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Taiwan's Domestic Politics is A(maze)ing

Opinion Piece

By Josué Nuss 

The flag of the Republic of China (Taiwan) - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Taiwan's convoluted political landscape hardly garners much attention from geopolitical enthusiasts despite the ongoing 2024 presidential elections.

Hardly a day goes by without a new article emphasizing the paramount significance of Taiwan as a symbol of thriving democracy and open society in East Asia. However, against this background, it sadly remains uncommon for students, observers, or even researchers less focused on Greater China to delve into Taiwanese politics.

A Historical backgrounder to Taiwanese politics

After being defeated by the Communist Party, the Nationalist Party (KMT), led by Jiang Jiechi (known in the West as Chiang Kai-shek), relocated to Taiwan in 1949. Under Jiang's strong leadership, a military dictatorship was established, and the regime's authoritarian nature persisted during the rule of his indirectly elected son, Chiang Ching-kuo (1978-88). The presidency of Lee Teng-hui (1988-2000), Taiwan's "Mr. Democracy", marked the dawn of the democratic regime in Taiwan, as Lee ended martial law and championed political reforms and openness. The Democratic Progressive Party, the first opposition, was born in 1986. Lee was succeeded by Chen Sui-bian (2000-2008), the first Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate to be elected, thereby concluding the 51-year reign of the KMT (1949-2000).

Subsequently, Taiwan's presidential elections have been defined by the coexistence of two prevailing yet contrasting forces: the pan-green electorate and the pan-blue coalition. The pan-green electorate, encompassing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the pro-independence New Power Party, is against potential reunification with China, whilst the pan-blue coalition, notably consisting of the KMT which emphasized that Taiwan is a territory of its own and that reunification with the Mainland is achievable under the 1992 Consensus (stating that "there is but one China"). Following the presidency of KMT leader Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016), the pan-green coalition has achieved political success. It has capitalized on escalating Cross-Strait tensions, positioning itself as the vanguard of Taiwan's independence, with Tsai Ing-wen (DPP) securing victory in the last two consecutive presidential elections.

From a four-way run to a three-way race

As of December 2023, there are only three remaining candidates for the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for January 13, 2024. The incumbent President, Tsai, having served two terms, is ineligible for re-election. Consequently, her current Vice-President, Lai Ching-te (also known as William Lai in the West), is the candidate representing the ruling Party. Lai, a former health consultant, Mayor of Tainan (Taiwan's oldest city), and the current chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) since Tsai's Party defeat in the 2022 local elections, is the actual frontrunner. According to polls, he leads with approximately 30-35% of the intended vote. Lai is recognized as a Taiwanese independence advocate, albeit with moderate views. Since he entered the presidential race, Lai has promised to maintain the status quo whilst expressing strong opposition to military pressure exerted by China in the Strait. Lai is also dedicated to fulfilling the DPP's progressive social policies and implementing a de-risking strategy vis-à-vis Mainland China.

On the opposing side stands Hou Yu-ih, the KMT's chairman. As the incumbent mayor of New Taipei City and former director of the National Police Agency, Hou joined the KMT during Jiang's dictatorship. Interestingly, he was once recruited by the DPP but eventually returned to the KMT after a decade with the Greens. Hou, who appears as the de facto leader of the pan-blue coalition, finds himself caught between conflicting positions. As a moderate nationalist, he has attempted to appeal to the deep-blue faction of the KMT, the pro-unification group, without jeopardizing his centre-right base composed of a moderately conservative and reunification-sceptical electorate. Similarly, Hou has sought to distance himself from being perceived as a potential ally of Beijing in the future. Both Hou and Lai visited the United States this summer—one after another—expressing shared concerns about the militarization of the Strait.

The Taiwan People's Party's leader and founder, Ko Wen-je, is between the blue and green coalitions. Ko also has a medical background and served as a doctor for National Taiwan University's Hospital. Ko was also the mayor of Taipei, Taiwan's capital city, from 2014 to 2022. Currently seen as the "third-way", Ko initially leaned towards the Green at the beginning of his political career before gradually distancing himself from the progressives. Labelling himself a 'realist' in opposition to the DPP's idealistic agenda, he aims to become an alternative to both the Blues and Greens.

His pragmatic approach leads him to consider the restoration of economic ties with the Mainland: “Ko has suggested that the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, the trade deal with China that the Sunflower Movement opposed, should be revised and that Taiwan should construct a bridge between the outlying island of Kinmen and the Chinese mainland”, according to Brian Hoe’s report for The Diplomat. Ko has also long championed the status quo. Interviewed by Taipei Times, Ko reaffirmed that the status quo is the only choice Taiwan has right now, stating that 'There's no point in even talking about unification or independence right now because you can't achieve either'.

Lai, Hou, and Ko are the three remaining contenders. Foxconn founder, former KMT member, and anti-independence advocate Terry Gou also considered a presidential bid as he did in 2020. However, Gou, labelled "Taiwan's Trump" by Foreign Policy Magazine for his intentionally provocative anti-Korean rhetoric and opposition to same-sex marriage (in a 2018 referendum, Taiwanese voted against the liberalization of gay marriages), withdrew from the race last month. This development leaves the three aforementioned candidates vying for the presidency.

The two chairmen envisioned a combined ticket, associating the KMT and the TPP, but the idea ultimately collapsed during the negotiations process last November. The collaboration between the TPP and the KMT, especially with the withdrawal of Terry Gou, could have represented the worst-case scenario and, more importantly, sounded the death knell for the ruling Party, given the latest polls.

The challenges lying ahead

All things considered, the three remaining candidates face a myriad of political challenges. Having suffered defeats in local elections twice in the last five years, the DPP must demonstrate that it remains the sole viable solution amid escalating geopolitical tensions with the Mainland. Simultaneously, the DPP will have to rejuvenate its domestic image, particularly in light of a wave of #MeToo scandals that surfaced last June.

Taiwanese society is inherently divided on political issues, a sentiment exacerbated by the actual yawning generation gap. A great score of young Taiwanese have only experienced life under a bipartite democratic rule and find the rhetoric of two main political parties less appealing over time. Consequently, Taiwan's youth is gradually turning to the TPP, as they 'feel that the two main political parties, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), are too focused on the past and not enough on the future' writes Will Hung for the Wilson Centers. Similarly, a broad range of voters feel that their political ideas are inadequately represented by Taiwanese politicians, leading to significant electoral turnover at given times.

Taiwanese people are currently undecided regarding the political future of their Island vis-à-vis the Mainland, with no clear-cut majority favouring any given solution. A growing number of Taiwanese thus advocate for long-term, endlessly indecisive standpoints, such as maintaining the status quo indefinitely or deferring decisions to a later date, a viewpoint supported by approximately 60% of poll respondents. Considering what is at stake, this 2024 presidential election may be a turning point in Taiwan's political history, vis-à-vis the Mainland and, more vitally, in shaping its destiny.

There could be intensifying animosity but also a thaw. Whether or not it would solely benefit the Mainland or also the Taiwanese inhabitants is a question that must be critically assessed by presidential election runners.


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