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Updated Jan 12, 2024, 2:15pm EST

Taiwan’s presidential election will be determined in part by overseas voters

Courtesy of Gina Mao
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The Scene

At the Linkou market in New Taipei City last week, Gina Mao handed out 500 paper fans, each engraved with “Team Taiwan,” the signature slogan of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, the favorite win in the island’s presidential elections taking place tomorrow. The outcome, which will have ramifications around the world, will be decided in part by people like Mao’s posse of roughly a dozen 70- to 90 year-old overseas voters wearing green vests, who were “sweeping the streets,” or campaigning, for local municipal candidate Ho Po-wen.

An estimated 2 million Taiwanese citizens live overseas — the largest share are in the United States — and several thousand with the means have traveled back to cast their ballots this weekend. Unlike the U.S., Taiwan doesn’t allow absentee voting, due to fears that Beijing could influence election outcomes — China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province that it intends to incorporate by any means necessary.

Semafor spoke to six overseas voters, most of whom said they planned to vote for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or the Green Party. Some said they supported the Kuomintang, which is generally seen as in favor of establishing closer ties to China, or the newly established Taiwan’s People Party.

Mao, who left Taiwan in 1974 at the age of 17 and immigrated to the U.S., remembers her mother, sister, and other people she knew in the Taiwanese American Federation of Northern California flying back to participate in elections. She began voting herself in 2012 after she regained her Taiwanese citizenship, casting her first ballot for Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s current president, who is stepping down after two terms as mandated by law.

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Mao says she will be voting this time around for Lai Ching-te, Ing-Wen’s current vice president, who has vowed to raise salaries, bolster national defense, and cooperate with allies while upholding the status quo with China. “I have to help Lai Ching-te protect Taiwan’s democracy and freedom,” she said.

Taiwan was under martial law until 1987, and didn’t hold its first presidential elections until 1996. Many older voters still recall decades of single-party rule under the Kuomintang-led regime, but now, a newer generation of diaspora who are younger than Taiwan’s democracy are headed to the polls.

Tiffany Chiang, 25, has been educating herself on campaign issues in preparation for her first time voting. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she convinced her mother to travel to Taiwan with her to participate in the election. “A big reason why I feel so strongly tied to my Taiwanese identity is because Taiwan for so long has been a geopolitical chess piece,” she said, noting that her grandmother speaks Japanese, Taiwanese, and Mandarin, reflecting the island’s complicated history and colonial past.

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Chiang plans to vote for Ching-te as well, because she said she believes the DPP supports elderly victims of the 1947 anti-government uprising known as the 228 incident, a seminal moment in Taiwan’s history that led to the deaths of up to 30,000 people. Chiang also thinks the DPP will be more capable of navigating relations with China.

On the other hand, longtime Kuomintang supporter and California resident Michael Cheung, 70, said he will vote for his party’s candidate Hou Yu-ih, because he believes tensions between China and Taiwan need to be deescalated.

“I don’t want to see a war. Taiwan is a small island country that relies on exports. If the two sides don’t communicate, it will affect Taiwan’s economy for fisheries, agriculture, and all industries,” said Cheung. He believes the biggest misconception about Taiwan’s election is that the KMT is pro-China, but “actually, they just want peace.”

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Seiya Shaw, 54, feels local media has boycotted newcomers like his preferred candidate Ko Wen-je, the former Taipei mayor who represents the wildcard choice in Saturday’s elections. Critics have repeatedly criticized mainstream Taiwan publications for focusing solely on the dominant green and blue parties, both of which Shaw argues “have a corrupt record.” He said both the DPP and the Green Party are at the extreme end when it comes to relations with China, and likes that Ko P, as Ko is affectionately known as, will represent a fresh start.

It will be the first time voting for Ms. Chou, a 71 year-old living in Virginia, who has been impressed with the healthcare and public transportation in Taiwan and is considering retiring there. She hopes the island will remain free and democratic and will be casting her vote for the DPP’s Lai Ching-te. “I want to see Taiwan continue. The elderly here seem so happy. I’m more appreciative of the government’s policies to improve senior citizens’ lives,” she told Semafor, asking only to use her surname for privacy reasons.

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The View From Local Voters

Brian Hioe, a writer and editor in Taipei who helped found New Bloom Magazine, told Semafor that overseas voters often aren’t motivated by the same issues as locals when they go to the polls. People who live in Taiwan are highly concerned about things like low wages, lack of housing, and an inadequate social safety net, more mundane concerns that can get overlooked in Western discourse that prioritizes the island’s relations with Beijing above all else.

“When you come from abroad, all you hear about is all of the geopolitical tensions and the often alarmism. Which can be quite harmful,” Hoie said.

William Yang, a well-known journalist in Taiwan who has worked for numerous Western outlets, echoed the same concerns. “If any international media comes in with the assumption that Taiwanese people are just as concerned about regional security as they are, this is a wrong assumption,” he wrote in a post on X. “And could lead to a very filtered coverage and understanding of how Taiwanese voters actually think about this election.”

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Notable

  • Taiwan’s tumultuous history has shaped different generations of Taiwanese people in unique ways, Financial Times’ Kathrin Hille wrote in a beautifully reported piece.
  • National Public Radio’s Emily Feng explored what it means to be Taiwanese through one family’s journey — and also looked at how China and Taiwan influence each other through pop culture.
  • This is the first time Gen Z voters are heading to the polls in Taiwan. Many feel disillusioned, and they just might vote for the newer TPP party, Nikkei Asia, Al Jazeera and CNN reported.
  • Brian Hoie writes for Dissent Mag that focusing on cross-strait relations leaves less room for discussing ongoing domestic challenges, such as housing, aging, and green energy.

An earlier version of this article misstated why one voter decided to travel to Taiwan. The language has been updated.

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