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Updated Jan 13, 2024, 7:57am EST
East Asia
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Semafor Signals

Taiwan VP, denounced by Beijing as a separatist, wins presidential election

Insights from The Washington Post, Hong Kong Free Press, and The Japan Times

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REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
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Taiwan’s Vice President William Lai of the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) claimed victory in Taiwan’s presidential election Saturday — securing a historic third term for his party in a ballot framed as a battle between “democracy and autocracy.”

Lai received more than 40% of the total votes — beating the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), its primary rival. The Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which disrupted the traditional two-party race and sought to attract the youth vote, came in third.

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Both KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih and Ko Wen-je of the TPP conceded in the election before official results were announced late Saturday.

Earlier in the day, Chinese social media platform Weibo blocked a hashtag containing discussions of the election after it became one of the most talked-about topics on the site.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense also said that it had detected eight military aircraft and six ships in the Taiwan Strait Saturday morning, amid mounting intimidation from China which has engaged in an unprecedented level of military activity around the territory over the past year and a half.

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On the eve of the election, China’s military warned against any efforts to promote Taiwan independence — what Lai’s party stands for. Beijing has not ruled out a future military attack, which would bring the U.S. to Taiwan’s defense and in confrontation with its biggest military rival.

Beijing has previously described the now-president of Taiwan as a separatist and regards the self-governing island as a breakaway province.

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SIGNALS

Semafor Signals: Global insights on today's biggest stories.

Historic DPP streak signals a rebuke of cozy ties with Beijing

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Sources:  
The Washington Post, Hong Kong Free Press, CNBC

Taiwan’s government has historically rotated between the Beijing-friendly KMT and the DPP, but Lai’s win marks the first time a political party has retained power for more than two consecutive terms since direct presidential elections began in 1996. The DPP’s landmark victory may also suggest that skepticism of closer ties with Beijing persists. In a press conference following his election win, Lai said that he was “very willing” to engage in discussions with China, so long as there was “dignity and parity.” He added that maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait was of the utmost importance and that his government would continue to “safeguard Taiwan” against threats from the mainland. China has in the past refused to engage with outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen on cross-strait issues and dismissed the outcome of the Saturday elections.

Lai ran a campaign on ‘continuity,’ but will need to address young people’s frustrations

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Sources:  
Reuters, The Japan Times, The Economist

Under outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen’s leadership, the DPP failed to address young Taiwanese people’s concerns about stagnant wages and steep housing prices, one China columnist wrote for Reuters, arguing that Lai’s win could mean that these issues persist.

While past presidential elections in Taiwan were seen as “de facto referendums on China policy,” this one was more about “change versus continuity,” Wen Ti-sung, an expert in Taiwanese politics, told The Japan Times. Sung added that domestic issues like job growth and housing prices have therefore been cast under a bigger spotlight. Lai now faces the dual challenge of tackling the China issue while alleviating Taiwan’s economy, but some voters see the two as being connected. One DPP supporter told The Economist before the election that as Beijing’s economy slows, it makes little sense for the territory to forge closer ties with the mainland and that she would vote for the party “most able to resist China’s pressure.”

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