Lai Ching-te has been elected Taiwan’s next president in a vote widely presented as a rebuke to China. But millions of Taiwanese were more concerned by economic issues than geopolitics, with low-wage young voters swinging behind a third-party insurgent.

Taiwanese president-elect Lai Ching-te speaks to supporters at a rally at the DPP’s headquarters, January 13, 2024. (Annabelle Chih / Getty Images)

On January 13, over thirteen million Taiwanese cast their votes in a three-way presidential contest coupled with parliamentary elections. Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a force known for advocating Taiwanese sovereignty and identity, won the presidency with 40 percent of the vote. Focusing on geopolitical issues, much international media framed the result as a rebuke to China, in what the BBC called a “move angering Beijing.”

Lai’s victory could more accurately be seen as a vote for stability, at least by the large minority of Taiwanese. The winning candidate signaled that he would continue to uphold the long-standing status quo in Taiwan’s relations with China, avoiding a move toward formal independence or armed confrontation.

Yet looking at a broader range of issues, Lai’s mandate is less strong than his predecessor’s. Voter discontent over domestic policies is potentially growing, especially on socioeconomic matters. On January 13, third-party candidate Ko Wen-je made substantial inroads among disaffected voters eager for change. It seems that domestic concerns will continue to take priority over the question of relations with Beijing in shaping Taiwanese democracy’s future.

Understanding the Results

Lai’s election secures the DPP’s third consecutive presidential term. This is unusual in Taiwan, where fatigue with incumbents often sees voters opt for the opposition rather than keep reelecting the same party. Since Taiwan transitioned from single-party authoritarian rule to democracy three decades ago, no party has held the presidency more than two terms consecutively.

Lai was perhaps aided by a divided opposition. In its democratic era, Taiwan has been dominated by either the DPP or the Kuomintang (KMT). But this election also featured a third candidate, Ko Wen-je of the relatively new Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). In 2014, Ko, a former surgeon, became the independent mayor of Taipei — an office historically providing a stepping stone to the presidency. In 2019, he established the TPP, hoping to challenge the two heavyweight parties as a center-ground, non-establishment option. Before this election, Ko made overtures to KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih, proposing a joint opposition ticket. This alliance was nearly cemented when it fell apart in a public and somewhat embarrassing dispute over who would lead the ticket and who would take the back seat as vice president. Ko nonetheless secured 26 percent of votes.

This was an impressive score — though in late 2023, Ko had briefly headed polling. For a candidate prone to gaffes and misogynistic statements, it was arguably a better-than-expected result. What explains this success? Ko has remarkable support among under-forties, vastly outpolling his two opponents. Youth voters find Ko to be more authentic and pragmatic and in general fresher than his opponents. For many Taiwanese, politics have ossified around the two traditional parties’ stances on identity and cross-strait relations. But young people face rising costs of living, meager wage growth, and a daunting real estate market. The perception that neither the KMT nor DPP are interested in bread-and-butter issues has sapped the hope of a generation of voters.

The main opposition party, the KMT, is not capitalizing on this discontent. While it is today part of the democratic system, this wasn’t always true. The KMT founded the Republic of China in 1912 on mainland China, and from 1947 to 1987 ruled Taiwan under martial law as an authoritarian party-state. Many Taiwanese associate the KMT with its brutal human rights abuses and terror campaigns of the past. But for its base, the KMT represents a party of traditional Chinese values, pragmatic foreign policy, and economic vitality. Under KMT rule from the 1950s to 1990s, Taiwan experienced an “economic miracle” that older KMT supporters remember well. In the last presidential election four years ago, KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu played on nostalgia for Taiwan’s 1980s economic heyday, when middle- and upper-class incomes rose dramatically. KMT policies since then have tended to favor businesses and encouraged lucrative trade and investment in China.

Recently, the traditional KMT platform has appeared to falter. Its last two presidential candidates, Hou and Han Kuo-yu, only scored 33 percent and 38 percent, respectively. This is troubling for a party that has never gone more than eight years without securing the presidency. In 2020, Han Kuo-yu struck populist notes of blue-collar solidarity and nationalism, riling up the base but turning off many moderate voters. Added to that, his campaign coincided with Beijing’s brutal crackdown on mass protests in Hong Kong, and his pro-China policies turned into a liability. Hou Yu-ih’s 2024 bid, by contrast, was meant to be a moderate campaign that would appeal to the center and steal votes from the DPP. As a career policeman, and most recently mayor of New Taipei City, Hou symbolizes a move away from Han’s populism. But despite a middle-of-the-road platform designed to win back the center, Hou scored even less than Han. Where does this leave the KMT?

The KMT still primarily differentiates itself from the DPP through one of the major fault lines in Taiwanese politics: China. The People’s Republic of China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, favors dealing with the KMT over the more pro-Taiwan DPP. The KMT in turn showcases its access to top officials in Beijing. It argues that its friendly relationship with Beijing means it can bargain with the PRC to Taiwan’s advantage, and that this is a more pragmatic means to guarantee peace.

Even though China’s military strength and threats do impact Taiwan, more important than this external threat is the question of identity — whether Taiwanese are “Chinese.” Over the years, the number who identify as Chinese has dwindled. Today most Taiwanese identify as only Taiwanese. Yet the KMT continues to champion its historical roots as the party of the Republic of China and as a protector of Chinese culture and heritage. Hou Yu-ih didn’t follow his predecessor Han down the road of nostalgia and populism, but he hasn’t forged a new path either. Outside of identity and foreign policy, KMT economic policies favor big businesses and cross-strait ties, which don’t directly benefit the average voter. The result was a third consecutive defeat for the KMT.

The KMT can take solace in one small victory: a plurality in Taiwan’s parliamentary body, the Legislative Yuan. Legislative results often reflect the infrastructural dimension of campaigning in particular districts, where the KMT holds an advantage from decades of relationship-building in some communities. The DPP lost ten seats, reducing it to 51 out of 113 legislators. The KMT totaled 52 seats, giving it a plurality. Whereas under outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen’s two terms, the DPP controlled both the presidency and a parliamentary majority, Lai now faces a divided government, giving the KMT some leverage. Meanwhile, the TPP holds a pivotal role with eight seats, giving it the power to pursue a coalition with either the DPP or the KMT — a kingmaker role offering influence over the two larger parties.

Taiwan’s Future

For the KMT, this legislative success is a small silver lining, showing that its party machine still functions, arguably quite well, at least locally and in some corners of the country. Still, its failed presidential bid will bring tough questions. Hou’s moderate position still attracted only one-third of voters. The KMT has younger faces, such as Johnny Chiang, the current mayor of Taipei, who claims descent from Chiang Kai-shek, the dictator who ruled Taiwan for three decades. Johnny Chiang’s politics have shifted away from the traditional KMT pro-China platform. For example, Chiang has attempted to recast the KMT’s long-standing “1992 Consensus,” an informal agreement with Beijing that allows both it and the party to build relations around a moderate version of the “One China” principle. But the 1992 Consensus centers on an idea of Chineseness that most Taiwanese no longer find compelling.

The new KMT plurality in the Legislative Yuan voted in former presidential nominee Han Kuo-yu as the new speaker. By selecting Han, it seems that the KMT leadership sees its future in rallying its base through nationalism rather than moving to the center. But as younger generations move ever further away from a Chinese identity and face rising unemployment and stagnant wages, it’s questionable if this will deliver enough votes in the next election.

Some observers today question whether the TPP can usurp the KMT as the main opposition party. Its parliamentary result of eight seats is better than expected and places it on a path toward another presidential bid in four years’ time. Can it use its kingmaker status to build further institutional weight and a solid voter base? The TPP would surely love to steal KMT votes. Yet hard-line KMT voters seem to dislike Ko and cling to their party’s platform of Republic of China nationalism. Moreover, turnout among youths, who favor the TPP, is still limited compared to over-forties. Electing eight legislators is one thing. Winning the presidency would demand gaining much more momentum.

As for the DPP, it will coalesce behind Lai Ching-te as the party’s new face after eight years of Tsai Ing-wen’s leadership. Yet Lai’s tepid results may indicate that the DPP’s main strategy of championing Taiwan sovereignty and identity may also be losing resonance if it means socioeconomic issues taking a back seat. Under Tsai, the minimum wage grew only modestly, lagging behind international standards. Despite overall economic growth under Tsai, due to the excellent management of the COVID pandemic, the working classes have largely not benefitted. Tsai has not outlined a bold vision to address rising inequality. If Lai and the DPP are concerned about a rising TPP, inequality should become a policy priority. Traditionally, the DPP has aligned with progressives on environmental protections, LGBTQ rights, immigration, and labor. Indeed, some of Taiwan’s most urgent needs stem from climate and demography, which are deeply intertwined with these issues. If Lai can begin to confront these questions, his party may win back some voters from the TPP.

For the Taiwanese voter, these elections show that its democracy still works, even if it is imperfect. Misinformation and coercion from Beijing have not pushed voters to China’s preferred party, the KMT. Even Hou Yu-ih’s campaign frequently alluded to the importance of maintaining Taiwan’s democracy against the PRC. A plurality of voters believe Tsai’s policies earned her party a consecutive third term. And though Lai won, Ko’s third-party advance signals that discontent over domestic issues still matters. Lai will need to address this in his first term, considering issues such as wealth inequality and youth discontent a priority if he is to prevent a potential TPP breakthrough in 2028.

Despite its issues, Taiwan’s democratic system has brought stable governance even as it draws attention to its own shortcomings. It continues a legacy built over decades of opposing authoritarian rule — finally bringing the voices of the masses and the oppressed into the corridors of power.

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