Politics & Law

Will the 2024 election be like 2000?

24 May, 2023

With three candidates already in the race to be Taiwan’s next president and the possibility of others joining, this election has echoes of the past


By Brian Hioe


The 2024 election seems set to repeat some of the dynamics seen in the past few decades in Taiwanese electoral politics. Ultimately, the outcome of the election may depend on how some of these dynamics may play out.


In particular, the pan-Blue camp seems set to see at least two (and possibly more) candidates. Though it is not impossible that one will see a last-minute protest candidate or a challenge by the New Power Party (NPP), by contrast, the pan-Green camp has united relatively quickly behind current vice president and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate William Lai.


After much back and forth, the Kuomintang (KMT) settled on New Taipei mayor Hou Yu-ih as its presidential candidate. Hou was by far the KMT’s strongest possible choice, as polling has attested to for quite some time.


Nevertheless, the KMT did not select Hou as its candidate through an open primary, which Hou would have likely won anyway. Instead, the KMT decided on its candidate through a closed nomination process by the party leadership.


At the time, this was largely seen as an attempt by KMT chair Eric Chu to shut Hou out of becoming the KMT’s presidential nomination. Though Chu ran for president in 2016 unsuccessfully and also sought the KMT’s 2020 presidential nomination, it was generally thought that he also hoped to run again for 2024.


To shut out Hou, Chu seemed to align with members of the KMT establishment who distrusted the New Taipei mayor. Part of this distrust seemed to be due to Hou’s moderate stances on cross-Strait politics, the fact that during previous points in his career he was close with the DPP as well as his background as a benshengren (locally born).


Yet Chu’s chances receded after Foxconn founder Terry Gou again threw his hat into the race for 2024. Though this required Gou to apologize for previously withdrawing from the KMT, the closed process was thought to benefit Gou because he could potentially negotiate a position as a compromise candidate between Hou and Chu.


Although Hou still ultimately became the KMT’s presidential candidate, an open primary process would have allowed him to accrue legitimacy and support in the party through a free and fair election process.


Gou promised that he would not challenge the KMT’s candidate as an independent if he lost the primary, despite having enough money to field his own challenge as one of Taiwan’s richest men.


But some claims from KMT legislators aligned with Gou suggest that he was misled to think he would be the KMT’s candidate in closed-door negotiations with Chu. Other rumours suggest that Gou could potentially be persuaded to serve as Hou’s vice presidential candidate. Yet if there are already claims from Gou’s political allies that he was snubbed in the nomination process, this could sow the seeds for splits in the KMT, or at least discourage Gou supporters from eventually voting for Hou.


Either way, the pan-Blue vote would have been split anyway, with former Taipei mayor and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) chair Ko Wen-je also set to run for president. There is some talk of electoral cooperation between the KMT and TPP with regard to fielding legislative candidates, but the bigger question is whether a Ko presidential run will split the pan-Blue vote in a way that results in a DPP victory, if a direct match-up between Lai and Hou could perhaps favour Hou.


Ko is unlikely to be dissuaded from running, having indicated that he hoped to run for president for years. Moreover, Ko currently holds no political office and would likely need to field a run in order to remain in the political limelight, as well as maintain the prestige necessary to continue to control the TPP. Yet if the pan-Blue vote could already be split through Gou challenging the KMT, or because Gou supporters feel disenfranchised after the KMT’s nomination process, Ko’s entrance to the race could further split the vote.


And, in the meantime, it is still unclear whether perennial pan-Blue third-party candidate James Soong of the People First Party will run. Soong has remained ambiguous about his plans, even as he has sought to dispel speculation that he could be in ill health due to his age.

Echoes of the past?

The most widely discussed scenario about how a split in the vote could result in an unexpected political outcome is with regard to Chen Shui-bian’s electoral victory in 2000. This was the first time that a non-KMT presidential candidate won the presidency, but this occurred because of a split vote in the pan-Blue camp, with Lien Chan competing against James Soong.


At the time, Soong was a viable political candidate that pulled in a solid 36.84% of the vote, which was more than Lien–the official KMT candidate–who won 23.10% of the vote. By the 2020 elections, Soong only pulled in 4.26% of the vote. But, the pertinent point to remember that is relevant to the present is that the reason why both Soong and Lien ran was because the KMT internal factions could not agree on their choice of candidate.


One could see a similar scenario unfolding this time around if the pan-Blue vote is split between Hou and Ko, or possibly some combination of Hou, Ko, Gou, and Soong. But although Ko polls highly, with around 20% according to some polls, his party likely lacks the resources and mobilization network to launch a competitive run.


Apart from needing to stay in the limelight, Ko is probably driven by similar motivations to Soong as to why he would run even if his chances of victory may be low. By running, Ko can boost the profile of his party, and assist with the odds of its other legislative candidates getting into office. Some questions have been raised, then, as to whether Ko could perhaps become the new James Soong in the future, with the TPP replacing Soong’s People First Party (PFP) as the major pan-Blue third party. Ko could be set to take on some of the dynamics historically associated with the PFP.


This also perhaps proves similar to how the rise of the NPP in 2016 effectively replaced the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) as the major pan-Green third party in successive election cycles. But, to this extent, the presence of third parties that challenge the two major parties in Taiwanese electoral cycles points to how third parties and independent candidates have always had the potential to influence election outcomes, even if this by acting as spoilers.


On the other side of the political aisle, the specter of the pan-Green vote being split came up ahead of 2020, when William Lai challenged Tsai for the DPP’s presidential nomination. Lai threw his hat into the race, likely fearing competition from Taoyuan mayor Cheng Wen-tsan, even if he could have otherwise positioned himself as a natural successor to Tsai.


But in the aftermath of the contention between Lai and Tsai, which eventually resulted in Tsai maintaining her position as the DPP’s presidential candidate, some Lai supporters felt disenfranchised and broke off from Tsai. This is part of the origin of deep Green splinter groups such as the Formosa Alliance or related groupings, which have continued to vehemently attack Tsai in the years since then, including embracing conspiracy theories about her dissertation being fake.


Yet the DPP seems to have learned its lesson from 2020, which explains why Lai ran unchallenged this time when he sought the DPP’s presidential nomination for 2024. Cheng withdrew rather than challenge Lai, with his reputation damaged by a plagiarism scandal and the failure of any of his successors to maintain control of Taoyuan. Nor did the DPP see any unexpected protest challenges against Lai.


Moreover, it is less likely that the NPP would challenge the DPP by fielding its own candidate, with the party having fragmented over the issue of whether to openly endorse Tsai or not in the lead-up to 2020. The weakened position of the party since then likely indicates that it is not in a position to challenge Tsai.


By contrast, the KMT seems to have not learned from either 2000 or through observing in-fighting in the pan-Green camp ahead of 2020. As such, though an open primary would have resulted in stronger unity in the party to rally behind Hou, with all quarters needing to accept the results, it is possible there will be bruised egos among party factions in the wake of closed-door contention between Gou, Hou, and Chu. It is also the case that there has already been in-fighting in the KMT over its choice of legislative candidates, with younger KMT politicians criticizing the party establishment for favouring individuals from influential families rather than competitive rising stars in the party.


Nor is the KMT in a position to dissuade Ko from running. This, too, differs from the DPP, which worked with the NPP in 2016, but not in 2020–the KMT by comparison does not have any experience of aligning with a fellow pan-Blue third party. The pan-Blue camp, then, can expect to be split ahead of 2024. Even if this does not rule out the possibility of a win for its candidate, it will certainly lower the KMT’s chances of securing the presidency.


Brian Hioe is a Taiwanese American writer, translator, and the founding editor of New Bloom


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