Elections in Taiwan: Some Projections
Prof Rajaram Panda
Introduction

In the self-ruled island of Taiwan, 19 million eligible voters shall be going to the polls on 13 January 2024 to elect a new President. The geopolitical significance of this cannot be understated as the outcome shall be of extreme interest to the region’s security analysts and policy makers. Irrespective of whether a pro-China candidate or an independence-seeking candidate returns to the helm, Taiwan’s political and economic future post-election outcome shall be keenly watched and intensely discussed. While plenty shall be at stake for the people, the outcome in either way shall have serious security and economic implications for the entire region.

The overwhelming issue related to the election outcome shall be how to manage relations with China over the next four years since cross-strait ties have worsened and the risk of conflict between Washington and Beijing is high now than ever before. This is because Beijing has not abjured the use of force, if necessary, to seize the island, despite being aware that Washington shall not be a bystander if Beijing gobbles up Taiwan.[1]

The issue that makes relevant is to know who the presidential candidates are and what their stances are. It has transpired that the forthcoming election is going to be a competitive three-way race, with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) seeking to maintain Taiwan’s de facto political independence. The three main contenders are Ko Wen-je, Lai Ching-te and Hou Yu-ih. While the ruling DPP is expected to maintain its pro-independence stance, the opposition Kuomintang would expect to forge close ties with China if their candidate wins. The newcomer, the Taiwan People’s Party, represents a middle-of-the-road stance that includes some dialogue with Beijing.

Some Basic Facts

The island has 19.3 million eligible Taiwanese voters. Of these, 1 million are first-time voters. There would be 18,000 polling stations. Minimum voting age is 20 and absentee on early ballots are not allowed. Polling is from 8 am to 4 pm and counting commences soon and result are available around 8 PM same day. The new president takes office on 20 May.

Candidates

So, who are the candidates? It is going to be a three-way race. The present President Tsai Ing-wen will step down after eight years because of term limits. The front-runner is her Vice President and party stalwart, the 64-yer-old Lai Ching-te. As the present Vice President, the Harvard-educated Lai has been lucky working as deputy to President Tsai Ing-wen and upholds the stance that Taiwan is already a de facto “sovereign country” and needs greater international recognition. He has chosen his running mate Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s former de facto ambassador to the US, as a demonstration of his faith in working with democracies and maintain the status quo.
His opposition rival from the Kuomintang (KMT) is New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih, who has often criticised the DPP for stoking tensions with Beijing and called for returning to a policy of engagement with Beijing. In the third place is the Taiwan’s People’s Party (TPP) candidate Ko Wen-je, a relative newcomer to national politics. He hopes to capitalise on voter dissatisfaction with both the DPP and KMT candidates.

Ko has sought to position his party in the middle of his two rivals by advocating a mix of deterrence and dialogue in dealing with China to avoid possible aggression and foster peace between the two sides. There are 113 seats in the legislature, with the DPP currently holding over 60 and the KMT under 40. If neither party can win at least 57 seats, the next president will find it difficult to pass Bills and effect much meaningful change. Such a situation is unlikely to emerge as all indicators suggest the DPP as the likely winner.

Why is the Election Important for the Region?

The elections in Taiwan become important for the island’s strategic location and as a part of US-China contestation it is seen as a potential flashpoint. The US President Joe Biden was categorical in pointing out during his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November in San Francisco that the US is the main weapons supplier and most vocal supporter. Despite that Beijing continues to issue threats against Taiwan to use force to annex, it would not dare execute such threat as Washington would not take kindly as it is committed to the defence of Taiwan and would intervene in case Beijing becomes adventurous. Beijing is aware of such a possibility.

Exacerbating Beijing’s concerns is the island’s ruling DPP, which is favoured to win a third consecutive term. The traditionally independence-minded party maintains that China and Taiwan are separate entities and that the island is de facto independent — a position that clashes with Beijing's view of it as a Chinese province.

With a view to bring Taiwan into subjugation, China has resorted to military and economic coercion and increasingly militarise the region. It has violated Taiwan’s air space a number of times recently, creating space for a potential conflict by a miscalculation. The US and China have already aligned their interests by adopting firmer postures on Taiwan because of their geostrategic rivalry. If a conflict breaks out in the Taiwan Strait, it will adversely affect the economic interests, including disrupting supply chain, throughout the region.

Whichever candidate wins the election on 13 January shall have the daunting task of managing relations with both Washington and Beijing. This balancing act by the winner would be a huge responsibility to help contribute to the easing of regional tensions and maintain the existing equilibrium.

Thus far, the opposition’s efforts to unseat the DPP have been hampered after the KMT and TPP failed to agree on a joint ticket amid differences to choose a common candidate. As it is likely to transpire, even though the opposition is likely to lose the race to the DPP, it could still manage to win a majority in Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan. If that happens, Lai’s capacity to implement certain policies could be hampered.

Such a situation shall please Beijing. Therefore a hung parliament would give Beijing an even greater incentive to work with Taiwan’s opposition while ignoring Lai. In such a situation, Beijing is likely to further tighten its grip by increasing military and political pressure on Taipei to push the Lai administration to make mistakes and thus is discredited before the people of Taiwan.

In 2021, Tsai had outlined four pledges: defending Taiwan’s freedom and democracy, safeguarding the island’s sovereignty, resisting pressure from Beijing and letting Taiwanese people decide the island’s future. Given the Tsai government’s priority to forge closer security relations with Washington and with like-minded democracies, Lai is likely to further deepen relations with the US and Japan. Taiwan is also likely further push to broaden its “unofficial” relations with other like-minded democracies, much to the disliking of Beijing. Some time ago, Lai identified himself as a “practical worker for Taiwan independence”. For Beijing, that is a red line. Tsai is known to have said that Taiwan does not need to formally declare independence as it is already a de facto sovereign state. Lai is likely to maintain this stance. Beijing still calls the DPP as “separatist” party and “troublemaker”.

Given that Lai’s victory on 13 January is almost certain, does it mean that Beijing is likely to use the big stick to cajole almost immediately? That is not likely to happen soon. Beijing is expected to “wait and see” before taking any hasty moves. Since the winner is likely to take office in May and the winner would make the inauguration speech that time, and if it is Lai, Beijing would wait to assess before deciding to take any measure on Taiwan. If Lai wins, it might be advisable for him to consider revisiting a proposal made by the DPP legislators in 2014 to suspend the independence clause in the 1991 party charter.

What is this Party Charter of 1991?

During the 2014 presidential election, the independence clause was a major pivotal moment in the history of Taiwan’s DPP.[2] As it transpired in the subsequent years, the clause became a non-issue. In a joint article for Foreign Affairs magazine, Bonnie S. Glaser, Jessica Chen Weiss and Thomas J. Christensen recommended that if Li wins, he should consider revisiting the proposal made by the DPP legislators in 2014 to suspend the independence clause in the 1991 party charter.[3] Since the clause is non-binding and reversible, a positive step on the part of Lai would give rhetorical commitment to the status quo more weight and credibility. Such a step by Lai could help reduce tensions and build trust.

Such a step also could persuade Beijing to go slow in its coercive tactics and weaken the conciliatory positions of the KMT and TPP less tenable. However, if Beijing does not see any significant policy or rhetorical shift in his policy, it might be emboldened to choose an exaggerated response to make Lai be seen as a radical. Such a scenario is best avoidable. On the other hand, in the remotest possibility of either the KMT or TPP win, Beijing is likely to up its economic and diplomatic engagement with Taipei and tone down its military and economic coercion of the island.

Likely Response of the US and Japan

Though all three presidential candidates have pledged to continue the existing security ties with the US, a Lai victory would make Washington happy than either a KMT and TPP candidate in office. Washington’s tactic could change if it perceives that the next party at the helm leans more towards Beijing. If not anything else, Washington would be happy if the present status quo is maintained.

As a democratic country not to meddle in another nation’s election process, Washington has said it has no preferred candidate and that it will respect the voters’ choice. But China is more forthright. Beijing views Taiwan as part of its territory. It has vowed to back up its claim with the use of its military, if necessary. In November, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office urged voters to “oppose independence” and make the right choice when facing peace or war, prosperity or recession.[4]

What about possible response from Japan? Japan enjoys friendly relations with both the DPP and KMT. That is unlikely to change no matter who wins, though a KMT government may not feel comfortable with Japan’s efforts to counter China. Japan would be more comfortable with a DPP victory as its policy aligns with that of the DPP as regards China. Both Japan and Taiwan are concerned with China’s increasing military and maritime footprint in the region. That is a common thread binding the DPP and Japan. There is no denying that the geopolitical matrix shall be heavily shaped the way election results in Taiwan unfold.

India’s Position

Finally, it would be appropriate to know India’s position given its troubled relations with China over border issue. Moreover, maintaining friendly relations with all nations is at the core of India’s foreign policy. Though India subscribes to the ‘One China’ policy, it does maintain close relations economically, politically and culturally with Taiwan. Therefore if a party with allegiance to China comes to power, that outcome might not please India. At the same time, India is unlikely to deviate from its longstanding foreign policy principles. Though Taiwan does not have an embassy in India, its economic and cultural representative office enjoys de facto status of an embassy. That would continue.

The DPP’s New Southbound Policy that accommodates India a pivotal role is not likely to be altered even if the opposition comes to power.[5] India is therefore, watching closely the elections and keen to maintain and accelerate the momentum of growth in the relationship. Taiwan recognises India’s role in the Indo-Pacific policy and this crucial component in Taiwan’s policy shall be maintained.

References

[1] Gabriel Dominguez, “What’s at stake in Taiwan’s January presidential election?”, The Japan Times, 25 December 2023, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/12/25/asia-pacific/politics/taiwan-presidential-election-preview/
[2]For details, see J. Michael Cole, “To Freeze or Not to Freeze: The DPP’s ‘Independence Clause’” The Diplomat, 23 July 2014, https://thediplomat.com/2014/07/to-freeze-or-not-to-freeze-the-dpps-independence-clause-2/
[3]Bonnie S. Glaser, Jessica Chen Weiss and Thomas J. Christensen, “Taiwan and the True Sources of Deterrence: Why America Must Reassure, Not Just Threaten, China”, Foreign Affairs, January-February 2024, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/taiwan/taiwan-china-true-sources-deterrence
[4] “How Taiwan’s voters will choose their next president”, 29 December 2023, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/taiwan-election-how-voters-will-choose-next-president-dpp-kmt-4016346
[5] Sana Hashmi, “India is eyeing Taiwan’s elections”, Taipei Times, 29 December 2023, https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/editorials/archives/2023/12/29/2003811300

(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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