Vice President Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party clinches victory
In a historic win, Taiwan’s ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), secured a third presidential term in Saturday’s election. Vice President Lai Ching-te, representing the DPP, emerged victorious with 40.1% of the vote, defeating two candidates who favored closer ties with Beijing. This outcome reflects the majority of voters’ antipathy toward China, overriding concerns about the economy and domestic issues.
Political scientist Wen-ti Sung of Australia National University’s Taiwan Studies Program described the DPP’s win as breaking the “eight-year curse” and signaling its staying power to Beijing. However, analysts point out that while the DPP won the presidency, it failed to gain ground with voters outside its traditional support base. The opposition parties collectively obtained 59.8% of the vote, indicating growing fatigue with the ruling party. This presents additional challenges for Lai as he must navigate both international and domestic grievances.
A Divided Society and Legislative Yuan Pose Challenges for Lai
Although Lai secured an unprecedented third term, experts anticipate a tough administration ahead. The DPP lost its majority in the legislature, creating a divided society and a fractured legislative yuan. Lev Nachman, a professor of political science at National Chengchi University, emphasized that Lai’s victory is also a failure of the opposition. Now, the new president must grapple with the task of uniting a divided society while advancing his agenda.
In his victory speech, Lai acknowledged the loss of the DPP’s majority in the legislature and expressed his willingness to study the policies of his opponents. He emphasized the need for an effective government and strong checks and balances, promising to incorporate different viewpoints into his governance.
The Challenge of Maintaining Peace in the Taiwan Strait
The incoming president will assume office at a critical time for the United States, China, and Taiwan. The deteriorating relationship between China and the US has made Taiwan’s sovereignty a flashpoint, raising concerns about potential military conflict with broader implications for the Asia-Pacific region. Maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait, already a delicate balancing act, becomes more challenging for the next administration in Taipei.
China considers Taiwan a part of its territory and seeks eventual unification with the mainland, even by force if necessary. Cross-strait relations have grown strained during outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen’s eight-year term, marked by a confrontational stance towards Beijing and strengthened ties with other democracies, particularly the US.
The US maintains a policy of strategic ambiguity, acknowledging China’s claim to Taiwan without endorsing it. While not recognizing Taiwan as a country, the US engages in governmental communications and sells defensive arms to Taipei. Beijing has accused the US of undermining this policy and encouraging Taiwan’s pursuit of independence.
Analysts predict that Beijing will express its displeasure with Lai’s election through military and economic displays of power, increasing the risk of inadvertent conflict. Michael Cunningham, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, warns that China will attempt to limit Lai’s presidency to one four-year term.
Lai’s Election Campaign and Opposition Criticism
Lai was the front-runner throughout the campaign, pledging to continue Tsai’s approach of bolstering Taiwan’s international ties and defense capabilities while maintaining the status quo. However, Chinese officials criticized Lai as a dangerous choice who could lead the island into war. Lai’s self-description as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence” in 2017 further fueled this characterization, providing ammunition for Beijing and the opposition parties to label him a separatist.
The opposition Kuomintang (KMT) framed the election as a choice between war and peace. Its candidate, Hou Yu-ih, emphasized his dedication to law and order and sought to improve relations with Beijing without supporting unification. The KMT, which fled mainland China in 1949 after losing the civil war, struggles to appeal to younger voters who increasingly identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
Discontent with the ruling DPP, particularly regarding economic stagnation, prompted early support for Ko Wen-je as a third-party alternative. However, Ko’s momentum waned after a failed attempt to form a joint ticket with Hou against the DPP.
The Future of US-China Relations and Its Impact on Taiwan
Beijing’s response to another DPP president will set the tone for its relationship with the US. The recent thaw between President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping has led to the resumption of military dialogues. Biden reiterated unchanged US policy on Taiwan, while Xi reassured Biden that immediate military action was not planned.
Although there is some momentum for improved US-China relations, analysts expect China to exert pressure, albeit more discreetly. This pressure, both military and economic, could further escalate the risk of inadvertent clashes.