Taiwan’s DPP gets a third mandate, but many challenges loom

By J. Michael Cole

January 2024

More than 71 percent of eligible voters in Taiwan cast a vote on January 13 to decide whether to give the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a third consecutive mandate or to hand over government to the two opposition parties. In the end, the DPP’s candidate, William Lai Ching-te, prevailed upon his opponents from the Kuomintang (KMT), Hou You-yih, and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), Ko Wen-je. Lai and his running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim, obtained 5,586,019 votes (40.05 percent), while Hou and Jaw Shaw-kong came in second with 4,671,021 votes (33.49 percent), and the TPP’s Ko and Cynthia Wu garnered 3,690,466 votes (26.46 percent).

The result of the election, which was held under a sustained threat by China, which maintained that a vote for Lai heightened the risks of war in the Taiwan Strait, demonstrated yet again that coercion by Beijing is incapable of deterring the voters in Taiwan from deciding who will govern them. Still, Lai’s victory was bittersweet: in the legislative elections, held concurrently with the presidential vote, the DPP lost its majority of seats in the Legislative Yuan (LY). When the new LY convenes on Feb. 1, its composition will now be 52 seats for the KMT, 51 for the DPP, and eight for the TPP. In the days ahead, the three parties will engage in negotiations to determine who will be the next legislative speaker, who also doubles as chairman of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD). Depending on the kind of alliances that develops within the LY, the DPP’s loss of its majority in parliament could mean that the Lai administration will encounter serious hurdles in securing the budgets it needs to continue the agenda set by his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, over the past eight years. This is of particular salience when it comes to matters of foreign policy and national defense, two areas where, under Tsai, Taiwan successfully expanded its engagement with likeminded partners around the world and, in doing so, mitigated the effects of Beijing’s sustained efforts to isolate Taiwan on the international stage. The repercussions for the government’s ability to pursue further social reform and address the many challenges on the domestic front, which were also important variables in voter decisions, cannot be ignored.

The potential gridlock in the legislature will create opportunities for Beijing to collaborate with opposition parties to weaken the Lai administration, with the ostensible aim of ensuring that Lai, whom Beijing regards as a “diehard separatist” gets a single term in office. Unwilling to accept the choices that the Taiwanese people have made by means legitimate and democratic, Beijing will conceivably double down on its punitive and intimidation tactics, which among other things will include the luring of Taiwan’s official allies (Nauru has already announced it is severing ties with Taiwan and establishing official relations with the People’s Republic of China, and others could follow suit), ramped up “grey zone” military activity around and ever closer to Taiwan, political warfare, economic retaliation, and further attempts to exclude Taiwan from multilateral institutions.

As it navigates this difficult domestic and external environment, the Lai administration is expected to continue President Tsai’s efforts to deepen Taiwan’s commitment to liberal democracy and collaboration with likeminded partners around the world. Outside support and assistance will therefore be crucial: the partnerships that the Taiwanese government and vibrant civil society have cultivated over the past eight years will be more important than ever to counterbalance efforts by Lai’s opponents and ensure that Taiwan continues to play the role it deserves on the international stage. This will require creativity and moral fortitude on the part of Taiwan’s allies. Greater effort will also be needed to reach out to, and include, the opposition in such engagement, as they, too, whatever differences they may have with Lai and the DPP, will also benefit from a more connected, and therefore more resilient, Taiwan. For at the end of the day, whether they voted for Lai, Hou or Ko, and regardless of whether they identify with Taiwan or the Republic of China, they are all united by a desire to preserve their hard-earned way of life, liberties and democracy, which Taiwan’s increasingly authoritarian and annexationist neighbor is keen on extinguishing.

J. Michael Cole is member of the International Coalition for Democratic Renewal and its Working Group on the Global Influence of China. He is the Taipei-based Senior Advisor on Countering Foreign Authoritarian Influence with the International Republican Institute, a Senior Non-Resident Fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada, and the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, D.C., as well as a Research Fellow and Executive Editor with the Prospect Foundation in Taipei.