Current Vice President Lai Ching-te (also know as William Lai) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the Taiwanese presidential election on January 13. Lai won with 5,586,019 votes, while Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT) took 4,671,021 votes. Ko Wen-je, the candidate of the relatively new Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), had a strong performance for a third-party candidate, winning 3,690,466 votes. In percentage terms, Lai notched 40 percent of votes to Hou’s 33.5 percent and Ko’s 26.5 percent.
In his victory speech, Lai emphasized that the election was an accomplishment for the Taiwanese people in making their will heard despite attempts at interference. He also vowed to maintain the cross-strait status quo. Lai emphasized that he would maintain continuity with his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, and that he was open to communication with China if this occurred in a manner that ensured the dignity of the Taiwanese people. Lai stated that peace was in the common interest of both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
The Chinese government has sought to frame Lai as a dangerously pro-independence provocateur in the manner of previous DPP president Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008), drawing on past pro-independence comments by Lai (which he has since sought to moderate).
In a statement on January 13, however, China’s Foreign Ministry sought to downplay the importance of the election: “Whatever changes take place in Taiwan, the basic fact that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China will not change; the Chinese government’s position of upholding the one-China principle and opposing ‘Taiwan independence’ separatism, ‘two Chinas’ and ‘one China, one Taiwan’ will not change…”
The statement added, “The one-China principle is the solid anchor for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
Ironically, Lai’s victory occurred primarily because of a split vote in the pan-Blue camp, much as Chen Shui-bian became the first DPP candidate to win the presidency in 2000 because of multiple pan-Blue candidates dividing the vote.
Ko’s strong performance occurred despite a public debacle in which the prospect of a joint ticket between the KMT and TPP dramatically disintegrated on live television, partly due to poor negotiating by Ko. Evidently, the incident did not prevent strong support for Ko, particularly among young people. Given that Taiwanese youths have slanted progressive under the Tsai administration, Ko’s appeal is somewhat surprising in light of his reputation for public misogyny, and his proposal to revive the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement, the controversial trade pact that led to the outbreak of the 2014 Sunflower Movement.
Polls seemed to indicate ahead of time that Lai had a clear lead over his opponents. However, in Taiwan a ten-day blackout period is imposed ahead of elections, and during this period, several incidents introduced unexpected wrinkles into the election campaign.
For one, a national alert was sent to residents of Taiwan over a Chinese satellite launch, which unexpectedly crossed into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. Though the Chinese language alert indicated that a satellite had been launched, the English version warned of a missile launch. The English confused even Premier Chen Chien-jen, who was being cross-examined in the legislature over vaccine purchases by the KMT, and interrupted proceedings to state that a missile had been fired by China over Taiwan.
The KMT subsequently accused the DPP of deliberately engineering the confusion, so as to provoke a sense of panic over Chinese threats to Taiwan. In the past, incidents in which China’s military threatened Taiwan led to an uptick in support for the DPP. The KMT has increasingly leaned into claims that the DPP deliberately plays up or fabricates stories about Chinese threats for the sake of elections.
Indeed, during the vice presidential debate, KMT vice presidential candidate Jaw Shaw-kong alleged that a CNN story about Taiwanese band Mayday facing Chinese pressure was fabricated by the DPP and disseminated by international media, claiming that he would prosecute those responsible for the story if the KMT took power.
Also during the polling blackout period, former President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT told German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle that Taiwanese should “have faith in Xi Jinping,” China’s top leader. Ma also called for a reduction in Taiwan’s military budget to avoid provoking China.
Hou quickly sought to distance himself from Ma’s comments, emphasizing that he had different views, and Ma was not invited to the KMT’s final rally before the election. Yet the incident could have impacted the election outcome, given Ma’s high-profile role in this year’s election cycle.
The win for Lai means an unprecedented third consecutive presidential term for the DPP. Yet Lai’s lower vote count shows that he does not enjoy as strong a mandate as Tsai Ing-wen when she took office. In 2020, Tsai won over 8 million votes, 57 percent of the total. Tsai’s historically high win in the 2020 elections may have partly been due to the impact of the 2019 protests in Hong Kong.
This time around, the DPP was not able to maintain its current majority in the legislature. Actually, no party holds a majority in the Legislative Yuan.
Between the district vote and the proportional party list vote, the DPP secured 51 seats in the legislature, the KMT 52 seats, and the TPP eight seats. In terms of the party list vote, in which voters vote directly for parties and parties are assigned seats based on proportional representation, the DPP gained the most votes but had a narrow 2 percent more than the KMT.
Young pan-Green candidates in particular fared badly. Of the DPP’s flagship group of youth candidates, termed “The Generation,” only Wu Pei-yi in Zhongzheng-Wanhua was successfully elected. Prominent youth politicians such as cosplayer and activist Lai Pin-yu and Taipei city councilor Miao Poya – one of Taiwan’s first openly lesbian politicians – were defeated.
The post-Sunflower Movement third party, the New Power Party, was ousted from the legislature, and no other third party apart from Ko’s TPP managed to win legislative seats.
The dynamics of the future legislature are to be seen. The DPP likely did not expect to hold onto the legislature, with the eight years of the Tsai administration representing the only time in Taiwanese history that a non-KMT political party has held the majority in the Legislative Yuan. But the close results may allow the TPP to position itself as holding the crucial balance of power between the two major parties.
Though the TPP and KMT kept the door open for cooperation during exchanges in the last weeks of elections in presidential and vice presidential debates, the TPP has declined to commit to always cooperating with the KMT. The KMT is expected to push for 2020 presidential candidate and former Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu to become the speaker of the Legislative Yuan, seeing as he was number one on the KMT party list and will now have a seat in the legislature. It is unclear whether the TPP will back this proposal.
The Chen administration, during which the DPP held the presidency but did not control the legislature, offers precedents as to what the DPP could accomplish without a legislative majority. Given stark partisan rhetoric in Taiwanese politics at present, it is unclear if the KMT will engage in scorched-earth tactics against the DPP by way of the legislature.
In terms of the legislative race, the DPP was hurt by its inability to resolve the economic issues facing Taiwan during its eight years in power. This contributed to the TPP’s appeal in particular among young people, given that Ko emphasized that he hoped to steer clear of partisan conflicts and address how young people face low salaries and unaffordable housing.
Taiwanese voters may hope for more than just appeals by political parties on the basis of their cross-strait position, then. The DPP maintaining the presidency was probably due to its cross-strait stance being preferable to that of the KMT. Nonetheless, the election is a warning to the DPP that only maintaining power on this basis will not be enough going forward. The DPP will need to work on its messaging, otherwise it faces defeat in future election cycles.