Vote for continuity: On Taiwan’s presidential elections

Status quo seems to suit Taiwan best in its relationship with China 

January 17, 2024 12:10 am | Updated 12:10 am IST

The Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) victory in Taiwan’s presidential elections for a historic third consecutive term reflects a vote for continuity from the 14 million voters, most of whom favour a maintenance of the fragile status quo in relations with China and the preservation of Taiwan’s current status. The results will see Vice President William Lai Ching-te take over from incumbent Tsai Ing-wen, as he defeated Hou Yu-ih from the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT), which has pushed for rapprochement with China, and newcomer Ko Wen-je from the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), a new emerging political force that has broken the DPP-KMT duopoly. Mr. Lai said the elections — the first in what has been dubbed the year of elections given the many countries, including India, that go to the polls in 2024 — were a message to the world, showing “the commitment of the Taiwanese people to democracy”. Beijing, which has over the past decade under the DPP accused the ruling party of seeking outright independence over the island that it claims, said the results showed that the DPP “cannot represent the mainstream public opinion”, pointing to its reduced vote share. Mr. Lai secured 40% of the vote, Mr. Hou 33% and Mr. Ko 26%. The KMT and TPP’s attempts to form a joint opposition alliance, which could have threatened the DPP’s bid, failed in the run-up to the elections. While the DPP has returned to power, its exercise of authority may be constrained given that it has lost its status in the legislature as the largest party to the KMT, which may exert a moderating influence on its policies to carve out a greater international space for Taiwan — a major bone of contention with Beijing.

If the previous presidential election, in the aftermath of China tightening its grip on Hong Kong, was seen as a referendum on the future of cross-strait relations and a rejection of a possible “one country, two systems” future for Taiwan that has been mooted by Beijing, in the latest polls, local issues, including the economy and jobs, have assumed increasing salience, even as the broad preference for continuing with the status quo remains. The last decade has seen rising tensions, and the latest vote will ensure these will continue, including from the frequent military drills conducted by China in the waters and skies surrounding Taiwan. China has refused to rule out the possible use of force in “reunification”, although the consensus among most experts is that the devastating economic consequences of a conflict for China, Taiwan and the region will certainly give Beijing pause. That Taiwan’s voters have backed the DPP to continue helming Taiwan’s politics, despite China’s threats, suggest diminishing returns from Beijing’s moves to squeeze Taiwan, politically and militarily.

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