Taipei, Taiwan – In what is set to be a historic year for elections worldwide, Taiwanese voters will head to the polls this week to choose their next president, vice president and legislative representatives on January 13.
Despite a population of just 23.5 million people, Taiwan’s election carries an outsized importance due to its disputed political status. While de facto independent since the 1940s, the island and its outlying territories are still claimed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – something nearly all Taiwanese reject but fear saying publicly because of the risk of war.
Observers in the United States and China will be closely watching the outcome to see whether voters opt for the more conservative and Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) or the more centre-left and US-friendly Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has ruled Taiwan for the past eight years.
There is also the smaller Taiwan’s People Party (TPP), which lies somewhere between both parties on the political spectrum.
Since its first democratic elections in 1996, Taiwan’s two major political parties have alternated leadership every eight years – but this year, the DPP’s William Lai Ching-te is the frontrunner with the KMT, which has far failed to mount a substantial challenge to Lai following the collapse of efforts to agree on a joint opposition ticket with the TPP.
While voters are unhappy with key domestic issues such as Taiwan’s stagnant economy, the high cost of housing and the future of the island’s energy policies, the presidential election is often overshadowed by the bigger question of Taiwan’s political status.
In 2020, voters chose the DPP and its Taiwan-first agenda by a landslide against a backdrop of massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, a former British colony that Beijing promised to allow semi-autonomy for 50 years after its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Taiwan had long been offered a similar deal if it returned to the “motherland” but for many in Taiwan, events in Hong Kong, where Beijing imposed a sweeping security law and an electoral overhaul, were evidence that Beijing does not keep its promises.
With the Hong Kong protests long over, voters will now have to decide if they want the economic benefits of a closer relationship with Beijing offered by the KMT or if they want to continue standing apart and risk facing regular Chinese aggression as they have under incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen.
“Because of Taiwan’s contested status and the uncertainty that that brings not just to the region, but the world as well, everyone is really invested in who’s going to be the one steering the ship, so to speak, because that will have a lot of implications for not just security, but also risk and economic potential,” said Lev Nachman, an expert in Taiwanese politics and an assistant professor at Taipei’s National Chengchi University.