Taiwan is bracing itself for one of the most consequential and unusually unpredictable presidential elections since its first democratic ballot in 1996.
With President Tsai Ing-wen stepping down this May due to a two-term limit, her deputy, William Lai, is fighting to keep the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in power. Lai is running a tight race against Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT), the island’s nationalist opposition party, and Ko Wen-je, the founder of the center-left Taiwan People’s Party, who is attracting young voters.
The two frontrunners, Lai and Hou, staged weekend election rallies in a city near Taipei, with Lai — whose party firmly opposes reunification with Beijing — calling for the strengthening of Taiwan’s national defenses, and Hou, by contrast, slamming calls for “Taiwan independence” as provocative and warmongering.
Self-ruled Taiwan is viewed by China as a breakaway province that will eventually come back under Beijing’s control.
A DPP victory could inflame tensions with China
The latest opinion polls show that Lai leads Hou by 3 to 11 percentage points, but analysts warn that these figures could change. If the DPP wins, it will be the first time a pro-independence party has won three consecutive terms since 1996. Beijing could see this as a sign that the Taiwanese people have little appetite for reunification and may tighten their reins. “If the DPP is able to sustain its lead right now and gets re-elected, we should expect closer watch from both Beijing and Washington on Lai,” a professor of diplomacy at Taipei’s National Chengchi University told Bloomberg. “There’s a possibility for cross-strait tensions to deteriorate further.”
‘Hip’ TPP leader appeals to Taiwan’s young voters
Young Taiwanese voters are tired of seeing a traditional fight for power between the self-governed island’s two main political rivals, with reports showing that they are overwhelmingly in support of the Taiwan People’s Party. Ko Wen-je, the leader of TPP, has previously said that he views people on two sides of the Taiwan Strait as “belonging to one family.” The leader told the Associated Press that Taiwan’s relationship with China should be managed with “deterrence and communication,” without sparking a major confrontation. Many young voters also see Ko as an appealing candidate because of his “hip way of communicating,” one Taiwan-based political science professor told Voice Of America, explaining that Ko dispenses with official language and engagingly simplifies concepts.
China issue remains key, but domestic concerns take center stage
While the heightened threat of invasion from China has dominated all three presidential campaigns, surveys suggest that domestic economic issues are at the forefront of voters’ minds. In recent years, Taiwanese residents have struggled to make ends meet amid soaring housing prices, record inflation, and low wages. Some see friendlier relations with China as vital to the island’s economic growth and well-being, one political science professor at the University of South Carolina argued in Nikkei, adding that over the past two decades, exports to China and Hong Kong have come to account for roughly 40% of the island’s overall exports.