How Did Taiwan’s Democratic Elections Succeed?

Taiwan’s three-way presidential and legislative election campaign is entering a crucial phase, with final rallies on 12 January and the vote on 13 January. The campaign focuses on the stability and resilience of Taiwan’s democratic and political processes, policy convergence on core strategic questions across parties, and the focus on socio-economic issues, not the contest in Asian geopolitics. Cross-strait relations affect almost every dimension of policy in Taiwan, but they are not the key issue at the top of Taiwanese voters’ minds in 2024.

The presidential race is clear, with no further polling allowed before the final vote. Lai Ching-te, vice president under current President Tsai Ing-wen, leads the polls with support between 30.9 and 40%. Hou Yu-ih, Lai’s main challenger, has between 24.1 and 38%, about 5 points behind Lai. Ko Wen-je, a colorful former Taipei city mayor, has between 18.9 and 25.2%. Undecided voters represent around 15% of the electorate, and where they go will be decisive. Young urban voters prefer Ko Wen-je’s frank speech and creative solutions, but his chances of winning are slim due to his lack of core support.

A possible path to victory for KMT’s Hou would be a scenario where undecided voters and some TPP supporters resort to strategic voting against the DPP. The three-way contest exposes the high cost of the KMT and TPP’s inability to come to a pre-election agreement despite their efforts.

Pre-election forecasts indicate that no party is likely to win a majority in the Legislative Yuan, with the KMT likely to win most seats, followed by the DPP. This puts the TPP in a kingmaker position with 10 to 12 possible seats. The DPP’s popularity has dropped compared to the 2020 election and 2016 election. Social and economic frustrations, post-COVID fatigue, and concerns about economic prospects, incomes, rents, real estate, energy insecurity, and inequality are driving voters to want a change in the governing party.

Pressure from China on reunification and rising US-China tensions remain a concern, with 46% of voters worried about a possible war within the next five years. However, most voters do not act based on these concerns or react to continuous military incursions from the mainland. The Hong Kong issue was not a factor in the 2020 election.

On cross-strait relations and defense, the three party platforms have converged toward similar positions, supporting increasing the military budget from 2.4 to 3% and expanding mandatory military service for young men from 4 months to 1 year.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the KMT are vying for Taiwan’s presidency. The DPP is seeking more dialogue with the mainland, while the KMT is aiming for an elevated defense posture. The TPP is aiming for a middle ground between the two parties. The KMT still supports the 1992 consensus, but only 30% of voters now support it. China’s reaction to the three parties is uncertain, as Lai’s past declarations of independence may lead to a tough reaction.

The US-Taiwan relationship is likely to remain strong, and a Hou victory would prompt the US to closely monitor Taiwan’s actions with the mainland. Taiwan’s stance on international affairs is more reactive than proactive, resulting in a more inward-looking focus. The last week of the campaign could be decisive, but the resilience of Taiwan’s democratic institutions and the trust the electorate has placed in them stand out.

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