party lists

Much has been written about the various party lists, especially the KMT list. I don’t want to repeat all of that. Yes, I agree that no one seems to know why the KMT nominated Jason Hsu 許毓仁 and that several important constituencies in the KMT are really pissed off right now. However, I want to look at the lists from a different angle.


From the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, the KMT and DPP had very different ways of producing their party lists. The DPP generally had some sort of contested party primary, with party members voting on nominations. What this meant in practice was that each faction would determine how many people it could support in the safe section of the list and then organize its voters to vote for them. The factions registered large numbers of members for these (and other) contests, and there were often abuses. Factions were wary of allowing their members to be poached, so they kept a tight leash on members’ information. Dozens or even hundreds of members were registered at a single address, which usually turned out to be some faction organizer’s home. The faction bosses sometimes also paid their party dues, so that when it came time to vote, they could count on strict discipline. In nomination contests, faction leaders made deals across different districts. You vote for my candidate in county A, and I’ll vote for your candidate in county B plus give you 150 party list votes. Sometimes loyalty was enough to arrange these complicated deals, but sometimes they were cemented with a cash payment to the voter. Yep, that’s vote buying. It was a clear test of strength, and the factions tended to dominate the resultant party lists. Even when the DPP had three different sections for politicians, women, and experts or disadvantaged groups, the latter two groups were thinly veiled factional contests. Because the primaries took place at the same time as the district primaries, these fights tended to happen in the late spring or early summer of election years, months before the general election.

The KMT did things very differently. It tended to delegate the decision to the party leader, who usually had a committee put together a list. Of course, the leader had the final say if he wanted to exercise that right. However, the party leader didn’t have a free hand to stack the list as he wished. The list was a carefully negotiated bargain between all the different factions of the party, and the committee/leader was simply the final arbiter of the struggles. The KMT always released its list very late in the election campaign, just before the official registration period started. This forced aspirants to work hard for the party during the early and middle stages of the campaign in order to maximize their chances of getting on the list. It also prevented backlashes. If a politician found that she had been left off the list, it was typically too late to launch an independent candidacy in the district. Remember, she wouldn’t have laid any of the groundwork for a district campaign since that would have signaled the party leaders that she was disloyal and didn’t deserve a spot on the list. Moreover, since the list was only released when the final campaign was under way, it was too late to try to launch a rebellion within the party. Supporters were already focused on the party-to-party fight for the general election and would not want to expose divisions within the party. Losers simply had to accept being left off the list.

In 2012, the DPP revised its rules and moved toward the KMT system of delegating construction of the list to the party leader (who then delegated the task to a committee). There were two reasons for this change. First, the Election and Recall Law had recently been amended to extend penalties for vote-buying to cover primary elections as well as general elections. The DPP feared that the KMT would use this new provision to accuse it of vote buying in the primaries. Without reform, there was a real possibility that the DPP could go into an election with half of its list facing indictments for vote buying. That would have been both a public relations nightmare and also a governing disaster, since any conviction would strip the legislator’s seat. Second, the DPP had just gone through a vicious round of factional infighting in 2007 and 2008. By 2010 and 2011, that traumatic experience was still fresh in party members’ minds, and they did not want to go through another naked struggle for power. Delegating the task to the party leader seemed to be a better solution, especially since party chair Tsai Ing-wen did not have her own faction.

It didn’t work out very well for the DPP. The list was a balance of the various factions, and it didn’t go over very well with the general public. During the summer and early fall, there were continuous calls for the DPP to revise its list. Tsai adopted a tough line, refusing to admit there was anything wrong with the list and resisting any efforts to reopen the decision. However, the new system did not produce a list that helped the DPP win votes. This negative image was exacerbated by the glowing reviews the KMT got for its list. Chairman Ma declared he wouldn’t just hand out spoils to the various KMT factions, and he put a few activists in high positions on the list. The media was particularly smitten with the #2 legislator, disabled activist Yang Yu-hsin 楊玉欣. There was a clear contrast in images, with the KMT looking far more progressive.


Military generals are always refighting the previous war, and the KMT and DPP both tried to learn from the experience of 2012 when they put together their lists this year. In 2012, the DPP produced its list much too early. Because there was so much time before the election, the losers felt they had the space to try to reverse the outcomes. This time, Tsai copied the KMT’s traditional strategy and waited until the last possible moment to announce the party list. This worked very well. We haven’t heard much at all about the losers. This late in the campaign, they really don’t have much alternative other than to accept their disappointment and hope that there will be other opportunities to move up the career ladder in the future DPP administration.

The KMT tried to copy its successful 2012 experience. Then it was Yang Yu-hsin. This time Eric Chu looked for other social activists, and he put these high up on the list. His star selling point is Lin Li-chan 林麗蟬, an immigrant from Cambodia. By making her the first immigrant to become a legislator, Chu hoped to create an image for the KMT as a progressive, open, and tolerant party.

However, it isn’t 2012, and the KMT list isn’t selling so well this year. The KMT is so divided right now that even the late release of the list isn’t stopping a backlash by the losers. The various factions are furious, though they don’t all seem to know who they are furious at. They are working hard to keep all that anger under control during the campaign, but dissatisfaction with the list pushed that rage out into the open. Chu has quite a task to turn down the flame and put the lid back on the pot. It would be a challenge for a talented leader.

The other problem is that we can now see what happened with all those social activists from 2012. They haven’t had much success in the legislature. The problem is that simply being a legislator doesn’t mean that you have power. If you don’t have power – meaning support from a large, organized constituency preferably expressed in votes – you won’t have power in the legislator.

Taipei city councilor Liang Wen-chieh 梁文傑 has expressed this sentiment best. He writes that experts are used by political parties as decorations, but the most they can do is to provide expert questioning during the legislative process. When it comes to the actual decision-making, they have almost no influence. The idea that a mere expert could be a powerful legislator has always been a myth. In fact, if the governing party really valued their input, it could have made them cabinet ministers. It put them in the legislature precisely to marginalize their views while still appearing to value those views. As for the social activists, Liang is even more scathing. People like Yang Yu-hsin and Wang Yu-min 王育敏 are only able to help shepherd KMT bills in their areas through the legislative process and hold press conferences to act as attack dogs. People like Chen Pi-han 陳碧涵 and Lee Kuei-min 李貴敏 can’t even serve as attack dogs, and they are completely anonymous legislators.

Eric Chu has put several of these social activists on his list. The angst over whether Jason Hsu is a loyal KMT member and the praise for placing new resident Lin Li-chan on the list misses the point. Neither one of these has any political power going into the legislator, so they won’t have any once they get into it. When it comes time to make important decisions, they will be elbowed into the corner of the room while the big dogs monopolize the center stage. They are merely decorative flower vases. If the KMT really wants to advance progressive causes, it should find a real politician who holds progressive views.


This is an unrelated point, but I have not seen anyone make it yet. The #14 person on the KMT’s list is Lin Yi-hua 林奕華, who was formerly a Taipei city councilor and head of the Taipei city department of education. Chu is selling her as a regional representative, since she apparently has ties to Changhua. This is ridiculous. Lin is a Taipei-style politician, and all her career has been focused in Taipei. If the KMT really insists on sending her to Changhua for the 2018 magistrate race, she is going to get crushed. It is crazy that Chu couldn’t find a real person from central Taiwan for this spot in the list. (Or perhaps this insistence on regional representation is all a disingenuous façade.)

However, I do think Lin’s nomination is significant. She is still fairly young, and she has potential to move up. If she can get into the legislature (and #14 is no sure thing), she could then become a leading candidate for the KMT’s Taipei mayoral nomination. The current crop of KMT Taipei legislators is somewhat drab, and Lin could quickly pass them by. And since the Taipei mayor almost automatically becomes a presidential contender, you can see a path for her to the top job. It’s a very long shot, but if you want to take a bet now on the KMT’s 2028 presidential candidate, she makes more sense than most other names. Of course, this assumes that the KMT still exists in 2028. Also, Lin will have a hard time in that election, since Bi-khim Hsiao 蕭美琴 will be running for re-election.

6 Responses to “party lists”

  1. R Says:

    I love how you state that Hsiao Bi-khim will be running for re-election comes 2028 lol, I too would love to see her as president one day. At least she will stack up well against potential primary opponents in William Lai, Lin Chia-lung, Cheng Wen-tsan, & maybe 羅致政, 管碧玲, or 陳其邁 assuming they succeed in becoming mayors of their cities.

    I’m assuming you are not too enamored with the DPP’s expert/social-activist heavy party list in a similar way to Chen Chien-jen’s vice-presidency?

  2. ジェームス (@jmstwn) Says:

    What were the party list rules before 2005, and have the rule changes affected the parties’ strategies in any way? It seems to me that because the lists are much smaller now, the attention given to each individual on it is magnified, encouraging parties to value reputation more when making selections.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      The lists are not that much smaller now. They used to have 41 + 8 seats, and now they have 34. A bigger difference is that there was no separate vote for the list tier in the past. However, I don’t think the names on the list have ever mattered all that much. Surveys show that most people can’t name anyone on any list, and most of those who can think of at least one name can only think of Wang Jin-pyng. I think the vague image is more important than the actual names. When the list comes out, the media raves or pans it, and this nudges the overall party image in a slightly favorable or unfavorable direction. However, when it comes time to vote, I suspect very few people are thinking the people on the list (as opposed to the party leadership and/or presidential candidate).

  3. David Reid Says:

    Perhaps the DPP has had less troubles with compiling the party list this time because it expects to win government. Many of its members can then expect to be appointed to other positions in the government rather than having to compete for the party list.

    I like the conclusion to this article. 🙂

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Gee, maybe I should have mentioned that Hsiao and her Progressive Socialist Party are extremely popular after establishing diplomatic relations with the Republic of Guangdong and the East China Federation. It’s too bad that Tsai Ing-wen had to give her Nobel Peace Prize back after the international lithium cartel scandal broke.

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