January 15, 2024
SINGAPORE – In 2000, Mr Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) made history when he was elected as Taiwan’s president in a tight three-way race, ending more than five decades of rule by the Kuomintang (KMT) as the DPP came to power.
Twenty-four years on, Mr Lai Ching-te of the DPP also made history for his party with his victory. On Jan 13, DPP became the first party to win three times in a row since the start of direct presidential elections in Taiwan in 1996.
But the hard work starts immediately.
Like Mr Chen, Mr Lai will have no honeymoon period when he takes office in May. In fact, the next four years in Taiwan – like those from 2000 to 2004 – will likely be marked by a high degree of governance paralysis and inter-party politicking.
Both men garnered less than a majority of the votes – Mr Chen won 39.3 per cent of the vote, while Mr Lai won 40.1 per cent.
Mr Lai’s DPP lost its majority in the Lifa Yuan, or legislature, with just 51 seats – down from 61. No party secured a majority in the 113-seat legislature as the KMT took 52 seats and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) eight, with two going to independents.
With the DPP losing control of the legislature, Mr Lai will have a tough time trying to pass policies or set the agenda. This could be over energy policy, for example, as the DPP aims to phase out the use of nuclear energy by 2025, which the other two parties oppose for different reasons, or over how to deal with the problem of stagnant wages.
Mr Chen encountered the same situation in 2000 as he struggled to pass legislation through the then KMT-controlled legislature.
“Mr Lai’s presidency will be very challenging,” said Dr Qi Dongtao, a senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, adding that the domestic policies that Mr Lai wants to push might not go through.
“Externally, Beijing will apply more pressure on him and the situation will be more turbulent.”
Mr Lai will have an even harder time forging his own cross-strait strategy, given the new make-up of the legislature.
Addressing supporters following his declaration of victory, Mr Lai called for dialogue with China to “replace confrontation”.
He, however, also added: “We are also determined to safeguard Taiwan from continuing threats and intimidation from China.”
Dr Qi, referring to the KMT and TPP’s party colours, said: “If Lai pushes for more extreme policies, the blue and white camps will definitely block them and Beijing would not be as worried. It gives Beijing an added layer of guarantee.”
While Mr Lai grapples with governing, there will be some soul-searching over how the DPP can remain relevant to younger voters.
On Jan 13, there was a clear flight by voters – analysts say they are mainly young and educated Taiwanese – from the party, as compared with 2016, when his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen won her first presidential race with 56.1 per cent of votes, in what was also a three-way contest.
TPP’s Dr Ko is the beneficiary. While final opinion polls had pegged Dr Ko’s support at around 22 per cent, he ultimately polled about 26 per cent in the presidential election and his party won eight seats in the legislature, up from five in 2020. KMT’s Mr Hou Yu-ih won about 33 per cent in the election.
Dr Ko has likely drawn away young voters who had previously voted for the DPP and are fed up that the DPP has not helped them deal with issues of livelihood such as stagnant wages and affordable housing, said analysts.
The degree of support from young voters for Dr Ko and the TPP was evident, going by the large crowds of young people at his rallies and events and the popularity of his YouTube channel, which exceeded one million subscribers this week.
Dr Ko managed to draw a significant turnout, which the TPP estimated to be 350,000, on the last day of campaigning at his rally in Taipei City in front of the presidential office, even though his party lacks the resources of the two major parties.
The TPP represents a genuine third force in Taiwan politics, said Dr Qi, providing an alternative to the DPP and KMT. It is expected that Dr Ko will mount another challenge for the presidency in four years.
“It’s also a challenge to him: how will he maintain his influence and maintain his appeal among the young?”
In comparison, the KMT had not put up as close a fight in the presidential election as some analysts had expected, though it increased its seats in the legislature.
“It is hard to see what strategy the KMT was going for in its campaigning,” commented political analyst Shih Cheng-feng, adding that the KMT seemed to have banked its hopes on an alliance with Dr Ko’s TPP.
But a plan to put up a combined ticket for the presidential election fell apart dramatically in November when they could not agree on whether Mr Hou or Dr Ko should head the ticket.
Other analysts noted that a comment by former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou, a KMT party elder, might have hurt the party’s share of votes. He had indicated that Taiwan should trust Chinese President Xi Jinping on cross-strait issues and was not invited to the final campaign rally held by the party.
“The way the KMT responded to Ma’s comments revealed that it feared it could damage its campaign, as it makes the party look more pro-PRC than it would like and so further from the positions of the average voter in Taiwan,” said Professor Dafydd Fell of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, referring to China.
“I am not sure whether Ma was aware of the potential damage to the party, but he has been trying to make sure the party does not stray from positions taken during his time as president,” he added.
“Since 2016, he has remained highly influential in the party and prevented attempts to move the party closer to the average voter.”