Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower Student Movement, which saw a groundswell of civic opposition to a planned trade deal with Beijing, also inspired the formation of the New Power Party (NPP), a political movement aiming to serve as a third option in contrast to the then-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which won the presidency in 2016.
Now, as President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP heads into the heart of her campaign to be re-elected in January 2020, several notable figures have left the NPP amid internal disagreement over whether to support Tsai’s candidacy, leaving the upstart party in sudden disarray.
Earlier this month, legislator and heavy metal star Freddy Lim, perhaps the most visible face of the NPP, announced he would leave the party and endorse Tsai. Lim’s departure pushed key members of NPP leadership, such as party chairperson Handy Chiu, to state that the party was prepared to support Tsai, although the issue remained contentious within the NPP.
Then, on Monday, Chiu surprisingly announced his resignation as party chair, citing the internal conflict over whether to back the DPP – which shares the NPP’s goal of keeping Taiwan free from the influence of Beijing – or whether to remain a “third force” in the upcoming presidential race.
The next day, in an afternoon press conference, the NPP said it would try to convince Chiu to stay on as party chair. An hour later, NPP legislator Hung Tzu-yung called a press conference to announce her own departure from the party. Hung, like Lim, said she would run for re-election as an independent, adding that her move was necessary to prevent the party from being “trapped in a standoff” over its level of collaboration with the DPP and other parties in the associated pan-Green coalition.
Aside from the departures, the NPP has also been roiled by a conflict of interest scandal involving the since-suspended Legislator Kawlo Iyun Pacidal, in which two nongovernmental organizations run by her former legislative assistant allegedly received government subsidies earmarked for clean energy facilities.
The NPP now finds itself in search of both a leader and an identity. The party made its mark by calling not only for protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty, but for implementing more progressive policies on domestic issues such as raising the minimum wage, legalizing same-sex marriage and safeguarding the rights of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples.
As the party has grown, it has always considered the question of whether it should cooperate with the DPP, which campaigns on a similar, yet often more moderate, domestic platform. In 2016, the NPP endorsed Tsai’s presidential bid, and while the two parties did not coordinate with each other, the NPP ran legislators only in districts tacitly vacated by the DPP. The strategy paid off, as the NPP won five seats in Taiwan’s legislature.
Now that Lim and Hung have departed and Kawlo has been suspended, there are only two NPP representatives serving in Taiwan’s legislature, one short of the three needed to form a caucus.
Those two seats are held by Legislators Hsu Yung-ming and Huang Kuo-chang, the latter of whom was the NPP’s chairperson before leaving that position earlier this year. In June, Huang threatened to leave the party should the NPP become a “sidekick” of the DPP by cooperating with the ruling party in the 2020 elections. Later that month, Hsu said the party should think about running its own presidential candidate.
Speculation has mounted that Huang could attempt to take back his old job as chairperson. As a major player in the NPP, this could lead to the party becoming remade in his image. But there is also a high possibility of the party following other members of Taiwan’s pan-Green coalition and pushing for cooperation with the DPP in the upcoming presidential and legislative elections.
As Taiwan’s largest political party aside from the DPP and KMT, the NPP has often drawn voters frustrated by the country’s two-party politics.
Last year, Tsai’s approval ratings found themselves in freefall as the DPP appeared weak on confronting China, losing three diplomatic allies to Beijing, and on implementing domestic policy changes, such as jumpstarting the economy and legalizing gay marriage. The DPP was humiliated in regional elections held late last year that saw upstart KMT candidates, such as Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, win seats previously held by the DPP.
But the DPP has seen a resurgence this year as it portrays itself as the best option to fend off the influence of China on Taiwan’s politics, its media, and its sovereignty. It also successfully passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, strengthened ties between Taipei and Washington, and assertively backed protesters in Hong Kong. Tsai is performing well in head-to-head hypothetical matchups against Han, the Kaohsiung mayor who is now the KMT’s candidate for president.
This left the NPP with a dilemma it has ultimately been unable to resolve. The party will either support the DPP – tacitly or through direct coordination – or forge its own path, although what that path might be remains unclear.
The NPP has had similar internal debates in the past, including on whether to support Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, who won re-election as an independent last November. But Ko, who recently formed his own political party and has been rumored to be considering his own run for president, has views on cross-strait relations wildly divergent from those of both DPP and NPP heavyweights. The NPP will now decide whether it will remain an alternative to Taiwan’s two major parties, even as many of its members are inclined to back Tsai’s bid for re-election. Before it decides, however, it will have to find a new leader.