President-elect Lai Ching-te, President Tsai Ing-Wen, and Vice President-elect Hsiao Bi-khim. Photo by Julia Famularo.

Taiwan Elections 2024 Recap: Democracy prevailed, and now the DPP has work to do

Fairbank Center experts weigh in: Michael A. Szonyi, Frank Wen-Hsiung Wu Memorial Professor of Chinese History, Harvard University; Steven M. Goldstein, Director, Taiwan Studies Workshop, Harvard University; Ya-Wen Lei, Professor of Sociology, Harvard University; Wei-Ting Yen, Assistant Professor of Government, Franklin & Marshall College; Meg Rithmire, F. Warren MacFarlan Associate Professor of Business, Government, and International Economy, Harvard Business School; and Dr. Julia Famularo, Postdoctoral Fellow in Taiwan Studies, Harvard University.

Personal Reflections on an Exciting—and Dull—Election

by Michael A. Szonyi, Frank Wen-Hsiung Wu Memorial Professor of Chinese History, Harvard University

Elections in Taiwan can be pretty exciting. The election-eve rallies of the major parties were masterpieces of choreographed mobilization. There were death-metal bands, and tear-jerker stories about local candidates overcoming adversity, and lots of cheerleaders. The energy of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rally ebbed briefly—deliberately, I suspect—when outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen recalled the DPP’s history and then symbolically passed the torch to her would-be successor. The segment was clearly intended to build domestic and international confidence in the Lai/Hsiao ticket.

I found the Taiwan People’s Party rally the most interesting. Presidential candidate Ko Wen-je, aka KP, former mayor of Taipei, who can charitably be described as not naturally charismatic, presided over an event overflowing with youthful energy and enthusiasm. It spoke volumes about the disaffection of many voters with the two established parties, and their concern about bread-and-butter issues to which technocratic Ko seemed to promise new solutions. It was also exciting personally to be part of the same delegation as former Fairbank Center Hou Family Fellow in Taiwan Studies, Prof. Lev Nachman, who is already emerging as a leading voice in Taiwanese political analysis.

Elections in Taiwan can also be pretty dull. People lined up quietly in schools and public offices to cast their votes, and then they went back to work or out to eat. The votes were counted. No one attacked the polling workers or the candidates. The results were known within hours of the polls closing, whereupon the losing candidates graciously conceded defeat and the victors promised to serve all Taiwanese people, not just those who voted for them. My friend and colleague Joe Wong from University of Toronto has some very eloquent social media posts describing this dullness. Unlike Joe, I’m no expert. But this seems to be how democracy is supposed to work. Taiwan may be a young democracy, but it is already a mature one. (Of course, this is not to say that it’s not fragile, or under threat, but that’s for another essay.) This is a tremendous accomplishment in which many Taiwanese take justifiable pride.

“This seems to be how democracy is supposed to work.”

The elections were dull for substantive as well as formal reasons. There is less and less difference between the candidates’ policy positions on the single greatest—though far from the only—issue of the election: China. Everyone agrees that Taiwan will have to fight to preserve its independent identity in the face of a China committed to unification; the difference is just about how best to approach this challenge. In the run-up to the election, we often heard that one party was the party of war and the other the party of peace. This message simply no longer resonates with Taiwanese voters. For more than three decades, the 1992 Consensus—an agreement between the KMT and the CCP that acknowledges there is One China—has been an important issue of inter-party debate, with the KMT insisting that the PRC and ROC maintained their own differing interpretations of what One China means, and the DPP rejecting the notion that there is One China, and therefore holding that there never was a real consensus. As Dong Liwen put it at a post-election roundtable at the Institute for National Policy Research, the domestic debate over the 1992 Consensus no longer matters; there is now a domestic cross-Strait (policy) consensus. To put this another way, Taiwan may still be facing an existential threat. But how to respond to this threat no longer constitutes an existential debate

Vote counting on election night. Photo by Michael Szonyi.

To end on a deeply personal note, elections in Taiwan can be powerful and inspiring. As a scholar of Chinese popular religion, I spend a lot of time in temples, and I always love to see old folks teaching their grandkids how to kowtow and how to offer incense, enacting a relationship between the people and their gods, and thereby ensuring the continuity of traditional culture.

The counting of the vote is done in public in Taiwan, and we went to a polling station in a local temple to observe this solemn civic ritual. There I saw old folks explaining to their grandkids how voting works and why it is important, enacting a relationship between the people and their government, and ensuring the continuity of their civic culture. The attention of international media was rightly focused on the victory speeches that would soon follow. But this scene in the temple was an exhilarating moment that, in its own quiet way, was every bit as important.

Three-Party Diffusion of Power Creates New Challenges

Steven M. Goldstein, Director, Taiwan Studies Workshop, Harvard University

On the eve of the elections in Taiwan, David Sacks, a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted that the result would be what he called a “status quo” election. Both parties, he argued, had similar approaches to the United States and China and thus no matter which party won, there would be no radical changes in Taipei’s policies. The more pressing question, he maintained, would be how China might react to the prospect of four more years of frustration in achieving its cross-strait goals. Would it be more of the same? Or would Beijing, frustrated by the little progress made in achieving its objectives, increase the pressure on the United States and Taiwan?

Less than a week after the election, it looks like the more things change, the more they stay the same. China has snatched one more of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners (Nauru), given no evidence of showing greater flexibility or trust in dealing with the new government or the United States to ease tensions in the area. Taiwan, on the other hand, continues to express its willingness to ease tensions, but not on the terms laid down by the mainland. It seems as if cross-Strait relations are in roughly the same place as they were before the elections.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

This is, of course, very early in the post-election transition. The new legislature in Taiwan will not take office until February 1. More importantly, the new president will not be inaugurated until May 20, by which time his appointments and inaugural address will provide a greater indication of the tack that Lai Ching-te will be taking in cross-Strait relations, while the mainland response will provide some indication of change—if there is any.

A mural featuring President-elect Lai Ching-te and Vice President-elect Hsiao Bi-khim. Photo by Julia Famularo.

Focusing on the ideology of Taiwan’s newly elected leader to gain insights into possible sources of change can be misleading. The more important development that might affect the cross-Strait situation is not a change in Taiwan’s policy, but rather changes in the nature of its policy-making structure. Following the election, for the first time, parliamentary power has been divided between three parties with no major party having a majority. A relatively small party—led by an ambitious but charismatic figure who is often vague about his policies—could make the difference. This legislature has little experience with coalition politics and will be challenged—as will the new president seeking support for his policies through negotiation with said legislature.

It may be too early to judge the direction of the new government in Taiwan, but it is certainly not too early to speculate on how that policy will be made and what effect it might have on the substance of Taiwan’s future cross-strait policy.

This is not the first time in post-authoritarian Taiwan that different parties controlled the presidency and the legislature; it occurred during Chen Shui-bian’s presidency from 2000-2008. Of course, the president has considerable influence in dealing with the legislature. The constitution vests great power in the president, rather than the legislature, in terms of authority over the premier and her/his cabinet, while at the same time lodging responsibility for cross-Strait relations with the president.

Past experience has indicated deference to the president. However, during the Chen Shui-bian administration, a divided government complicated important items such as budgeting for arms purchases, affecting cross-Strait relations and relations with the United States. One can expect greater difficulties when an administration that failed to get 50% of the vote is forced to deal with a legislature where power is divided three ways, as well as the possibility that an empowered legislature would play a more active role in shaping cross-strait policy.

The crowd at a DPP rally in Taipei. Photo by Julia Famularo.

The KMT’s defeat will undoubtedly shape the future course of Taiwan’s mainland policy. There have been obvious signs of tension between the “elders” of the party and some of its younger members regarding its “mainland-friendly” posture, such as support for the 1992 Consensus. The Party’s defeat in this year’s election may be a force that will change the leadership and/or orientation of the party to one less positive in its attitude toward the mainland.

Finally, there is the question of the relationship between the election results and public opinion in Taiwan. In its initial reaction, the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing claimed that the “The DPP can by no means represent the mainstream public opinion on the island.” However, the results seem to confirm the consistent results of public opinion surveys—that the Taiwan population overwhelmingly supports the status quo, although with different futures. It is worth considering, however, whether the diffusion of power in the government might affect those options in terms of the island’s relationship with China and the United States.

Two themes related to this issue were present in the presidential campaign. The first was Ko Wen-je’s argument for reducing the extent of the lean toward the United States, and improving relations with the mainland. The second was yi mei lun (疑美论), or “skepticism” about the United States, which depicted the support from Washington as self-serving and detrimental to Taiwan’s interests.

Ultimately, the impact of the election results will depend on the actions of the other actors in the strategic triangle. Whether Beijing might be moved by this new three-party structural change to take advantage of the policy environment in Taipei and introduce greater flexibility into its currently unattractive cross-Strait policy, or whether the American elections will produce a new administration in Washington, all obviously remains to be seen.

A banner for DPP legislative candidate Hsieh Pei-fen, emphasizing her Hakka ethnic heritage and education background, at a January 8, 2024 rally. Photo by Julia Famularo.

The Youth Vote: A Wake Up Call for the DPP

by Ya-Wen Lei, Professor of Sociology, Harvard University

I had the privilege to stay in Taiwan for a month during the winter break, which allowed me to observe this year’s elections firsthand. In contrast to the 2020 elections, when President Tsai Ing-wen was seeking reelection, the general public viewed this election cycle with a degree of uncertainty. Voters, regardless of their political affiliations, experienced significant anxiety over the last year. Some were concerned that Taiwan’s democracy might be at risk if the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, Lai Ching-te, was not elected. Others hoped to see changes in domestic policies and shifts in U.S.-China-Taiwan relations. In the end, the results matched the predictions of the Taiwanese political scientists with whom I spoke before the elections.

Having grown up during Taiwan’s democratization process, I have confidence in Taiwan’s democracy. Nevertheless, given global concerns about democratic backsliding, notably in the United States, I’ve been reminded that democracy should not be taken for granted. It’s encouraging to observe the strength of democratic institutions in Taiwan. The transparency and efficiency of the election process are testaments to the dedication of poll workers and the engagement of citizens. After the election, both Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Hou Yu-ih and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) candidate Ko Wen-je graciously conceded defeat.

“Given global concerns about democratic backsliding…I’ve been reminded that democracy should not be taken for granted.”

Some influencers who supported Ko, however, have begun to raise doubts about the integrity of the electoral process, suggesting possible fraud. The Central Election Commission responded to these claims with appropriate legal measures. Ko himself later stated that election rigging is highly improbable in Taiwan due to the strength of its democratic system. The widespread trust in Taiwan’s electoral system is a clear indication of the people’s continuous dedication. The experiences in the United States highlight how crucial it is for Taiwanese to maintain the perceived integrity of their electoral process. The challenge is compounded by the need for Taiwan’s legal system to address the threats posed by social media and generative AI in disseminating disinformation and misinformation, while also protecting freedom of speech. This issue will gain increasing significance in the future and will require concerted efforts to fortify the legal framework across all political parties. Such institution-building will benefit Taiwan’s democracy as a whole, rather than specific parties.

 Popular pop-punk band Fire EX perform “Unnamed Hero / Let Me Stand Up Like a Taiwanese” at a DPP rally in Taipei on January 11, 2024. Photo by Julia Famularo.

The most intriguing aspect of this election has been the role of young voters, particularly in light of the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement, when Taiwan’s young people protested against the KMT’s policy towards China and the passing of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement under President Ma Ying-jeou. This movement contributed to the KMT’s defeat in the 2016 presidential and legislative elections and to the emergence of a third force in politics. What surprised me most in this election was Ko Wen-je’s popularity among young voters and the rise of the TPP. This bump in the TPP’s popularity clearly rests on Ko’s charisma, but his ascent also highlights the DPP’s limitations in constructing a satisfactory alternative to the KMT’s economic model, which emphasizes integration with China.

Despite the DPP’s presidential victory, waning support in both the presidential and legislative elections should be a wake-up call. The youth expect the DPP to competently handle U.S.-China-Taiwan relations and address domestic issues like low wages, long work hours, unaffordable housing, growing social inequality, sustainable energy policy, and the limitations of Taiwan’s industrial structure. That Taiwan’s GDP per capita has grown during President Tsai’s tenure doesn’t necessarily mean all social groups have benefited equally, and despite their differences, neither the DPP nor KMT has successfully proposed and implemented policies to resolve these challenges. Young voters are unwilling to let the Chinese military threat excuse the DPP’s lack of action on domestic issues. In other words, the DPP’s approach to these concerns will be pivotal in future elections.

Cartoon likenesses/”mascots” of Lai Ching-te (left) Hsieh Pei-fen (middle), and Bi-khim Hsiao (right) stand on stage beside the real Hsieh. Photo by Julia Famularo.

Domestic Issues Ruled the Day

by Wei-Ting Yen, Assistant Professor of Government, Franklin & Marshall College

The global community is keenly observing Taiwan’s January election due to its profound implications for international relations, particularly between the United States and China, and for regional stability. Many international observers view this election as a binary choice: either the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wins, signaling a continuing downturn in the China-Taiwan relations, or the Kuomintang (KMT) secures victory, suggesting a more engagement-oriented approach with China. For the international community, this election is about China. However, when I interact with local Taiwanese people, there’s a noticeable discrepancy – they seldom mention China when discussing the election. How can we understand this gap? What explains the difference between the perspectives of the international community and those of Taiwanese voters? Is China not a significant factor in this election?

The answer is both yes and no. Undoubtedly, China plays a significant role. Ever Since Taiwan’s first presidential election in 1996, China and identity-related cleavage have been driving how Taiwanese voters behave at the ballot box. During this election, the cross-strait issue is also the most important point of contention during presidential debates. That being said, nearly three decades post-democratization, a robust Taiwanese identity has emerged. Regarding cross-strait matters, the majority of Taiwanese currently favor maintaining the status quo. Public opinion acts as a constraining force on presidential candidates in Taiwan. As we saw in this electoral cycle, all presidential candidates converge to the median voter’s preference, which is to uphold the status quo. At a glance, the cross-strait policies of all parties seem alike, as each adheres to the ROC constitution and pledges to preserve Taiwan’s current state. Essentially, to be electable, candidates must adopt a “pro-Taiwan” stance. Thus, while the election revolves around China, Taiwanese voters are not faced with a simple binary choice.

“When I interact with local Taiwanese people, there’s a noticeable discrepancy – they seldom mention China when discussing the election.”

Because there is no existential crisis (like the Hong Kong factor in the 2020 election), the DPP and the KMT roughly hold onto their core voter bases. Many Taiwanese voters, particularly the younger ones without strong party affiliations and who see all parties upholding similar commitments to the ROC constitution and preserving the status quo, shift their primary voting considerations away from the China factor. Instead, they focus on domestic socio-economic issues (e.g., high housing prices and low wage issues) and on imposing more checks and balances on Taiwan’s democratic system. Many of their votes go to the newly founded Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). In a sense, their voting behavior begins to resemble that of voters in mature democratic nations: No political party should hold onto power for too long.

All I am trying to say is that while elections are of significant interest to the international community and the world, they may not carry the same weight for Taiwanese voters. For many domestic voters, it’s merely another election. From this perspective, many Taiwanese voters are not as wary about this election as the international community, and this may be the best evidence that democracy has taken deep root in Taiwan. However, the paradox is that Taiwan is not a ‘normal’ country. Every election still holds implications for the future of statehood. As part of China’s periphery, China continues to cast a significant shadow over every election in Taiwan, despite the voters’ reluctance to consider the China factor, and this will remain Taiwan’s destiny for the foreseeable future.

(Left to right) Seth Gurgel, Michael Szonyi, Randall Nadeau, Sara Newland, Meg Rithmire, and Tom Gold at the Central Election Commission on election night.

Democracy Wins—But Uncertainty Looms Large

by Meg Rithmire, F. Warren MacFarlan Associate Professor of Business, Government, and International Economy, Harvard Business School

The election in Taiwan this month was free, fair, and orderly, with all sides accepting outcomes with grace and finality. Central Election Commission Headquarters on Saturday night were calm and bureaucratic; workers answered phones and ate fruit as precinct results came in and count totals were updated alongside various TV screens tuned to Taiwan’s many news stations, all with the same results. But the sense of routine and structure did not mean the elections were void of emotion. A few hours before we visited the central headquarters, we watched the votes at a local precinct as they were tallied aloud and by hand, standing next to local citizens elderly and school-aged as they, too, observed democracy in action in Taiwan with a sense of awe and pride.

“The island’s politics, like politics everywhere, are shifting.”

The result, of course, was a strong presidential win for the DPP, the party that fought for Taiwan’s open society from the opposition and now competes as the incumbent government. The island’s politics, like politics everywhere, are shifting: the third-party candidate, an outsider centrist, received over a quarter of the vote and saw his party gain seats in the Legislative Yuan. He had tremendous enthusiasm from young voters, a sign that the classic cleavage between the KMT and DPP is not enough for Taiwan’s next generations, who think in terms well beyond the relationship with China. In conversations with voters and members of the business community, I was unsurprised to learn that uncertainty about Taiwan’s future looms large. Nonetheless, amidst uncertainty about China’s intentions, resolve in the U.S., and the economic place of Taiwan, it is worth celebrating that the procedures through which people in Taiwan select their leaders are decidedly certain.

A billboard of the “Save Wang Squad” campaign, featuring legislators Wang Yi-chuan (middle) and Lin I-Chin (right) with political commentator Lee Cheng-hao (left). Photo by Julia Famularo.

Economic Diversification and Defense Reform Will Likely Continue

by Dr. Julia Famularo, Postdoctoral Fellow in Taiwan Studies, Harvard University  

Throughout the election campaign, Lai Ching-te and Hsiao Bi-khim made it clear that they would continue to lean toward and seek deeper cooperation with key democratic partners as they safeguard Taiwan’s robust democratic society and freedoms. Their administration’s policies will inevitably influence the trajectory of Taiwan’s security landscape by shaping Taiwan’s deterrence posture, national defense readiness, and ultimately, its ability to counter an increasingly aggressive PRC all-domain pressure campaign.

Here are some key takeaways from my recent article for the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Initiative, “Choose the Right Person, Choose the Right Path”: Taiwan’s Cross-Strait, National Security, and Defense Policies Under a Lai/Hsiao Administration:  

  • The incoming William Lai/Bi-khim Hsiao administration almost certainly intends to continue to execute and deepen President Tsai’s defense reforms. Lai has also stated his support for the implementation of an Indo-Pacific Strategy concept.
  • Lai has an opportunity to leverage the national security experience of President Tsai’s outgoing advisors, who may potentially help his administration calibrate Taiwan’s responses to People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military provocations in and around the Taiwan Strait.  
  • The Lai administration likely would prove receptive to U.S. and partner overtures that contribute to Taiwan’s ability to strengthen its maritime domain awareness and security; enhance maritime law enforcement and search and rescue capabilities; conduct maritime patrols; and improve information sharing.
  • Lai intends to maintain the cross-Strait status quo, and has stated that he is willing to conduct dialogue with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the basis of mutual respect and equality.
  • Lai almost certainly will seek to continue President Tsai Ing-wen’s policy of diversifying Taiwan’s economy and expanding sustainable trade partnerships with democratic nations. He has stated that overdependence on the PRC leaves Taiwan vulnerable to economic coercion, and thus opposes pursuing further economic agreements with China under the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) or a potential Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement (CSTSA).