan may not reach the level their supporters hope for.
With all the parties calling for Legislative reform in some form or another, the New Power Party advocates restricting party caucus negotiation to procedural agenda issues so as to return discussion of bills to the realm of committees and full member sessions. The party also hopes to introduce “minority dissent rights,” so that major controversial bills can be handed over to public referendums with the consent of a certain number of legislators.
The NPP’s cross-strait policy advocates beginning with formulating oversight provisions to ensure that Taiwan and China engage in fair and equitable intercourse. This way, consultation and negotiation in place of the street protests of the past can be subject to oversight in the Legislature.
Other parties’ cooperation is necessary to put these policies into play.
Hsu Szu-chien (徐斯儉), associate research fellow at the Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica, says that the soon-to-be ruling party DPP and defeated KMT will both lean towards centrist voters going forward. Consequently, if the NPP wants to play the role of watchdog and find its market positioning among voters, it must walk its own path. And society is looking expectantly to the NPP, having achieved political power, to become a force for rational oversight.
Sociologist and founder of Open Learning Publishing (開學文化), Ku Chung-Hwa (顧忠華), finds that the NPP’s showing in the election has opened eyes, but the party’s assemblage of political newbies and their grasp of legislative expertise, as well as the brains backing them up, will be put to the test moving forward.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman