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The Geopolitical Implications of Taiwan’s Presidential Elections

Taiwan will hold presidential elections in January 2024. Needless to say, these elections will have extremely consequential geopolitical implications. The two main candidates have differing views of Taiwan’s relationship with China. Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is the current Vice President and represents the stronger pro-independence faction of Taiwanese politics. His main rival, Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomingtang (KMT)  supports closer relations between Taipei and Beijing. And this year there is a surprising third party candidate, Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), who is is shaking up what is conventionally a two party presidential contest.

Joining me for an in-depth conversation about Taiwanese politics and these upcoming elections is Kharis Templeman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution where he is the program manager of the Project on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific Region. We kick off discussing the political history of Taiwan following the Chinese civil war and then have an in-depth conversation about each of the candidates’ positions on the key issue of cross straight relations.

To listen to this episode on your preferred podcast listening app, go here. 

Excerpted from the podcast episode 

A Brief History of Democracy in Taiwan

Mark Leon Goldberg  So before we discuss the key dynamics driving the 2024 elections, I think listeners would appreciate a brief history of Taiwan since the Civil War and of Taiwanese democracy. Can you briefly explain the circumstances in which the KMT came to Taiwan and established political control? 

Kharis Templeman The KMT originally started on the mainland. It controlled the central government of the Republic of China from the late twenties up until 1949, and then it lost the Chinese Civil War to the Communists. And at the end stages of that civil war, Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the KMT, prepared a rear base in Taiwan as a last holdout against the communist onslaught. 

In December 1949, he moved the capital of the Republic of China over to Taipei from the mainland, and he brought over a million party members and refugees with him. So even though the KMT didn’t have any sort of preexisting base in Taiwan, it ended up as the last piece of what they call Chinese territory that they controlled. And then from then on, the KMT was a regime in exile. 

Taiwan, unlike the rest of Greater China, had not been under Chinese rule for much of the previous century. From 1895 to 1945, it was a colony of Japan. And the people who were educated in Taiwan actually learned to read, write, and speak Japanese, but not Mandarin. And so there was a very clear ethnic distinction between the islanders, the native Taiwanese who were there before 1949, and the mainlanders who came over in 1949 and after. 

Those ethnic divides broke down. About 85% were islanders, 15% were mainlanders. Mainlanders had a a privileged place in the state because of their superior knowledge of Mandarin, their connections to the ruling elites. And they were favored by state policies as well. 

Mark Leon Goldberg I take it it was in this period of KMT essentially taking over Taiwan from native Taiwanese that they established a rather authoritarian style of rule, all the while experiencing a remarkable degree of economic growth and development. 

Kharis Templeman That’s right. The regime was under martial law for 38 years, starting in 1949. For the first few years of that period, the Chiang Kai-shek government’s goal was to establish stability — basically ensure that Taiwan would not be invaded by the PLA and keep the United States on sides. There was an open question about that in 1949, but by June 1950, the U.S. had resumed aid to the KMT regime. That aid allowed Chiang Kai-shek to steer the economy in a different direction. 

Chiang was not an economic technocrat by any means. He actually delegated a lot of authority to economists and engineers, actually, to kind engineer the transition of Taiwan away from a poor agricultural society to one that today is an industrial power. I like to say Taiwan is kind of like a hipster China: whatever China did, Taiwan did first before it was cool. Taiwan’s economic takeoff started in the late 1950s, early 1960s. It has registered as impressive a growth record as anything the PRC has managed in the last 40 years. 

Mark Leon Goldberg So what were the circumstances in which Taiwan became a democracy and emerged from this authoritarian one party rule? 

Kharis Templeman It was a very gradual transition. The KMT had always emphasized that they were the leaders of Free China, and Free China meant that they had to hold elections. But they also claimed for a long time that they were the rightful government of all of China — not just Taiwan — and therefore the central government of the Republic of China could not be legitimately elected just by the Taiwanese, they had to await retaking the mainland before they could hold elections for that party. 

But they held elections at local levels, really from the early 1950s on. Those elections were generally competitive. There were multiple candidates. There was often a kind of favored party candidate, but then independents would sometimes run as well. And so even from its earliest days, the regime was based on this idea that legitimacy comes from competing and winning contested elections. 

And then, starting in the 1970s, the old generation of mainlanders who held a lot of positions within the central government started to die off. The regime needed a way to replace them and they couldn’t hold elections for all of China again. So they created something called “supplementary elections” for the legislature and the National Assembly. Gradually, they expanded the number of seats that were subject to election by Taiwanese. 

And so by the late 1980s, that number was up to about a third of all the seats in both of those bodies. But the real critical moment came in the early 1990s, when the KMT president at the time, Le Duc Wei, negotiated with the nascent opposition to introduce direct election of all of the seats in the legislature, in the National Assembly, and eventually also direct election of the president. And so this process played out over about ten years. It started with the founding of the DPP in 1986. 

Mark Leon Goldberg And this is the Democratic Progressive Party, the current ruling party of Taiwan. 

Kharis Templeman Right. Which grew out of a kind of motley collection of anti-regime pro-democracy advocates, many of whom were persecuted for their advocacy for free and fair elections. But by the early 1990, that had stopped Taiwan, lifted martial law, finally, in 1987, gradually rolled back a lot of the security state that had kept the regime in power and rolled back a lot of the restrictions on free speech, on assembly, on the ability to publish and broadcast what you want. 

And so the process really kind of culminated in the first direct election of the president in 1996. And since then, Taiwan has actually been a remarkably a high quality democracy, given that they had virtually no previous experience with multiparty competition and rotation in power between different parties. So in a sense, people talk a lot about a Taiwanese economic miracle. I also think there’s a Democratic miracle here where it went from having no previous democratic experience to having now what is a really robust, vibrant liberal democracy. 

Who are the main candidates in Taiwan’s Presidential Elections?

Mark Leon Goldberg So in 2024 January, this robust liberal democracy is holding presidential elections. And I wanted to talk with you through some of the main candidates and their key positions, because obviously what happens in Taiwan’s 2024 presidential elections will have major geopolitical implications. So let’s first discuss the KMT candidate: Ho Yo-Ih. The KMT is obviously still a major political force in China, but I take it they have more of an, I suppose, accommodationist view towards Beijing than their main rival, the DPP. Can you explain why that is? 

Kharis Templeman Yeah, that’s correct. KMT is often referred to as the China friendly party in Taiwan’s political parlance. 

Mark Leon Goldberg Which seems not to make sense given their history. 

Kharis Templeman Yeah, it’s quite ironic. It’s one of many delicious ironies about Taiwan’s political transformation. The KMT used to be this staunch anti-communist fighter, and now they’re the party that Beijing is willing to talk to. And part of the reason for that is that while the KMT was vehemently anti-communist for much of its history, it also embraced a lot of the same Chinese nationalist positions that the PRC has increasingly promoted. 

And so they share a kind of common legacy of a vision of Taiwan as part of China, ruled by a single government and one that is a modern, prosperous country. And the KMT has kind of struggles as Taiwan transition to democracy, to reposition itself as a party that appeal to Taiwanese who may not have shared that greater Chinese nationalist vision over the long run. Its support has declined in the electorate relative to the DPP, which grew up advocating for Taiwanese independence initially. They’ve moderated their stance, but they’re still much more the China skeptical Party in the electorate. 

Mark Leon Goldberg And Hou Yu-ih, who is he and what’s his background and what are his stated positions vis a vis the geopolitical position of Taiwan in terms of competition between China and the United States? 

Kharis Templeman He was nominated as the presidential candidate of the KMT just a few weeks ago, and he’s not well known outside of Taiwan. So I actually have the same question. I’m not sure what all of his positions are that matter for cross-strait issues and for U.S.-Taiwan relations. And so one challenge he’s facing today is to try to articulate those positions in a way that is appealing to all Beijing, Washington and the people of Taiwan. 

But a key piece of his appeal is going to be that as the nominee of the KMT can talk to Beijing. And so the tensions across the Taiwan Strait right now, he can pretty credibly promise to dial those down. Beijing will be much more willing to deal with him as the leader of Taiwan than they have been with the current president, Tsai Ing-wen, who is from the DPP. 

He also, unusually for KMT candidates at the national level, is a native Taiwanese, a Benshengren in the Taiwanese parlance. That means he was born and grew up in Taiwan. He speaks Taiwanese, the local language as well as Mandarin. His career has been fairly unusual as well. He’s a policeman. 

He moved up through the police ranks over several decades actually before entering electoral politics. And so he doesn’t have a long track record of campaigning for election, of taking controversial positions on whatever the controversy of the day is. He’s generally not a very well defined candidate at this point. 

Mark Leon Goldberg That’s the best kind of political candidate. You can reflect all of your own biases on the empty shell. 

Kharis Templeman Correct. 

Mark Leon Goldberg Sounds like he’s a pretty good politician. So if he is elected in January, would that, to your mind, be a reflection that the electorate wants to kind of dial down tensions with Beijing? 

Kharis Templeman That’s certainly one interpretation. I think it’s too early to say at this point. Part of the challenge with that interpretation is that the DPP, the current ruling party, is also struggling a little bit. They’re facing some headwinds, in part because of just the problems that creep in after you’ve been the ruling party for two terms. As we know in the United States, it’s really hard to win three terms in a row as the ruling party. 

And so the DPP has to make the case that they have done a good job over the last eight years, that they will continue to do a better job than the alternatives. And for an increasing number of voters who are frustrated not only with cross-strait issues but with things like the soaring cost of housing, rising inequality, the poor job prospects for younger people just entering the workforce. 

All of those things are it’s much easier for voters to kind of point at the DPP as the problem rather than as the solution for those. So I think there’s also — to use a political science term — a retrospective voting model here that suggests to vote against the DPP rather than for the KMT. 

So the KMT just has to be not crazy, not deeply disturbing in terms of what they’re offering to voters and offer just a credible alternative and a promise that they’ll do better. And they actually, I think, have a decent shot in this election. 

Mark Leon Goldberg So you mentioned the DPP. Its candidate is the current vice president, Lai Ching-te. He’s obviously a well known entity in Taiwan. What’s his reputation among the Taiwanese electorate? 

Kharis Templeman So he’s also a former local mayor, like Hou Yu-Ih. He started in local politics, but unlike Hou, he actually has significant experience at the central government level now. So before he was vice president, he was actually premier for about a year and a half. The premier in the Taiwanese system is a bit like the chief of staff. They run the government, they report directly to the President. They have to act as a good agent of the president. 

So he gains considerable experience and stature during that period of his career. Before that he’s been a longtime party member. He’s got a lot of long standing connections within the DPP, especially among the, I would say, more pro-independence wing of the DPP. And he’s also a physician by training, so he can kind of make an appeal based on his professional expertise — that he’s a smart, thoughtful guy. 

Mark Leon Goldberg So, his current boss, President Tsai Ing-wen, has been rather outspoken in defense of Taiwan’s independence, much to the chagrin of Beijing. Does he share that same view? And has he articulated that view in the same stark terms Tsai has? I’m thinking of that banger Foreign Affairs op-ed she wrote last year. 

Kharis Templeman Right. I actually would characterize Tsai as one of the most moderate DPP leaders you will ever see. If we think in terms of a left-right spectrum, where left is more pro-independence and right is more pro unification side, Tsai is towards the middle and Lai Ching-te is definitely towards her left — or in Taiwanese political parlance, is deeper green than she is. So one of the interesting questions that Lai faces is whether she can credibly convince people in the US, people in Beijing, and the Taiwanese electorate that he will hew as close as he can to Tsai Ing-wen’s fairly moderate approach to cross-strait relations. 

And the skepticism is that, for instance, he has in the past said he’s a pragmatic worker who favors Taiwanese independence. So he’s not going to be out there chanting slogans every day, but he’s going to try to find ways to preserve and expand Taiwan’s international space, to promote its independent identity and so forth. And these positions are a little bit more to the the green end of the spectrum than the positions that Tsai has taken publicly. 

Mark Leon Goldberg So in the context of Taiwanese democracy in recent elections, there is an insurgent third party candidate Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party, who is polling surprisingly well considering the recent history of Taiwan as more or less a two-party presidential state. So what is his appeal and what are some of his key positions? 

Kharis Templeman Right. So his appeal is that he is deliberately positioning himself as being above the green-blue divide in Taiwan politics. So, again, the green side being more skeptical of China, wanting to promote an independent Taiwanese identity and the blue side being more favorable towards China and doing positive constructive relations with the PRC as an important part of what a Taiwanese leader should seek and is trying to position himself between those two. 

In fact, the the color of the party that he founded is actually aquamarine. So it’s literally between green and blue. The trick that he has to pull off, though, is to persuade the green voters that he’s not too blue for them and the blue voters that he’s not too green for them. And I’m a little skeptical that he can ultimately pull that off. Right now, he’s polling well because he’s polling especially well among younger voters, those under 40. Much of his appeal is based on his time as Taipei mayor, where he got a reputation as being a very blunt talker, somebody who’s not politically correct in his positioning or his responses to the issue. 

He is also positioning himself as somebody who can talk to Beijing, he’s actually traveled to the mainland a couple of times in his official capacity and said things that he portrays as a sign that Beijing will be more friendly to him than even to the KMT candidate. But I think as the campaign heats up, he’s going to face a problem where the kind of natural partisan inclinations of much of the electorate start to get activated. And my own expectation is that he’s going to bleed some of that support to both of the other camps. 

Mark Leon Goldberg Do you foresee this election to be a referendum on cross-strait relations? 

Kharis Templeman Every election is to some degree — that is by far the most important issue in the Taiwanese electorate. Ultimately, Taiwan’s fate depends on that relationship with Beijing. The crucial question is really: As a leader of Taiwan, should you seek better relations with Beijing potentially at the cost of some sovereignty and security for Taiwan? Or should you try to balance against the threat coming out of Beijing by trying to get as close to the United States and partners and allies as possible? 

That ultimately will be, I think, the critical issue that voters are faced with in this election. If you choose the KMT candidate, you’re essentially casting a vote for making some concessions to the PRC, at least rhetorically, and trying to lower tensions and balance a little more between Beijing and Washington. If you vote for the DPP, you’re saying continue the Tsai administration strategy of trying to get as close to the United States and trying to be as respectful of the United States’ concerns and interests in the relationship as possible, potentially at the cost of any sort of working relationship with Beijing. 

What Impact Will Taiwan’s Elections Have on China-US Relations?

Mark Leon Goldberg So what do you see then as the key geopolitical outcomes of the election in January? 

Kharis Templeman The first is its effect on US-China relations. We’re in, to put it mildly, a rough patch in US-China relations right now. The long standing biggest irritant in US-China relations is the status of Taiwan. This is an irreconcilable difference between our two countries. But we’ve over the last 40 plus years,  found ways to manage it in a way that doesn’t completely destroy the working relationship between the US and China. So if there’s a KMT president who comes into office next May that I think lowers the temperature over Taiwan, it maybe makes Taiwan a less central part of the conversation between the United States and China over our many differences. 

If there’s another DPP president who comes into power, I think we’ll see kind of a continuation of the grievance politics coming out of Beijing towards the US and blaming the US for supporting independence advocates in Taiwan and not hewing to various agreements that we’ve made in the past. 

And there’ll be continued, I think, military, economic, and diplomatic coercion against Taiwan. And then if Ko Wen-je wins, the centrist candidate, it’s a lot more uncertain what that would look like. A lot depends on how he approaches cross-strait relations, what he says to Beijing and to Washington and how those two parties react. So we could get a lot of different outcomes here that could really dramatically shake up the US-China relationship and second order effects on the broader kind of strategic situation. 

Mark Leon Goldberg So we’re six months out from this election as we’re speaking. I’m wondering if there is any nuance that is often lost, in your view, in most Western media as approach to covering Taiwanese elections. Is there something that is routinely ignored or not emphasized strongly enough that you think sort of discerning international affairs audience might be interested in and sort of being clued in on? 

Kharis Templeman So first of all, I will say the reporting on Taiwan by international media has gotten a lot better over the last five years. There’s, I think, much more sophisticated analysis, a lot more to do what’s included in reports. So I’m much less critical of the way Taiwan is discussed in English language media than I was five years ago. Part of that is driven by the sheer number of reporters who used to be based elsewhere in the region, especially in China, who’ve been kicked out of China and then have come to Taiwan and set up shop there and are now learning about Taiwan and reporting on it in a way that’s quite a bit more thoughtful than when they were based in Beijing and — not everybody does this — but occasionally kind of parroting the CCP party line about Taiwan. 

But there is a couple big issues that I think are important for an international audience to understand. The first is that Taiwanese voters as a whole are quite pragmatic. They’ve lived with the threat of a PRC attack on Taiwan for their entire lives. This has been a threat since 1950. And so most people who came of age in the Democratic area are used to having Beijing as a foil, as both a threat and an opportunity across the strait. 

But they’re also used to kind of living with that day-to-day isolation and pressure on a diplomatic level and just finding pragmatic ways to get around the fact that Taiwan is so isolated in the international system. So Taiwanese voters generally are looking for pragmatic candidates who will find a way to get things done and to promote Taiwan’s own economic, political and diplomatic interests with the rest of the world. 

The second pieces that Taiwan often gets portrayed as a very polarized society and a polarized political system. My own view is that that vision is fairly outdated now. The three candidates running for election in this coming race, the differences between their cross-strait policies are not huge. There’s nobody out there advocating for a de jure declaration of independence next year, and there’s nobody advocating for signing up for one country, two systems under CCP rule next year. 

All three candidates know that neither of those positions are attractive at all to the electorate, and there’s convergence towards a kind of muddled middle position where differences between you and your opponents are based on pretty subtle language and frankly, your reputation or your party’s reputation, given what they’ve done in the past in this cross-strait relationship. 

So I don’t see Taiwan, no matter who wins, as producing a candidate who’s really going to shake things up. I think Taiwanese voters and the candidates themselves are all pretty pragmatic about how to manage the cross-strait relationship.