Keys to the elections in Taiwan: who are the candidates and what is at stake in a vote that China is closely following

In a year full of elections, the presidential election of a small archipelago of 24 million inhabitants is going to have a great impact. Voters in Taiwan elect their new president this Saturday, an election that will define the relationship between the two main world superpowers for the coming years.

Although it has never ruled over Taiwan, the Communist Party of China (CPC) claims the territory as part of the People’s Republic of China and does not rule out the use of force to achieve the goal of “reunification.” But in the archipelago there are more and more people who consider themselves Taiwanese, not Chinese, and do not want to know anything about Beijing.

Although the nature and extent of the aid remains unclear, the United States has pledged to support Taiwan in the event of an attempted invasion by China. It is the so-called policy of “strategic ambiguity” that has made Taiwan one of the greatest points of tension in relations between Washington and Beijing.

Choosing the candidate who will maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait is an existential question for voters in the archipelago, although China is not the only issue of concern for many Taiwanese. Whatever the outcome of this Saturday’s vote, the repercussions will be felt throughout the region.

Who are the candidates?

The favorite is Lai Ching-te, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and vice president of current President Tsai Ing-wen, forced to leave office due to legislation that limits the number of terms. Lai represents the option of continuity alongside her candidate for the vice presidency, Taiwan’s former envoy to the United States Hsiao Bi-Khim.

The PDP believes that. to maintain the current status quo of peace, Taiwan must build stronger relations on the world stage, and especially with the United States. Some analysts believe that Lai is not as beloved in Washington as Tsai or Hsiao, one of the possible reasons for choosing Hsiao as vice president despite the fact that she is subject to sanctions from Beijing. The Chinese government openly despises Lai, calling him a “complete troublemaker.”

The main opposition candidate is the former police officer and popular mayor of New Taipei Hou You-yi, member of the conservative Kuomintang (KMT) party. The KMT, which has long struggled with an image of elitism, hopes Hou’s working-class roots will appeal to a wide range of voters as the party struggles to unite its older base with young Taiwanese.

But that everyman image is also Hou’s weak spot when the question arises about the foreign policy experience needed to maintain Taiwan’s delicate balance between China and the United States.

Hou maintains that increasing economic ties and opening dialogue with China is the best way to preserve peace, although he has rejected the idea of ​​Taiwan independence and the “one country, two systems” model that the Chinese Communist Party has suggested. , which has left some voters unsure of what exactly he thinks about the China question.

The novelty in the presidential race is Ko Wen-jeof the newly created Taiwan People’s Party (PPTW).

Ko is a popular former mayor of Taipei who worked as a surgeon until his entry into politics in 2014. Taking advantage of his scientific background, Ko has tried to present himself as a technocrat, a person competent to occupy the position of presidency.

But the allusion to his medical credentials has not always had good results. In October he caused outrage when he compared the relationship between China and Taiwan to treating prostate cancer. Prostate cancer patients often live well for many years, she said, while removing the prostate “can lead to even more rapid death.” The metaphor was supposed to underline the importance of coexisting with the enemy, but it received a lot of criticism (also, from the Taiwan Urological Association).

Although Ko says that on the issue of China the PPTW represents a “middle way” between the positions of the PDP and the KMT, the truth is that its policies are more similar to those of the KMT.

What are the main problems?

How to deal with China has become the dominant issue in the final stretch of the campaign. Taiwan has long lived under the threat of invasion, but tensions have increased in recent years, due to the increased intensity of China’s military maneuvers and reports from US spy services that China might be able to annex Taiwan within the next ten years.

Both China and Taiwan’s KMT party present the vote as a choice between war and peace. But they are arguments that on other occasions have failed to scare away PPD voters. When the DPP’s Tsai was re-elected in 2020 with a clear lead, the repression of democracy in Hong Kong was one of the topics of debate. A warning to Taiwan, Tsai said then, that in December 2023 she repeated the message during a rally for Lai’s presidential candidacy. “We don’t want a Hong Kong-style peace; “We want a dignified peace,” said the outgoing president.

For the KMT’s Hou, voting for the DPP would be equivalent to “sending everyone to the battlefield” because it will provoke war with China.

Compared to other parts of the world, Taiwan’s inflation has been low (2.92% in November) but many people feel that life has become too expensive. More than a third of the population maintains that economic growth is the most pressing problem for the next president, making the issue the main issue for voters.

Both Lai and Hou have promised to raise the minimum wage, something especially important to young voters. According to Hou, the PDP has not been able to improve living standards. In his program, the KMT candidate includes new social policies, such as an increase in the number of publicly funded daycare centers and help for young people who want to buy their home.

But even debates about economics end up devolving into discussions about foreign policy. “The economic challenges facing Taiwan, and the proposed solutions, cannot be completely separated from the relationship with China,” says Bonnie Glaser, a Taiwan expert and director of the American think tank German Marshall Fund.

Taiwan is a small rocky archipelago whose energy depends almost 97% on imports, a circumstance that makes it especially vulnerable to possible supply disruptions. For many voters, energy security is a key concern following massive blackouts that in 2017, 2019 and 2022 affected millions of homes.

Although Taiwan’s government has set targets to increase them, current gas, coal and oil reserves would last about 200 days in the event of a Chinese blockade. Hence, there is once again talk of reviving the nuclear energy program, which had lost importance since Tsai came to power in 2016. According to the government’s plans, the last nuclear power plant that is still operational will stop producing energy in 2025. .

Hou has promised to rebuild Taiwan’s nuclear power capacity, but a 2021 referendum that voted against resuming construction of a nuclear power plant suggests many voters remain skeptical.

What do the elections in Taiwan mean for China?

Beijing is closely following the vote and is expected to increase pressure on the island in the coming days. “The reunification of the motherland is a historic inevitability,” said Chinese President Xi Jinping in his New Year’s speech. The CCP still expects to achieve its objective through political and economic pressure, rather than through an all-out war. In Taiwan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is documenting China’s attempts to interfere in the elections and has already announced that it will publish its analyzes after the vote.

According to Tim Niven, research director at the Taipei-based NGO Doublethink Lab, “psychological warfare [de China] over a long period it is influencing local political discourse and the background narrative.”

In a newsletter Recently, China analyst Bill Bishop considered an immediate military attack by China unlikely in the event of a Lai victory, but added that one should not be surprised “if Beijing does not wait until the inauguration in May to start taking action.” One possible response, he suggested, is suspension of the 2010 trade agreement that has been the subject of recent disputes. Some analysts also predict an increase in China’s military exercises around the island.

Whoever wins this Saturday’s elections, the relationship with Washington will not be defined until November, when the result of the US presidential elections is known. Taiwan’s January elections will set the global geopolitical tone for 2024, but much remains at stake.

Translation by Francisco de Zárate.

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