New Delhi: With Taiwanese elections underway Saturday, all eyes are on the island nation and its three main political parties — the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which believes in Taiwanese independence and is currently leading in opinion polls on the results, the Kuomintang (KMT), which favours closer China ties and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), a new entrant in the political scene.
China, Taiwan’s neighbour, plays an essential role in this election. Taiwan is separated from China’s southeastern coast by 160 km, but Beijing claims the island as its own, arguing that it was under Chinese emperors’ rule until Japan colonised Taiwan between 1895 and 1945.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has set a deadline for 2049 for reunification — the year he has designated for the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.
“There is no right or left in Taiwanese politics. Parties are either perceived as pro or anti-China. However, the West’s view of viewing politics in Taipei as anti-Taiwanese independence and pro-independence is too simplistic,” Roger Liu, Taipei-based chief executive officer of the Research Institute for Democracy, Society and Emerging Technology (DSET), told ThePrint.
Taiwanese voters are casting three ballots Saturday, to elect their president and vice-president, their local legislator, and their preferred “party list” — a list of candidates who are allocated seats in Taiwan’s 113-member Parliament or Legislative Yuan, based on the proportion of votes their party receives.
ThePrint looks at the key players of the upcoming Taiwanese elections and how they could impact global politics.
Who are the three Presidential candidates?
The three Presidential candidates — DPP’s Lai Ching-te, current vice president of Taiwan, KMT’s Hou Yu-ih, mayor of New Taipei City, and TPP’s Ko Wen-je, former mayor of Taipei — vary in their priorities and policy agendas.
Taiwan political experts suggest that, while Lai is viewed as a “troublemaker” by China, Hou is attempting to sell KMT as “peacekeepers” to the Taiwanese voters. Ko on the other hand is running a “one-man show” within the TPP.
The KMT, founded in mainland China, retreated to the island after losing the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949. For the next four decades, the party, led by Chiang Kai-shek, governed the then Republic of China (Taiwan) as a dictatorship.
During this period, the country achieved remarkable economic growth — becoming one of the four ‘Asian Tigers’ (developed East Asian economies) — but also suffered diplomatic setbacks in the 1970s, such as losing its United Nations seat owing to its repressive policies and the US switching its recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
In 1987, Chiang Ching-kuo, the next KMT leader, lifted martial law and ban on opposition parties.
The KMT believes in maintaining closer ties with China and claims Taiwan is the Republic of China that retreated to the island in 1949 and is part of the ‘motherland’ that is China. Some factions of the party also support reunification with China.
During his nomination race, KMT’s presidential candidate Hou reportedly said: “Taiwanese independence has no legal basis, so I oppose it. The Republic of China (ROC) is our country, and Taiwan is our home. We have to take good care of our home as well as our country.”
Hou, the mayor of Taipei City — one of the largest cities in the country— is also a former police officer and negotiator.
He has outlined a ‘3Ds strategy’ — “deterrence, dialogue and de-escalation” as the basis of his election campaign and strategy against China. He also wants to improve trade negotiations with the US, under the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).
Manoj Kumar Panigrahi, assistant professor and director of the Centre for Northeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, explained to ThePrint how this background has impacted his election priorities.
“His main campaign priorities has been to increase defence expenditure to 3 percent, reduce compulsory military conscription from one year to four months if there is peace in the Taiwan Strait and raise the salary of volunteer soldiers,” Panigrahi said.
The Democratic Progressive Party
Formed in 1986 as a result of a democratic movement in Taiwan in the 1970s, the DPP is a staunch supporter of Taiwanese nationalism and independence.
The party has been in power in the country since 2016, after making history with current President, Tsai Ing-wen, becoming the first woman to be elected to the top post in the country. After two consecutive terms, she can no longer contest in the upcoming elections.
DPP’s candidate Lai is currently serving under Tsai as vice-president. According to experts, his public pro-independence statements have created controversy in Taiwan, stirring trouble with China.
In January last year, Lai reportedly said, “Taiwan is already a sovereign and independent nation” and expressed his concerns over China’s “One China” principle and the “1992 Consensus” and backed maintaining the status quo.
His election priorities, Panigrahi explained, include developing Taiwanese indigenous defence submarines amid Chinese “aggression” in the region, maintaining the one-year mandatory military service in the country and tackling domestic issues, such as employment and energy crisis, among others.
The Taiwan People’s Party
Formed in 2019, the TPP is the new political party in this election.
The TPP’s Ko Wen-je has positioned himself as a “rational”, “scientific” technocrat and an alternative to the traditional DPP and KMT.
He had earlier defeated the KMT in the 2014 Taipei mayoral elections and held the post till 2022. He has prioritised domestic issues like housing and energy above ties with China.
According to Panigrahi, by establishing numerous sister city agreements between Taipei and cities such as Prague, Houston, Manilla and Jeddah, among others — Ko Wen-je has immense expertise in sub-national diplomacy.
Liu, meanwhile, noted that the TPP’s popularity is a danger for the KMT, given the party has been gathering much of the KMT’s voter base.
While the DPP frames the vote as a choice between “democracy and autocracy”, and the KMT sees it as an issue of “war or peace”, the TPP emphasises that the election is a competition between “new politics and old forces”, experts have said.
One key issue in this election has been the revival of the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement — a trade treaty that would further liberalise trade and deepen Chinese investment in Taiwan.
While the KMT and TPP have been “supporting the revival of this treaty”, the DPP has reportedly argued it could harm Taiwanese democracy owing to increased Chinese interference in the country.
The agreement was first signed in 2013 and sparked a mass protest in 2014 known as the “Sunflower Student Movement”.
Currently, DPP’s Lai is leading in opinion polls, closely followed by KMT’s Hou and TPP’s Ko trailing, according to media reports.
Liu observed that the election is “too close to call”, noting that one possibility could be that the DPP wins the Presidential vote, while the KMT wins the majority in the Legislative Yuan. This could lead to a political standoff, he added.
According to Panigrahi, with increased Chinese aggression near the island, DPP’s chances of winning could increase.
“If the DPP were to win the elections, it could continue to increase tensions between Taiwan and China. It could push Beijing to use tactics such as cognitive warfare and digital warfare. Taipei could even lose more diplomatic partners,” he added.
(Edited by Richa Mishra)