On January 13, Taiwan will hold presidential and legislative elections. Taiwan’s voters will cast one vote for president, one vote for a candidate running for the legislature in their home district, and one vote for their preferred party. The candidate with the most votes will win the presidency, even if they have a plurality rather than a majority. The 113-seat Legislative Yuan will be filled by winners of electoral districts (73 seats); indigenous constituencies (6 seats); and party list voting (34 seats).
Below, I introduce the three presidential candidates and review four factors likely to shape the outcome: 1) candidate positions on cross-strait relations; 2) party affiliation; 3) dissatisfaction with incumbents; and 4) whether the opposition is united or divided. The goal is to provide readers with a framework for interpreting the election results, which will be known the same day as the voting.
Final polling data suggests Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate William Lai holds a 3-6 point lead and is likely to win with a plurality of votes against a divided opposition, though Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Hou Yu-ih could still eke out a victory. Even if Lai wins, it is not clear that the DPP will maintain a majority in the Legislative Yuan.
Introducing the Presidential Candidates
William Lai, also known as Lai Ching-te, the current vice president, is the DPP presidential candidate. He has extensive political experience and has held a small lead in public opinion polls over the other candidates throughout the campaign.
Lai has called himself a “worker for Taiwan independence” in the past, but holds to the DPP position that a formal declaration of independence is unnecessary because Taiwan is already a sovereign independent state. Lai and the DPP have rejected Beijing’s “one country, two systems” model for unification and do not accept the “1992 Consensus,” which Beijing has made a condition for cross-strait dialogue. During the campaign, Lai has projected a moderate position on cross-strait relations and stated that he will continue current President Tsai Ing-wen’s policies toward the mainland.
Lai’s running mate is Hsiao Bi-khim, a DPP politician who previously served as Taiwan’s representative to the United States.
Hou Yu-ih, currently the mayor of New Taipei City (Taiwan’s largest city, with a population of 4 million), is the presidential candidate for the Kuomintang (KMT), Taiwan’s main opposition party. Hou has an extensive law enforcement background, including as head of the National Police Agency from 2006 to 2008. He lacks deep political ties within the KMT; he was chosen as the party’s presidential candidate based on his administrative skills, perceived electability, and moderate position on cross-strait issues.
Hou opposes Taiwan independence and supports the KMT’s interpretation of the 1992 Consensus (one China, separate interpretations) but has rejected Beijing’s unpopular “one country, two systems” formula. His campaign has emphasized his ability to stabilize cross-strait relations through active dialogue with Beijing.
Hou chose KMT stalwart and media personality Jaw Shaw-kong as his running mate.
Ko Wen-je, former mayor of Taipei, is the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) presidential candidate. Ko is an accomplished surgeon who specialized in organ transplants before turning to politics and winning the Taipei mayoral election as an independent candidate in 2014. Ko subsequently established the TPP as an alternative to the DPP and the KMT and as a vehicle for his presidential ambitions. He presents a populist argument of representing the people without being beholden to party ideology.
Ko has stated that “the two sides of the strait are part of one family” but sought to maintain ambiguity about what that means. He is viewed as seeking to maintain the cross-strait status quo and resume dialogue with China to maintain peace in the Taiwan strait.
Ko’s running mate is Cynthia Wu Hsin-ying, a Taiwanese business executive currently serving as a TPP legislator.
4 Factors Likely to Shape the Outcome
Factor 1: Managing Relations with China Properly
Candidates for the presidency must persuade the Taiwan electorate that they will manage relations with mainland China properly. “Properly” means in accordance with mainstream public opinion, which prefers to maintain the political status quo of de facto independence in order to avoid a military conflict with China.
For candidates that view Taiwan as part of China and who nominally support unification at some future point, this requires standing up to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and resisting pressure to accept its definition of Taiwan’s status (as a province of the People’s Republic of China) or to enter premature political talks on unification. For candidates who support Taiwan independence, this requires assuring the electorate that they will not take provocative actions that would lead to a Chinese attack on Taiwan or severely damage cross-strait trade and investment ties, which are critical to Taiwan’s economy.
Given the underlying positions of the pro-independence DPP and the pro-unification KMT, candidates from these parties need to send different messages to reassure the Taiwan electorate (and interested parties such as the United States and Japan) of their ability to manage relations with Beijing. DPP candidates need to convey that they will behave prudently and avoid provocations; KMT candidates need to convey that they will stand up for Taiwan and resist CCP pressure.
China has sought to raise doubts about the DPP’s ability to manage cross-strait relations. Since Tsai’s inauguration in 2016, PRC officials have refused to talk directly with her administration because Tsai has not accepted the 1992 Consensus. Although cross-strait economic relations tether Taiwan to the mainland and benefit the Chinese economy via imports of Taiwan electronic components and technology, PRC leaders have at times used restrictions on trade and tourism to pressure Taiwan leaders.
Beijing may eventually decide that its goal of peaceful unification requires a more substantial disruption of cross-strait economic ties to pressure Taiwan into political talks. Such an action would challenge the positions of all of Taiwan’s parties.
Factor 2: Party Affiliation
Taiwan has evolved from an authoritarian one-party state into a multi-party democracy. Party affiliation is a significant factor in Taiwan politics, though less important than in the United States.
Surveys by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University show about 30 percent of the electorate identifying with the DPP, about 20 percent identifying with the KMT, and about 12 percent identifying with the newer TPP (as of June 2023). About 40 percent consider themselves independent or did not respond to the question. Late 2023 polls show DPP support at 28-31 percent, KMT support at 22-26 percent support, and the TPP with 13-14 percent.
Neither the DPP nor the KMT has enough committed supporters to win national elections without appealing to independent voters and those willing to cross party lines.
Party affiliation matters most for the legislative elections, where voters will cast one vote for a candidate running for the legislature in their home district and one vote for their preferred party. This system rewards a party’s ability to run strong candidates and turn out their voters in districts across the country. It penalizes smaller parties like the TPP that cannot readily win individual districts (the TPP’s five current legislators were all elected via the party list).
Factor 3: Dissatisfaction With Incumbents
Taiwan faces a range of persistent governance challenges, including dealing with the military and political threat posed by mainland China, maintaining growth and creating jobs in a mature economy, and providing health care and pensions for its population of 23 million people. These challenges are exacerbated by a relatively low tax burden, which limits the government’s ability to spend to meet these societal demands.
These seemingly intractable challenges have produced a recurring pattern where dissatisfaction with the ruling party’s performance causes a drop in public support over time and provides a political opportunity for other parties. This dynamic partly explains the outcome of presidential elections in 2008 and 2016; in both cases, the incumbent president was ineligible to run again due to term limits, and voters elected a president from the opposition rather than choosing a successor from the ruling party. The same sentiments could be a negative factor for the ruling DPP in the presidential and legislative elections.
The polls have consistently shown more total support for opposition party presidential candidates than for Lai, the ruling DPP candidate. An October 2023 poll also indicated that more than half of those surveyed thought rotation of the presidency away from the DPP would be beneficial for Taiwan’s democracy.
Factor 4: Opposition United or Divided?
Given the DPP’s limited core support base and evidence that the Taiwan public supports change, much of the electoral campaign has been focused on whether the opposition can unite behind a single candidate, or whether multiple opposition candidates would allow the DPP candidate to win with a plurality of votes.
Hou and Ko discussed forming a KMT-TPP unity ticket, but talks stalled on the question of who would be the presidential candidate and who would be the vice-presidential candidate. An agreement to use a series of public opinion polls to decide who would head the ticket broke down over questions about how to interpret the polling results; both Hou and Ko ultimately registered as presidential candidates under their own party affiliations.
This split in the opposition gives Lai an excellent chance to win the presidential election with a plurality of the vote. The outcome will be determined partly by turnout, partly by appeal to independent and crossover voters, and partly by whether Ko’s supporters will decide to support the TPP leader (who is running third in most polls) even if that makes Lai more likely to win.
It is generally assumed that most of Ko’s voters would prefer Hou over Lai and might vote strategically for their second-choice candidate. However, given that Ko’s supporters tend to be younger and more independent, some will vote for Ko anyway to make a political statement, some might support Lai instead of Hou, and some may choose not to vote at all.
Given the structure of Taiwan’s legislative elections, there is also a chance that the DPP may lose its legislative majority even if Lai wins the presidential election. If the KMT wins an outright majority, it would be in a position to block DPP initiatives. If smaller parties (including the TPP) hold the balance in the legislature, the DPP would have to bid for their support, perhaps on an issue-by-issue basis.
In the final surveys before the polling blackout that began on January 3, Lai was in the lead with 36 percent support, followed by Hou at 31 percent, and Ko at 24 percent. Most other polls also showed Lai with a 3-6 point lead over Hou, with Ko running a distant third. These results have been fairly consistent since the candidates were officially registered.
At this point, Lai must be regarded as the favorite to win a plurality in the election, although turnout and strategic voting may still give Hou the victory. The outcome of the legislative elections is less clear, with a significant chance that the DPP will not maintain a majority even if Lai wins the presidential election.
If Lai wins, he is unlikely to cross Beijing’s explicit red lines for the use of force by declaring independence or calling for a referendum on Taiwan’s status. His refusal to accept the 1992 Consensus or to negotiate substitute language suggests that cross-strait dialogue will remain suspended, that Beijing will increase pressure on Taiwan, and that cross-strait tensions will continue to rise.
Lai’s remarks in the presidential debate, when he questioned whether the Republic of China Constitution provides a basis for engaging China, suggest that he will continue the project of building a separate Taiwan cultural and political identity. These efforts are likely to eventually press the limits of Beijing’s tolerance, and perhaps Washington’s as well.
If Lai confronts a KMT majority legislature, he is likely to have difficulty following through on DPP pledges to increase defense spending and arms purchases, even though the KMT also supports those goals. DPP efforts to lengthen conscription service to one year and reorganize Taiwan’s reserve forces may also meet opposition.
A Hou victory would likely produce a resumption of cross-strait dialogue and a reduction in military tensions. However, a narrow election victory would not give Hou and the KMT much of a mandate to strengthen economic and political ties with Beijing. If Hou follows previous KMT President Ma Ying-jeou’s approach of seeking to postpone discussion of political issues, Beijing is likely to eventually lose patience and begin to apply more pressure on Taiwan. A KMT government under Hou would continue efforts to strengthen the Taiwan military and maintain good relations with the United States, but likely with less urgency.