Independence-leaning candidate wins Taiwan election

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Taiwan’s ruling party clinched a third presidential term in Saturday’s election, in a historic win that portends the continuation of a tense cross-strait standoff between Beijing and the self-governed island.

With 40.1% of the vote, current Vice President Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party defeated two candidates who favored closer ties with Beijing, indicating that for at least a plurality of voters, antipathy toward China outweighed growing discontent over the economy and other domestic issues.

“They have just proven that it’s possible to break the eight-year curse,” Wen-ti Sung, a political scientist with Australia National University’s Taiwan Studies Program, said of the DPP’s win. “They can signal to Beijing that they have staying power.”

But despite the unprecedented third-term victory, analysts said the Democratic Progressive Party failed to gain ground with voters outside of its traditional support base. The opposition parties together accounted for 59.8% of the vote, and growing fatigue with the ruling party could pose additional challenges for Lai, who must prove his ability to navigate international and domestic grievances. The new president also likely will experience headwinds from a divided legislative yuan, the 113-seat parliament, making it more difficult to advance his agenda.

Supporters of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party rallying in New Taipei City

Supporters of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, which won a third presidential term Saturday, cheer at a rally in New Taipei City.

(Louise Delmotte / Associated Press)

“This is Lai’s victory, but it’s also a failure of the opposition,” said Lev Nachman, professor of political science at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “This is going to be a really tough administration. Now they have to deal with a very divided society and a very divided legislative yuan.”

In his victory speech, Lai acknowledged that the Democratic Progressive Party had lost its majority in the legislature, and said he would study the policies of his opponents and potentially incorporate them into his own.

“The elections have told us that the people expect an effective government as well as strong checks and balances. We fully understand and respect these opinions from the public,” he said.

Lai also reiterated his intention to maintain the status quo with China and preserve peace in Taiwan.

“We will use exchanges to replace obstructions, dialogue to replace confrontation and confidently pursue exchanges and cooperation with China,” he said.

Lai will take office at a highly fraught juncture for the U.S., China and Taiwan. The self-ruled island’s sovereignty has become a flashpoint in the deteriorating relationship between the two superpowers, igniting concerns of a potential military conflict that could quickly expand to the broader Asia-Pacific. That’s made maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait, already a delicate balancing act, a harder task for the next administration in Taipei.

China considers Taiwan a part of its territory that must eventually be unified with the mainland, by force if necessary. Cross-strait relations have grown strained during the eight years under outgoing Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who has adopted a more confrontational stance toward Beijing while strengthening ties with other democracies, especially the U.S.

Taiwanese opposition party presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih holds his hand next to his forehead

Hou Yu-ih, the presidential nominee of the opposition Kuomintang, greets party supporters in New Taipei City, Taiwan.

(Ng Han Guan / Associated Press)

For its part, the U.S. has long adhered to a policy known as “strategic ambiguity.” It acknowledges that China lays claim to the island democracy of 23 million, but does not endorse it. Nor does it recognize Taiwan as a country, but Washington maintains governmental communications with and sells defensive arms to Taipei. U.S. officials decline to explicitly state whether they would offer military assistance in the event of conflict, both to deter China from launching an attack and Taiwan from formally declaring independence.

But in recent years, Beijing has accused the U.S. of shifting away from the policy and quietly emboldening Taiwan to pursue independence. When then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) visited Taipei in August 2022, Chinese officials responded by launching military drills unprecedented in scale around Taiwan and suspending imports of some fruits and fish. That military and economic pressure has continued with more naval and air patrols and halts of preferential tariffs on Taiwan trade last month.

Analysts said they expect Beijing to express its displeasure with Lai’s election through more displays of military and economic power, adding to the risk of an inadvertent clash that could spiral out of control.

“It sees these pressure tactics, especially the military provocations, as deterrence, showing them [that] if you make the wrong move, we will fight,” said Michael Cunningham, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. “Beijing knows it’s not normal for the incumbent party to hold onto power for this long. It’s going to try to make sure Lai has only one four-year term.”

Though Lai was the longtime front-runner, his lead in the polls narrowed considerably in the weeks before the election. The Democratic Progressive Party candidate campaigned on the assurance that he would continue Tsai’s trajectory of bolstering Taiwan’s international ties and defense capabilities while maintaining the status quo.

Yet Chinese officials have criticized the 64-year-old former doctor as a dangerous choice for president who could lead the island into war. Lai’s choice of words to describe himself— as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence”— in 2017 has helped fuel that characterization, giving ammunition to Beijing and the opposition parties to label him as a separatist who would provoke China’s military ire.

The Chinese Nationalist Party, better known as the Kuomintang or KMT, also framed the election as a choice between war and peace. Its candidate, Hou Yu-ih, a 66-year-old former police chief and current mayor of New Taipei City, stressed his dedication to “law and order” and said he would seek to improve relations with Beijing but does not support unification.

The KMT, which fled mainland China after losing the Chinese civil war in 1949, has largely fallen out of favor with the younger generations, the majority of whom now consider themselves more Taiwanese than Chinese. The island’s oldest political party has struggled to attract young voters and shake its image as the pro-China choice.

But there have been signs that voters are also unhappy with the ruling DPP and eager to express their discontent, especially over stagnating economic growth.

In 2022, the KMT won a broad swath of victories in Taiwan’s local elections, prompting Tsai to step down as chairperson of the DPP. A November poll by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation showed 57.4% of respondents were dissatisfied with the DPP’s governance, including both its approach to cross-strait relations and the economy.

That frustration fueled an early wave of unexpected support for Ko Wen-je as a third-party alternative, particularly among Taiwanese people disenchanted with the two main political parties. The 64-year-old former trauma surgeon served as Taipei mayor for two terms before running for president this year with the Taiwan People’s Party, which he founded. He attacked the DPP for being too adversarial toward Beijing and the KMT for being too acquiescent. However, his momentum dwindled after a failed attempt to form a joint ticket with Hou against the DPP.

Beijing’s response to another DPP president will set the tone for its shaky relationship with the U.S., which has seen a slight thaw since President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping convened in November for their first meeting in a year. The two agreed to resume military dialogues that were halted after Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan. Biden reiterated that U.S. policy on the island had not changed, while Xi reportedly reassured Biden that he did not imminently plan to exercise military force.

“The momentum behind an improvement in U.S.-China relations is ongoing,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at International Crisis Group. “That will incentivize China to adopt slightly more discreet or ambiguous forms of pressure. But pressure will definitely be there.”

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