U.S. and China keep a close watch as Taiwan heads to the polls

Supporters listening to Kuomintang presidential candidate, Hou Yu-ih, as he speaks on the stage during an election campaign rally in Taichung, Taiwan, January 8, 2024.

Man Hei Leung | Anadolu | Getty Images

More than 19 million voters in Taiwan will head to the polls on Saturday to decide if the ruling Democratic Progressive Party should earn an unprecedented third consecutive presidential term — or if a leadership change is in order.

The traditional DPP-Kuomintang duopoly is being challenged this year by the emergence of former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je and his Taiwan People’s Party. With a legislative majority also at stake at these elections, there are fears of a hung parliament, which could hobble policymaking and herald a return of notorious confrontations between feuding legislators.

With China intensifying its rhetoric on its claim over Taiwan, global observers are billing this Taiwan election as highly pivotal for security in the Asia-Pacific at a time of testy U.S.-China relations.

Local voters though are mainly concerned about the incumbent DPP’s patchy policy record. It comes amid stagnant wages in the face of persistently high inflation and rising home prices and rent.

“In a two-way presidential race, it’s easy to frame it as a binary, a dichotomous, de facto referendum on China policy. When you have a three-way race, it can’t be nearly as effective a framing,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a non-resident fellow at American think tank Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.

“That’s why I talk about change versus continuity, because that allows more variables with policy issues at the domestic level to get into the equation more. That’s Ko Wen-je’s primary effect for me,” he added.

The Ko effect

Some of the more common concerns that have emerged in pre-election rallies and debates include lingering resentment over outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen’s controversial rollout of locally manufactured Covid vaccines at the height of the pandemic and criticism of a perceived broader lack of transparency.

These issues have helped buoy Ko’s popularity as he positions himself as a political outsider. Ko has picked Cynthia Wu, the eldest daughter of a prominent business family, as his vice presidential nominee.

“In particular, young voters, who typically do not have strong party affiliations, arguably care more about who can offer solutions to the longstanding issues of low wages and high housing prices, which have not significantly improved over the past DPP and KMT administrations,” said Jing Bo-jiun, senior research fellow in Taiwan Studies at the University of Oxford.

Ko Wen-je (center), the presidential candidate from the Taiwan People’s Party, speaks to supporters during a campaign rally in Hsinchu on December 23, 2023.

Sam Yeh | AFP | Getty Images

The latest official wage data show average monthly regular earnings of full-time Taiwanese employees rose about 2.2% in October from a year ago, while headline inflation was more than 3% that same month.

“This could be one of the main reasons that TPP’s Ko Wen-je has been popular among the young population, who hope that this non-traditional politician can come up with new policies to improve their lives,” Jing added.

With Tsai stepping aside due to term limits after serving two full terms, Ko will come up against the DPP’s presidential nominee this year: Tsai’s current vice-president Lai Ching-te. He has nominated Hsiao Bi-khim — most recently the Taiwanese envoy to the United States — as his vice president.

If Lai and Hsiao win the Jan. 13 vote for the Taiwan presidential office, it would mark the first time any political party has stayed in office for more than two consecutive terms since Taiwan introduced direct presidential elections in 1996.

Overconfidence in US support coupled with an unfriendly legislature would make responding to a growing security threat from China not only more difficult, but could lead to miscalculations.

Timothy S. Rich

Western Kentucky University

The DPP duo will face Kuomintang’s presidential nominee Hou Yu-ih and vice-presidential nominee Jaw Shaw-kong, who is a prominent local television personality and talk show host. Hou was formerly the director-general of Taiwan’s National Police Agency and the current mayor of New Taipei City, the municipality that encloses the city of Taipei but not the capital.

“There is arguably a more anti-establishment streak among younger voters, who see both the KMT and DPP as old, ineffective, and even corrupt party machines. Ko’s stronger support among those 30-ish and lower is a good indicator of this,” said Kevin Luo, an assistant professor in political science at University of Minnesota.

China factor

Risking that support, the TPP was in talks with KMT about an alliance to field a team that is less antagonistic toward China. That plan though dramatically fell apart on live television ahead of the nomination deadline in late November when both parties could not agree on the leader for the joint ticket.

This has led to concerns the change vote would split even for the parliamentary election, perhaps even leading to a hung parliament.

“Regarding relations with China or the US, my concern would be that it provides an opportunity for mixed messages from Taiwan, one that China may try to exploit,” said Timothy S. Rich, a professor in political science at Western Kentucky University.

U.S.-Taiwan relations will remain very strong, says professor

“Overconfidence in US support coupled with an unfriendly legislature would make responding to a growing security threat from China not only more difficult, but could lead to miscalculations,” he added.

Chinese President Xi Jinping told his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden that Taiwan has always been the “most important and sensitive” issue in the China-U.S. relations when they met on the sidelines of the APEC leaders summit in November.

“The reunification of the motherland is a historical inevitability,” Xi said in his 2024 New Year’s address, according to a CNBC translation.

Biden has pledged to defend Taiwan in the event of a China invasion, irking Beijing.

Former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the island in over two decades. Her trip was one reason that communication between the world’s two leading powers grounded to a halt before a tentative resumption only just months ago.

Campaign posters for various legislative member candidates in Taipei, Taiwan, on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023. Taiwan holds presidential and legislature elections on Jan. 13 that will help shape US-China relations for years to come.

An Rong Xu | Bloomberg | Getty Images

China has never relinquished its claim over Taiwan — which has been self-governing since the Chinese nationalist party, or Kuomintang, fled to the island following its defeat in the Chinese civil war in 1949.

China’s Taiwan affairs office has characterized the self-ruled island’s election as a choice between “peace and war, prosperity and decline.”

The election comes as China has escalated military activity in the Taiwan Strait and other nearby waters as Beijing presses its sovereignty claims over an island it sees as its own.

Taiwan’s DPP-led government has often accused Beijing of vote interference either by military intimidation or by co-opting Taiwan’s business elite due to their economic reliance on China.

Taiwan Vice President and presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party Lai Ching-te (center) greets supporters during his campaign motorcade tour in Kaohsiung on January 8, 2024, ahead of the presidential election.

Yasuyoshi Chiba | AFP | Getty Images

“Peace is priceless, and war has no winners,” said DPP’s Lai at a pre-election press conference in Taipei on Tuesday. “China has always meddled whenever there is an election in Taiwan, but this time, it’s the most serious.”

Weeks before the elections in late December, China suspended tax concessions on 12 chemical compound imports from Taiwan in retaliation for what Beijing deems to be a violation of the Cross Straits Service Trade Agreement.

The timing of China’s probe has led Taiwanese government officials to conclude that Beijing’s aims are more political rather than economic.

“This election will not be won over a specific policy or even cross-Strait relations,” said Charles Wu, an assistant professor in political science at University of South Alabama.

“It provides an opportunity to see if citizens in Taiwan would still be willing to let the DPP govern the country for the next four years.”

Correction: The story has been updated to accurately reflect that former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022.

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