The presidential and parliamentary elections held in Taiwan on 13 January 2024 were closely watched globally, as their potential implications could reverberate far beyond the island’s shores. Two oft-quoted arguments relate to the fact that Taiwan is home to a huge chunk of the world’s cutting-edge semiconductors, and the volume of maritime traffic through the 110-mile-wide strip of water between the Chinese mainland and the self-governed island. Add to that the political significance of Taiwan’s subjugation to Beijing’s “national rejuvenation” vision, as well as the geostrategic importance of the first-island chain to the entire Indo-Pacific region.
The elections took place at the end of the second term of office of outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen, after eight years of heightened tension between Taipei and Beijing. Further complicating the broader geopolitical riddle are the ongoing major armed conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, with all parties wishing away a clash in the Taiwan Strait.
What conditioned the election outcome
The heated election campaign was marked by mass rallies, loud music, emotional speeches and the rhythmic chanting of slogans by large crowds. The turn-out rate, at 71.5%, was slightly lower than the one in 2020 (74.9%), but still remarkably high, as yet another illustration of Taiwan’s democratic credentials.
During Taiwan’s famously efficient and transparent counting process, the winner in the presidential race emerged within less than four hours after the end of polling. It took a bit longer to sort out the make-up of the new parliament (Legislative Yuan), due to the three different types of ballot papers cast – 73 MPs stand in single-member constituencies, six claim seats set aside for indigenous people and 34 are elected on party lists.
The main contenders for the president’s office were Lai Ching-te of the ruling DPP, Hou Yu-ih of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, and Ko Wen-je, chair and founder of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). The DPP champions Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty under the so-called Tsai doctrine and separate identity from China. While Lai has tempered his rhetoric somewhat, Beijing persistently calls him a “separatist”. His running mate Hsiao Bi-khim used to be Taiwan’s outspoken envoy to the United States under President Tsai.
The KMT traditionally favours closer cross-strait ties. Hou, the former head of Taiwan’s National Police Agency and mayor of New Taipei City, was seen as a weak candidate, overshadowed in his party by former Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016). The new kid on the block, the TPP, was founded in 2019 to challenge the island’s political duopoly of the KMT and the DPP. The 64-year-old Ko, former mayor of Taipei, criticises his opponents for being caught up in an ideological deadlock, and it is clear that the traditional political cleavages between the green (DPP) and blue (KMT) camps have faded.
Lai cruised to an unprecedented third consecutive DPP presidential mandate, with 40.1% of the vote. The ruling party made a strong comeback, despite its defeat in the November 2022 local elections. However, Lai’s team will have to thank the KMT and the TPP for missing an opportunity to forge a united anti-DPP front in the lead-up to the presidential ballot.
Lai and Ko fared better than expected, clearly at the expense of the KMT’s Hou. While the DPP banks on the “Taiwanese” identity stated by 63% of respondents, the TPP presented an agenda with bread-and-butter issues that are closer to the hearts and minds of many Taiwanese voters. Despite the persistent threats from Beijing, a number of people stated that China was not their biggest concern in this election and that they did not expect the status quo to change in the short term anyway. Consequently, this time around the China factor was seemingly less significant.
In general, the KMT’s political weight has been diminishing – long gone are the days when Chiang Kai-shek’s regime ruled the island with an iron fist for nearly half a century. At the same time, the KMT can boast an enhanced presence in the Legislative Yuan, thanks to its still-functional networks across the island. The DPP lost its narrow 2020 parliamentary majority, which will probably make the TPP a kingmaker in the house.
The day after
Lai’s victory amounts to a slap in Beijing’s face, but for the PRC this could also be a self-inflicted embarrassment, as the massive pressure exerted by mainland authorities on Taiwanese voters appears to have backfired. After framing the election as “a choice between peace and war” and throwing its weight behind the KMT, Beijing cannot afford to sit idly and put up with another DPP president. If anything, PRC authorities cannot back off from what president Xi has repeatedly called “a historical inevitability” of Taiwan’s unification with the mainland.
Yet, Beijing’s initial response to the election outcome in Taiwan has been noticeably mild. While it is pointed out that China’s determination to pursue national reunification remains “as firm as rock”, the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office states that the mainland stands ready to work with political parties and groups of people from various sectors on the island to boost exchanges, cooperation, peaceful development and Chinese culture.
Cross-strait relations nosedived after Beijing cut off most communications with Taipei in response to Tsai’s 2016 win, and further stepped up pressure around her landslide re-election four years later. Back then, Beijing banned individual tourists from visiting Taiwan in 2019, fined some Taiwanese companies operating in China in 2021, and imposed import bans on a raft of Taiwanese products. Over the past eight years, Beijing has deployed a wide array of economic, diplomatic and military levers of coercion in order to bring Taipei to heel, even if to little avail.
Now, with Lai in the presidential office, there may be another salvo of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military drills in the Taiwan Strait and perhaps even a repeat of the blockade around the self-ruled island, like the one that followed Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August 2022. Economic pressure, too, will continue to play a part in the tense relations between Beijing and Taipei, e.g., through the selective suspension of elements of the bilateral Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) that gives preferential tariffs to Taiwanese products. Cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns and psychological operations are also part of Beijing’s repertoire. However, while a thaw between the two parties seems unlikely, Beijing may consider a predominantly performative display aimed at warning Taipei against unilateral departures from the status quo.
Lai’s term of office will be full of domestic challenges, after his inauguration on 20 May. Apart from dealing with a hostile Beijing, at home he will have to face a fragmented parliament, with a majority of KMT and TPP legislators. This could hobble policymaking, and most probably will lead to constant bickering between the executive and the assembly. It is not unlikely that Lai will have to relive the experience of former DPP president Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008), who spent his tenure in an uneasy co-habitation with a Legislative Yuan controlled by opposition lawmakers.
International implications of Taiwan’s elections
Squeezed between the U.S. and China, Taiwan under its new administration will pose a test to the latest efforts by Washington and Beijing to stabilise their rocky ties. While the White House reiterated that the U.S. does not support Taiwan’s independence, Biden’s administration is planning to send a delegation to Taipei shortly after the elections, even if an “informal” one made up of former senior officials. US military aid to Taiwan will also remain a major irritant for the PRC.
Yet, unless things go awry amidst heightened military activities around Taiwan or due to an accident, the US posture is likely to remain what retired four-star general David Petraeus describes in a recent interview as “firm, but not needlessly provocative”. Notably, right before the elections in Taiwan, there was a meeting between US state secretary Antony Blinken and Liu Jianchao, minister of the CCP’s International Liaison Department. The two officials stressed the importance of continuing to maintain “open channels of communication” between the U.S. and the PRC, in the spirit of the Biden-Xi summit last November. It’ll be up to both Washington and Beijing to establish a floor below the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world and one that can easily veer towards conflict, if not managed well.
The rest of the world will also keep a watchful eye on the Taiwan Strait, which commandeers major trade routes, high-tech and defence lines of global importance. Conjectures about where post-election Taiwan may be heading are already flying around. While it is not all doom and gloom, the outcome of the presidential ballot shows that a peaceful reunification is not around the corner, and the risk of escalation – whether accidental or intentional – will continue to pose a serious challenge. Much as it sounds like a cliché, Taiwan is likely to remain the most dangerous flashpoint in the world in the years to come.
* Head of Asia Unit
Institute of International Economic Relations (IIER), Athens