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Taiwan's 2024 Presidential Election: Amid the Division, a Third Wave Emerges

06 Dec 2023
By Dr Kai-Ping Huang
Lai-Ching te at Meet Taipei event. Source: Official Photo by I Chen Lin / Office of the President /

After months of speculation, three political parties have officially announced their candidates for the 2024 presidential election in Taiwan: the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the Kuomintang (KMT), and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).

The DPP, the current ruling party, has nominated Vice President Lai Ching-te and his running mate, former ambassador to the United States Bi-Khim Hsiao. The KMT, the main opposition party, has nominated New Taipei City Mayor Hou Yu-ih and media mogul Jaw Shaw-kong as its presidential and vice presidential candidates. The TPP, a relatively new party that has gained popularity among young voters, has nominated former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-che and legislator Cynthia Wu as its presidential and vice presidential candidates. Ko, a surgeon-turned-politician and known for his independent streak and pragmatic approach, is seeking to challenge the two major parties and offer voters a fresh alternative.

For weeks, the opposition tried to avoid this three-way race through negotiations. Lai Ching-te is only leading in polls by 35 percent, but the simple plurality rule allows the DPP to win if the remaining votes are split between the opposition. The TPP’s surge in support also poses a serious challenge to the KMT’s hopes of regaining power. However, in a dramatic turn of events, the opposition’s attempt to unite behind a single candidate has fallen apart. In an initial agreement reached on 13 November, Ko agreed that he would step aside if polls showed he was not performing well. Yet, after polls showed Ko had the edge over Hou, the two sides disagreed on what constitutes a “statistically significant advantage,” leading to the breakdown of negotiations. The public’s hopes for a united opposition were further dashed on 23 November when a meeting between Ko, Hou, and Foxconn Founder Terry Gou ended in acrimony. While Ko criticised the KMT for prioritising its own interests over the wishes of the public, the KMT accused Ko and Gou of humiliating Hou by forcing him to be Ko’s running mate.

Despite the fact that the collapse of the alliance was predicted long before the negotiations began due to the different characteristics of KMT and TPP supporters, the result has made it more likely that the DPP will be re-elected for a third consecutive time. Yet, elections in Taiwan are not without surprises. The presence of Ko Wen-che and his TPP represents a wave of anti-establishment sentiment that has been gaining momentum across Western democracies. Ko’s popularity among young voters yearning for economic equality and social justice has led some foreign media to label him as a populist. However, his pragmatic approach aligns more closely with the populism of French President Emmanuel Macron, steering a centrist course between robust anti-establishment rhetoric and specific appeals to the electorate. The TPP’s central mission is to liberate the Taiwanese people from the ideological tug-of-war between the traditionally pro-independence DPP and the pro-unification KMT. Beyond attracting young voters, Ko and his party have also resonated with a significant segment of Independents who are disillusioned with the performance of the two major parties. In the minds of these voters, the DPP and KMT differ only in their stances on independence and unification, while failing to address pressing economic and social issues. Ko’s track record as Taipei mayor has earned him the endorsement of these voters, a force that neither the DPP nor the KMT can afford to ignore.

As Election Day draws closer, the three parties in Taiwan’s 2024 presidential race are gearing up for a fierce battle. In a significant departure from previous elections, the China factor is expected to play a less prominent role in this year’s campaign. All three candidates have embraced a cautious approach, advocating for maintaining the status quo of neither independence nor unification. This shift in stance reflects the growing fear of conflict with China, a sentiment that has compelled even pro-independence candidate Lai Ching-te to moderate his tone.

KMT, on the other hand, has seized upon the fear of war, emphasising its ability to maintain peace across the Taiwan Strait. The party has employed fear-mongering tactics to associate DPP rule with the prospect of conflict. However, the effectiveness of this strategy is questionable, given the recent thaw in US-China relations and Lai’s centrist shift. In addition to the China issue, the KMT has also focused on allegations of corruption and abuse of power within the DPP administration. The party has pledged to investigate these matters should it win the election. However, the KMT’s own track record on corruption has cast doubt on its ability to address these issues effectively.

TPP has also levelled corruption accusations against the DPP. However, the TPP has distinguished itself by proposing a range of policy solutions to address pressing issues such as rising housing prices, energy shortages, declining education quality, and the looming bankruptcy of health insurance and pension funds. Despite the TPP’s policy proposals, its efforts have been overshadowed by negative campaigns orchestrated by the DPP and KMT. These attacks, often amplified by mainstream media outlets allied with the two major parties, have focused on Ko Wen-che’s gaffes and personal shortcomings, diverting attention from the TPP’s substantive policy agenda.

As the election nears, the three parties will continue to engage in fierce battles over issue ownership and personal attacks. The China factor, while still present, may not play a decisive role in the outcome. The KMT’s reliance on fear-mongering tactics may prove ineffective, while the TPP’s policy proposals risk being overlooked amid the mudslinging. Ultimately, the outcome of the election will hinge on the ability of each party to mobilise its base, address the concerns of undecided voters, and navigate the increasingly divided Taiwanese electorate. Nevertheless, the TPP’s emergence in this election has injected a fresh dynamic into the political arena, challenging the traditional two-party dominance and offering a new voice to those seeking change. While the party’s path to victory may be challenging, its presence underscores the growing desire for a more inclusive and responsive political system in Taiwan.

Kai-Ping Huang is Associate Professor of Political Science at the National Taiwan University. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.