Why Taiwan's Voters Defied Beijing—Again

commentary

Jan 15, 2024

Taiwan President-elect Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) holds a press conference following his electoral victory, Taipei, January 13, 2024, photo by Ann Wang/Reuters

Taiwan President-elect Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) holds a press conference following his electoral victory, Taipei, January 13, 2024.

Photo by Ann Wang/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The Journal of Democacy on January 13, 2024.

Taiwanese voters just delivered an unprecedented third consecutive presidential term to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), elevating current vice-president William Lai Ching-te, to the highest office along with his running mate, former U.S. envoy Hsiao Bi-khim, in Saturday's elections. The party and its pan-Green coalition (named for the colors of the DPP party flag) did not fare as well in the parliamentary contests, losing its majority in the unicameral Legislative Yuan. The Kuomintang (KMT) eked out a plurality with 52 seats, and the DPP came in close behind with 51. The Taiwan People's Party (TPP) increased its legislative presence from 5 to 8 seats, positioning it as a kingmaker in the 113-seat legislature.

Nevertheless, Lai's election is a capstone to current President Tsai Ing-wen's administration. Unable to run again due to term limits, Tsai is widely seen as a steady and cautious leader, especially when confronting Chinese Communist Party (CCP) coercion. With roots in Taiwan's democratic and independence movements, the DPP seeks to enhance Taiwan's defense against Chinese military threats through burgeoning security and economic ties with the United States, Japan, Southeast Asia, and likeminded democracies. Lai has already pledged to continue Tsai's approach to cross-Strait relations, and his election offers the DPP a third term to consolidate the gains she made.

Domestic issues played a larger role in the campaign than previous national elections. While the DPP still came out on top, the contest remained tight going into Election Day, as Lai's party struggled to convince voters to give it four more years to address the slow economic growth, rising inflation and cost of living, energy-security issues, and youth unemployment that have been plaguing Taiwan.

Lai consistently led the three-way presidential race. He faced Hou You-ih, the current mayor of New Taipei City, from the Kuomintang (KMT) or Chinese Nationalist Party. The KMT imposed martial law on Taiwan following its defeat by the CCP in 1949, but since democratization, it has favored economic and societal engagement with Beijing to maintain cross-Strait stability.

Beijing will likely increase the geographic scope, scale, and frequency of its coercive operations to reduce the readiness of Taiwan's military, demoralize the public, and isolate Taiwan internationally.

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Lai also defeated Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People's Party (TPP). Established five years ago as a “third force” in opposition to both the DPP and KMT, the TPP is a personalistic—even populist—party largely centered on Ko. His savvy use of social media and ambiguous policy positions garnered significant support among youth, especially men. The TPP has shifted from the center-left to the center-right, although Ko himself, like Lai, promised to follow Tsai's cross-Strait policies.

Together, the KMT and TPP were polling better than the DPP. Throughout October and November, the two opposition parties toyed with fielding a unity presidential ticket, but failed to agree on whether Hou or Ko would get the top spot. Weak internal organization within the Blue parties and a lack of coherent ideologies and policy agendas (unlike Lai, neither Hou nor Ko released a full platform) prevented the opposition parties from finding a workable compromise through policy concessions or ministerial swaps. By competing rather than cooperating, the Blue coalition partners essentially handed the win to Lai and the DPP.

One of the most important actors in these elections, of course, did not cast a ballot: the CCP across the Taiwan Strait. Over the last year, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) ramped up its coercion of Taiwan—staging large-scale military exercises bracketing the main island; dispatching small maritime units across the Strait's median line (the unofficial boundary between mainland China and Taiwan); firing missiles over Taiwan's main island; and, most recently, flying high-altitude balloons over Taiwan (as it also did in the United States last year). The PLA was signaling to Taiwan where the “gray zone” could lead.

With this third DPP victory, Taiwan-China relations will only get worse. Beijing will likely increase the geographic scope, scale, and frequency of its coercive operations to reduce the readiness of Taiwan's military, demoralize the public, and isolate Taiwan internationally. China recently raised tariffs on some Taiwanese products, and it will likely broaden these sanctions at the next opportunity in order to undermine DPP support in specific districts, especially those in the south (the DPP's traditional support base) and those relying on agricultural exports. And Beijing will continue refusing to talk to a DPP government, halting Taiwanese efforts to manage the cross-Strait relationship and increasing the chances of miscommunication.

At the same time, however, the election's split decision makes Chinese coercion politically trickier. Over the last eight years, the DPP's consolidated control of the Executive and Legislative Yuans has given Beijing a consolidated target: It could blame the DPP for provoking Chinese aggression without generating as much blowback on Taiwan's opposition parties. The PLA's intimidation operations are blunt instruments, however, making it much harder to target different audiences simultaneously. Thus its strongarming will now likely drive down public support for the KMT, TPP, and other opposition parties—not ideal for any Chinese unification agenda. The mounting pressure narrows the political space on Taiwan for any kind of agreement, as well as undermining Beijing's likely negotiating partners.

Moreover, Taiwanese public opinion on unification is shifting, prompting party positions to change along with it. The 2024 election highlighted the increasing political salience of Taiwanese self-identification, which constrains all parties' policies toward the mainland. The Election Study Center at National Chengchi University has found that a majority of Taiwanese now identify as “Taiwanese only” and closely link that identification to (negative) views of China. Accordingly, all three presidential candidates released foreign-policy statements emphasizing the need for robust defense and deterrence. The KMT took pains to emphasize that its understanding of the 1992 Consensus between the KMT and CCP—that is, “one China, different interpretations”—follows Taiwan's constitution and is not the same as the CCP's interpretation of a unified China that includes Taiwan.

Along these lines, a majority of Taiwanese prefer maintaining the status quo, which constrains any moves toward independence. Lai has repeatedly adhered to Tsai's formula that Taiwan is already an independent country: A formal declaration is not therefore needed, and any such declaration would first have to clear a public referendum (which has not been proposed). More important, China has threatened severe military reprisals should Taiwan make such a move, further deterring any declaration. Nevertheless, the election results demonstrate the diminishing appeal of unification in Taiwan as the island continues to foster a distinct political identity and culture. This will only increase Beijing's frustration.

Adding to the CCP's growing impatience are two other factors. First, the party has traditionally grounded its legitimacy in economic growth and nationalism. But the Chinese economy is no longer booming. Amid the current economic slowdown, Beijing has been acting more aggressively in its neighborhood, and the type of foreign belligerence we've seen over the past year—against not only Taiwan, but also the Philippines, Japan, and India—is likely to intensify. The second factor, which also exacerbates the CCP's legitimacy problem, is Xi Jinping's recent consolidation of power, which tethers China's foreign policy to his personal political stature. Before 2022, the CCP could constrain Xi and also spread the blame for any policy missteps across the various party organs. Now many of those institutions have been hollowed out, and Xi's personal centrality to the political system grows with every policy success. At the same time, however, the blame for failures also rests solely on his shoulders. This dynamic will likely increase foreign-policy volatility going forward, as Xi maintains his political standing by blaming other countries for China's problems and diverts attention through nationalistic rhetoric and military action.

Taiwan's election may also present two thorny domestic political challenges—a handcuffed incoming government and an increasingly fragmented political right.

There is a five-month window between the election and inauguration day in May. That lag, combined with the DPP's unprecedented third consecutive term and its loss of a majority in the Legislative Yuan, mean that the outgoing consolidated DPP has both ample time and incentive to push through priorities that might be politically more difficult after May 20—such as raising the minimum wage, making arms agreements, and reforming institutions. To be clear, such efforts might not succeed: The opposition would of course do its best to stop them. But this situation is new in Taiwanese politics, and we do not know how the incentives might prompt specific political action.

Taiwan's election may present two thorny domestic political challenges—a handcuffed incoming government and an increasingly fragmented political right.

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Second, the KMT might learn the wrong lessons from this split decision. In the past, the party has struggled to make the internal reforms needed to jettison its legacy operations and convert itself into a modern mass party. It could read its victory in the legislature as a sign that it does not need reform. But Taiwan's political right periodically fragments along ethnic and other social cleavages. Democracies require strong conservative parties. This continuing fragmentation potentially creates a “democratic ceiling” for Taiwan, where the political system cannot resolve critical political disagreements among different sections of the public. Over the long-term, this can drive gridlock, undermine democratic governance, and facilitate illiberal politics.

Beyond the domestic consequences, democratic consolidation is often key to successfully resisting gray-zone coercion: It imposes costs on leaders for capitulation, thereby increasing political, social, and military resistance. This is especially important to Taiwan as it faces a panoply of Chinese threats. A KMT with deeper public engagement and greater internal cohesion will bring the party in line with broader Taiwanese opinion on China, reducing Beijing's ability to foment skepticism (PDF) of U.S. policy and intentions. And given the choice the Taiwanese people just made in this election, we should expect the threats from the mainland to mount.


Raymond Kuo is the inaugural director of the Taiwan Policy Initiative and a senior political scientist at RAND. He is an expert on international security, international order, and East Asia.