Annual Conference

Taiwan Foundation for Democracy Panel

Taiwan Foundation for Democracy Panel:

Reforming Age-Old Parties in Taiwan, Mexico, Turkey, and South Africa


One significant aspect of the permutations in democratic Taiwan’s political landscape is its political party system. The consensual scholarship on Taiwan’s party system has presented a highly institutionalized two-party system with low electoral volatility and for any third party, with a dismal survival rate. However, for this past decade, electoral swings have been on the rise, and the number of party identifiers for the incumbent party, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has not been growing, while that for the Kuomintang (KMT) shockingly shrinking since 2015. Third parties, small as they are, have become a significant and constant presence both at the ballot box and in the legislative corridor. Is Taiwan’s party system being reconstructed? Is party realignment in the making?

The revamped electoral system (both in terms of seat allocation formula and public campaign financing) has contributed to the ‘dilution” of the well-established two party system in Taiwan, as it affords new small parties with a living space to surface, survive and even prosper. But the single most important variable is the KMT’s lackluster electoral performance and its attempted party reforms. In responding to its electoral debacle in the January 2020 national election, the KMT is once again obliged to re-invent itself. With a thorough reform, the KMT may rejuvenate and revitalize, but if this reform is not timely or deep enough, the party may slip into political marginalization and irrelevance. Created in 1919 on the mainland and migrated to Taiwan in 1949, the KMT continuously in power shortly after its formation till the year 2000 and even regaining power for two full terms afterward, is currently at historical cross-roads.

The KMT is not the only non-western, century-old political party that is still on the political stage. We can find at least three other parties in the same genre, one in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, respectively, namely, Mexico’s PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, established in 1929 by the revolutionaries), Turkey’s RPP (Republican People’s Party or CHP, Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, founded by the Kemalists in 1919), and South Africa’s ANC (African National Congress, formed in 1912, but banned in 1960 for three decades). These four parties each began as a political movement assuming a historic task of nation-building, have had political longevity, but are all facing the daunting tasks of self-renovating, updating their social bases, and re-envisioning their missions, on top of their strenuous endeavors to hold onto or coming back to power.

This panel proposes to examine reform efforts of the four parties in historical and comparative perspectives. There are case-specific features in their political parameters, most notably illiberal democracy in Turkey, intractable property rights and economic development issues in South Africa, left-leaning populism in Mexico in uneasy coexistence with right-wing populism north of its border, and the intractable cross-Strait relations for Taiwan. But all four century-old parties have to wrestle with a quintessentially ‘Darwinian’ challenge: adapt and rejuvenate, or decay and become extinct. Putting the four cases together allows us to learn about the varieties of strategies and predicaments, and the range of choices and consequences.