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Taiwan political parties gear up for presidential campaigns

William Yang in Taipei
May 23, 2023

While the opposition has framed the 2024 vote as a choice between war and peace, the ruling party has urged voters to choose democracy over authoritarianism.

Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te raising his fist as he speaks into microphones
Taiwan's ruling party picked its chairman and the incumbent vice president, Lai Ching-te, as the presidential candidateImage: ChiangYing-ying/AP Photo/picture alliance

Taiwan's next presidential election is still about nine months away, but all major political parties have already nominated their candidates and are gearing up for what's expected to be a vibrant political campaign. 

Incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen — who is unable to run again due to constitutional limitations of office — is set to step down in 2024 after serving two terms.

While the island's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wants to retain power, the principal opposition Kuomintang (KMT) is preparing to pull out all the stops to win the presidency. 

The DPP, which champions Taiwan's separate identity, has urged voters to choose democracy over authoritarianism.

The party picked its chairman and the incumbent vice president, Lai Ching-te, as the party's candidate for next April.

Toning down the rhetoric

The 63-year-old politician once described himself as a "political worker for Taiwanese independence," drawing the ire of Beijing, which views Taiwan as a Chinese province and has vowed to reunite it with the mainland, even if it needs to use force to achieve that goal.

As President Tsai's deputy in recent years, however, Lai has toned down his rhetoric. 

During a townhall meeting last week, he emphasized that there was no need for a formal declaration of Taiwanese independence, as the island is already a de facto sovereign state.

Lai underlined that the 2024 election would "decide Taiwan's direction, in terms of the continuity of its democratic system, the happiness of its future generations, and the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific."

Chinese Military Exercise Targets Taiwan

Lev Nachman, a political scientist at the National Chengchi University (NCCU) in Taiwan, believes Lai has been moderating his positions to bring them in line with the stance held by Tsai, in a bid to convince the voters and foreign partners that he is a safe choice.

"I think the DPP knows that anything that's not 'Tsai Ing-wen status quo' will hurt them more than it helps them in a national election," he said.

The party is also careful about not jeopardizing the solid relationship between the US and Taiwan by taking a provocative stance on key issues, the expert added.

'A bit of a clean slate'

Meanwhile, the KMT, which favors close ties with Beijing, has framed the 2024 vote as a choice between war and peace.

The party picked New Taipei City Mayor Hou Yu-ih as its candidate in mid-May.

Hou, a former police officer, vowed to safeguard Taiwan's freedom and democracy amid growing geopolitical tensions in the region.

He called on the Taiwanese people to vote the DPP out of power, arguing that its policies heightened tensions with Beijing and hurt the island's interests.

"He is a bit of a clean slate, and the advantage of that is we actually don't know much about what his policies will be as president," Nachman said regarding Hou's stance on cross-Strait ties.

But Fang-Yu Chen, an expert on Taiwan's electoral politics at Soochow University in Taipei, pointed out that this advantage will not last long. Given the significance of the topic, he said, all candidates will eventually have to publicly state their positions.

The KMT's strong performance in local elections in late 2022 boosted the party's hopes of a victory in the presidential vote.

"The KMT will try to claim that voting for the DPP means Taiwan may go to war, while the DPP will argue that supporting the KMT means choosing to negotiate with China," Chen said. "It is basically the choice between moving closer to democracy or autocracy for Taiwan."

Tensions remain high between China and Taiwan

Three days after Hou's nomination, a third candidate entered the fray, with the Taiwan People's Party naming Chairman Ko Wen-je, former Taipei mayor, as its presidential candidate.

Ko is popular among young voters and has promised to end political wrangling and extend goodwill to China.

According to an opinion poll released by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation on May 16, Lai currently leads the presidential race, with 35.8% of the respondents supporting him, while 27.6% backed Hou and 25.1% Ko.

Tensions in the region

The elections will not only determine the trajectory of Taiwan's politics and economy, but also shape the future of cross-Strait relations and ties between China and the US.

Tensions between Taipei and Beijing have been running high over the past few years, as China stepped up military pressure on the democratically-ruled island territory.

The situation worsened further following a visit to the island in August 2022 by then-speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, which outraged Beijing and triggered massive Chinese military drills around the island.

China held another round of intense exercises again after Tsai met Pelosi's successor as US House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, during a trip to the US in April 2023.

While the US views many of Beijing's actions as aggressive and detrimental to the status quo, China sees Washington as abandoning its decades-long "one China" policy. Issued in 1979, the policy "recognizes" the People's Republic of China (PRC) as the "sole legal Government in China," but only "acknowledges" the Chinese position that Taiwan is a part of China — thereby leaving open a diplomatic back door to avoid fully recognizing China's sovereignty over Taiwan. However, despite having formally de-recognized the Republic of China, the US maintains a "robust unofficial relationship" with Taiwan. 

Also, regardless of the ambiguity surrounding the US position on Taiwan, President Joe Biden has repeatedly said Washington would come to Taipei's defense if attacked. The US has also been a key supplier of weapons to Taiwan for decades. 

Setting the course for Indo-Pacific stability

Against this backdrop, the elections will likely be dominated by voter views on how Taipei should manage its relations with Washington and Beijing.

"If a more China-friendly political party were to be elected, it will create significant damage to US-Taiwan relations," Chen said, adding that the US would lose a very close partner while China would gain more diplomatic confidence to push back harder against the US.

The group of seven leading industrialized democracies (G7) also recently sent a strong message to China, warning Beijing about any military aggression targeting Taiwan and rejecting its territorial claims in the South and East China Seas.

"With China being at the center of discussion at the G7, with references to China's militarization and economic coercion, it would be critical for Taiwan to see where it wants to head towards [following the election,]" said Sana Hashmi, a postdoctoral fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation in Taipei.

Nachman said the Taiwan elections will help set the course for cross-Strait ties, US-China relations, and regional stability in the Indo-Pacific.

"That's what makes Taiwan so important and what makes countries around the world tune in to this place every four years."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

This article was updated on May 23 to specify the United States’ "one China" policy.