Even a political scientist could be forgiven for yawning over the results of Taiwan’s Jan. 13 elections. The outcome was plausibly predictable; Taiwan has an advanced election polling industry, and although media outlets are not allowed to release the results of new polls during the 10 days before an election, the candidates who consistently led the many surveys held throughout campaign season did indeed become victors on election day.
Vice President Lai Ching-te emerged victorious in the presidential election with 40.05% of the vote. As the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, Lai is the successor to term-restricted President Tsai Ing-wen. He won alongside running mate Hsiao Bi-khim, a former Taiwanese ambassador to the United States. Main opposition Kuomingtang (KMT) candidate Hou Yu-ih received 33.49% of the vote, while Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) candidate Ko Wen-je finished with 26.46%.
Robust Democratic Process
The outcome of the presidential race was clear fairly early on. Moreover, voting eligibility and registration rules made the outcome publicly transparent, and thus provided fewer opportunities for conspiracy theories and other antidemocratic shenanigans to take hold. After shaking off the authoritarian regime of Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo nearly four decades ago, Taiwan established democratic safeguards to protect against both the KMT’s ballot box stuffing under Chiang and the hostile influence of the Chinese Communist Party across the straits.
In Taiwan, ballots exist only on paper. Each one is read aloud and counted in front of public observers at the government polling station where it is cast. For Taiwan’s population of 23 million, there are 17,795 polling stations on an island slightly larger than Maryland or Switzerland. Since there is no absentee or early voting, Taiwanese voters must return to their registered precinct to cast their ballots, causing hundreds of thousands to flood the public rail system on election day and thousands to fly back to Taiwan from overseas.
Some of the legislative contests faced much closer margins, but even these outcomes were fairly predictable. Still, they were disappointing to the ruling DPP; it will lose its majority in the island’s unicameral legislature, known as the Legislative Yuan, and must now try to form an alliance with its rivals in order to promote its progressive agenda.
What Voters Want
Foreign observers have largely focused on the elections’ implications for China and the United States. But for the Taiwanese people, public polling consistently showed that the economy was the most important electoral issue. Young Taiwanese people are particularly concerned about low wages, rising housing costs, and the costs of child and older adult care as the population ages and shrinks. Access to convenient, low-cost public services proved to be another significant issue. Taiwan is one of the more recent democracies to establish universal health care, but it is broadly popular across generations.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for political observers, Taipei’s largest election day rally was led by the TPP — a party formed five years ago that appeals to voters generally fed up with the economic, social, and cultural policies of both the DPP and the KMT, which ruled Taiwan for much of its history. With the DPP’s seat count in the Legislative Yuan shrinking to 51 in January’s elections and the KMT’s count growing to 52, the TPP has become a potential kingmaker in the 113-person unicameral legislature, with its five seats growing to eight. There are two additional, independent legislators.
Since the new legislature will be sworn in several months before Lai and Hsiao, the Legislative Yuan could become the primary arena for major change in foreign and domestic policy in the interim. For example, it could act to change the minimum wage, reform the public services system, or promote energy security.The Taiwanese people are deeply divided on all of these issues.
Any such increase in legislative action will surely have to account for the unpredictable character of Ko, the TPP’s charismatic, nontraditional candidate and leader. A physician and medical school professor who became mayor of Taipei in 2014, Ko is also an accomplished social commentator who understands that the nature of political leadership must change to keep up with shifts in lifestyles, media consumption, and public relations.
However, Ko is relatively inexperienced in national party politics — a factor that likely worked against him when he accepted the KMT’s offer last November to run against Lai on a joint ticket between the TPP and the KMT. Negotiations broke down over how to determine whether he or Hou would be the presidential contender. In retrospect, the failure to successfully negotiate a new opposition alliance likely handed the victory to Lai. Even so, it is clear that Taiwan, like democracies elsewhere, is seeing the rise of new, populist politicians like Ko.
Changing Political Identity
The 2024 elections also signal that political identity is changing in Taiwan, as it is in other democracies. According to Taiwanese political science surveys, in 1992, 25% of Taiwanese residents identified as Chinese only, 46% identified as both Taiwanese and Chinese, and 17% identified as Taiwanese only. The ratios have since flipped: In 2023, 62% of Taiwanese residents identified as Taiwanese only, while 30% identified as both Taiwanese and Chinese and only 2% identified as Chinese only. Taiwanese nationalism has gone from being in the closet to being open and proud.
Beijing has already signaled it will continue to oppose Taiwan’s DPP leadership and consider Lai a leader who is pushing for international recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign state. But it cannot ignore the fact that Lai’s ability to effect formal independence is constitutionally constrained and that independence would ultimately have to be decided on by the Taiwanese people themselves. In selecting Lai, Taiwanese voters have indicated they want to stay the course with the DPP’s existing positions on Taiwan-China relations.
We cannot know what ultimately factors into the decision-making of Chinese President Xi Jinping. But we do know that since coming to control the Chinese Communist Party, Xi has consistently misjudged the popular will of the Taiwanese people — and the people of Hong Kong, the people of the many countries that border China, and even his close trade partners, particularly Australia and Canada. Most of the world’s countries, including many of its democracies, will go to the polls this year to determine national and legislative leadership. For Xi, the lesson to be learned from the Taiwanese elections should be that threats, bullying, and interference in democratic affairs is a resounding failure of a strategy.
New National Image
Taiwan’s 2024 elections are also a reminder to its friends and allies around the world, including the U.S., that they likely need to update their conceptualization of the island democracy. With the elections giving the DPP and the KMT a nearly equivalent number of seats in the legislature, smaller, more diverse interests now stand a better chance of impacting national policy. These interests might include groups who have felt excluded from national discourses, or, for example, Taiwan’s LGBTQ+ community. Given that Taiwan became one of the few countries in Asia to recognize formally LGBTQ+ marriages in 2023, it is not so surprising that the 2024 elections brought its first openly lesbian legislator, Kaohsiung’s Huang Jie.
In the past, these interest groups formed around small political parties; nearly 20 parties competed in national elections in recent years. But with some of them losing representation in the Legislative Yuan, the TPP has grown into a catch-all party for the disaffected under the leadership of Ko, a plausible presidential contender. Ko will have to move quickly and nimbly to embrace the interests represented by the supporters of these smaller parties; otherwise, the DPP or the KMT will try to bring them into their own orbit.
Indigenous interests could also play a kingmaker role in Taiwan’s government. When Tsai gives her Lunar New Year’s Eve presidential address on Feb. 9, she will probably close, as she has done in past addresses, with wishes for the good health and prosperity of all Taiwanese people, speaking in the island’s four official and most commonly spoken languages: Mandarin Chinese, Hokkien, Hakka, Eastern Min — and English. Lai will likely continue the use of these languages during his term. But he might also decide to start using less commonly spoken Formosan or other indigenous Taiwanese languages to signal that he intends to be more inclusive as he forms a national coalition; this could make that big tent seem that much larger. He may also have more of an incentive to do so if Vice President-elect Hsiao continues her push to expand the study of indigenous languages.
All of the qualities that made Hsiao a very influential representative of Taiwan in the U.S. also make her the most visible face of a new generation of Taiwanese leaders. She is multilingual and biracial, has led international civic organizations, and had dual U.S. citizenship until she had to renounce it to enter Taiwanese politics. These same attributes also make Hsiao a target of some of China’s most vitriolic attacks on Taiwanese democracy.
Viewing from afar, American politicians, diplomats, and journalists may need to study more to stay up to date on the increasing inclusiveness and diversity of Taiwanese national politics — or risk sounding like a clueless ally. Perhaps they can reassure themselves that this will be good practice for the day China follows Taiwan’s lead and becomes a richly diverse, functionally multilingual, and competitive multiparty democracy?
 Raymond Kuo, “Why Taiwan’s Voters Defied Beijing—Again,” Journal of Democracy, January 2024, https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/elections/why-taiwans-voters-defied-beijing-again/; Shih Yu (Elsie) Hung, “New President, Nuclear Energy, and Net Zero: How Will Taiwan Vote on Its Energy Future?” (Houston: Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, December 21, 2023), https://doi.org/10.25613/Y995-CC59.
 Chris Buckley and Amy Chang Chien, “Taiwan Opposition Cracks Apart, and Invites the Cameras In,” New York Times, November 24, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/24/world/asia/taiwan-president-opposition-collapse.html.
 “Taiwanese / Chinese Identity(1992/06~2023/06),” Election Study Center, National Chengchi University, last updated July 12, 2023, https://esc.nccu.edu.tw/PageDoc/Detail?fid=7800&id=6961.
 “Hsiao Bi-khim Promotes Speaking Aboriginal Languages, Taiwanese,” Pinyin News (blog), Pinyin.info, December 23, 2023, https://pinyin.info/news/2023/hsiao-bi-khim-promotes-speaking-aboriginal-languages-taiwanese/.
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