On January 13 next year, six months hence, voters in Taiwan will cast their ballots in Taiwan’s quadrennial presidential, vice presidential, and legislative elections. They will also vote for a favorite political party. Pundits predicted it to be a close election. Many expect a watershed contest.
The election looks to be a seminal event. Two election theories will be tested: The watermelon theory, meaning someone eating a tasty watermelon will want another—or the continuation construct, meaning voters, if happy, will keep the ruling party in power. The second election theory is the pendulum theory that voters will favor a rotation of ruling parties if they are disappointed with the current regime and/or they feel politicians habitually overstate what they will do or lie to stay in power. Thus, a ruling party turnover is good.
Early this year, the amount of newspaper and television space devoted to predicting the results of the January election and early but extensive polling suggested a critical election is in store. So did talk of what is at stake. Taiwan’s politics, it was presumed, would be tested. Relations with China and the United States will possibly be redefined. Much more could be at stake in what appears to be a turning point event.
The DPP’s solid wins in the last two presidential elections in 2016 and 2020, are setting the stage for the election. The DPP clearly demonstrated that it could win big elections.
However, the immediate backdrop is the 2022 collection of local elections, which was a severe setback for the DPP and a big win for the KMT. The voters rebuffed President Tsai’s agenda. She campaigned for her party members on an anti-China agenda. But voters wanted to hear about local bread-and-butter issues and feared Tsai might provoke a war that would hurt Taiwan whether the U.S. came to its rescue or not. There were also doubts among Taiwan residents about President Biden, President Tsai’s ally, given that he shifted to a more friendly China stance after his efforts to tag China as the existential enemy of the democratic nations of the world failed. Biden’s Sino-U.S. economic “war” hurt the U.S. more than China, as evidenced by the fact that GDP growth projected for 2023 favored China by severalfold over the U.S.
Further, pundits in Taiwan opined that Taiwan had become America’s pawn after President Biden pressured Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the biggest producer in the world of sophisticated computer chips, to build a $40 billion plant in Arizona. This undercut President Tsai’s pitch that a “silicon shield” helped protect Taiwan from China.
In addition, in the wake of the 2022 election, pundits and opinion pollsters promoted the view that the KMT had momentum from its win and would be the victor in the 2024 election. The DPP seemed to be on its heels. KMT leaders were basking in glory. The future looked good for the KMT.
Contributing to the KMT’s optimism, President Tsai, known as a bounce-back leader, could not run for reelection owing to term limits. Furthermore, she was not exactly on good terms with her vice president, William Lai, who was the DPP’s assumed candidate.
But soon, Tsai mended her fences with Lai and backed him to be the DPP’s presidential candidate. Lai appeared younger and spryer than the other candidates and is certainly more handsome. He also has an impeccable record as mayor of Tainan metropolitan, and his charisma and his populist touch shine. Immediately he became the voters’ favorite presidential aspirant and made the DPP appear likely to win in 2024, reversing pollsters’ predictions at the time.
Then, the KMT, which had not decided on its candidate, selected Hou You-yi, the mayor of Taipei City Metropolitan (the biggest among the six metro cities) and consistently the most popular among local party leaders, to be its candidate. Almost instantly, Hou became the favorite to win the presidential election and likely to carry his party to victory with him.
But that was short-lived. The election was not to be a two-man contest. There was a spoiler in the race: Ko Wen-je, former mayor of Taipei and an eminent medical doctor known for bringing new medical processes from the U.S. to Taiwan, was also charismatic and captured potential voters’ liking.
Anyway, Ko divided the anti-independence vote and diluted Hou’s support. Hence, it appeared the race would be a three-person contest.
Hou then announced policies that seemed to alienate voters. For example, he stated that the disputed Diaoyutai Islands belonged to Japan. Also, Hou’s campaign seemed to lack organization and winning issues. Thus, Hou’s poll numbers plummeted.
This made William Lai once again the most popular candidate in the race, so said polls of Taiwan’s prospective voters. But Lai’s popularity hit a plateau. His call for peace with China pleased some voters but only maybe balanced his earlier calls for Taiwan’s independence and did not accord with the views of his party base.
In June, a well-known opinion poll showed the DPP in the lead, Ko’s party, the Taiwan People’s Party second, and the KMT third, but their separation was only in the two percent range, and none had the support of 25 percent or more of voters. A subsequent poll showed Ko in the lead over the other two.
There was still another wildcard: Terry Gou. Gou is the founder of Foxconn, a huge Taiwan enterprise. Also, he is said to be Taiwan’s richest individual. He ran for the KMT’s presidential candidate in 2020 and lost in the primary to Han Kuo-yu, which turned out unfortunate for the KMT. He lost again in May to Hou You-yi.
Gou said he supported Hou. Yet he is also a friend of Ko Wen-je, and many speculate he may help Ko. He could be the VP for either. Yet Gou is not inclined to accept a second fiddle position. Premier? Minister of Economic Affairs? The “Gou factor” is thus an unknown at present.
At that point, the political situation in Taiwan was judged painfully uncertain with the gyrations of winners and losers in the polls. In view of that, it will be helpful to appraise the parties’ pluses and minuses and new events for answers.
The DPP is blessed by having more money than the KMT and stronger support from Taiwan’s media. It also has ethnicity on its side. Very importantly, the self-identification of voters strongly favors the DPP (Taiwanese as opposed to Chinese or both), as does the issue of Taiwan maintaining its sovereignty. These are powerful advantages.
The DPP is disadvantaged by a recent sexual harassment scandal (though it is unlikely to last until next year), by Taiwan’s relationship with the Biden administration, and by the fact that provoking China evokes fear of war among voters.
Perhaps even more important, the DPP will not be assisted in the 2024 election by the “Hong Kong” factor (protest there against China for allegedly destroying democracy there that influenced voters in Taiwan while undermining Han Kuo-yu’s campaign in 2020).
The KMT is succored by the growing realization that China is critically important to Taiwan in a host of ways, the most important being its economy. Taiwan’s low GDP growth, several times lower than China’s, highlights this. The KMT has a better reputation for managing the economy in the past and a better image for corralling corruption and managing foreign relations. Its pitch that it will prevent war is a big asset.
Similarly, the KMT appears advantaged by the Biden administration’s failure to “defeat” China with its decoupling and sanctions failing and the fact that most countries in Asia and Africa and even Europe do not fancy Biden’s efforts to create a bloc of democratic countries to engage the authoritarian nations led by China. In addition, to many developing nations, his spurning the rule of law in the U.S. sullies America’s clarion call for democracy. That undermines the DPP’s narrative about being a democratic party after America’s model.
The KMT’s liabilities include party factionalism (that has caused it to lose a big election more than once), the national identity issue, and charges that it is controlled by or at least is too friendly toward Beijing.
What, then, are likely scenarios to consider for campaign 2024?
Hou You-yi may continue to see his popularity fall. If Hou hits 15 percent in the polls or less, the KMT may decide to ditch him as it did Hung Hsiu-chu in 2015. KMT leaders may then call on Terry Gou to replace Hou. Alternatively, Hou bringing King Pu-tsung, President Ma’s chief advisor and successful campaign manager, may turn the tide for Hou—though there is no sign of that yet.
In the meantime, Ko Wen-je’s rise portends a three-way race and the possibility that the new president will not win what most consider a mandate (a majority of the popular vote), and the new president will not control the legislature resulting in a split or divided government. This is what happened in 2000 when Chen Shui-bian won the presidency with less than 40 percent of the vote. Chaos and much worse followed. Taiwan did not have provisions in its Constitution or election laws for a runoff election, as many countries have to avoid political gridlock. It still does not have such a law.
Gou might align with Ko Wen-je, which would advantage Ko and his party. Alternatively, Gou might form a new party (which is easy to do in Taiwan) or run as an independent. Either would greatly amplify worry over a president without a mandate or not having a majority in the legislature, creating a divided government.
Cleaved government will surely undermine Taiwan’s democracy, which is already suffering from serious polarization, vicious partisanship, populism, and other matters, including an electorate that is cynical about political parties and is leaning away from supporting either of Taiwan’s main parties, as polls indicate. Finally, a loyal opposition has not evolved in Taiwan; Taiwan’s politics thus seems to be facing a tipping point, indeed a mess.
Six months is a long time in politics, and the situation may be different in a few months. But, at present, it seems there is much to think about and to worry about what will happen on January 13 next year.