Taiwan Opts for Continuity
Taiwan’s Vice President Lai Ching-te, who led the public opinion polls through the election campaign just concluded, has won the race with just over 40% of the vote. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) challenger Hou Yu-ih garnered 33.5% while Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) candidate Ko Wen-je came in third with 26.5%. Lai’s victory marks the third consecutive triumph for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)—the only time any political party in Taiwan has achieved this since the first direct presidential vote in 1996. Voter turnout was just under 72%, which was about 3 percentage points lower than four years ago. Lai will be inaugurated on May 20.
The DPP, however, lost its majority in the legislature, where no party will have a dominant position when it reconvenes on February 1. Of the 113 seats, the KMT will get 52, the DPP 51, and the TPP eight. Independents will hold two seats. As a result, Lai’s administration will have greater difficulty passing laws than incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen has had. She has ruled with a DPP majority in the Legislative Yuan for the past eight years.
Although domestic problems such as stagnating wages and rising housing costs were important to many voters, especially the young, Taiwan’s future relationship with China was likely the paramount concern. In the face of increasing Chinese military and economic pressure, as well as disinformation and other forms of cognitive warfare that are aimed at sowing divisions in Taiwan and persuading the island’s people that their future will be brighter as part of China, the majority of the people want to preserve Taiwan's autonomy as well as cross-strait stability. Tsai has pursued a firm, consistent, and pragmatic approach toward China, insisting on Taiwan’s sovereignty while refusing to bow to pressure from Beijing. She has prioritized strengthening ties with democracies worldwide, first and foremost the United States, but also countries in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. In her New Year’s address earlier this month, Tsai said she was “leaving behind a Taiwan of the world”.
Lai has pledged to follow in Tsai’s footsteps, preserving the cross-strait status quo, enhancing ties with international partners, and boosting Taiwan’s defense capabilities. In his acceptance speech, Lai said that he has “an important responsibility to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”. He pledged to act in accordance with the constitutional order of the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name. In addition, Lai offered to “use exchanges to replace obstructionism” and “dialogue to replace confrontation”, under the principles of “dignity and parity”.
It is unlikely, however, that Chinese President Xi Jinping will restart official contacts with Taiwan’s government, which have been suspended for the past eight years. China has labeled Lai and his Vice President-elect, Bi-khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s former representative to the United States, as a “separatist” duo who, if elected, would “only push Taiwan into the abyss”. Lai’s victory will be a disappointment but not a surprise to Beijing. Xi’s desire to preserve the fragile stability in US-China relations that was achieved at the Woodside summit with President Joe Biden in November will probably be one factor that will deter him from taking exceedingly harsh measures against Taiwan, at least for the remainder of this year. Nevertheless, Chinese pressure on Taiwan can be expected to continue, and may increase, although use of military force to punish Taiwan or compel unification is unlikely, at least in the next few years. Xi will be preoccupied with economic troubles and corruption in the military, and he likely understands that using force against Taiwan will set back his priority of putting China on an irreversible path to achieving national rejuvenation by mid-century.