Update: William Lai of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party won Saturday’s presidential election giving its party an unprecedented third term in a row. He obtained 40.05 percent preference, while his opponents 33.49 percent Hou Yu-ih (Kuomingtang party) and 26.46 percent Ko Wen-je (Taiwan People’s Party). Lai vowed to continue the policies of incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen and to maintain the status quo with China after he takes office in May.
Most people in Taiwan support maintaining the status quo in the island’s political dispute with mainland China for now (28.6 percent) or indefinitely (32.1 percent). Less than 8 percent support either unification with the PRC as soon as possible or maintaining the status quo while moving toward unification. Nearly 63 percent of the population feels “Taiwanese” and an even larger majority (84.3 percent) opposes a “one country, two systems” (一国两制) model, especially after Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong.
Given these data, and that the PRC views the island as a “rogue” province and has vowed to eventually bring it back under control – not excluding military intervention – it is no surprise that “mainland affairs and the relations with China are absolutely key” to Taiwan’s upcoming elections, as Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College and author of The Trouble with Taiwan (Bloomsbury, 2019), points out. Also, because “Taiwan’s dependence on trade with China is well established”, Brown stresses, “as the PRC is the island’s largest trading partner.” While the vote to elect a new president and renew the parliament will not be a referendum on independence either, its outcome will weigh on future relations between Taipei and Beijing.
Voting on the island: how it works and the three-way race
On Saturday 13th of January, more than 19 million Taiwanese will vote for a new president and the 113 members of the Legislative Yuan. Voters will have three ballots: one for the president and vice president, one to elect 79 single-member seats through the first-past-the-post system, with 6 seats reserved for aboriginal groups, and one to elect the remaining 34 seats through party-list proportional representation. There will be only one round, and the presidential candidate with the highest number of votes will be the winner.
It is unclear who will win. The front-runner by a narrow margin is incumbent Vice President Lai Ching‑te – also known as William Lai – of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). A physician by training, former mayor of the city of Tainan, and President Tsai Ing-wen’s first premier and then vice president, William Lai is known as a fierce defender of Taiwan’s self-governing status and has pledged to follow Tsai and the DPP’s current stance on cross-strait issues.
The DPP has never endorsed the so-called “1992 consensus”, a form of words agreed upon by both the PRC and the ROC’s Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party), in which each side recognizes that there is one China on paper but interprets it differently in practice, leaving the door open to reunification by both sides. Lai vowed to maintain peace and the island’s status quo and to remain open to a dialogue with the PRC. However, any dialogue should be “without preconditions”, which is asking Beijing to accept the existence of the PRC and the ROC as two “non-interdependent entities, according to the DPP’s latest position.
Were Lai to win, the DPP would be the first party to hold office for three consecutive terms, setting another record: no vice president has ever become Taiwan’s head of state.
On a Beijing-friendlier front, the KMT is represented by Hou Yu-ih, who was Taiwan’s former police chief before being elected mayor of New Taipei City, just outside the capital. He recognizes the 1992 Consensus and, according to his program, “Three Ds” are essential for better pragmatic relations with the PRC and for maintaining the island’s status quo: deterrence, dialogue, and de-escalation. His push for better economic relations with Mainland China to reduce tensions – a formula also used by former President Ma Ying-jeou – is appealing to Taiwan’s entrepreneurs, but would increase the island’s already high dependence on the PRC and thus its vulnerability.
Last but not least, Ko Wen-je is the presidential candidate of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which he founded in 2019. Like Lai, he is a medical doctor and former mayor of Taipei. His position is closer to Hou’s, to the extent that they have considered a joint presidential ticket: Ko acknowledges the 1992 Consensus and pushes for economic rapprochement with the PRC, and seeks a rebalancing in Washington-Taipei relations as well, seeing Taiwan as caught in the middle of “the struggle between big powers.” Ko also presented himself as a “centrist” and as an alternative to the two main pro-establishment parties, focusing more on Taiwan’s domestic issues.
Both Hou and Ko criticize Lai for being “pro-independence.” Lai, on the other hand, calls his opponents “pro-China”.
The China factor
In a party system traditionally dominated by the DPP and the KMT, Lai has framed the 2024 election as a choice between democracy and autocracy (alluding at Beijing’s threat), while Hou has framed it as a choice between war and peace – Ko, however, has used no dichotomy, saying only that he “can prevent war with China”. “Vote for the DPP, and the youth will go to the battlefield. Vote for the Kuomintang, and there will be no war on both sides of the Taiwan Strait”, said former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT recently.
However, as Yu Ching-hsin, Director of the Election Study Center at the National Chengchi University in Taipei, points out, the three candidates share a similar position on maintaining peaceful cross-Strait relations, regardless of their divergent campaign rhetoric. Inés Arco Escriche, a Research Fellow at CIDOB, echoes this point: “It is a strategy to try to differentiate themselves. Instead, they are more similar in many of their policy options than they would like to admit, not only the DPP and the KMT, but also the TPP.” First, they all agree on maintaining Taiwan’s status quo. “They also all agree on continuing cooperation with the United States and strengthening defense capabilities,” Arco Escriche underlines, “none of them will move toward de jure independence in the next four years.”
Prof. Brown highlights the key differences: “The DPP has a difficult relationship with China. No real contact. On the other hand, the KMT and TPP say that they will try to have a more positive relationship. People are quite aware that when they vote for these parties, they are voting for very different options for Taiwan’s relations with Mainland that are going to have an impact on security and the economy.”
Security carries a lot of weight. “According to a survey by a Taiwanese magazine, 43 percent of the population fear an escalation or war in the next five years – adds Arco Escriche – and this share is more likely to vote for the KMT than for the DPP”. Especially because in the case of a DPP victory, “we will probably see an increase in the degree of coercion by China, but not specifically the outbreak of a conflict”, says the researcher, “if the KMT gets this presidency, we are going to see more relaxation in the tensions of the Strait.”
“I think whoever wins will likely be quite cautious”, Brown states. “Of course, the problem if the DPP wins is that they are deeply distrusted by Beijing. And it will be very difficult to build a new relationship. But even the KMT does acknowledge that relations with China are not the same as they were even ten years ago, under the Ma Ying-jeou’s leadership. Things have changed.”
“It is actually a relatively calm electoral cycle,” says Brian Hioe, one of the founders of the New Bloom Magazine, who lives in Taipei, “There is not much of a sense of crisis, even though there is a lot more international attention on Taiwan than ever before.” Why? “The candidates are not very compelling, and that is why there may be a very low turnout. They are not charismatic.” Much of the attention is also focused on domestic issues, “particularly dissatisfaction with the low salaries and unaffordable housing”, Hioe continues. “Voters are reacting with a backlash against the incumbent DPP for failing to address these issues. I still do think that the cross-strait issue is the most important overall, though. It is still the issue that frames the election as a whole.”
“The Taiwanese economy has been growing at a slower pace than expected in recent years. Therefore, inflation and the lack of salary updates, for example, are putting more pressure on most of the population, especially the youth and urban voters”, Arco Escriche points out. “On the other hand, rural voters are more concerned about how to continue trading with China and how to make their production more competitive in global markets. 40 percent of the economy is mainly link to Mainland China, even if China is not the key aspect, it influences these issues.”
This discontent could benefit Ko’s TPP. According to Arco Escriche, there are two scenarios: “The first one is that the youth vote for Ko in an act of frustration and ‘resistance’ to the traditional politics of the island. And he gets more votes than the KMT. On the contrary, more of his voters think that they need to vote more strategically, and they choose the KMT just to avoid a neo-presidency by the DPP”. While for Hioe, Ko Wen-je seems to be less of a viable candidate than the KMT candidate: “He is a third-party candidate.”
“Whoever wins on Saturday will not have a huge mandate”, says Brown, “It will be more like a 35, 36 percent win, probably. In the last election, Tsai Ing-wen got over 50 percent. Even if the DPP wins, they will not win the parliamentary elections. So, it will have quite big restrictions on what it can do.” He concludes: “It is going to be a very challenging job for whoever wins, with the lack of a really big mandate, quite difficult economic circumstances, very big uncertainty globally because of the American elections.”
Cover photo: A person carries ballot papers to vote in the presidential election at a polling station in a high school in Tainan on January 13, 2024. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)