Taiwan's current outgoing Tsai Ing Wen (left) with incoming president Lai Ching-te. Credit Lai Ching-te's twittter account

What the Taiwan Elections Results Mean for the Future of Cross-Strait Relations With China

Taiwan held elections for President and the Legislature on January 13. These elections were highly anticipated for the fact that the leading candidates have differing views on how to manage Taiwan’s relationship with China. The current vice President, Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party won the elections and is considered to be more pro-west, pro-independence, and skeptical of China than his rivals. Lai Ching-te will take over from President Tsai Ing-wen this May.

My guest today, Kharis Templeman, spent the last several weeks in Taiwan leading up to the vote. He explains the results, including the fact that while the DPP candidate Lai Ching-te won the presidency, the DPP does not have a majority in the legislature. We discuss the significance  of this split government and what Lai ching-te’s presidency means for cross strait relations with China. Kharis Templeman is Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the manager of the Project on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific Region. He is also a Lecturer at the Center for East Asian Studies at Stanford University.

The full episode is freely available across all podcast listening platforms. The excerpt below explains the political biography of Lai Ching-te.


Who is Lai Ching-Te, the Winner of Taiwan’s Presidential Elections?

Mark Leon Goldberg:  Give us a brief biographical sketch of Lai. Who is he and what should listeners know about how he might govern?

Kharis Templeman:  He is a long time DPP member. He worked his way up from the grassroots. Before he entered politics, he earned a medical degree and he’s from a very poor family. His father was a miner who was killed in an accident when he was only about two months old. So he was raised by a single mother along with five other kids.

That background is quite a bit different from Tsai Ing-wen’s background. She is the youngest child of 11 children in a pretty well-to-do family, and she was a kind of outsider to the core DPP who came in when the party was at a low point. She was a consensus candidate who rebuilt the party. Lai is very different in that he worked his way up through electoral politics, eventually became mayor of Tainan, which is a large city in southern Taiwan, and then became Premier under Tsai and then joined her on the ticket as vice president during her second term. And so he has a much longer period of party service. He’s also associated with the “deeper green” wing of the party — the part of the DPP that is more traditionally pro-independence. And while I wouldn’t characterize him that way, he in the past has made some statements that suggest he is a stronger advocate for Taiwan independence or Taiwan’s own separate identity vis a vis the mainland.

Mark Leon Goldberg: So is it fair to assume, therefore, that he won because most voters in Taiwan support his broad views vis-a-vis China? Including his preference to ally more closely with the United States and more independently from China?

Kharis Templeman: I think this time around, the reason he won was he mobilized the DPP base behind his candidacy. But again, the majority of voters actually voted for someone else. So he won in part because the anti-DPP vote was split. And so he doesn’t really have a mandate to depart dramatically from what Tsai Ing-wen did, or to take bolder stances in favor of a kind of pro Taiwan independence agenda.

Mark Leon Goldberg:  So just to be clear, you do not see the results of this election as reflecting anything like a referendum on how Taiwanese view their relationship with China?

Kharis Templeman: I really don’t think you can interpret it that way. It was a “maintaining” election in some ways. The incumbent party was re-elected, but it also, you know, the people who criticized the DPP actually won a majority of the vote, if you add it all up. So, yeah, this is a really split decision by the Taiwan voters.

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