Picture: Office of the President of the Republic of China / Wikimedia Commons – Outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen, left is set to leave behind a highly polarised Taiwan, while her deputy and current frontrunner Lai Ching-te, right, is expected to aggravate the situation,nthe writer says.
By Anish R M
A vice-president with a diminished popularity and a divided opposition are set to battle it out in an election that has the potential to affect peace and stability in East Asia
Taiwan is set to go to polls on Saturday, January 13, in one of the most hotly contested elections since the end of the Kuomintang-led martial rule in 1987. With over 19.5 million eligible voters, the island territory will elect a new President and Vice-President, along with the 113 members of the territory’s legislature, the Legislative Yuan.
The elections have come into particular focus around the world over the geopolitical questions looming large this season. The matter is further complicated by the ambiguous political status of the island and the turbulent history behind it.
In her eight years serving in office, President Tsai Ing-wen is set to leave behind a highly polarised Taiwan that has increasingly become one of the flashpoints of tensions in East Asia.
Contestants and campaign issues
There are three candidates in the fray: former premier and incumbent vice-president Lai Ching-te or William Lai of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), New Taipei mayor Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT), and the former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).
Lai has been presented as the front-runner, but he is only marginally ahead of his closest contender Hou, unlike the widespread popularity that Tsai had enjoyed in the run up to both 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.
China has been at the centre of the debate in the ongoing election campaign with each candidate offering very different visions of how they intend to deal with the mainland.
Both Hou and Ko share a similar campaign plank when it comes to inter-China relations, offering a conciliatory stand. On the other hand, while Lai promises to maintain the status quo with the mainland, he has presented a confrontational stand to the PRC and the CPC and doubled down on military ties with the US.
The opposition candidates have also criticised the DPP government for jeopardising the island’s global primacy as a microprocessing chip manufacturer. The plans for opening new plants of the state-run Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) in the US and diverting parts of production units overseas has been highly controversial.
Moreover, the DPP is facing a major anti-incumbency and voter fatigue. This was very evident with the local elections held in November and December 2022, where the opposition KMT won a landslide, while the TPP made significant gains.
“Chinese” vs “Taiwanese”
At the heart of the current season tensions is the question of how the people in Taiwan would choose to identify themselves in relation to their Chinese link and Chinese identity.
The disputed state in Taiwan still identifies as the “Republic of China,” contesting the legitimacy of the People’s Republic of China, while still constitutionally claiming territorial sovereignty over the entirety of China, and also the entirety of Mongolia, along with parts of India, Russia and other neighbours of China.
But in the post-dictatorship era, successive governments have set aside such territorial claims through executive measures, even as they left the constitutional claims untouched.
The DPP, especially so under Tsai, has made use of a mix of Cold War-era anti-communist rhetoric, while entertaining a separatist tendency that seeks to establish a “Taiwanese” nation separate from China.
On the other hand, the historically anti-Communist Kuomintang have criticised such separatist tendencies, maintaining that Taiwan is “Chinese”. The KMT has offered a more reconciliatory stand with the mainland, arguing that strained relations have made Taiwan suffer economically.
Both Hou and Ko have criticised the current dispensation for the growing tensions with China. In response, Lai has repeatedly tried to paint the opposition and the candidates as working at the behest of the Communist Party of China (CPC), while accusing the latter of interfering in the elections.
The DPP government has also doubled down on anti-communist and anti-China rhetoric.
For instance, the government tried to paint the Chinese president Xi Jinping’s New Year’s address where he highlighted that “people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait … members of one and the same family” and reiterated the long-standing policy of reunification, as proof of its unsubstantiated claims of interference.
The claims have been rejected by Beijing, underscoring the fact that the election is an “internal matter” of China. The anti-Chinese rhetoric has also led to a situation where Lai has begun praising KMT’s right-wing dictatorship for its opposition to the CPC.
During his election campaign in December, as Lai praised the KMT’s past anti-communism, even lauding the dictatorship of Chiang Ching-kuo (son of former dictator Chiang Kai-shek), accused that the party today and its leaders “not only don’t oppose the communists, they are pro-communist”.
The DPP under Tsai has also blatantly opposed the “one China policy” whereby countries can only hold relations with either of the two “Chinas”, that is either with the PRC or the Taiwan-based Republic of China.
This has also been widely criticised by the opposition parties who hold that a majority of the people in Taiwan identify as Chinese.
DPP flailing, but opposition divided
Much of this anti-China rhetoric stems from the diminished popularity of the DPP among voters. The DPP’s lacklustre performance in shoring up the economy and controlling price rise on a range of commodities and services, like housing and even certain food products like eggs, has been highlighted by the opposition.
Youth unemployment, which has remained between 11 percent to 12 percent for the past few years, much higher than the overall unemployment of 3.5 percent, has also been in focus recently, which the DPP has failed to solve.
Taiwan’s economic growth has also slowed down over the past decade or so, with the entirety of Tsai’s administration only registering single digit growth rates and reaching as low as 2 percent in 2023.
Even as the economy is relatively better off from most other economies in the region (except China), the fact that the DPP has not been able to keep up with growing expectations of the young population is increasingly evident.
This on top of the current administration’s negligence of the Indigenous Taiwanese and island territories like Penghu, Kinmen, and Lienchiang, the latter two of whom are closer to the mainland than China, has also affected its attempt to present itself as inclusive of all groups.
But despite such failings, the opposition has not been able to cash-in on the unpopularity of the administration. The rise of Ko Wen-je’s TPP (with a similar programme as that of the KMT) as a major third party in the past two elections, has affected the latter’s attempts to consolidate support.
Between November, the TPP and KMT were in talks for a joint presidential and vice-presidential ticket and a possible electoral alliance for the legislative election as well. But the talks failed to materialise any concrete results, and later broke down when both parties filed separate nominations for the president and vice-president.
Peace on the line
Taiwan and its voters are not unaware of the geopolitical implications of the upcoming election. This is not just because of the potential to worsen or better relations with the mainland, but also because it can affect the increasingly closer ties the island has made with the US and its allies.
During the Donald Trump administration between 2017 and 2021, the US Congress was notified of arms sales to the tune of US$ 18.27 billion, compared to US$ 20.2 billion of total arms sales made under the eight years of Barack Obama administration.
The arms sales did not slow down under the Joe Biden administration between 2021 and 2023, reaching a whopping US$ 4.65 billion in less than three years. This is on top of recent legislation and reports passed by the Democratic Party-led Congress under Biden, like the Taiwan Defence Act of 2021 and the Taiwan Defence Resilience Act of 2022.
The US has also worked to expand its military presence in the region. US warships and fighter jets making almost routine tours through the Taiwan Straits and the near Taiwan. The US has also expanded its access to military bases in Luzon in the Philippines, close to Taiwan.
But other than the US, US-aligned governments in Japan and South Korea, and elsewhere, have also made multiple statements on Taiwan provoking confrontations with China.
The internationalisation of the China-Taiwan dispute has only worsened relations and created a sense of heightened tension in the region. Opposition candidates have also raised concerns of how Lai is more blatant in his support for Taiwan “independence” compared to the outgoing president.
“Tsai Ing-wen is more low-key, not shouting every day about ‘I’m for Taiwan independence’ and the Taiwan Strait is already so tense,” said Jaw Shaw-kong, Hou’s running mate, to reporters on Thursday, January 11. “If Lai Ching-te wins, do you think the cross-strait situation will be better than it is now?”
The election results will decide whether the people of Taiwan will choose for further confrontation or put a leash on the anti-China rhetoric of the current dispensation and of imperialist powers in the region.
Anish R M is an author at ‘Peoples Dispatch’. This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch