Taiwan held its first direct presidential election in 1996, and since then, it has undergone three peaceful transfers of power, in 2000, 2008, and 2016. The country is now preparing for the next round of national elections in January 2024, when the Taiwanese people will choose a successor to President Tsai Ing-wen. Questions about cultivating friendlier ties with China or strengthening Taiwan’s own identity and sovereignty have dominated past elections. With geopolitical tensions on the rise, this electoral contest could mark a turning point for the island.
Four candidates are running for the presidency (one of them set to become the Vice-Presidential candidate for the opposition camp, as of November 18): two from mainstream parties, one from a relatively new third political force, and a fourth running as an independent.1 Each of the candidates brings a different approach to cross-Strait issues, the front-page subject in these elections. While Tsai’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and the Kuomintang (KMT) are seeking to consolidate support from their own political bases, the third party on the scene, the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), is focusing on youth, with several polls showing the TPP candidate as the front-runner among voters aged 20 to 40.2 The winning party will determine the trajectory of future relations between China, Taiwan, and the United States.
This paper first presents an overview of Taiwan’s electoral system and then summarizes the candidates’ positions in the polls. Then, the paper introduces each party and its candidate, sketches the ideological positions that the parties and candidates represent, and analyzes the roles played by China and the United States in the elections.
Taiwan’s Electoral System
Under Taiwan’s current electoral system, which has been in place since 2012, two types of elections are held: general elections and local elections. Both are held every four years. General elections to select the president, vice president, and the 113 members of the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s parliament) are held in January. Local elections are usually held in November to select the mayors of cities, special municipalities, townships, and so on. In the general elections, the president and vice president are elected by a "first-past-the-post system." Elections for seats in the Legislative Yuan are conducted in the following manner:
- 73 members are elected in single-member constituencies by a first-past-the-post system.
- 6 members are elected in multimember constituencies by single nontransferable voting, exclusively for people with indigenous status.
- 34 members are elected by party-list proportional representation voting.
In the first category, geographical constituencies make up single-member electoral districts. In this system, a single winner acts for the entire district and therefore is awarded the majority of votes; this "first-past-the-post system," is employed to elect 73 members of the Legislative Yuan.3
Aboriginal communities in Taiwan (which account for about 2% of the total population) are entitled to 6 reserved legislative seats by virtue of their special status.
Finally, every voter receives a second legislative ballot featuring a list of political parties. In this round, 34 seats are allocated based on the nationwide number of votes that each political party receives — a proportional representation system. The rationale for assigning these 34 seats in this manner is to render the Legislative Yuan more representative, counterbalancing the majoritarian inclinations of the single-member district assignment of seats. The most important factor in this round is not the electoral districts, but the popular support received by parties across the country. This system is also known as the party ballot (政黨票).
It is important to point out that in Taiwan’s electoral system, only parties that reach the 5% threshold are awarded seats in the parliament. Smaller fringe political formations are not entitled to a seat in parliament unless they reach that level of support nationally.
In this kind of system, the risk is that the winning party may not obtain a clean parliamentary majority, making it difficult to govern the country. This scenario is likely in the upcoming 2024 elections.
As of late October 2023, William Lai, the DPP candidate, was leading in the polls, although he had lost the substantial advantage that he enjoyed initially and fell below 30% for the first time.4 A recent survey conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation showed the DPP’s approval ratings continuing to slump, suggesting that many Taiwanese would be happy to see a change in the ruling party in January. In fact, just over 53% of respondents said they were opposed to the DPP remaining in power, compared with nearly 35% who would like to see the party secure the next electoral term.5
After eight years, the DPP’s performance has proved disappointing on a variety of issues, from economic performance, to corruption scandals, to the abuse of power by its delegates. Even though the DPP’s presidential candidate’s approval rate stood at only 29.7% in the fall of 2023, Lai remained the front-runner in the presidential race, trailed closely by Ko Wen-je, the TPP candidate, with 25.6% and Hou You-yi, the KMT candidate, with 21.1%. Independent candidate Terry Gou, the founder of Foxconn, was polling at 8.66% in the survey.6
Nevertheless, a DPP victory in January could prove difficult to achieve, since the KMT and the TPP have finally, after months of discussions, managed to create a joint ticket between them, raising the chances that a more China-friendly government could seize power in Taipei. In fact, to win the majority and present a credible and strong alternative to the DPP, a united KMT-TPP will present a more credible threat although it has yet to be decided which of their two nominees will run as the presidential candidate.7
The deal could badly hurt Lai’s chances of victory and shrink the number of candidates from four to three.8 According to a joint statement, the parties agreed to compare the results of public and internal party polls conducted between November 7 and Friday 17 to decide which candidate is more likely to be voted as president.
Under the current circumstances, even if Lai does win the presidential election — a goal that is becoming more difficult to achieve by the day — his party could nevertheless struggle to preserve control of the Legislative Yuan. But who is William Lai, and what does his party stand for?
The Ruling Party: DPP
The ruling DPP is a center-left progressive party, born out of the loose political movement that arose in opposition to the KMT’s single-party authoritarian rule during the 1970s and 1980s (the so-called Dangwai 黨外 movement). The DPP was formally established as a political force one year before martial law was lifted in 1986. The DPP advocates a stronger Taiwanese identity and a nationalist Taiwanese perspective that would like to see Taiwan become an independent country. On social issues, the party is aligned with progressive positions, supporting same-sex marriage, gender equality, labor issues, and social welfare policies that prioritize the rights of women, young people, minorities, indigenous peoples, farmers, and other disadvantaged sectors of Taiwanese society. In foreign policy, the DPP stands for closer ties with the United States and Japan.
In April 2023, the DPP nominated current Vice President William Lai (賴清德), who also serves as the party’s president, as its candidate for president. Unlike current President Tsai Ing-wen, Lai enjoys considerably lower international recognition, and he has less experience. Despite being a latecomer to politics — Lai started his career as mayor of Tainan in 2010 — since he made his debut in national politics in 2017, he has held several high-level positions within the Tsai administration.
Whereas Tsai represents the more moderate and pragmatic fraction of the DPP and has skillfully de-escalated tensions on issues such as Taiwanese independence, Lai’s support comes primarily from the more radical wing of the DPP, which favors a more insistent approach to Taiwan’s self-determination and national sovereignty. Lai is known for his backing of Taiwan’s independence; however, at the start of his career as a national-level politician, he — as well as the party — was forced to take a more moderate stance to appeal to both mainstream and “deep green” voters, meaning those aligned with pro-independence positions.
Regarding Taiwan’s relations with China, Lai has emphasized the importance of upholding the island’s free and democratic constitutional system. He has often stated that the Republic of China (ROC) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are not subordinate to each other and that Taiwan will resist any attempt to undermine its sovereignty. Lai strongly believes that Taiwan’s future should be decided in accordance with the will of the Taiwanese people.9
Regardless of his own personal beliefs, should he be elected president, Lai would have no choice but to follow a moderate policy path, similar to President Tsai, who is highly regarded internationally and has been praised for her sober approach to cross-Strait politics.
In fact, a Taiwanese president who is too vocal in their support for independence and favors an ideology-laden policy rather than a more pragmatic vision would go against U.S. interests and probably cost Taiwan much of the international support it has gained in the past three years. The DPP is keenly aware of the damage suffered during the Chen Shui-bian era,10 when relations with the United States suddenly turned sour because of Chen’s blunt statements and provocative actions11 at the beginning of his second presidential term.12
Aware of these complexities, the DPP has bolstered its efforts to clarify Lai’s approach to cross-Strait relations and independence and to highlight that he aims to “maintain the status quo.” The party is aware of Lai’s image abroad and the risks associated with a presidential candidate who is too direct in his support of independence, especially in the context of Taiwan’s special relations with the United States. Regarding foreign policy, Lai has been adamant about the importance of maintaining strong relations with the United States and even published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on this matter.13
Amid slow economic growth and stagnant wages, the DPP campaign is focused on improving Taiwan’s domestic economy through expanded social welfare benefits, a higher minimum wage, new local sources of innovation, and diversification of business and trade links, away from China.14
Finally, defense issues have taken on a particularly important role in this election. For Lai, it is crucial to strengthen alliances and economic ties with like-minded countries to rein in China’s military offenses while improving Taiwan’s own military capabilities.
The Main Opposition Party: KMT
The KMT is one of the main political parties in the Republic of China. Established on the Chinese mainland, the party has been based in Taiwan since 1949, when Chiang Kai-Shek fled to the island after losing the Chinese Civil War against the Communists. Chiang ruled Taiwan as a single-party authoritarian regime until martial law was lifted and democratic reforms were enacted in the late 1980s. Nowadays, the KMT is the most important party in the pan-blue coalition and the main opponent of the DPP. Ideologically, the party champions unification with China, but it has been forced to dilute this position in the face of declining support. The KMT now favors maintaining the status quo while at the same time pursuing peaceful relations with the PRC. The party’s history and its ties to China on positions that are no longer popular have made it difficult for the KMT to attract younger voters and bring its image up to date.
Since its defeat in the 2000 elections, the KMT has struggled to reinvent itself. It has attempted to support a more “multicultural identity,” including both Taiwanese and Chinese, to appeal to a larger share of the electorate.
Regarding social issues, the party has no official position on more progressive topics, such as same-sex marriage, though it is well known that many of its members as well as prominent politicians oppose it.15
The opposition party since 2016, the KMT performed quite well in the municipal elections held in November 2022. The party saw a similar result in the 2018 midterm municipal elections, when it achieved an outstanding result — but then suffered a catastrophic defeat against the DPP in the presidential election two years later. While local votes tend to be driven by domestic issues such as tax policy and infrastructure, in national elections, cross-Strait relations and issues associated with the island’s rising Taiwanese identity play a more prominent role.
The KMT officially nominated Hou You-yi (侯友宜), a former chief of police, as the party’s candidate for president at its National Congress in July 2023. Hou, who was elected as mayor of Taipei in 2018, has a strong nativist spirit — a so-called Taiwan flavor (台灣味) — that is rarely seen in KMT politicians. He started his career as a police officer in the 1980s and served as director-general of the national police force from 2006 to 2008.16 Hou’s popularity in the south is strong — he comes from Chiayi — and the party believes that he could play a role in helping it reach beyond its traditional political bastions, to areas where the green party enjoys higher approval ratings.
Although Hou’s candidacy was initially depicted quite positively in the media, barely two months after he was drafted as the KMT’s nominee, his ratings in the polls were already dropping, and he was accused of having no well-defined ideological positions. In fact, Hou has been trying to sidestep taking a definitive stance on cross-Strait relations, but after his ambiguity generated fractures within the KMT, he clarified his position in an editorial in Foreign Affairs. In it, Hou proposed a “three Ds” strategy to maintain stability across the Taiwan Strait and in the broader Indo-Pacific region: “deterrence, dialogue, and de-escalation.”17 In essence, Hou has argued for a mixture of military deterrence and security policies, to discourage mainland China from attacking the island, coupled with renewed dialogue, which would bring a de-escalation of tensions. In short, Hou’s strategy is to pursue peace and dialogue with the PRC without forsaking Taiwan’s freedom.
One of the main reasons for Hou’s initial widespread support was that he kept his distance from ideology-laden topics such as national identity or cross-Strait relations, raising hopes that he would continue in the same direction. It was precisely his “centrist” approach and his nonalignment with the deep blue faction of the KMT that won him the backing of many undecided voters.18
However, as soon as his opinion polls started to fall, Hou edged closer to positions that toe the party line, openly declaring his opposition to Taiwanese independence and affirming his adherence to the controversial 1992 Consensus. Furthermore, by toeing the traditional party line, Hou has drifted further away from mainstream public opinion, alienating those who supported him precisely because he did not conform to the usual KMT blueprint. Supporters who thought that Hou would change the KMT from within are becoming more hesitant as they interpret his recent outings as a shift toward the “deep blue” end of the political spectrum.
The shift will likely cost Hou the support of pan-blue voters who are “nativist” and less in tune with the party’s hard-core, pro-unification views. This issue will pose more problems for Hou going forward, especially considering that two presidential hopefuls, Terry Gou and Ko Wen-je, are more likely to cut into his base then to threaten Lai.
Hou and the KMT have framed the DPP as “reckless” with regard to cross-Strait relations and intent on exacerbating the situation. Even though President Tsai has taken a moderate approach to cross-Strait issues in both her rhetoric and her actions, she has never acknowledged the 1992 Consensus, prompting her to be labeled a “secessionist” and a “splittist” by China, like anyone belonging to her party.19
The comparison between a dialogue-prone and responsible KMT determined to defuse tensions and a warmongering and provocateur DPP embodies a powerful narrative framework that Hou, a former DPP member from 2002 until 2013, has adopted fully. His position can be seen in op-eds and campaign posters, such as the one shown in Figure 1, which reads, “Peace between the two sides of the Strait, we do not want war! (兩岸和平，不要戰爭)”
The KMT, therefore, seems to have settled for a campaign that depicts itself as the only “safe choice” for the country and the DPP as pushing the island toward the brink of war.20 Framing the electoral tournament as a choice between peace and war is a popular tool, used since January 2023. Portraying the differences between the KMT and the DPP will remain a feature of the campaign in both Taiwanese and Chinese media outlets in the coming months.
The KMT’s economic platform largely promotes Taiwan’s external economic relations, especially with China, as a means of supporting export-led growth. Even now, the frequently repeated refrain of the pan-blue camp is that better relations with China would help tone down tensions and bring back economic prosperity.
In the event of an electoral victory by Hou — quite unlikely at the time of this writing – tensions with the United States could increase as a result of pressure from the KMT’s deep blue faction, whose leadership would prefer good relations with China over those with the United States.
The Wild Card: A Third Political Force
Even though the DPP has traditionally been the most popular party among younger voters, former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) has attracted considerable support among young Taiwanese by presenting himself as a credible third candidate. In 2019, Ko founded the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which became the island’s third biggest political force during the 2020 legislative elections.
The TPP stands for a new approach to politics, seeking to go beyond mainstream issues and empower citizens by helping them “lead better lives.”21 In practice, the TPP speaks to those who are dissatisfied and frustrated with the two mainstream parties, including many young people, and emphasizes that politicians’ main goal should be to improve people’s lives rather than “getting caught in ideological battles.”22 Younger generations of Taiwanese have weaker ties to traditional ideological affiliations than their parents and grandparents, who lived through the early phases of open conflict between the oppressive KMT regime and the main opposition force as the country began liberalizing and democratizing in the 1980s and 1990s.
Ko’s party has leveraged this distance to distinguish itself from the traditional “blue” and “green” parties in a more pragmatic and less ideologically constrained manner. This distinction, however, is also part of the problem: both the TPP’s and Ko’s positions on important matters — most importantly, cross-Strait relations — are difficult to pinpoint and seem to change frequently. Like Hou, Ko’s lack of ideology and his deliberately vague political standing on key issues, such as relations with mainland China, are both a strength and a weakness.
Ko has an interesting background story. A medical doctor, like Lai, he became Taipei City’s mayor in 2014, when he ran as an independent candidate, drawing on the support of the DPP. He was reelected in 2018 and remained in office until 2022.
Regarding cross-Strait relations, Ko has expressed a variety of opinions. Officially, he says that he wants to “promote exchanges between the two sides, increasing goodwill,” and several times he has used the phrase “One family across the Strait” (两岸一家亲).23 A prominent example of his outside-the-box thinking in regard to China is his proposal to build a bridge from the outer island of Jinmen (which is under ROC jurisdiction) to Xiamen in Fujian Province on the mainland. At other times, however, Ko has seemed more restrained in his stance toward the mainland. At any rate, Ko’s official position is that he supports neither independence nor unification, but he hopes that Taiwan will become the tie that binds China and the United States in their strategic competition and serve as democratic model for China. In contrast with Hou and Lai, Ko does not have to consider his party’s ideological baggage, and therefore he is more likely to manage cross-Strait relations with fewer ideological restraints and greater pragmatism.
At the same time, Ko has been criticized because he lacks experience in international relations and often seems inconsistent in his public statements. At this time of heightened geopolitical tensions, some voters are skeptical that he has the aptitude to lead Taiwan at such a crucial time. As the presidential race proceeds, it may become more difficult for Ko to consolidate his support unless he clarifies his positions.
In terms of the TPP’s economic strategy, Ko has stated that his party will continue to promote trade liberalization and that he favors trade diversification to reduce Taiwan’s dependency on China; in fact, 40% of Taiwanese exports go to the mainland Chinese market, making Taiwan highly dependent.
Finally, in terms of defense policy, Ko has stated that he is in favor of increasing Taiwan’s defense budget to 3% of GDP — higher than the record 2.5% that the current DPP government requested in its 2024 budget proposal — and that increasing cybersecurity, air force security, and the country’s army and navy should be higher priorities.24
A Late Entry Into the Race: Foxconn Founder Terry Gou
The most recent entry into the presidential race is Terry Gou (郭台銘), Taiwan’s Foxconn tech tycoon, who claims that he will make Taiwan’s GDP per capita the highest in Asia if he is elected president.25
At the end of August 2023, Gou announced his candidacy as an independent, a move that has widely been considered a betrayal of the KMT. There are good reasons for this: Gou previously lost in the Nationalist primary in 2019 and once again tried to run this year, but the party selected Hou instead. The affront to Gou was even greater the second time around, since the party did not hold nominations and Hou was handpicked by KMT chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫). Thus, it is plausible that Gou’s decision to run was motivated by resentment. While Gou had initially pledged to support Hou, shortly after Hou’s selection, Gou announced his own candidacy in a sudden turnabout.
In September, Gou nominated actress Tammy Lai (賴佩霞)26 as his running mate in the hope that she would attract younger voters. To be able to run, Gou resigned from the board of Foxconn.
Gou’s entry into the presidential race complicates things further because he is a wild card with unclear allegiances and a grudge against the KMT, with which, despite everything, he shares an ideological affinity. Gou has deep pockets and he is a good personal friend of TPP candidate Ko Wen-je, a thing that fostered rumors about a potential joint presidential ticket — but between the TPP and Gou rather than between the TPP and KMT.27 Despite the joint presidential ticket between TPP and KMT having materialized, the electoral results will be divided, and Gou’s candidacy will split the blue vote, as voters who favor him lean naturally toward the KMT rather than the DPP.
Regarding his political viewpoints and strategies, Gou is known for his harsh public statements toward the DPP, accusing the party of bringing Taiwan to the brink of war. Thus, Gou aligns quite well with the KMT’s and the pan blue camp28 ideological viewpoint and campaigning strategies.
Like Ko, Gou could have a chance with the younger electorate, who are less informed and less tied to traditional party orientations and attracted by the popularity of his running mate. He has publicly stated that under his leadership, Taiwan would restart a dialogue with China, thereby defusing tensions and keeping the island safe. However, given his popularity ratings, which have consistently lagged the other three presidential hopefuls, it does not look like the Taiwanese people agree with him.29
Other Factors Playing a Role in the Elections
Taiwanese society faces a number of problems, from stagnant wages and a sluggish economy to a shortage of affordable housing for younger generations, immigration, energy security, and defense policy. During the eight years that it has governed Taiwan, the DPP has been unable to solve these issues, disappointing many voters.30
This failure helps explain why the party suffered a serious defeat in the local elections of November 2018, leading Tsai Ing-wen to tender her resignation as party leader. This frustration will also play against Lai, who has served as vice president for the past four years and therefore is associated with the DPP’s inability to solve the island’s pressing problems. Still, the party remains popular among those who sympathize with the idea that Taiwan is an independent country that should be given the choice to become a real nation, fully integrated into the international system. Even if the DPP manages to win the presidency, it will likely prevail by a smaller margin than in the past, and it could even lose a parliamentary majority, making it difficult to rule.
Although young voters will not be the decisive voting bloc in the presidential race, their votes will certainly have an impact on the legislative front. In that respect, the TPP could be the one political organ to gain an advantage: Ko, is currently polling well among younger cohorts; his appeal among young voters could help his party to win enough seats in the parliament to become a significant minority force.
The KMT, on the other hand, faces difficulties in fundamentally revising its approach regarding relations with the PRC, one of the thorniest issues for the Nationalists, who continue to lose voters. Another important concern making the KMT less appealing is the party’s failure to take a position on topics that are important to younger voters, such as women’s rights, gender equality, indigenous rights, identity politics. The party is also hurt by its practice of reaching decisions on issues and policy priorities in black-box meetings, marginalizing and excluding younger voters.
Given the KMT’s difficult situation, a KMT-TPP alliance to challenge the DPP was the only option for the party and hence why in the end Ma Ying-jeou stepped in to seal the deal.31 However, many difficulties remain that could hamper the KMT-TPP presidential ticket, even after it comes to fruition. Given the two parties’ different views on the instruments for engaging in dialogue with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), such as the 1992 Consensus, after they establish who shall be the presidential candidate, they may be unable to present a credible front to voters and could even lose support from their own party bases.
Finally, the outcome of the election will also depend on how China acts during the run-up to the election.
China’s Attitude Toward the Electoral Race
Any action on part of the CCP that could be deemed as intimidation toward the Taiwanese is likely to push voters in a direction that ultimately displeases Beijing.32
The PRC seems to have learned its lesson, and rather than trying to instill fear in the Taiwanese people, it is pursuing a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, it is continuing to employ gray-zone tactics, such as conducting digital warfare or sending ships and airplanes toward Taiwan well beyond the median line to show its might. On the other hand, in September 2023, the CCP unveiled a plan to foster economic integration between the ROC-controlled offshore island of Kinmen and the coastal PRC province of Fujian.33 The project is intended to showcase Fujian as an example of what awaits the Taiwanese if they accept reunification with the mainland — namely, a second home for themselves and their families and preferential treatment for their businesses.
This carrot-and-stick approach — threatening Taiwan with military invasion while enticing it with future opportunities if it chooses unification — is nothing new; this strategy has often been used by Beijing to entice the “Taiwanese compatriots.”34 Deng Xiaoping engaged Taiwan strategically using a two-pronged tactic (两手策略), promoting a peaceful reunification to foster goodwill as well as military coercion to deter Taiwan’s independence. There is a more global dimension to the current proposal, which is to announce to domestic as well as international audiences that Beijing has not renounced the idea of reconducting Taiwan under its rule through peaceful means. Beijing’s plan was released shortly after Hou You-yi announced his own proposal, in August 2023, to build a bridge between Kinmen and Xiamen, which is also supported by TPP candidate Ko Wen-je. Beijing’s announcement therefore seems to be a tool to convince the Taiwanese of the value of voting for the political faction favoring closer ties to the mainland. Other tools that China has used in the past and could apply in the future are spreading false messages to reinforce the narrative that “democracy is a failing system”; conveying that “the U.S. is using Taiwan to contain China” (以台制中); and accusing the DPP of serving as a “U.S. agent in Taiwan” and of “relying on the United States to seek independence” (倚美謀獨).35 China also routinely uses economic coercion strategies against other countries to achieve its goals, including as leverage against Taiwan.36
As the election draws nearer, we are likely to see China working to exacerbate Taiwan’s internal political divisions by portraying the DPP as incompetent. We can also expect China to increase its rhetoric on the risk of war if the DPP wins a third consecutive term, to push the Taiwanese people to vote for the China-friendlier party.
China would like to see the KMT win in the hope of turning back the clock to “happier” times, when China and Taiwan had close economic relations and fewer political tensions, such as during the Ma Ying-jeou era. Given the success in forming a joint electoral ticket between the two main opposition parties, tensions with Beijing, could diminish as both the KMT and the TPP have pledged to want to improve the island's ties with the mainland.37 However, a victory by Lai but without a DPP legislative majority could also play into Beijing’s hands. With a divided Taiwanese government, the CCP could try to carry out both overt and covert operations aimed at destabilizing the country while damaging the credibility of the DPP and Taiwanese democracy.
The United States’ Attitude Toward the Electoral Race
In the past five years, the United States, which has long provided weapons to Taiwan for its self-defense, has also become much more vocal in its support of the island. However, by allowing high-level meetings and visits to Taiwan, it may unintentionally have raised the stakes.
The United States’ overriding concern should be to figure out how to strengthen Taiwan’s resilience without departing from the current situation of strategic ambiguity — despite China’s more aggressive behavior — while continuing to offer Taiwan support in crucial matters, such as defense and the economy, all the while sustaining its democratic system.
America’s future behavior toward Taiwan will also depend on the outcome of the next U.S. presidential election. If Joe Biden is reelected, we are likely to see some variation of the current policy toward this region and a strong focus on transatlantic and multilateral alliances; it is more difficult to gauge the consequences that a Republican president would have for Taiwan. Despite strong bipartisan support for Taiwan in Congress, a Republican administration could become more inward looking, prioritize domestic issues, and decrease monetary, logistic and weaponry support for other areas of the world, such as Ukraine. This, in turn, could undermine Taiwan’s confidence (and that of other U.S. allies in the region like Japan and the Philippines) in the United States as their main security guarantor.
U.S. officials and policymakers have no official position on the Taiwanese elections, and they have remained neutral in their statements so far. In reality, Washington has reservations about all four candidates, either because of their party’s history or the candidate’s lack of clear standpoints. When it comes to Lai, many American observers believe that he could deviate from the moderate policy of President Tsai. For Hou, the KMT’s past still weighs on the party’s relations with the United States; in fact, during the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou (2008–2016), the KMT sought to ban imports of meat from the United States and established a closer relationship with the PRC; Ma’s faction still wields considerable influence within the party. Finally, Ko is a wild card: He does not believe the United States warrants its position as the main axis in the triangular relations between China, Taiwan, and the United States, evidenced by his emphasis on maintaining constructive and equally amicable relations with both China and the United States.38
The January 2024 Taiwanese election campaign is characterized by a highly competitive political landscape with multiple candidates vying for key positions.
Specifically, three political parties and one independent candidate are running. Although there is some overlap of positions and standpoints, most notably in the pan-blue camp, the presidential candidates’ profiles differ substantially, and the winner will play a determining role in the trajectory of foreign relations and cross-Strait relations.
Nevertheless, there are commonalities among the candidates’ approaches. All are pursuing a pragmatic standpoint regarding Taiwan’s sovereignty and openly support maintaining the status quo as the only viable and safe option to preserve the island’s autonomy.
When it comes to defense policies, all the presidential candidates agree that it is necessary to strengthen Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities to protect the island in the event of a military attack or blockade by the PRC.
Ultimately, the election’s outcome will reflect the diverse political preferences of the Taiwanese population, highlighting the importance of addressing a wide range of issues and concerns that have an impact on citizen’s daily lives.
China’s role in the Taiwanese presidential contest is evident in its attempts to shape public opinion and influence the electoral outcome, particularly through diplomatic pressure, propaganda campaigns, and gray-zone tactics. The United States also has a significant role in the Taiwanese presidential election by expressing support for Taiwan’s democratic process and providing official backing to counter China’s influence. The involvement of China and the United States highlights the geopolitical complexities surrounding Taiwan’s status and the ongoing power struggle between these two global powers.
Given the complexities and uncertainties surrounding the election and the fact that there are still two months to go, many things may change. In the past, elections were interesting mainly to Taiwan watchers or whenever tensions with China flared (as in 1996 or 2000). However, since 2016 and the DPP’s return to power, the conflict with China has reached a new dimension, and — given the current geopolitical situation, especially amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine — these elections will be closely monitored at the international level.
- As of November 15, Taiwan's two leading opposition parties, the KMT and the TPP announced that they would join forces for January's presidential election thereby the number of candidates will soon shrink from four to three.
- Sean Lin, “Dissecting Ko: Why Young People Seem to Favor the TPP Presidential Candidate,” Focus Taiwan/CNA English News, September 3, 2023, https://focustaiwan.tw/politics/202309030008.
- Kevin Hsu, “How Does Taiwan’s Parliamentary Election Work,” Ketagalan Media, December 26, 2015, https://ketagalanmedia.com/2015/12/26/how-does-taiwans-parliamentary-el….
- An opinion poll carried out in mid-September 2023 showed Lai leading the race with 35 percent. The KMT candidate, Hou You-Yi was behind Lai with 20 percent support and former Taipei City mayor Ko was at 17.5 percent. Gou trailed with 10.3 percent. See Chung Yu-chen, “Terry Gou Kicks Off Signature Campaign for Independent Presidential Run,” Focus Taiwan/CNA English News, September 20, 2023, https://focustaiwan.tw/politics/202309200008.
- Lawrence Chung, “Latest Taiwan Election Survey Is More Bad News for Tsai Ing-wen’s Ruling DPP,” South China Morning Post, October 24, 2023, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3239038/latest-taiwan-…
- Courtney Donovan Smith, “Taiwan News Polls of Polls,” Taiwan News, October 26, 2023, https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/5027966.
- “Taiwan Opposition Parties Announce Alliance, Shaking Up January Election,” Time, November 15, 2023, https://time.com/6335347/taiwan-opposition-parties-alliance-election-km…
- Sean Lin, Kao Hua-chien, and Liu Kuan-ting, “TPP Pressures KMT to Let Polls Decide Joint Presidential Ticket Billing,” Focus Taiwan/CNA English News, September 29, 2023, https://focustaiwan.tw/politics/202309290010.
- William Lai’s official stance is that “Taiwan is already a sovereign, independent country called the Republic of China,” and therefore, “It is not necessary to declare independence.” See Taipei Times, “Taiwan Is Already Independent: Lai,” August 16, 2023, https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2023/08/16/2003804803.
- Chen Shui-bian served as president of the Republic of China from 2000 to 2008. He was famous for his pro-independence positions that sought to establish statehood for Taiwan.
- It was feared that Chen Shui-bian, the first DPP president to rule in Taiwan, would attempt to achieve independence during his second term by invoking a referendum to create a new constitution that would formally detach Taiwan from any shared past and relationship with China, creating an independent country. Nothing of the sort happened, partly because of the open rebuke issued by the United States towards Chen. The United States feared that such action would provoke China and increase tensions and thus sought to rein in Chen.
- Erich Shih, “The Conduct of US-Taiwan Relations 2000–2004,” Brookings Institution, October 2004, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/shih2004.pdf.
- Lai Ching-te, “My Plan to Preserve Peace in the Taiwan Strait,” Wall Street Journal, July 4, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/my-plan-to-preserve-peace-between-china-an….
- Hunter Marston and Richard C. Bush, “Taiwan’s Engagement with South East Asia Is Making Progress under the New Southbound Policy,” Brookings Institution, July 30, 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/taiwans-engagement-with-southeast-as….
- Brian Hioe, “Are Progressive Civil Society Outgunned by the KMT and Anti-Gay Groups in Referendum Efforts?,” New Bloom Magazine, August 2018, https://newbloommag.net/2018/08/29/kmt-gay-marriage-referendum/.
- Hou was appointed director-general of the National Police Agency by Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).
- Hou You-Yi, “Taiwan’s Path between Extremes: The Kuomintang Presidential Candidate Lays Out a Plan to Avert War with China,” Foreign Affairs, September 18, 2023, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/taiwan/taiwans-path-between-extremes.
- Enescan Lorci, “The KMT’s High-Stakes Gamble: Reaching the Pinnacle or Navigating a Precipice?,” Global Taiwan Brief 8, no. 19 (October 4, 2023), https://globaltaiwan.org/2023/10/the-kmts-high-stakes-gamble-reaching-t….
- Jacques deLisle, “Taiwan’s Quest for International Space in the Tsai Era: Adapting Old Strategies to New Circumstances,” in Taiwan in the Era of Tsai Ing-wen, ed. June Teufel Dreyer and Jacques deLisle (New York: Routledge, 2021), 239–283; Global Times, “China Lodges Solemn Representation to US over Transit of Taiwan Separatist,” July 27, 2023, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202307/1294519.shtml.
- Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, “View from Taiwan: KMT Frames 2024 Election as a Choice between War and Peace,” Axios China, May 23, 2023, https://www.axios.com/2023/05/23/taiwan-kmt-frames-2024-election-choice….
- For a more detailed explanation of the TPP’s ideology, see the party’s website: https://www.tpp.org.tw/en/about.php.
- CCTV, “Ko Wen-je: It Is Better to Have ‘Cross-Strait Family Kinship’ than ‘Cross-Strait Family Hatred,’” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvNMmReQD9A.
- Focus Taiwan/CNA English News, “Election 2024/Ko Wen-je Reiterates China Policy Based on ‘Deterrence & Communication,’” September 14, 2023, https://focustaiwan.tw/cross-strait/202309140021.
- Economic Times, “Aspiring Taiwan Presidential Candidate Terry Gou Resigns from Board of Apple Supplier Foxconn,” September 3, 2023, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/business/aspiri….
- Tammy Lai portrayed the female presidential candidate of a fictional party in Taiwan in Wave Makers (人選之人—造浪者), an internationally acclaimed Taiwanese Netflix series. For more details on the show, see Adrienne Wu, “Wave Makers and Copycat Killer: How Taiwanese Productions Are ‘Making Waves’ and ‘Copying’ Successful Strategies,” Global Taiwan Brief 8, no. 12 (June 14, 2023), https://globaltaiwan.org/2023/06/wave-makers-and-copycat-killer-how-tai….
- Courtney Donovan Smith, “Facing ‘Complicated’ Negotiations with KMT, Ko Wen-je May Deal with Terry Gou Instead,” Taiwan News, October 28, 2023, https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/5029213.
- The pan-blue camp is a political coalition in Taiwan consisting of the Kuomintang, also known as the blue party, and all the parties that share ideological positions and orientations with it. While in the past, the pan-blue coalition was associated with the goal of achieving unification with the mainland, recently, the coalition has diluted its approach and moved toward a more restrained position, supporting the status quo while rejecting immediate unification with mainland China.
- Chung Yu-chen, “Election 2024: Terry Gou Kicks Off Signature Campaign for Independent Presidential Run,” Focus Taiwan/CNA English News, September 20, 2023, https://focustaiwan.tw/politics/202309200008.
- Chiang Min-hua, “Taiwan’s Gloomy Economy Adds Uncertainty to Prospects for the 2024 Presidential Election,” Global Taiwan Brief 8, no. 15 (August 9, 2023), https://globaltaiwan.org/2023/08/taiwans-gloomy-economy-adds-uncertaint….
- Kathrin Hille, "Taiwan’s opposition parties join forces for crucial presidential poll," Financial Times, November 15, 2023, https://www.ft.com/content/2f4eab5c-455f-4db2-8dbc-a788e745e389
- The 2020 national elections took place immediately after China’s quashing of civil liberties in Hong Kong in 2019; China’s actions led to the imposition of a national security law six months later, effectively putting an end to the “One Country, Two Systems” formula that was previously in place. This had a tremendous influence on the Taiwanese electorate and gave a sudden boost to President Tsai, who until the summer of 2019 was faring badly in the polls. See Simona Alba Grano and Helena Wu, “Xi Jinping’s 2.0 Version of the ‘Letter to Compatriots in Taiwan,’” University of Nottingham: Taiwan Insight, 2021, https://taiwaninsight.org/2021/04/26/xi-jinpings-2-0-version-of-the-let….
- 中共中央 国务院关于支持福建探索海峡两岸融合发展新路 建设两岸融合发展示范区的意见 [Opinions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council on Supporting Fujian's Exploration of a New Path of Cross-Strait Integration and Development and Construction of a Cross-Strait Integration and Development Demonstration Zone], 中华人民共和国中央人民政府, https://www.gov.cn/zhengce/202309/content_6903509.htm.
- Simona Alba Grano, “Uno studio della serie epistolare ‘Lettere ai compatrioti taiwanesi (告台灣同胞書)’,” Orizzonte Cina 13, no. 2–3 (2023): 67–78.
- Doublethink Lab, 疾病下的中國資訊作戰 [The Chinese infodemic in Taiwan], Medium July 26, 2020, https://medium.com/doublethinklab/the-chinese-infodemic-in-taiwan-25e9a….
- On October 9, China extended an investigation into Taiwan's trade barriers by three months – to the eve of the island's presidential election. Taipei subsequently accused Beijing of attempting to interfere in the outcome of the elections. See “China Extends Taiwan Trade Probe, Taipei Cries Election Interference,” Reuters, October 9, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/china-extends-taiwan-trade-p….
- Kathrin Hille, "Taiwan’s opposition parties join forces for crucial presidential poll," Financial Times, November 15, 2023, https://www.ft.com/content/2f4eab5c-455f-4db2-8dbc-a788e745e389
- Julia Christine Marinaccio, Dominika Remžová, and Yiju Chen, “Taiwan’s 2024 Presidential Election and Its Candidates: What to Expect in Foreign Policy and Cross-Strait Relations?,” Central European Institute of Asia Studies, October 9, 2023, https://ceias.eu/taiwans-2024-presidential-election-and-its-candidates/….