Taiwan’s Time for Choosing

Taiwan’s Time for Choosing

Saturday’s elections could be a watershed for Taipei—and American policy in the Indo-Pacific.

Credit: Amelia Y

The lessons of the 2016 and 2020 Taiwan presidential elections were easily parsed: In the former, Taiwanese voters rejected closer cooperation with the People’s Republic of China and sought to assert a distinct democratic Taiwanese identity. In the latter, frustration with the domestic policies of the incumbent progressive (but pro-independence) party was no match for the voters’ anxieties over the PRC, which was then poised to crack down on the democratic movement in Hong Kong. 

If current trends hold for the 2024 election, set for this Saturday, summarizing the lesson won’t be so easy. It appears the median Taiwanese voter is still more likely to support the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party than the center-right, pro-cooperation Kuomintang (Nationalist Party), but the margins this year will be narrow. The DPP nominee and incumbent Vice President Lai Ching-te has consistently held a narrow margin over both the KMT nominee, New Taipei City’s Mayor Hou Yu-ih, and the third-party candidate Ko Wen-je. While incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen achieved staggering victories in both 2016 and 2020, her vice-president has not succeeded in running up the score in the same way, nor is it clear that the DPP will be able to hold its majority in the legislature. 

Tsai has won her share of plaudits on the international stage, with everyone from Ted Cruz to Nancy Pelosi lauding her as a courageous bulwark against the PRC’s ambitions for cross-strait unity—with or without Taiwan’s consent. Domestically, however, views of her leadership are not so glowing—her party suffered blowout losses in the 2022 local elections, where national security issues are deprioritized, and this year her ratings plummeted, with public approval of her performance polling at consistently under 40%. The immediate cause of this drop appears to stem from a wave of sexual harassment allegations within the DPP under her leadership—including some against a close aide of Tsai’s—but the local election results from 2022 suggest a deeper fatigue with the progressive party’s leadership. 

The KMT, however, has not demonstrated the ability to capitalize on this decline. Their nominee, Hou, was identified ahead of the primary as the best the party likely had to offer in a general election—not a firebrand like their 2020 nominee Han Kuo-yu, and not interested in cooperation with the PRC to the off-putting degree of the party’s last president, Ma Ying-jeou (2008–16). Indeed, there has been an ongoing shift within the KMT’s ranks regarding the PRC: During his presidency, Ma struck a major trade deal with Beijing in 2010 and de-prioritized military spending, and he continues to play up his Chinese heritage in his post-presidency. Han, in the last race, visited China and touted the benefits of economic cooperation, even as he tried desperately to keep the PRC leadership and its calls for a “one-country, two-systems” model (a la Hong Kong) at arm’s length.

Hou’s approach has been distinct from both of those men, reflecting growing skepticism within the KMT of the benefits of PRC cooperation, especially among younger members, as well as the overall population’s increasing view of themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. Hou’s approach to the PRC has therefore been to claim his election is necessary to preserve peace across the Strait. On the surface there may be a logic to that argument: Hou has vowed that he will continue the DPP’s work on deterring an invasion from the PRC and maintaining their political system, but claimed that unlike with Tsai’s administration Beijing will be willing to enter negotiations with him. The message from Hou—and his party compatriots—has been stark: A vote for the KMT is a vote for peace, while a vote for the DPP is a vote for war

The problem with that approach is two-fold: First, voters do not seem to believe it, or to trust the KMT in general on issues of cross-Strait security. Second, as the DPP have consistently countered, it is the PRC that has raised tensions across the Strait with their incendiary rhetoric, military exercises, and frequent incursions into Taiwan’s airspace and waters. There is a deeper point to the DPP’s contention: Beijing has been harshly critical of Taipei’s military buildup and how it has sought support from the U.S. to achieve it. It is therefore conceivable that Beijing might not be interested in dialogue with Hou if he does not slow defense spending and halt cooperation with Washington. 

The third-party candidate, the former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je has consistently polled in third place, but not far from the KMT candidate’s numbers. Ko, who has primarily campaigned on the need to challenge the two major entrenched parties, has proven unable to overcome the KMT and DPP’s leads for several reasons, among them his penchant for gaffes and his choice of a U.S.-educated running mate with poor Chinese language skills. In an odd incident in November when his Taiwan People’s Party and the KMT announced that they would field a unity candidate, only for talks to break down when neither Ko nor Hou would step aside for the other. It was perhaps a fool’s errand to believe the KMT would yield to a third-party candidate polling below them, or that Ko would compromise his outsider status, but the episode constituted an embarrassment for both sides. Ko’s ultimate contribution to the race seems as if it will be keeping the eventual winner far from the 50 percent mark and its attendant mandate.

Through it all, China has not been a passive onlooker. After Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou—defeated by Hou for the KMT nomination in spring 2023—announced that he would seek an independent presidential bid, a series of investigations were launched by Chinese provincial authorities against Foxconn, seemingly warning him not to split the vote further. If so, Gou got the message, ending his campaign within weeks. Other steps taken by Beijing include stepped up import duties on Taiwanese products, increased incursions into their airspace and territorial waters, and a sustained campaign of disinformation regarding the economic consequences of a DPP victory. 

Since 2016, however, PRC sticks have proven consistently ineffective at influencing the Taiwanese public to do what Beijing wants, and there’s little reason to believe that will change now. If the Taiwanese public is going to turn on the DPP, it will likely be for reasons all their own. 

While that may not happen this month, the DPP’s eroding popularity and Lai’s weak mandate suggest that it inevitably will. An evolving KMT’s rule and its consequences for Taiwan’s security and relationship with both the U.S. and PRC must be grappled with—by a PRC that has not come to terms with how distrusted it is on the island, by a U.S. that prefers a Taiwan that restrains the PRC’s regional ambitions, and by the KMT itself, which seemingly has not made up its mind as to what its cross-Strait policy is. 

The time for deciding may not be long in coming.  

The post Taiwan’s Time for Choosing appeared first on The American Conservative.

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