International Relations

In a Year of Pivotal Elections, Taiwan’s is One of the Most Consequential

More than 50 democracies are holding elections in 2024. Bangladeshis have already elected a new Prime Minister; the UK is likely to follow suit later in the year; and, of course, Americans will cast their ballots this autumn. However, few are of greater consequence or have captured more global attention than Taiwan’s presidential elections scheduled for this Saturday, January 13.

Taiwanese are deciding between three candidates. Two from the major parties – the KMT’s Hou Yu-ih and the DPP’s Lai Ching-te – and one from a new third party, the TPP. Led by former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, the TPP was founded as a bridge between the KMT and DPP, but few believe their candidate has a realistic path to victory. Polls show a very tight race between the KMT and DPP candidates, with the DPP’s Lai holding a modest lead.

The world is laser-focused on this vote because Taiwan’s next president will shape its policy toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for the next four years, and the island’s two largest political parties approach cross-Strait relations very differently. Since 1996 when the first presidential election was held in Taiwan, the KMT has viewed unification with the PRC as “constitutionally acceptable,” a position reiterated just this week by former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeo, of the KMT. However, in a stunning break with precedent, KMT candidate Hou ruled out holding unification talks with the PRC if elected, pledging instead to return to a “diplomatic truce” with the Mainland.

Historically, the DPP has stood firm against ceding Taiwan’s sovereignty. Lai’s selection of Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s former ambassador to the United States, to be his running mate is consistent with the DPP’s commitment to protect Taiwan’s political independence. Hsiao, who emphasized the importance of democracies working together during a plenary speech at ALEC’s July 2021 Annual Meeting, used this month’s vice presidential debate to highlight the importance of integrating Taiwan into international institutions (supported by ALEC model policy). She also highlighted her work in DC to further an agreement to avoid double taxation between the US and Taiwan (an idea contained in this ALEC model policy). TPP’s Ko has tried to strike a middle ground between Hou and Lai by calling for “practical diplomacy” that prioritizes unofficial diplomatic contacts. The outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen (DPP), who is a recipient of ALEC’s International Pioneer Award, took office in 2016, so if Lai prevails, it will be the first time one party has led the island nation for three consecutive terms.

Relations between the PRC and DPP have been strained since President Tsai came to power. To register his disapproval over her cross-Strait policies, President Xi steadfastly refused to engage with Tsai’s government. However, Tsai’s toughness redounded well for her electoral prospects. China’s effective takeover of Hong Kong served as a wakeup call for Taiwan’s people who feared they might be next and contributed to Tsai’s 2020 landslide reelection (see ALEC’s overview: China’s Crackdown on Hong Kong Paved the Way for Taiwan President’s Re-Election). The Mainland clearly favors a KMT victory. Predictably, Beijing has stepped up interference in Taiwan’s elections, flooding the island with disinformation, including the distribution of a propaganda piece purporting to reveal secrets about President Tsai and flying suspicious spy balloons into Taiwanese airspace.

The US is also watching the electoral results closely, and The White House has announced that it will send a high-level delegation to the country next week after votes are cast – a gesture supported by ALEC’s Resolution in Support of the Taiwan Travel Act. Taiwan’s democracy, which enjoys a Freedom House ranking of 94 out of 100, is robust. However, the Taiwanese people have a stark choice to make between seeking stronger ties to Beijing or guarding their sovereignty and democratic process from PRC encroachment. That is why some consider this to be the most consequential Asia-Pacific election of 2024.