Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Measuring and Explaining Party Change in Taiwan: 1991-2004

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Measuring and Explaining Party Change in Taiwan: 1991-2004

Article excerpt

This article examines party platform change in a third wave democratic country, Taiwan, during its first fourteen years of full multiparty elections. A variety of datasets show that Taiwan's parties have moved from polarized positions toward a moderate center on all core electoral issues. However, the parties have not converged into indistinguishable catchall parties; instead they have instituted a state of moderate differentiation. The degree to which Taiwan's parties have moderated and been electorally successful has been intimately tied to the internal balance of power between election-oriented and ideologically conservative factions or leaders. In response to public opinion and electoral competition, Taiwan's election-oriented leaders attempted to drag their parties toward centrist positions. The key variable constraining convergent party movement and maintaining differentiation has been the strength of ideologically conservative party factions. When these ideologically oriented factions have held the upper hand in parties, they have promoted ideologically orthodox but often unpopular policies. Even when the election-oriented faction is in control at the party center, secondary factions have been able to constrain movement away from party ideals.

KEYWORDS: Taiwan, political parties, elections, party change

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When Taiwan held its first full democratic elections in the early 1990s, the prospects for its democratic consolidation were still uncertain. Taiwan's parties were highly polarized on the core election issues of the day, with all its inherent dangers for political instability. In the light of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party's overwhelming victory in 1991 and its huge financial and organizational strengths, Taiwan seemed destined to have a one-party-dominant system. However, ten years later Taiwan's political climate had radically changed. The success of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) at setting the electoral agenda on its most favorable issues, such as welfare, national identity, and political corruption, contributed toward its increasing support rates and election victories. The DPP became the ruling party after winning the presidential election in 2000, and the largest party in the Legislative Yuan a year later. Taiwan has developed a vibrant multiparty system in which the major parties' election platforms rapidly became institutionalized into a state of moderate differentiation. In other words, the major parties shifted toward more moderate positions on most electoral issues, but still stress different issues, and the public is able to distinguish between the parties' issue positions.

This article examines party change during Taiwan's first fourteen years of full multiparty elections. Party change is a broad concept, defined by Robert Harmel and Kenneth Janda as "any variation, alteration, or moderation in how parties are organized, what human and material resources they can draw upon, what they stand for, and what they do." (1) This article focuses on one aspect of this definition, looking at changes in the issues Taiwan's parties stand for in their party platforms. The development of Taiwan's party politics is examined by tracking party movement and party image on the core electoral issues, and attempting to explain the driving forces behind the parties' changing positions. How can we best explain Taiwan's remarkable transformation from the polarized political parties in the early 1990s to a pattern of moderate differentiation? What are the forces pushing parties toward the center, and what variables stop them from merging into indistinguishable catchall entities? In addition, why have some parties, particularly the DPP, proved more adept at finding the right issue positional recipe for electoral success? In contrast, why have others, such as the New Party (NP), followed a path to electoral suicide?

I argue that the degree that Taiwan's parties have moderated and been electorally successful has been intimately tied to the internal balance of power between election-oriented and ideologically conservative factions or leaders. …

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