Recent years have shown that the Taiwan Strait has once again re-emerged as a dangerous military and geopolitical flashpoint. Taiwan’s presidential elections in January 2024 are shaping up to be one of the most consequential in its history. How each party and candidate intends to address the “panda in the room” will have global ramifications.
Incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has served the maximum two terms, and is constitutionally prevented from seeking re-election. The current three-horse race will be pivotal in shaping Taiwan’s relations with China and its irredentist claims over the island.
Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), of the pro-China Kuomintang (KMT), oversaw an unprecedented era of calm and cooperation with Beijing. Ma’s conciliatory policies led to increased economic ties with the mainland and warmed relations, culminating in a joint summit between Chinese and Taiwanese leaders in Singapore.
The 2016 elections saw the DPP take power, with Tsai Ing-wen approaching cross-strait relations from a different angle. Although Tsai retained some elements of Ma’s pro-China policies and resisted pressure from more radical elements in the DPP, Beijing inherently distrusts Tsai and any DPP administration given their pro-independence leaning. The last eight years has seen China ratcheting up an aggressive campaign of military provocations, economic coercion, and international isolation.
In the previous 2020 election, incumbent Tsai won a landslide victory against the KMT’s Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), heavily attributable to her hawkish rhetoric on China and echoing voters’ concerns over Beijing’s ongoing political repression in Hong Kong.
However, this year’s race is slated to be much tighter. The DPP suffered a significant loss in the 2022 local elections, and the Taiwanese public are dissatisfied with the Tsai administration’s handling of domestic problems, such as COVID-19 vaccine procurement, economic stagnation, rising crime rates, and the DPP’s handling of sexual harassment scandals within the party.
Beijing, the parties, and the positions
With China refusing to rule out using force to achieve “re-unification”, Taiwan’s political parties and an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese reject the prospect of Chinese rule. All three parties can agree to preserve Taiwan’s de facto independence and avoid conflict with China. But it is the varying approach to pursuing this goal and the delicate balancing act that sets the parties and candidates apart.
The KMT has traditionally leaned toward a conciliatory approach with China, holding that the best way to preserve Taiwan’s sovereignty is by not provoking Beijing. This, in practice and witnessed through the Ma Ying-jeou years, has translated to boosting cultural and economic ties, seeking greater dialogue, and avoid overt alignment with the United States.
The DPP, on the opposite end, seeks to assert Taiwan’s status as an already sovereign state and refuses to bow to Beijing’s pressure and demands. Under Tsai, Taiwan has stepped up its international visibility and sought closer ties with the US. While the KMT calls the upcoming election a choice between war and peace, the DPP tells voters they must choose between Taiwanese democracy or Chinese autocracy.
In light of this binary choice, the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) is shaping up to set this election’s landscape apart from the rest. This third option party, founded by former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) in 2019, markets itself as a practical alternative to the often-toxic KMT pro-China and DPP pro-independence divide.
The TPP finds fault in the DPP’s actions, opining that it attracts provocation and is pro-war, while simultaneously criticising the KMT for exaggerating the risks of armed conflict and being “too deferential”. The TPP has promised to engage China economically and socially, while aggressively abstaining from discussions on political integration. As rosy as it might bill itself, the TPP has yet to enunciate how its plans differ in actuality from the two traditional parties.
DPP and Lai Ching-te: a challenging continuation
Lai Ching-te (賴清德), a former public health expert, has been involved in politics in 1996 and served as Tainan mayor – with record-breaking popularity during his 72.9% re-election victory as mayor in 2014. Historically associated with the DPP’s “deep green” (strong pro-independence) faction, Lai made headlines in 2017 when he described himself as a “pragmatic Taiwanese independence political worker”. In the run-up to 2024, he has softened his stance and aligned himself with Tsai Ing-wen’s comparatively moderate view: that Taiwan is already a sovereign nation without a need to declare independence.
Lai recently penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal outlining his cross-strait policy, which does not stray far from current policy under Tsai. Managing Director of the Indo-Pacific programme and China expert Bonnie Glaser from the German Marshall Fund noted that Lai’s article suggests he “will adhere to the central tenets of Tsai Ing-wen’s approach to cross-Strait relations.”
This continuation approach risks being perceived as a continuation of the Tsai administration failures too, given Lai currently sits as Vice President. The DPP’s achievement in Tsai’s second term have been few and far between, with much emphasis on fighting the pandemic. Slow post-pandemic economic recovery has also been unavoidably associated with the DPP, and by extension, Lai Ching-te as Vice President – alienating much of the island’s youth and DPP’s voter base. The #MeToo movement has also hit the DPP, triggered by former party workers accusing the party of mismanaging sexual harassment claims.
KMT and Hou Yu-ih: a divided party boxed in by 1992
Hou Yu-ih’s (侯友宜) public service began as a police officer over three decades ago, himself being involved in high-profile cases during Taiwan’s authoritarian martial law period. His popularity surged when elected New Taipei mayor in 2018, earning a reputation for being approachable and pragmatic, and was noted for his dedication to improving the lives of his constituents.
Securing the KMT nomination was not without hiccups however, as many “deep blue” (strong pro-China) KMT supporters remain disappointed the party chose Hou over “Taiwan’s Trump” and well-known Foxconn founder Terry Gou (郭台銘).
The KMT’s public image has declined as tensions with China increased. The party holds onto the goal of a unified China, a vision not shared by the majority of Taiwan. Younger voters are also sceptical of the KMT and the party’s acceptance of the 1992 Consensus – a common-ground formula devised by the KMT and China acknowledging that there is ‘one China’ including Taiwan but with differing interpretations on each side. As cross-strait tensions increase, the KMT’s persistence on legacy ideology repels youth and independent voters.
To succeed, Hou will need to corral an internally divided KMT and tackle the daunting task of coalescing broader KMT supporters and fence-sitting voters in light of the TPP’s attractiveness as an alternate party.
TPP and Ko Wen-je: the wildcard
Ko Wen-je stands as a wildcard candidate, gathering support primarily from independent voters, moderate KMT supporters, and those disenfranchised with the binary Taiwanese politics. The former Taipei mayor was elected as an independent in 2014, endorsed by the DPP who did not run against him. Recent studies found Ko to be the most popular politician among younger voters, a punch to the DPP. Moderate DPP supporters wary of Lai Ching-te’s “deep green” history are also inclined to vote Ko and the TPP, shifting away from the DPP.
Ko has taken a more pragmatic approach to cross-strait relations, a stance that has alienated many prospective DPP voters who otherwise agree with the TPP. However, Ko’s positioning is challenging to pin down as he appears to stand between the DPP and KMT on his China policy.
While his presence in the race may siphon votes away from both traditional parties, it remains unclear which party will end up as the greatest casualty. Ko’s appeal among young voters (the DPP’s voter base) and the general northern Taiwan region (the KMT’s voter base) may lead him to hold considerable sway in the election’s outcome.
Lai, Hou, or Ko – what does it mean for cross-strait relations?
Should Lai Ching-te secure a continuation of DPP rule, cross-strait relations are likely to remain tense. Beijing may intensify pressure on Taiwan, placing weight on Lai and restricting his political manoeuvrability to make political decisions. Despite continuing Tsai’s comparatively moderate China policy and assuaging the concerns of many Taiwanese voters, China simply does not recognise Tsai, Lai, or the DPP as moderate.
The DPP’s rejection of the 1992 Consensus and pro-independence stance means Beijing flat-out refuses to engage with any DPP administration, viewing them as separatists. This continued standoff could lead to a further deterioration in cross-strait ties, heighten the risk of military conflict, and exacerbate already frail US-China relations.
Conversely, if Hou Yu-ih emerges victorious, cross-strait tensions may relax as Beijing dials down the pressure and may seek to re-commence dialogue. This could lead to a reduction in military provocation and grey-zone warfare, temporarily subsiding the short-term risk of war, and pause economic coercion actions.
The KMT’s history as a Chinese party makes it a preferred option for China. Despite rejecting unification under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ formula proposed by Beijing, the KMT still accepts the 1992 Consensus (unlike the DPP), providing Beijing with some confidence that a KMT administration will not move towards formal independence. However, Hou’s ability to thaw cross-strait tensions would be constrained by the increasing unpopularity of the 1992 Consensus in Taiwan and the public’s record-level distrust in China. Unlike his KMT predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, Hou Yu-ih will not have the same luxury of political manoeuvrability and faces more limitations on his ability to conduct dialogue with Beijing.
If Ko Wen-je pulls off a dark-horse win, his upset victory could present opportunities for a more sustainable approach to Beijing-Taipei relations. As a third-party candidate, Ko is not anchored by the ideological impediments the KMT and DPP are boxed in by, providing Ko with more leeway to act and shape his policies, offering potential constructive engagement with China.
Assistant Professor in politics Chen Fang-Yu at Taiwan’s Soochow University summed up Ko Wen-je’s foreign policy aptly: “His foreign policy closer to the KMT…His attitude towards the United States is erratic. He kept emphasising he was an acceptable candidate for China…But he was not anti-American entire. He is in the middle of both.”
Ko Wen-je’s hyper-pragmatic stance on the trilateral relationship between Taiwan, China, and the United States may also afford him the flexibility to stabilise the relationship, though his lack of foreign policy credentials and limited experience in international affairs may prove a challenge. Ko’s pragmatism has attracted criticism that he lacks core values or principles.
While Ko’s 18 trips to China as Taipei mayor and adoption of some Beijing-friendly language have endeared him to some voters, his rejection of the 1992 Consensus and routine dismissal of unification may complicate relations with Beijing. As a wildcard candidate, it is difficult to predict precisely how a Ko presidency would impact China ties.
Each candidate presents distinct visions for Taiwan’s path head, while juggling their own challenges and campaign impediments. Lai Ching-te, in a continuation of Tsai Ing-wen’s policies, promises to uphold Taiwan’s sovereignty with a principled approach. Hou Yu-ih aims to thaw relations with China by seeking a balance between the status quo and closer economic ties with Beijing. Ko Wen-je, the wildcard, embodies pragmatism and is unencumbered by the ideological and historical barriers of the traditional parties.
Regardless of the election’s outcome, Taiwan’s commitment to democratic processes and the pursuit of its own path serves as a testament to the island’s resilience. This profoundly significant exercise of democracy will ultimately underscore Taiwan’s delicate balance between sovereignty, self-determination, and great power competition – with its impact felt well beyond the waters of the Taiwan Strait.