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Taiwan’s democracy remains stronger than ever following its presidential elections on Saturday, but with a new leader voted in it could see tensions with China increase.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won more than 40% of the vote in the 13 January 2024 elections, its third term in power after Dr William Lai Ching-te, beat his opposite number at the Kuomintang (KMT) Party by 900,000 votes to become Taiwan’s new President.
“I want to thank the Taiwanese people for writing a new chapter in our democracy,” Lai told his supporters, adding that his DPP party will “continue to walk the right path forward.”
Taiwan is the only Chinese-speaking democracy in the world, home to 23 million people, roughly 100 miles from the southeast coast of China.
The suspense of these elections had been building for months because of the increasing political relevance Taiwan has.
The island is facing the wrath of China, which insists Taiwan is part of its territory. Taiwan dismisses this and says it is a sovereign state but has stopped short of declaring any sort of independence. With US and China relations at a low in recent years over Hong Kong, trade, and technology, and Washington’s unofficial ties with Taiwan’s capital Taipei, Taiwan is seen as a flashpoint in a political and economic battle with the two superpowers.
During the election campaigns, the democratic party pledged economic development, and to keep the status quo with China. KMT, the Chinese nationalist party, wants Taipei and Beijing relations to improve. Taiwan’s People Party (TPP), a political newcomer, pledged to be the peacekeepers with cross-Strait tensions simmering.
Each party’s campaign rallies were packed with supporters prior to election day, leaving analysts still unsure who would win the vote. But as election day unfolded, the DPP took an early lead, and it was clear it was on the path to victory.
Outside the party’s headquarters, supporters waited for news on the polls, as party members made rousing speeches on stage. As the day turned to night, thousands enthusiastically waved flags, and loudly cheered as more votes went Lai’s way.
“Dear President, Dear President”, the supporters chanted as Lai eventually declared victory after receiving 5.58 million votes.
Lai added he was thankful to the Taiwanese people who “resisted efforts from external forces to influence our elections” after he and his running partner Hsiao Bi-khim were targeted by Chinese disinformation campaigns, and Beijing had urged voters to refrain from electing him. But Lai insists he wants to maintain peace and stability and “safeguard Taiwan from continuing threats and intimidation”.
Pragmatism and Domestic Issues
Sarah Liu, a political scientist at the University of Edinburgh, told Byline Times, that Lai will likely be pragmatic in his role as leader.
“The re-election of the DPP shows that 40% of the Taiwanese who turned up to vote approve of Lai taking over the leadership from [predecessor] Tsai [Ing-wen] as he’s likely to continue the pragmatic approach that Tsai has set out, including seeking support and allyship from other democracies and establishing relationships with other international entities, such as the EU,” she said.
The elections were not only about Taiwan’s international relations, but the island’s key domestic issues, Liu added.
“Research shows that the DPP has downplayed their messaging on the cross-strait relations and de-centring their campaign from China this time around, which was different from the 2020 election when the implementation of the National Security Law and the anti-extradition movement in Hong Kong was in the backdrop,” she said. “People in Taiwan cared about the cross-strait tension and the preservation of democracy and freedom, but they didn’t consider them as the most salient issue. Many prioritised other domestic needs, such as long-term ageing care, reasonable housing/energy prices, increased minimum wages, etc”.
No party won a majority in Taiwan’s legislature, meaning all parties are going to have to work together moving forward.
Beijing claims Lai’s failure to win a majority in presidential and legislative votes means his party’s victory does not represent the mainstream opinion of the island. It also condemned foreign governments for their congratulations to Lai’s party, including British Foreign Minister David Cameron, who praised the elections as a “testament to Taiwan’s vibrant democracy”.
The Task for Lai
Lai, a doctor turned politician, will be sworn in on 20 May 2024. But already he will have his work cut out for him. He came through the political sphere as the leader of the New Tide faction, a now-dissolved wing of the DPP party, that once called for Taiwan’s independence. It is one of the reasons Beijing loathes Lai, viewing him as a “dangerous separatist”.
He will have to navigate Taiwan’s role on the international stage, which will likely remain as a flashpoint between the US and China in the future. The US adheres to the “One-China Policy”, diplomatically recognising China, but has pledged to help Taiwan defend itself in case of an invasion.
“Lai will try to assure the US and others that his policies will be in line with his predecessor’s, while China will attempt to further squeeze Taiwan’s international space,” Timothy S. Rich, Professor of Political Science at the Western Kentucky University, told Byline Times.
And that space has already gotten smaller for Taiwan.
Nauru, a small Pacific Island nation, announced on Monday it was cutting formal diplomatic ties with Taipei in favour of Beijing. It means Taiwan will only be diplomatically recognised by 12 countries worldwide. Taiwan accused Beijing of planning the ploy following the elections.
But Rich believes the effects are minimal.
“It’s not a surprise that China convinced a country to break relations and likely did not close to the election for fear it would help Lai,” Rich said. “The loss of Nauru will aid China’s plan of diverting attention away from a Lai victory, but substantively the effects are minimal for Taiwan other than the symbolic importance of recognition. Nauru isn’t crucial to Taiwan’s security or economy. Relations, even unofficial ones, with major powers is what matters,” he added.