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ELECTION 2024/From moms to candidates: The journey of 'obasan' party in Taiwan's elections

02/03/2024 06:06 PM
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Supporters, including children, of Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party gather at an intersection in Sanzhi District, New Taipei, to voice their support for the party in early January. Photo courtesy of Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party Feb. 3, 2024
Supporters, including children, of Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party gather at an intersection in Sanzhi District, New Taipei, to voice their support for the party in early January. Photo courtesy of Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party Feb. 3, 2024

Taipei, Feb. 3 (CNA) Among the parties that contested Taiwan's 2024 legislative elections, the Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party (小民參政歐巴桑聯盟) ran arguably the most cost-effective campaign.

The party, known as TOPEP for short, secured the fifth-highest number of votes with a spend of only NT$2.01 million (US$64,031), beating out established rivals and leaving many in awe of this group of Taiwanese moms.

The upstart political party was formed by a group of mothers and homemakers and derives its name from "obasan," a Japanese word that is widely used in Taiwan to refer to "aunt" or older woman.

Ho Yu-jung (何語蓉), an "obasan" and the secretary-general of TOPEP, told CNA that the party is primarily made up of local mothers who initially connected through family learning activities in 2006.

Over the years, the group's discussions have evolved from parenting to broader social and political issues, according to the 47-year-old.

Ho Yu-jung, secretary-general of Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party, delivers a speech at an intersection in Guting, Taipei, in early January. Photo courtesy of Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party Feb. 3, 2024
Ho Yu-jung, secretary-general of Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party, delivers a speech at an intersection in Guting, Taipei, in early January. Photo courtesy of Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party Feb. 3, 2024

After participating in various social movements, including anti-nuclear campaigns, gender equality activities, commemorations for the 228 Incident, and anti-air pollution initiatives, this group of moms realized the necessity to give representation to the voices of the people.

Their decision to enter politics was heavily influenced by the 2014 "Sunflower Movement," a protest against increased economic integration with China that sparked heightened political engagement among young people.

In the 2018 local government elections to elect neighborhood chiefs, city and county councilors as well as mayors and magistrates, 21 TOPEP members ran as independents.

Due to limited campaign funds, they employed down-to-earth strategies such as standing at the intersections to greet voters and promoting their platforms through soapbox speeches.

With a squad of female candidates, Ho recalled being asked: "Who takes care of the children at home?," during their debute in elections in 2018. That made her wonder if the same question would be posed to male candidates.

Although none of the party's candidates secured a spot in the local government elections that year, 70 percent of them garnered enough votes for a deposit refund.

It is official

Officially registered as a political party in 2019, TOPEP made another attempt in the 2022 local government elections with 15 candidates. This time, however, only two candidates met the deposit refund threshold.

Ho said TOPEP positions itself as a grassroots party formed by women, and it aims to change Taiwan's election culture and promote political equality through its candidacies.

Supporters of Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party display banners while crossing an intersection near Nangang Train Station in early January. Photo courtesy of Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party Feb. 3, 2024
Supporters of Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party display banners while crossing an intersection near Nangang Train Station in early January. Photo courtesy of Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party Feb. 3, 2024

With experience from previous elections, this group of mothers took on a bigger stage by running for the Jan. 13, 2024 legislative election, in which 113 seats were contested, comprising 73 district lawmakers directly elected by voters, six indigenous lawmakers chosen by indigenous voters, and 34 legislators-at-large selected based on a separate vote for a political party.

Targeting the 34 legislator-at-large seats, TOPEP and 15 other political parties, including the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT), and the Taiwan People's Party (TPP), all aspired to secure no less than 5 percent of the total party vote to be eligible for seat allocation from this pool.

The results of the election showed the 34 legislator-at-large seats in the Legislature were all allocated to the DPP (13 seats, 36.16 percent of the total party vote), KMT (13 seats, 34.58 percent), and TPP (8 seats, 22.07 percent).

Although it was unable to secure a seat, TOPEP surprised many by claiming the fifth position with 0.93 percent of the total party votes, amounting to 128,613 ballot papers.

Apart from the three major parties, this group of mothers trailed behind only the New Power Party, which secured 2.57 percent of the total party vote and had held three seats in the previous legislature.

The all-female squad surpassed several smaller parties with higher visibility and more influence.

Despite financial constraints, this group of mothers prioritized policy research, hoping to voice the concerns of the people.

Iris Ding (back), a volunteer with the Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party, canvasses for support with her daughter in Ximending, Taipei, on Jan. 12, the night before the election day. Photo courtesy of Iris Ding, Feb. 3, 2024
Iris Ding (back), a volunteer with the Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party, canvasses for support with her daughter in Ximending, Taipei, on Jan. 12, the night before the election day. Photo courtesy of Iris Ding, Feb. 3, 2024

Their efforts were luckily seen by many voters as TOPEP drew the numeral 1 for its ballot number, making the party's platforms appear at the top of the election bulletin, which significantly increased their visibility and resonated with their supporters, Ho said.

One of them is Iris Ding (丁云鈞), a 43-year-old mom who has been rooting for the party by dedicating her time as a volunteer since 2016.

"When it comes to addressing gender issues, housing justice, and civil defense, I find that their platforms resonate closely with our daily lives.

"Take gender equality as an example, in the workplace, numerous pregnant women encounter discrimination or bullying, and TOPEP advocates for legislative amendments to address these issues," said the mother of two.

Despite TOPEP being recognized as the fifth-largest party and gaining visibility among Taiwanese people after the 2024 legislative election, Ding expressed concerns about the absence of small parties in the Legislative Yuan. Saying she finds this worrisome,  she  underlined that Taiwan, as a mature democracy, "should have a multiparty system."

A significant obstacle impeding small parties from enhancing public representation in the Legislature is the requirement for candidates to pay an NT$200,000 deposit to run for a legislative seat, Ho argued.

The examination of the election results revealed that the majority of votes for TOPEP came from urban areas and the constituencies the party contested in previous local elections.

Looking ahead to the 2026 local government elections, TOPEP intends to build on its current foundation, aiming to achieve breakthroughs by winning seats and serving as advocates for the people, according to Ho.

A volunteer from Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party greets the motorcycle drivers at an intersection in Wenshan District, Taipei, in early January. Photo courtesy of Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party Feb. 3, 2024
A volunteer from Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party greets the motorcycle drivers at an intersection in Wenshan District, Taipei, in early January. Photo courtesy of Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party Feb. 3, 2024

Ding, an art consultant, has already decided to continue the journey with other "obasan" as a volunteer.

"It might still be standing and greeting at intersections or campaigning at street corners, handing out flyers," Ding said.

But she added: "I believe that in 2026, we can have more ways to engage in dialogue with the public."

(By Lin Chin-yin, Fan Cheng-shiang and Sunny Lai)

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