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Taiwan Elections Explained: Why Are Stakes So High In Taiwan Polls, Why China Doesn’t Want Ruling DPP To Win?

China has labelled Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) candidate William Lai as ‘secessionist’ and ‘confrontational’ and one who will lead the island on an ‘evil’ path. Beijing favours his rival Hou Yu-ih of Kuomintang (KMT) to become President of Taiwan.

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People vote for the presidential election at a polling station in southern Taiwan's Tainan city on Saturday
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In what’s being hailed as one of the most important elections of 2024, the island nation of Taiwan is holding presidential and legislative polls on Saturday. 

Taiwan, which formally calls itself the Republic of China (ROC), considers itself to be a sovereign nation, but China considers it to be a breakaway province. Beijing is committed to the reunification of Taiwan with ‘mainland’ China, which formally calls itself the People’s Republic of China (PRC). 

During the past eight years of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s tenure, Beijing has grown increasingly aggressive towards Taiwan. Tsai’s tenure coincided with the emergence of Xi Jinping as the President of China, who has amassed unprecedented power as the leader of China and has become the president for life. Xi has repeatedly called for Taiwanese reunification and has not ruled out the use of force, leading to fears that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is on the horizon. 

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Tsai’s deputy for the past four years, Lai Ching-te (also known as William Lai), is the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) presidential candidate. His primary rival is Kuomintang’s (KMT) Hou Yu-ih. There is also a third candidate in the fray this time, Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People's Party (TPP), who has gained notable popularity among the youth. 

As Taiwan is central to the world economy as the hub of semiconductor production, and as any Chinese military action is likely to get the United States and its regional allies like Japan involved, the Taiwanese elections and Beijing’s response to the results will be keenly watched by the world. 

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Who Are Taiwan's Presidential Candidates?

Taiwan is witnessing a three-way presidential contest. The candidates are: 

  1. Ruling DPP's Lai Ching-te (also known as William Lai), the current Vice President of Taiwan
  2. Kuomintang's (KMT) Hou Yu-ih, the Mayor of New Taipei City
  3. Taiwan People's Party's (TPP) Ko Wen-je, former Mayor of Taipei

While DPP’s Lai and KMT’s Hou are on the opposite side of the political spectrum, TPP’s Ko has campaigned on a moderate plank. As Taiwan’s relationship with China takes centre-stage, Lai has pitched for stronger defence capabilities and closer ties with the United States, Hou and the KMT at large have called for more dialogue and de-escalation with China, and Ko has sought a middle-ground of sorts between these two positions. 

China Prefers KMT Over Ruling DPP

Lai and the ruling DPP have been tagged as the ‘pro-independence’ and Beijing has termed him as “secessionist” and “confrontational”. Beijing has made no secret that it does not prefer to see Lai come to power in Taiwan. Just two days before the elections, Beijing urged the Taiwanese people to make the “right choice” in the polls and said Lai would take the nation on the “evil path of provoking ‘independence’”.

Lai would continue to follow the evil path of provoking independence and take Taiwan ever further away from peace and prosperity, and ever closer to war and decline, said the Chinese government. 

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Such sharp criticism from Beijing of Lai means implied support for his main rival Hou of KMT, says Anushka Saxena, a China researcher at the Takshashila Institution. 

“Hou and KMT’s stance of dialogue and de-escalation is more palatable than Lai and DPP’s stance of expanding the island’s defence capabilities and diplomatic relationships,” says Saxena, a China Studies Research Analyst with Takshashila’s Indo-Pacific Studies Programme. 

Drawing the contrast between Beijing’s treatment of DPP and KMT, Saxena says that during the last eight years under DPP’s Tsai, Beijing has been very aggressive in responding to the US-Taiwan proximity by conducting live-fire exercises, launching missiles in the Taiwan Straits, and flying a host of balloons, drones, and fighter planes beyond the border between Taiwan and China. She tells Outlook, “In the run-up to the elections, in the past few weeks, China has also sanctioned five American firms for supplying tactical military information systems worth $3 million to Taiwan. It has also suspended preferential tax rates for Taiwan under the Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA).”

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In the KMT’s earlier, however, Beijing was much more amenable to Taiwan, says Saxena.

“On the other hand, the KMT’s years before 2016 saw relatively more dialogue and cooperation, including the signing of the ECFA. There was also less poaching of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies by China. Right before the elections, we have also seen local neighbourhood KMT officials visiting China for business-related trips. KMT is also preferable to China because of their acceptance of the ‘1992 Consensus’ and the ‘One China principle’, while the DPP has categorically rejected any such Consensus. So, post this election, Lai’s victory will mean both increased Chinese assertion and closer US-Taiwan relations,” says Saxena. 

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Why Are China And ‘Reunification’ Key To Taiwan Elections?

The unique history of Taiwan means that China and the question of reunification remain key to Taiwanese politics and elections. 

The China-Taiwan dispute dates to the Chinese Civil War of 1945-49 in which the Communist Party of China (CPC) defeated the nationalist KMT. The CPC established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the mainland and the KMT fled to the island of Taiwan and established the Republic of China (ROC). It is this history that’s behind Beijing's labelling of Taiwan as a breakaway province and commitment to reunification.

Such calls for reunification have increased ever since Chinese President Xi Jinping has amassed unprecedented powers in the country’s history. As the head of CPC, the commander-in-chief of the military, and the president of the country for life, Xi is going full-throttle on his agenda of rejuvenating the Chinese nation and reunification with Taiwan —forcefully, if needed— is an inalienable part of it. 

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Ironically, the erstwhile nationalists, KMT, the founders of Taiwan, are now the ones seeking a much closer and milder positioning regarding China. Takshashila’s China expert Saxena says the contrast is visible in the ‘three Ds’ outlined by DPP’s Lai and KMT’s Hou.

Saxena tells Outlook, “Lai’s ‘three Ds’ for DPP’s foreign policy are defence capabilities, democratic institutions, and diplomatic relations. Hou’s and KMT's ‘three Ds’ are deterrence, dialogue, and de-escalation. The DPP’s line of action on cross-straits relations reflects a desire for parity with China as well as for continued investment in indigenous defence capabilities and relations with the United States and other countries. For the KMT, the more important focus point is dialogue with the mainland to reduce tensions. On the issue of status quo, it is more likely that Lai’s stance will invite heightened tensions in the region than perhaps Hou’s."

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Therefore, the Taiwan-China relationship is at the core of Taiwan's identity as a nation. As a democracy, the idea of reunification with China is appalling to many, but the outright assertion of ‘independence’ carries the risk of inviting increased aggression or, worse, war. That’s why most of the Taiwanese seek ‘status-quo’, which means that the situation remains as it is where Taiwan is practically an independent nation-state, even though most countries of the world recognise PRC as the ‘real’ China and engage with Taiwan through alternative arrangements. 

Around 44 per cent of Taiwanese support “forever maintaining the status quo”, 35.8 per cent support “maintaining the status quo while working toward independence”, and 11.5 per cent support “maintaining the status quo while working toward unification”, according to a survey cited by The Taipei Times newspaper. 

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Why Are Stakes So High In Taiwan Polls?

The Taiwanese elections are so important as whoever wins would lead the country through highly turbulent times with the threat of Chinese invasion looming on the horizon. Inside Taiwan, the opposing political forces have projected the polls as a choice between war and peace.

Explaining the backdrop that has raised the stakes, Takshashila’s China researcher Saxena says there are three factors at play. She tells Outlook, “One, the fact that China has become much more militarily and economically assertive and aggressive. Two, the United States has signalled a clear shift in its position on the status quo by providing more support to Taiwan through arms sales and technological collaboration. It is also a signal of the importance of the Taiwan issue to the United States. Lastly, the rising sentiment of Taiwan’s own identity independent from the ‘Han Chinese’ identity, particularly among the youth.”

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Saxena says whoever wins will ultimately determine how these three crucial factors play out going further, defining ramifications for the region and the world. 

To the rest of the world, Taiwan is key to the supply chains. Around 90 per cent of the most advanced semiconductors are made in Taiwan. Any war and resultant disruption therefore potentially carries catastrophic consequences for the world. As the United States under President Joe Biden has redoubled its commitment to Taiwan, there are also the costs of a potential war. An estimate says a war could cost as much as $10 trillion, which amounts to around 10 per cent of the world's economy. The military toll would also be huge.

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In the case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the destruction will be at a scale unseen since World War 2, according to a wargame by the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). In the exercise, while the Taiwanese and US forces managed to thwart the Chinese victory, the island’s economy as well as the US military was degraded for many years.

“This defense comes at a high cost. The United States and Japan lose dozens of ships, hundreds of aircraft, and thousands of servicemembers. Such losses would damage the US global position for many years. While Taiwan’s military is unbroken, it is severely degraded and left to defend a damaged economy on an island without electricity and basic services. China also suffers heavily. Its navy is in shambles, the core of its amphibious forces is broken, and tens of thousands of soldiers are prisoners of war,” said the CSIS.

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What To Expect From Taiwan Polls

By the time this article is published, the voting would have ended in Taiwan and the counting would have started. The elections are expected before midnight. 

As per the latest surveys before the polls, DPP’s Lai is the front-runner for the presidency, but the margin is not very big. As for the legislative polls, there is a possibility of a hung parliament as neither DPP nor KMT may secure a majority. In such a case, the position of TPP will be key to cross the majority-mark. A hung parliament could cause moderation of the party’s president, but that's not certain.

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Takshashila’s China researcher Saxena says that the legislative majority has been central to the fulfilment of the agenda of previous KMT and DPP governments. 

“The hung legislature under Lai’s tenure would mean he would have less power in decision-making and there would be pressure to introduce every decision surrounding defence capacity-building in the parliament. If the KMT gets the majority, it will continue to emphasise dialogue with China while moderating defence-spending. Last year, Taiwan passed its highest defence spending bill after intense deliberation and opposition, and this year the KMT may be able to lobby for decreased spending,” says Saxena.

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Saxena, however, adds the KMT may not still have a free run as many decisions will depend on popular opinion, which is unlikely to turn pro-China anytime soon.

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