Why Taiwan’s Presidential Election in January 2024 Interests the World?
Prof Rajaram Panda
Introduction

Taiwan has been in news for quite some time because of China’s threat to use force as it considers the island nation as a part of its territory and keen to integrate with the mainland. China has identified Taiwan as one of its “core” issues and wants to resolve as soon as possible. Taiwan’s ruling party that seeks independence has vehemently opposed and persevered to maintain an independent identity despite many pitfalls. There are severe geopolitical consequences if Beijing chooses to be adventurous triggering a conflict that could go out of control and assume a global dimension. Now Taiwan is again in news for another reason. This is not less important than the first. This article dwells on this new issue and examines the possible fallout.

The present Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s second and final term ends in May 2024 and a successor has to be chosen with legislative races held at the same time. The Central Election Commission has already announced the date, 13 January 2024, when the next presidential election will be held.[1] As per the island nation’s constitution, the incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen cannot run again as a President can serve only up to two consecutive four years-term and so is constitutionally barred for a third term. These rules out Tsai to be in the race gain. Since presidential vote will coincide with the Legislative Yuan election, political parties are likely to announce their candidates via internal primaries by 15 December 2023. The island’s 23.5 million people shall be considering a range of issues before exercising their franchise and it is to be seen how each party intends to deal with China as its looks more menacing that can have global ramifications.

As Taiwan prepares for its presidential election in January 2024 amid restive geopolitical landscape, the battle lines are being drawn between the two main parties, in which the interests of a belligerent China would be a crucial factor. The independence-seeking policy of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) headed by Tsai that has been in power since 2016 shall be up against the Kuomintang (KMT) that seeks closer relations with China.

It is unusual that the elections are seven months away but political parties are already jostling with their point of view to influence the electorate in their favour. Such euphoria normally does not happen so early in other countries going for elections. This makes Taiwan’s case important as the China factor impacts regional geopolitics.

Issue of Choosing the Right Candidates

The two leading political parties aiming to grab power have already started the process of choosing their candidates. There have been already a number of twists and turns as the parties are in race to finalise their candidates who can shape the nation’s destiny. After considerable deliberations, the KMT settled to field for New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih. Though one of the popular mayors, he is believed to be distrusted within the party.

KMT’s Candidate

Formerly a police officer, the 65-year-old Hou spent three decades in the police, and was involved in several high-profile cases, including during Taiwan’s period of authoritarianism. He has been a member of the KMT since 1975. Hou is seen as a pragmatic and seems to be acceptable to younger voters. The KMT still identifies with the idea of a unified Chinese nation, but a growing majority in Taiwan – especially younger people – no longer identify as Chinese. That could be the dilemma that KMT could face if it fields Hou. Moreover, Hou’s track record on foreign policy is dismal. Beijing might exploit Hou’s inexperience in foreign policy as the idea of “One China” has different interpretations in Beijing and Taipei and Beijing might influence Hou its own interpretations if elected. One would be tempted to speculate that if elected, in a clear departure to Tsai’s policy, Hou would be more likely to underplay closer cooperation with the US and would be investing more in negotiating with China.

Hou’s ancestors were among the ethnic Han people already living in Taiwan before the Kuomintang retreated to the island after the Chinese civil war. As a high-ranking police official earlier during the presidency of the Chen Shui-bian administration, Hou was close to the DPP. His ideological stance on cross-strait relations also remains unclear. He has not offered any concrete formula on cross-strait relations. This has created some distrust within the party.[2] Because of his mayor background, Hou probably is out of his depth when it comes to national-level politics. Hou’s equation with KMT heavyweights including former president Ma Ying-jeou and KMT’s 2020 presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu are also not good.

The elections are still seven months away. If Hou fails to gain ground and secures popularity, the KMT could even replace him with another candidate, as the party did in 2016 following the campaign failure of hard-line candidate Hung Hsiu-chu.

DPP’s Choice

If this is the KMT’s problems, the DPP has equally experienced its own share of controversies. The current Taipei city councillor Wu Pei-yi is known for her strong local presence and is close to current President Tsai Ing-wen. She came into prominence as a student activist in the 2014 Sunflower Movement. Her competitor could be Ili Cheng who has strong political views but lacks political experience. Whichever candidate the DPP finally decides to field, Tsai is likely to become a powerful factional leader in the DPP after her presidency ends.

This time around, the DPP might zero on a candidate, preferably a younger one, who was a Sunflower Movement activist in the past, which it feels can generate an image of youth for the party as a whole. If this happens and DPP stalwarts are passed over, the DPP could possibly have to deal with internal party dynamics.

There is yet another funny dimension to the electioneering process. Certain women hopefuls have made allegations of sexual harassment by their rival candidates. This has been dramatised by “Wave Makers”, a hit political drama that has taken Taiwan’s electoral campaign process by storm. To make amend, the DPP apologised and vowed to make changes. Taking moral responsibility DPP Deputy Secretary-General Hsu Chia-tien resigned. The KMT criticised the DPP over the incident, which shall haunt DPP as the elections draws closer.

This seems to be one of the most dangerous periods of Taiwan’s history. Despite that the KMT is perceived to be pro-China, the island’s main political parties and an overwhelming majority of Taiwan’s people reject the prospect of Chinese rule and of ‘reunification”. The problem is the main political parties are not on the same page on how to protect Taiwan if Beijing really invades. While the KMT argues the best way is to cultivate China with friendly ties and blames the DPP as during Tsai’s rule since 2016, ties with China have nosedived.[3] The DPP, however, has accused China of having intent to change the status quo, demanding Taiwan to choose between surrender and forceful annexation. This threat is most crucial among the political parties to choose the right candidate as the voters would expect what their stances on China would be.

At the time of writing, the DPP seems to have zeroed on Lai Ching-te to field as its presidential candidate. The 63-year old Lai has been Tsai’s vice-president since 2019 and earlier mayor of Tainan. If Lai wins in January, it will mark the first time a party has won three consecutive terms since democratic elections began in 1996. Earlier Lai himself was aspiring to be the presidential candidate during nomination but lost to Tsai and settled to be her deputy. But the problem is Lai is seen as more “green” (pro-independence) than Tsai. Therefore if Lai becomes the next president cross-strait tensions could worsen during his presidency.

TPP, the Third Force

Besides the DPP and KMT, there is Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), founded in 2019 which has announced to field Ko Wen-je as its candidate. Ko is seen as a significant disruptor to the DPP vs KMT race. Ko is popular but with low support base and his stance on cross-strait relations is ambiguous. He claims not to be anti-America but emphasises that he is acceptable for China, preferring to follow a middle path. While supporting to boost Taiwan’s military capabilities, he advocates cross-strait cultural exchanges and maintaining status quo is the only realistic option. Ko accuses KMT of being “too deferential” and the DPP of being “pro war”. Though with 15-20 per cent support base, the TPP is unlikely to win the presidency, its entry to the electoral fold makes the presidential election as a three-way race and thus a meaningful third choice.[4]

Given the geopolitical churning in the region because of Beijing’s aggressive posture, the DPP is likely to emerge victorious in the presidential and legislative elections in January 2023. However Taiwan’s politics shall be no longer a two-party contest with the emergence of the TPP. This augurs well in Taiwan’s parliamentary democracy.

Smaller Players

The DPP, KMT and TPP, though are main players, there are new players too. The pro-independence New Power Party (NPP) and Taiwan State Building Party (TSBP) are also flanging their political wings, though with little impact. For the first time in Taiwan’s political history, three political parties – the DPP, KMT and TPP – received more than 20 per cent support in opinion polls. This signals a political restructuring in Taiwan politics where two-party domination was the norm but no longer. The TPP is expected to consolidate its position as the third largest party; playing a crucial role as a minority if both the DPP and KMT fail to secure a parliamentary majority.

Impact of Taiwan Presidential Election in Southeast Asia

The election outcome in Taiwan’s presidential elections in January 2023 is of great interest to the ASEAN countries as the outcome shall have bearing on the issue of regional security as this also could impact America’s ties with China. Based on this assessment, the ASEAN countries shall have to craft their own member countries’ foreign policy priorities bilaterally and regionally.[5]

The issue of Taiwan’s presidential elections in January 2024 is important for another reason for Southeast Asia. Any developments in the Taiwan Strait shall have direct impact on the policies of the individual members of the ASEAN groupings. The China factor shall impact such policy choices. For example, there are several upcoming elections: Indonesia holds general elections on 14 February 2024, Cambodia in July 2023, and Singapore to hold presidential election by 13 September 2023. These elections shall have direct bearings on voters’ behaviour in these three ASEAN member states influenced by how elections are held in Taiwan. Moreover the ASEAN is fragmented and some of the members of the grouping are perceived to be under China’s fold and are unlikely to rejoice if a pro-independence party emerged victorious in Taiwan.

Taiwan remains a potential flashpoint between China and US rivalry and therefore the 2024 election outcome in Taiwan shall have inevitable implications for both cross-strait ties and US-China rivalry. It remains to be seen whether the DPP or KMT leader wins the presidential elections in January 2024, the world shall watch keenly what policies the winning party crafts towards China as this shall determine the future of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

Protecting India’s Interests

Writing an op-ed in the Times of India, Former Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale argues why Taiwan Strait matters to India.[6] India’s interest spans beyond the Taiwan Strait as it places primacy on peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region and wants that China cooperates in this larger goal. Despite that Beijing keeps on issuing threats to intimidate and seeks Taiwan’s subjugation, an immediate conflict does not seem to be likely. If a conflict is triggered by Beijing, it will not be limited to the Taiwan Strait and is most likely to assume a global dimension. If that happens it shall have perilous consequences as economies of many countries shall be paralyzed. Not only global trade but disruptions in semi-conductor supplies and shipping lines shall leave debilitating consequences to the world economy. In the event of a conflict, the US would expect India to side with it. If India continues to maintain its strategic autonomy as it shuns alliances, the US surely shall feel uncomfortable. India continues to support Taiwan and most likely to stand by it but at the same time would not like to provoke China into another conflict. The world would be loser if that happens. As a democracy, India needs to stand by whichever party emerges the winner in the presidential elections in January in Taiwan and further deepen its ties in all fronts.

References

[1]Hideaki Ryugen, “Taiwan sets next presidential election for January 2024”, 11 March 2023, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Taiwan-elections/Taiwan-sets-next-presidential-election-for-January-2024
[2]Brian Hioe, “Taiwan’s 2024 election campaigns see early stumbles”, 2 June 2023, https://thediplomat.com/2023/06/taiwans-2024-election-campaigns-see-early-stumbles/
[3]Helen Davidson, “Taiwan’s choice:who will replace Tsai Ing-wrn as president amid China tensions?”, 24 May 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/24/taiwans-choice-who-will-replace-tsai-ing-wen-as-president-amid-china-tensions
[4]Lawrence Chung, “4-year-old Taiwan People’s Party poised to shake up 2024 presidential elections, poll suggests”, 16 June 2023, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3224238/4-year-old-taiwan-peoples-party-poised-shake-2024-presidential-elections-poll-suggests?utm_medium=email&utm_source=cm
[5]Dylan Mh Loh, Jeremy Huai-Che Chiang, “Why Southeast Asia should care about the 2024 elections in Taiwan”, 5 June 2023, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/taiwan-2024-elections-southeast-asia-impact-concerns-china-us-relations-3528016?cid=braze-cna_CNA-Morning-Brief_newsletter_05062023_cna
[6]Vijay Gokhale, “Why Taiwan Strait Matters to India”, Times of India, 26 June 2023, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-edit-page/why-taiwan-strait-matters-to-india/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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