Written by Simona A. Grano.

On January 16, 2016 Taiwan will hold its latest round of national elections. These include both presidential and legislative contests in which smaller parties will face the challenge of having to exceed the five percent threshold to obtain any seats. Since it has democratized, Taiwan has already experienced two changes of ruling parties through elections. Almost certainly, we will see a third such power transfer with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) winning back the presidency as well as a majority of seats in the legislature.

These elections will of particular importance, given that they are the first presidential and parliamentary contests to take place after the watershed protests of the past few years, which culminated in the Sunflower Movement.

But what are the prospects for smaller political parties, focusing on “minor” issues such as environmental protection? We know that in previous elections cross-strait relations, national identity, domestic welfare and economic issues occupied far more prominent positions. In fact, while until a few years ago environmental concerns featured prominently in local elections with issues such as national identity and cross-strait relations dominating national level politics, a reversed trend has been established since 2011, which is clearly visible from the increased attention paid to nuclear energy issues after Fukushima, as well as from the growing number of TV shows (e.g. “Our Island”, 我們的島 women de dao) and popular TV series (“Heroes of the Country” 國民英雄 guomin yinxiong) featuring environmental pollution, developmental projects and developers’ corruption among their leitmotivs. This does not mean that environmental problems are the most relevant topic discussed in the pre-election campaign period (China’s growing influence over Taiwan and several domestic issues are a far more relevant topic) however, it does indicate that such concerns have become more significant than they ever were in the past. In this context, smaller parties devoted to environmental and social issues are enjoying increased popularity.

The Green Party (GP), established in 1996, shares several positions with the Pan-Green Coalition led by the DPP but is keen to emphasize its focus on social and environmental issues. For the upcoming elections, it will be running in tandem with the centre-left Social Democratic Party (社會民主黨 shehui minzhudang).

While both in the 2008 and 2012 legislative elections the GP failed to win any seats in the legislature, in 2012 it received almost 230,000 votes, thus increasing its share nearly threefold – from 0.6 percent in 2008 to 1.74 percent in 2012; however, it did not succeed in reaching the five percent threshold that is required to win a seat in the parliament.

Tangible success came with the Municipal or “Nine in one Elections” of November 2014, were the Green Party managed for the first time since its establishment to win two seats out of nine candidates it had presented. Wang Hao-yu 王浩宇 was elected to the Taoyuan City council and Jay Chou周江杰 to the Hsinchu County Council. The GPT now holds 2 out of 906 seats in local assemblies and is currently, after a fourfold increase in share of votes since 2008, Taiwan’s fifth party.

Since the coming elections are possibly the first national elections where relations with China will be of secondary importance to broader issues of economic growth and social policies, the role played by smaller parties such as Taiwan GP is crucial, given that social inequality topics constitute the core of their political platforms.

However, prior to the election results, DPP candidate and most probably Taiwan’s first-female President Tsai Ying-Wen has already proposed a series of government and electoral reforms, and important changes such as legalizing same sex marriages, in case her party were to win the electoral competition.

Such moves testify to the DPP’s intention to try and highjack concerns towards social issues for itself. Another move in this direction can be see in the recent inclusion in its party ranks of several former NGOs leaders, activists as well as academics with a strong environmental and social engagement like previous Green Party chairperson Chen Man-Li 陳曼麗 (also former president of the Homemakers United Foundation); Prof. Wu Kuen-Yuh (吳焜裕) of National Taiwan University College of Public Health) or activists involved in previous ecological campaigns such as fighting Taiwan’s eighth petrochemical complex, Prof. Tsai Pei-hui (蔡培慧), secretary-general of Taiwan Rural Front.

Will these moves prove detrimental for the Green Party, which will loose some of its voters to the DPP? What concrete chances does the Green Party/ Social Democratic Party alliance have? Will they be able to present their cooperation as a credible alternative to bigger political forces?

Growing discontent around Taiwan caused by economic inequality, cost of housing, sluggish wages, illegal land deals and expropriations as well as corruption and bribery cases involving high ranking officials (e.g. the in-famous Taipei Dome Project and the scandals surrounding Farglory Corporation and its links to the previous Taipei City Government) is increasingly widespread and the two major parties remain polarized in their positioning.

It is a known fact that youth activists think of the DPP and the KMT as quite similar in many regards. In such dissatisfactions lies the chance of success for “Third Force” parties.

A post municipal election survey released in December 2014 by Taiwan Thinktank indicated that the younger generation is no longer indifferent to politics and is willing to come out and vote; this, as we have seen, has had a significant impact on the Municipal elections. According to a TVBS poll, carried out in October 2015, regarding the degree of support (percentage of vote) per each political party has the Green/Democratic Alliance set at 2%.

Furthermore, the first frictions among environmentalists and the DPP are already coming to light. On December 16 a group of environmentalists sought to obtain signatures from all main Presidential candidates in favor of terminating all energy and pollution-intensive development projects in southern municipalities; so far, only the Green Party-Social Democratic Party Alliance, the New Power Party and the Tree Party were willing to sign the pledge making activists question the DPP’s stance towards the environment once again. It is common knowledge among many that the DPP has betrayed its pro-environmental commitment several times before, especially during its national incumbency.

As I have said, the GP will be running in a coalition with the Social Democratic Party; the two will pitch candidates in both constituency races and the nationwide party ballot. This is a positive outcome, considering the at times difficult relationship of smaller parties, sometimes more likely to obstruct each other rather than the cooperate; a good example of intra-party frictions can be found in former Green Party spokesperson Pan Han-Sheng 潘翰聲 leaving the GP and establishing the Tree Party in the summer of 2014 .

Given the fragmentation of civil society groups after the end of the Sunflower occupation a breakthrough by such “Third Force” parties does not seem an easy task. However, the fact the some of the main protagonists have found a way to work together is a positive and welcome development as well as the best hope for smaller parties to exceed the five percent threshold needed to obtain seats and truly make a difference.

Simona A. Grano is a Lecturer and Research Associate at the Institute for Asian and Oriental Studies, University of Zurich. She is the author of Environmental Governance in Taiwan: A New Generation of Activists and Stakeholders.