A poll with outsize importance: What to know about Taiwan’s election

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Taipei, Taiwan – In what is set to be a historic year for elections worldwide, Taiwanese voters will head to the polls this week to choose their next president, vice president and legislative representatives on January 13.

Despite a population of just 23.5 million people, Taiwan’s election carries an outsized importance due to its disputed political status. While de facto independent since the 1940s, the island and its outlying territories are still claimed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – something nearly all Taiwanese reject but fear saying publicly because of the risk of war.

Observers in the United States and China will be closely watching the outcome to see whether voters opt for the more conservative and Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) or the more centre-left and US-friendly Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has ruled Taiwan for the past eight years.

There is also the smaller Taiwan’s People Party (TPP), which lies somewhere between both parties on the political spectrum.

Since its first democratic elections in 1996, Taiwan’s two major political parties have alternated leadership every eight years – but this year, the DPP’s William Lai Ching-te is the frontrunner with the KMT, which has far failed to mount a substantial challenge to Lai following the collapse of efforts to agree on a joint opposition ticket with the TPP.

While voters are unhappy with key domestic issues such as Taiwan’s stagnant economy, the high cost of housing and the future of the island’s energy policies, the presidential election is often overshadowed by the bigger question of Taiwan’s political status.

In 2020, voters chose the DPP and its Taiwan-first agenda by a landslide against a backdrop of massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, a former British colony that Beijing promised to allow semi-autonomy for 50 years after its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Taiwan had long been offered a similar deal if it returned to the “motherland” but for many in Taiwan, events in Hong Kong, where Beijing imposed a sweeping security law and an electoral overhaul, were evidence that Beijing does not keep its promises.

Taiwanese Vice President William Lai is hoping he can extend the DPP’s hold on government for a third successive term [Chiang Ying-ying/AP Photo]

With the Hong Kong protests long over, voters will now have to decide if they want the economic benefits of a closer relationship with Beijing offered by the KMT or if they want to continue standing apart and risk facing regular Chinese aggression as they have under incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen.

“Because of Taiwan’s contested status and the uncertainty that that brings not just to the region, but the world as well, everyone is really invested in who’s going to be the one steering the ship, so to speak, because that will have a lot of implications for not just security, but also risk and economic potential,” said Lev Nachman, an expert in Taiwanese politics and an assistant professor at Taipei’s National Chengchi University.

“The reason so many people want to make sure that this is a free and fair election is because the world will be very interested if Taiwan’s status as a democracy changes. I think people not only care about who wins the election but how they win,” he said.

Here is all you need to know about the Taiwan elections.

How does the election work?

On January 13, people in Taiwan will vote three times: for president and vice president, for their local legislator, and for their favoured “party list” – a list of legislators-at-large who are given seats based on their party’s proportion of votes. The party list is particularly important in Taiwanese politics as a measure of a party’s popularity and reputation.

Taiwan’s 113-person legislature is made up of 73 legislators based on geographic constituencies, 34 based on party lists and six seats reserved for Indigenous Taiwanese representatives, all of whom will serve four-year terms.

Polls will open from 8am (00:00 GMT) until 4pm (08:00 GMT) and voters will cast paper ballots that will be counted by hand. About 19.5 million people are registered to vote and results should be out by the end of the voting day.

Critics say Taiwan’s voting system deprives younger people of a voice because voters have to be at least 20 years old and return to the location of their “household registration” – typically their hometown – to vote. The day before the election, tens of thousands of people will be on the move, flying to one of Taiwan’s outlying islands, driving to a remote mountain town, or taking the high-speed rail to one of its major west coast cities.

Despite these challenges, turnout has been relatively high in the last two elections – at 66.27 percent in 2016 and 74.9 percent in 2020.

Hou Yu-ih, the KMT's candidate, reaching out to supporters at a campaign event. He's wearing a white jacket and smiling. They are waving Taiwan flags
Hou Yu-ih is hopjng to win back power for the KMT, the region’s oldest political party [Ann Wang/Reuters]

On the ground, it is not hard to see why so many people get excited about polling day, Brian Hioe, the co-founder of New Bloom Magazine and a frequent commentator on Taiwanese politics, told Al Jazeera.

“Just go around the city and you see election ads everywhere, blanketing everywhere, just like you just see speaker trucks blaring election slogans everywhere in your daily life,” he said. “So, it’s very ubiquitous and it points to how politics is very integrated into everyday life in Taiwanese society.”

Along with election fever has also come a wave of election scandals – another popular ingredient in Taiwanese politics, according to Hioe, thanks in part to Taiwan’s politically polarised and tabloid-dominated media.

This election, all three presidential candidates are facing questions about their various property holdings, including a student dorm, a family home and an illegally-zoned parking lot.

What are Taiwan’s main political parties? 

Taiwanese politics is still overshadowed for some voters by the island’s tumultuous 20th-century history.

Passed between multiple colonial powers from the 17th to the late 19th century, Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 until 1945, when Tokyo surrendered. As the Chinese Civil War heated up with the end of World War II, Taiwan became the escape hatch for the defeated Kuomintang government, who promised eventually to return to China and overthrow the CCP but never did.

The KMT, the oldest political party in East Asia, ruled Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, as a single-party state. Taiwanese lived under martial law until 1987, with political, economic and social preference given to the families of those who had fled China with the KMT, rather than the established population descended from Hakka and Hokkien Chinese settlers or Indigenous Taiwanese.

Despite the political repression that marked the post-war years, a democratic movement began to emerge in the 1970s, leading to the formal founding of the DPP in 1986.

As one of the region’s most vibrant democracies, Taiwan is now home to many more small political parties but the KMT and DPP have continued to dominate politics.

Beijing’s Communist Party, meanwhile, has never given up its claims to Taiwan and has threatened to “unify” the two sides by peace or by force. Chinese President Xi Jinping has set a deadline for 2049, the year he has designated for the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

Ko Wen-je (C), presidential candidate from the Taiwan People's Party (TPP), waves to supporters during an election campaign event in New Taipei City on January 2, 2024. Taiwan is less than two weeks from an election, closely watched from Beijing to Washington as it determines the future of the self-ruled island's relations with an increasingly bellicose China. (Photo by Sam Yeh / AFP)
Ko Wen-je (centre) has positioned himself as the candidate for those tired of the DPP and the ‘establishment’ [Sam Yeh/AFP]

In the past decade, smaller political parties like the TPP have emerged to meet changing demographics and voter demands. The TPP, dominated by founder and former mayor of Taipei Ko Wen-je, has tried to follow something of a middle path. The party has proved surprisingly popular with younger voters who dislike the DPP, which they see as the “establishment” party and view the KMT leadership as out of touch with contemporary trends.

At a legislative level, the KMT held a majority in the legislature until 2016 and remains popular due to its longstanding networks and understanding of local issues.

While the DPP has held a slim majority over the past eight years, there are expectations that it could lose it to a possible KMT-TPP coalition, according to Hioe.

Who are the candidates for president and vice president? 

Voters face a choice between three different presidents and three different visions of the future of their island. Once again, China is at the forefront of many electoral discussions but this election is unique in that vice-presidential candidates have also been under the spotlight thanks to their political weight, according to Nachman.

The presidential frontrunner – albeit by a small margin – is 64-year-old Lai who is the incumbent vice president and joined on the ballot by Taiwan’s former envoy in Washington DC, Hsiao Bi-khim, 52.

Lai is a trained physician and longtime member of the DPP who, before becoming vice president,  was known for his outspoken views on Taiwan’s independence. Since rising in the ranks, however, Lai has shifted more towards supporting Taiwan’s “status quo”, a de facto independence. Lai’s decision to choose Hsiao as his running mate appeared to boost his popularity as she is favoured by younger voters. Hsiao also made a name for herself in the US, where she helped to bring attention to Taiwan’s status during her tenure as de-facto ambassador.

Supporters taking a picture with VP candidate Hsiao Bi-kim. Hsiao is standing in the group wearing a green jacket. Everyone's smiling.
Hsiao Bi-khim (front row, third left) is seen as popular among younger voters [Ann Wang/Reuters]

The KMT’s presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih, 66, is the former mayor of New Taipei. Hou comes from a humbler background than other KMT leaders and began his professional life as a police officer in the 1980s. A latecomer to politics, Hou was initially courted by the DPP. His running mate is Jaw Shaw-kong (also spelled Chao Shao-kang), 73, a media personality and hardliner known for his support for unification with China – albeit under a government other than that of the CCP. Since being named as the vice-presidential candidate, Jaw has reportedly taken some of the spotlight from Hou, according to Hioe.

The dark horse candidate in the presidential election is Ko, 64. His running mate is Cynthia Wu, a politician and the 45-year-old daughter of one of Taiwan’s top tycoons. Ko founded the TPP in 2014 in opposition to the KMT, but has drifted closer to the party during the recent election.

In November, Ko shocked Taiwanese voters by announcing he would cooperate with the KMT on a joint ballot, but the deal fell apart when the parties could not decide on how to choose the candidates for president and vice president.

Billionaire Terry Gou, the founder of iPhone maker Foxconn, ran for president for several months as an independent candidate but he dropped out at the end of November when he failed to secure sufficient support from the public.

The next president will be sworn into office in May.

What are the issues?

It is hard not to discuss a Taiwanese presidential election without mentioning China, as Taiwan’s relationship with its powerful neighbour filters down through many key election concerns like the economy, affordable housing, renewable energy and military spending.

The reality is that, despite their acrimonious political relationship, China remains Taiwan’s top trading partner. Cross-strait trade was valued at $205.11bn in 2022, according to government data.

Parties like the KMT blame Taiwan’s stagnant economy on its poor relationship with Beijing, as some Taiwanese have lost out on business opportunities in China or sources of revenue like inbound Chinese tourists – banned from visiting by Beijing as individual visitors since 2019 and in tour groups since 2020.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen (C) poses for photographs with combat engineer troops.
In her two terms as president, Tsai Ing-wen has moved to modernise the military and raise Taiwan’s international profile as a defender of democracy [File: Sam Yeh/AFP]

The DPP has tried to offset Taiwan’s dependence on China by strengthening ties with the US and other parts of the region, including through tourism. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the island welcomed a record 11.86 million tourists in 2019, drawing visitors from Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan.

“I think what’s also interesting is to note how these are all connected to the cross-strait issue. The KMT’s vision of economic policy for Taiwan is strengthening economic links with China, and the DPP… strengthening ties with the US, with Southeast Asia,” said Hioe. “I wouldn’t say that domestic issues are wholly disconnected from cross-strait issues either, I think they kind of funnel into cross-strait issues.”

One key issue proposed during the election by the KMT and the TPP has been the revival of the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement, a trade treaty that would further liberalise trade, which they argue would deepen Chinese investment in Taiwan.

While the agreement was signed in 2013 between Beijing and Taipei under KMT President Ma Ying-jeou, the deal sparked a mass protest in 2014 known as the “Sunflower Student Movement” – a major turning point in Taiwanese politics that helped to revive the popularity of the DPP, particularly among Millennial voters.

The dragon in the room 

Voters and election observers will be watching to see how China responds to the election.

Beijing regards the DPP as political “separatists” and told voters that a vote for the party is akin to a vote for “war” in the Taiwan Strait. It rejected talks with Tsai soon after she was first elected, stepped up military activities in and around the island and encouraged Taipei’s few formal diplomatic allies to switch ties.

Recently, it ended tariff cuts on several Taiwanese chemical exports and threatened further sanctions. It has also continued to send naval ships and air sorties into the Taiwan Strait.

In a New Year’s message, Zhang Zhijun, the head of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, a quasi-official body that handles ties with Taiwan, urged the people of Taiwan to make the “correct choice” on January 13.

Besides these overt threats, Beijing has also been engaged in its usual online misinformation campaigns to stir up controversy. Its more analogue tactics include reaching out to voters through religious networks for prominent Taiwanese temples and deities, relying on shared cultural and historic ties to sway voters’ minds.

If the DPP and Lai win the election, observers say it is likely that China will stage military exercises in the Taiwan Strait in protest. Beijing has deployed this tactic twice in the past two years: in protest at a historic visit by then-US speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan in August 2022 and when President Tsai met top US officials while “transiting” through the US in April last year.

Nachman said China may wait for three possible scenarios to respond: immediately after a Lai victory, in February when new legislators are sworn in and in May, when the next president is sworn in.

These threats, however, could also backfire, as they have done in the past.

Ahead of Taiwan’s first presidential election in 1996, China fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait but that did not sway voters from choosing the pro-Taiwan candidate Lee Teng-hui, who helped lead Taiwan’s transition to democracy.

The content above is provided by Al Jazeera news.

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