Taiwan heads to the polls next month with presidential and legislative elections that will determine the trajectory of relations with China for years to come. More than 14 million people are expected to vote in the January 13 ballot as incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) steps down after a two-term limit.
Three main contenders are vying to succeed her, including the DPP candidate Lai Ching-te, currently serving as vice president; Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT) party, the New Taipei City mayor; and Ko Wen-je, founder of the small, populist Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Foxconn, had also been in the line-up but has since pulled out.
In November, the KMT and TPP announced a deal to fight the presidential race on a joint ticket, but this collapsed hours before registration for candidates closed.
The KMT’s choice of candidate for vice president is Jaw Shaw-kong, a TV personality and supporter of ‘reunification’ for Taiwan and China. The TPP’s vice presidential candidate is Cynthia Wu, a businesswoman, sitting MP and daughter of a wealthy Taiwan financier, who was born and went to university in the United States.
An unprecedented election
‘What normally happens at the end of a second presidential term is that the ruling party is very unpopular, and it is just a matter of time before they lose power,’ said Dafydd Fell, director of the Centre of Taiwan Studies at SOAS University of London.
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‘But this election is unprecedented as the incumbent party’s candidate is ahead in the polls. The fact you have got two potential opposition candidates and public opinion still isn’t decided is again unique.’
Taiwan’s last presidential election in 2020 saw Tsai win by a landslide, sending a sharp message of rebuke to Beijing and its efforts to intimidate the island’s de facto, but unofficial, independence.
This time, analysts predict further acts of aggression from Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, as he seeks to undermine DPP claims of sovereignty. China and Taiwan have not held direct talks for almost eight years, and Xi may feel under pressure to appeal to mainland nationalist sentiment, which views the self-governing island as a renegade province.
If either the KMT or TPP win the presidential race we will see much more talk about cross-strait economic integration.
Dafydd Fell, director of the Centre of Taiwan Studies at SOAS, University of London
By ordering increased military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and threatening to revoke trade agreements designed to hurt Taiwan’s economy, Xi may feel he can sway voters towards supporting the KMT, which holds a more conciliatory approach. The KMT opposes both the idea of Taiwan’s independence and Beijing’s notion of ‘one country, two systems’. Meanwhile, the TPP has said it will make ‘deterrence and communication’ the foundation of its China policy.
‘If either the KMT or TPP win the presidential race we will see much more talk about cross-strait economic integration,’ said Fell. ‘We will also probably see meetings of Taiwanese and Chinese leadership again.’
Recent polls indicate that without a unified opposition the DPP is likely to win the presidential race, but not necessarily a parliamentary majority. To date, support for Lai has consistently been above 30 per cent, although this lead may narrow as the election draws closer.
If the DPP does lose its majority mandate, opposition parties will have the leverage needed to curtail government reform and could seek to embarrass a DPP president by limiting military budgets and arms sales from the US. However, if the DPP maintains parliamentary power, Lai will have the backing to diversify Taiwan’s engagement with the rest of the world, as well as decouple its economy from China.