Politics & Law

A win for Lai but prospects for LY uncertain

16 January, 2024

Lai Ching-te had a comfortable win in Taiwan’s three-way 2024 presidential election but with no party winning a majority in the legislature, it is uncertain how Lai’s policy agenda will fare


By Brian Hioe


The results of the 2024 presidential and legislative elections resulted in a divided slate in Taiwanese politics. No political party or camp had an overwhelming victory.


To be sure, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) held onto the presidency for an unprecedented third consecutive term. Lai Ching-te of the DPP won with 5.6 million votes, while Hou You-yi of the Kuomintang (KMT) won 4.7 million votes. Former Taipei mayor and Taiwan Peoples Party (TPP) candidate Ko Wen-je surprised by gaining a respectable 3.7 million votes, shrugging off a public debacle regarding the failure of the TPP and KMT to successfully negotiate joint presidential ticket a month prior.


In the legislature, the DPP was unable to win a majority, but it performed nearly dead even with the KMT. The DPP won 51 seats, while the KMT won 52 seats. The TPP did not win any local district races, but through the party list vote, it won eight seats. This shows that it remains difficult for third parties to win in district races, even if the party list allows for smaller political parties to secure representation in the legislature.


The DPP likely expected this outcome and was planning ahead for it. The Chen Shui-bian presidency, which was the first time that a non-KMT president held power in Taiwanese history, offers precedents as to what can still be accomplished without control of the legislature. The KMT still tends to do better in local elections, even if its cross-strait stance may be what undercuts it in national elections. Compared to other political systems, the executive branch of government in Taiwan is comparatively powerful, given its ability to propose bills.


In the meantime, as many predicted, the TPP will potentially control the balance of power in the Taiwanese legislature. However, if it hopes to do this, it cannot simply side with the KMT on all issues, otherwise it would become a “little blue” party mostly indistinguishable from the KMT except for it being a smaller party.


Yet while the TPP kept the door open to the KMT for cooperating in the presidential and vice presidential debates, the first challenge that the party faces may be whether to endorse the KMT’s probable attempt to make its 2020 presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu, the speaker of the Legislative Yuan.


Han was defeated by Tsai by historically large margins and then recalled from his position as mayor of Kaohsiung by even larger margins, something that attests to his checkered reputation. In spite of this, he remains highly popular among some in the KMT, hence why he was placed number one on the KMT party list.


This will be the TPP’s first challenge in its relationship with the KMT, then. If the party has tried to brand itself as different from the KMT but still part of the pan-Green camp, simply backing Han may jeopardize this image.


It is less clear as to what the outlook for the KMT going forward will be. For example, the party chair of political parties in Taiwan usually resigns to take responsibility for losses. It is unclear whether being defeated in the presidential race, but making gains in the legislature is sufficient for the current KMT leadership to avoid a spate of resignations, with some calls for chair Eric Chu to resign. If this takes place, this would open a power vacuum in the party that is very likely to be filled by Jaw Shaw-kong’s “Fighting Blues” or Han Kuo-yu’s base of support.


As for the DPP, it is still unclear who will be Lai’s first premier, and the DPP’s future policy direction is also still unclear as a result. During Tsai’s remaining term–the so-called “lame duck” period–it is not impossible that the DPP will try to push through some aspects of its agenda in recognition that this will not be so easy in the future legislature.


Several incidents that occurred shortly before voting day could have impacted the election.


The first involved a Chinese satellite launch that triggered the nationwide alert system. Causing confusion, however, was that the Chinese language used for the alert referred to a satellite launch, while the English referred to a missile launch.


Afterwards, the KMT accused the DPP of instigating the confusion to stoke fears about China. This follows suit from previous accusations by KMT vice presidential candidate Jaw Shaw-kong that a CNN report about Taiwanese band Mayday experiencing Chinese pressure was fabricated by the Tsai administration. At the same time, such attacks by the pan-Blue camp are a tacit acknowledgement of how the pan-Green camp is seen as benefiting from a sense of the Chinese threat in Taiwanese society, one reason why the pan-Blue camp may downplay such threats.

A second incident that likely impacted the KMT was comments in an interview by former President Ma Ying-jeou to German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle in which Ma called for faith in Chinese president Xi Jinping. Ma further suggested that his view was that the majority of Taiwanese still hoped for unification and called for the reduction of the military budget to avoid provoking China.


With the KMT hoping to depict the DPP as dangerously pro-independence and itself as moderate, framing itself as opposed to both One Country, Two Systems such as implemented in Hong Kong and Taiwanese independence, Ma’s interview was an unexpected curveball for the Hou campaign. Hou sought to distance himself from such comments immediately, claiming to have different views from Ma, and Ma not being invited to the KMT’s final election rally.


Had the incident occurred earlier in campaigning, Hou could have potentially used the incident to try and sideline Ma, while using this to position himself as more moderate and not, in fact, pro-unification in the manner of Ma. But at the late stage of campaigning, the comments were potentially seen as a mask-off moment for the KMT–certainly, this was how the DPP framed it in the attacks that followed.


In the aftermath of the elections, some questions remain to be clarified. For example, it is clear that the TPP has managed to attract a support base that to a large extent consists of young people.


Nevertheless, it is unclear as to why such young people back the TPP. This largely seems to be due to Ko’s popularity among young people in terms of his political persona. After all, Ko’s many misogynistic statements and even homophobic comments are at odds with views among young people when Taiwan saw a wave of #MeToo allegations after hit television program Wave Makers, which dramatized Taiwanese politics, and when polls show support for gay marriage, especially among young people. Likewise, polls show that Taiwanese identity continues to be on the rise, hence it is unusual that young people back Ko when he proposes reviving the controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement that provoked the 2014 Sunflower Movement.


Although the TPP will have a role to play in Taiwanese politics for at least the next four years, it is still somewhat unclear as to whether the party’s future is reducible to Ko’s political career. The TPP saw many missteps in the late stage of campaigning, which are thought to be the result of Ko’s leadership, including the debacle regarding the party’s failure to negotiate a joint ticket with the KMT. As there have been preceding waves of anger in which Ko’s misogynistic comments stoked public backlash, it is not unthinkable that in the future Ko says something that leads to lasting public anger, or that his views are suddenly thrown into relief for his current support base.


In the meantime, despite its inability to win elections in past years, the KMT is far from broken as a political force either. The KMT still faces fundamental structural issues that raise questions about its long-term viability as a political party, such as its lack of popularity among young people.


Several years ago, the KMT made international headlines for having less than 9,000 party members under 40 and though the party claims to have made headway in recent years in appealing to the youth, it is not clear that the party still has a long-term future. Yet given that Taiwan is set to soon become a “Super-Aged” society and voter turnout among young people is declining, having the support of the elderly may paradoxically be more important than the support of the young right now.


The KMT had a contorted campaign in which Hou You-yi stumbled immediately out of the gate despite polling highly in national approval ratings as New Taipei mayor. The KMT campaign picked up much steam after media personality and firebrand Jaw Shaw-kong became Hou’s running mate.


But this in itself reflects the KMT’s ideological confusion at present, in that Hou was known as a moderate on cross-strait issues and Jaw as a starkly pro-unification hardliner, and still the two ended up on the same presidential ticket–raising questions as to what direction the KMT would take if it won. That this did not prevent it from gaining 4.7 million votes is a sign that the KMT is not finished as a political force either.


The DPP will have its work cut out for it, then. The DPP clearly needs more compelling candidates or narratives if it does not hope to see a loss four years down the line.


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

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