The results are in: Lai Ching-te wins the presidency.
After a hard-fought campaign, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate ‘William’ Lai and his running mate Hsiao Bikhim emerged victorious in Taiwan’s presidential election race with 40.1 % of the vote. They were elected Taiwan’s president and vice-president respectively. They will serve a four-year term and be inaugurated on 20th May 2024.
The main opposition candidate in the three-way race, Hou Yu-ih of the Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT), and his running mate, pro-People’s Republic of China (PRC) media personality Jaw Shaw-kang, received 33.5% of the vote, while Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) and his running mate Cynthia Wang, came in a respectable third with 26.5% of the vote.
In his acceptance speech on the evening of Saturday January 13th, Lai thanked the Taiwanese people for ‘writing a new chapter in our democracy.’ He added, ‘we have shown the world how much we cherish our democracy.’
He then described his win as ‘a victory for the community of democracies’, saying that it was a choice between authoritarianism and democracy, that the Taiwanese people ‘will stand on the side of democracy’ and that Taiwan will ‘continue to walk side-by-side with democracies from around the world.’
He also said that through their actions, the Taiwanese people have successfully resisted efforts from external forces (read the PRC) to influence this election. He added: ‘Only the people of Taiwan have the right to choose their own President.’
Below, some of the implications of the election for Taiwan, the United Kingdom (UK) and the world are presented, which highlight some of the important issues and moments in the campaign, and take a look at the situation in the Legislative Yuan.
Implications and immediate reactions
The outcome represents an unprecedented third consecutive term for the DPP, albeit under a new president. It will enable the DPP to solidify Taiwan’s international position, further strengthen its defence and security, and continue its social and economic policies, such as care for the elderly, renewable energy, high-tech industrial policy and transitional justice.
David Cameron, the British Foreign Secretary, offered his congratulations to Lai, saying that the elections ‘are testament to Taiwan’s vibrant democracy.’ He offered his warm congratulations to the people of Taiwan ‘on the smooth conduct of those elections and to Dr Lai Ching-te and his party on his election.’ He said he hoped that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait ‘will renew efforts to resolve differences peacefully through constructive dialogue, without the threat or use of force or coercion.’
In a statement from Washington, Anthony Blinken, the American Secretary of State, congratulated Lai on his victory and lauded the Taiwan people ‘for once again demonstrating the strength of their robust democratic system and electoral process.’
However, the outcome is a bitter pill for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rulers in Beijing, who conducted an all-out campaign to prevent the election of Lai, who they painted as ‘a dangerous separatist’ and ‘a threat to peace’.
A rejection of Beijing’s threats and coercion
Taiwan’s voters obviously thought otherwise, and in spite of the PRC’s shrill threats and intimidations, voted in Lai and his running mate Hsiao with a comfortable majority over the more PRC-friendly KMT, and the ‘Third Force’ TPP.
For the UK, the United States (US), Japan, Australia and Europe, the outcome is very positive, as Taiwan will now continue its pro-Western approach with the steady and even-handed policies of Tsai Ing-wen, the current president, which have provided a solid basis for Taiwan’s strengthening and deepening relations with those countries for the past eight years.
The main issue will be how to push back against any overtly hostile reactions by the PRC. Most observers expect the PRC to react strongly and perhaps conduct some military manoeuvres in the general proximity of the island – like it did after Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited in August 2022.
However, the UK, the US and other countries have warned that anything beyond that would immediately have repercussions for trade through the Taiwan Strait. Given the vulnerable state of the PRC’s economy, this would be seriously detrimental to the PRC itself.
Domestic issues: Affordable housing and entry wages
To be sure, not everything revolved around Taiwan’s relations with the PRC. Particularly, the generation of young adults felt that the elections were an opportunity for their voice to be heard on issues directly affecting their livelihoods, such as affordable housing and entry-level wages.
For a number of years, housing prices, particularly in Taipei, have gone through the roof, while wages for young people just out of college have stagnated. The candidate who responded most positively to these sentiments was Ko, the surgeon-turned-politician who served as mayor of Taipei from 2014 until 2022 and who, in 2019, formed the TPP.
After announcing his candidacy in May 2023, Ko presented himself as a ‘Third Force’ between the DPP and KMT and argued that as a fresh face, he would be in a better position to rule the country and negotiate with the Chinese. His position on housing and wages initially attracted considerable support from the younger generation in particular. In the early part of the campaign, he actually scored higher in the opinion polls than the KMT.
But after his ill-fated mid-November 2023 attempt to link up with the KMT in a joint ticket, his poll numbers went down, as young people – disappointed with the merger attempt as well as his positions on nuclear power, same-sex marriage, and re-starting negotiations on a Service Trade Agreement with the PRC – moved away from Ko.
A complex picture in the Legislative Yuan
But in the elections for the 113-seat Legislative Yuan, the picture was more complicated: overall, the DPP lost its absolute majority and won only 51 seats, a drop of 12 from the current 63 seats, while the KMT won 52 seats, an increase of 14 from the current 38 seats. The TPP increased its number of seats from the current five to eight seats. With just a few seats, Ko of the TPP will thus play an important role in the legislature as a ‘Kingmaker’, as he can lean towards either the KMT or DPP to give them a majority.
The first litmus test of Ko’s position will be in early February 2024, when the Legislative Yuan convenes and elects its president: will he side with the KMT or DPP?
These elections show clearly that democracy is now rooted in Taiwan. It was a hard-fought campaign in which the candidates presented their opinions clearly and forcefully.
In spite of Beijing’s military and economic threats and influence meddling and disinformation campaigns, the voters were able to assess the differing positions, come to a conclusion, and cast their votes without fear or intimidation.
The strong presence of the international media and the clear statements by the US government and Congress on free and open elections certainly were important factors in ensuring a vibrant election campaign and a free vote in a democratic Taiwan.
The new DPP government will be continuing its policy of strengthening its partnerships with like-minded democracies such as the UK, the US, Japan, Australia and Europe and expanding its economic ties worldwide in order to diversify away from the PRC. Particularly in the area of the manufacture of microchips, Taiwan occupies a key global position. Ensuring an uninterrupted supply of these chips is of crucial importance to the economic vitality of free and open countries.
Tension may rise in the short term as Beijing expresses its opposition and does some sabre-rattling. However, if key Taiwanese partners display solid support for Taiwan through diplomacy, economic measures, and military deterrence, the PRC’s room for manoeuver is limited, and Beijing will likely have to back off. Collectively, the free and open democracies of this world need to strongly impress upon the rulers in Beijing that the best way forward would be to come to a peaceful coexistence with a free and democratic Taiwan.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat who currently teaches the history of Taiwan and US relations with East Asia at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
This is an abbreviated version of an article published by TaiwanInsight at the University of Nottingham on 15th January 2024. The original, longer, piece can be found here.
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