Taiwan Heads to the Polls


Taiwan Heads to the Polls

Jan 10, 2024 6 min read
Michael Cunningham

Research Fellow, China, Asian Studies Center

Michael is a Research Fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.
Supporters wave Taiwan's national flags and Taiwan People's Party (TPP) flags during an election campaign rally in Keelung on January 10, 2024. I-HWA CHENG / AFP / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The outcome of the January 13 contest will play a crucial role in shaping the island’s relationship with China.

Beijing’s preferred candidate is the KMT’s Hou, because he is the least problematic candidate from the CCP’s perspective.

The successful and flourishing democracy on the island is in America’s interest regardless of who wins.

Taiwan’s presidential candidates have entered their final stretch ahead of this month’s election. The outcome of the January 13 contest will play a crucial role in shaping the island’s relationship with China. With cross-Strait ties at their tensest point in decades, the stakes couldn’t be higher—not only for Beijing and Taipei, but for the latter’s most committed security partner: the United States, which must be ready to work with whomever is elected.

Since entering the race, Vice President Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has led the field, but his election is far from certain. Recent opinion polls show him at an uninspiring 35% support, followed closely by Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT) at 29%, a narrow margin given Taiwan’s less-than-precise polling. Ko Wen-je of the upstart Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) trails at just 24%, but he’s a political survivor whose popularity may not be fully reflected in the polls. Adding further uncertainty are the 12% of voters who still describe themselves as “undecided.”

While from an American perspective, the overwhelming issue in this election is the threat from China, the saying that all politics are local applies to Taiwan. The race will ultimately go to the candidate the greatest number of voters trust to deal with the many socio-economic challenges plaguing Taiwan, such as sky-high housing prices, perpetual underemployment, and energy shortages. These problems far preceded the presidency of incumbent Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP and reflect deep-rooted challenges neither party has managed to resolve in successive administrations.

There is, nevertheless, a widespread perception that Tsai should have done more to resolve some of these domestic problems, and this is reflected in Lai’s lackluster performance in the public opinion polls. This anti-incumbent sentiment isn’t new and helps explain why no party has won more than two consecutive presidential elections since Taiwan democratized in the 1990s. Had the two opposition parties managed to unify behind a single candidate, as they unsuccessfully tried to do in November, it would have been their election to lose.

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As things currently stand, however, most observers expect Lai to emerge victorious. Regardless, the president-elect will likely have received a plurality of less than 40% of the votes, hardly the popular mandate needed to push the sorts of bold policy changes Taiwan’s economic and social challenges would demand.

Where the election will likely have a truly consequential impact is in cross-Strait relations and Taiwan’s resulting security environment. But this won’t be shaped so much by the next president as it will by Beijing’s reaction to their election and governing agenda.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the various parties aren’t far apart on their approach to China. The KMT is not a pro-Beijing party in favor of unification, as some seek to portray it. And while the DPP angers Beijing by rejecting its “one China principle” and promoting a Taiwanese identity separate from China, it long ago stopped calling for a formal declaration of independence.

The three parties vying for this election—and the vast majority of Taiwan voters—favor preserving the status quo. Even if a staunchly pro-independence or pro-unification figure managed to get elected, Taiwan has constitutional and legal mechanisms that make it nearly impossible for a president to radically change the island’s status.

Beijing, however, draws a sharp contrast between the candidates. China deeply distrusts the DPP, and its Taiwan strategy consists in large part of seeking to oppose and delegitimize that party and its leaders in favor the KMT, with which Beijing feels more comfortable engaging.

This means that if Lai is elected, China’s military provocations and diplomatic isolation tactics will almost certainly continue. There is little Lai can do about this, short of the politically suicidal tasks of changing his party’s nominally pro-independence charter and recognizing the 1992 consensus. The latter refers to an agreement by which the KMT and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) affirmed there is just one China but never defined what that meant. Beijing insists on the consensus as the basis for cross-Strait dialogue, but it is extremely unpopular among the DPP’s base.

Tsai worked hard to allay Beijing’s concerns about the DPP and even sought to continue some of the dialogue that enabled her predecessor, the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou, to oversee an unprecedented period of cross-Strait peace and stability. Lai has pledged to continue Tsai’s moderate approach to China, but Beijing doesn’t recognize Tsai’s approach as moderate. It refuses to speak with her, and Lai’s self-description as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence” makes it even more unlikely that Beijing will engage with him.

Beijing’s reception of a Hou or Ko presidency would be different. While both opposition candidates share the DPP’s goal of preserving Taiwan’s sovereignty and promise to strengthen the island’s military deterrence, they place a greater emphasis on de-escalation through dialogue. Most importantly from China’s perspective, they lack Lai’s pro-independence baggage and are more willing to pay lip service to Beijing’s “one China principle.”

To be sure, a significant decrease in tensions wouldn’t be guaranteed by an opposition victory and could be constrained by broader geopolitical dynamics and political conditions in China and Taiwan, both of which are less conducive to the degree of cooperation the two sides shared in the eight years prior to Tsai’s election. Nevertheless, at least a temporary thaw is likely, and Beijing has expressed desire to return the relationship to a more stable trajectory if it believes the political conditions are ripe.

Beijing’s preferred candidate is the KMT’s Hou, because he is the least problematic candidate from the CCP’s perspective. The CCP and KMT already have long-standing channels of communication and mutual understanding through agreements such as the 1992 consensus. Beijing also hopes a re-emphasis on social and economic interaction will reverse the recent trend of cross-Strait decoupling that makes its long-term goal of “peaceful unification” appear increasingly untenable, though it realizes a return to the kind of integration developed during the Ma era is not on the table.

Beijing would also likely be amenable to a Ko presidency, though more uncertainty would be present. While Ko has so far stopped short of endorsing the 1992 consensus, he is a proud pragmatist who, unlike the DPP, isn’t ideologically opposed to doing so if his attempts to develop a less controversial foundation for cross-Strait dialogue are unsuccessful.

Regardless of who is elected, the new president will prioritize Taiwan’s ties with the United States, which have strengthened since Tsai took office in 2016. Each of the candidates would lean on the U.S. for new arms sales and other forms of support in the security, economic, and political realms. For its part, Washington must work closely with whomever wins the election to maintain a united front against China.

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If the DPP holds onto the presidency, this will be relatively straightforward. Beijing is unlikely to decrease its military and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, and Washington will have to demonstrate its commitment to Taiwan’s security in the face of Beijing’s incessant provocations. At the same time, the U.S. should seek to avoid actions that could escalate tensions or increase the risk of armed conflict.

If the KMT returns to power, Taipei will try to take a more conciliatory approach to Beijing to reduce tensions, and it may prefer Washington adopt a more subtle approach to certain forms of support. A TPP presidency under Ko would likely have similar dynamics.

If Taiwan’s voters choose a candidate who prioritizes pursuing stability and de-escalation across the Taiwan Strait, Washington should support their right to do so. If the KMT or TPP succeeds at reducing cross-Strait tensions for the next four or eight years, it will be one less source of immediate friction and an opportunity to more thoroughly prepare for long-term strategic competition with Beijing.

The U.S. should recognize, however, that the long-term threat to Taiwan’s sovereignty remains, regardless of any short-term thaw in cross-Strait relations. Beijing will likely try to take advantage of the de-escalation to lull Taiwan into a false sense of security. In such an event, U.S. involvement will be even more critical to ensure Taipei doesn’t get distracted from improving its defense capabilities and enhancing deterrence vis-à-vis China.

Ultimately, it will be the Taiwanese people that decide the outcome of this crucial race—and the successful and flourishing democracy on the island is in America’s interest regardless of who wins. The U.S. must be willing and ready to work hand-in-hand with whomever they choose.

This piece originally appeared in RealClear World