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Beyond the U.S.-China Paradigm: How Local Politics Will Define Taiwan's Elections

Jan 12, 2024
  • Leland Lazarus

    Associate Director of National Security, Jack D. Gordon Institute of Public Policy of Florida International University
  • Earl Carr

    Founder and Chief Executive Officer at CJPA Global Advisors

With just a few days before its presidential election, Taiwan has for the first time an unprecedented wild card third-party opposition party and a three-candidate race: Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Hou You-yi of the Kuomingtang (KMT), and Ko-Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). Western observers tend to analyze Taiwan’s politics through the prism of the U.S.-China struggle over the self-governing island. 

While the cross-strait conflict is never far from voters’ minds, this upcoming election will also hinge on domestic issues like the economy, energy, healthcare, and good governance. As the saying goes, all politics is local, and those issues will play an important role in determining Taiwan’s next leader. 

Like in the U.S. and elsewhere, Taiwan has been grappling with stubbornly high inflation. The island’s consumer price index rose 2.9% in November 2023, putting further pressure on low-income households. A recent survey showed that nine out of 10 Taiwanese workers are unsatisfied with their current salaries, and soaring housing prices are pushing locals’ dreams of owning a home further out of reach. All of this is happening under the current president Tsai Ing-Wen’s DPP, and her vice-president Lai Ching-te is seeking to carry her mantle. Lai and the DPP continue to maintain a slight lead in the presidential polls, but voters are frustrated that the economy hasn’t improved in the past eight years under their watch. 

Lai’s contenders Hou, the current mayor of New Taipei City, and Ko, a former Taipei mayor, are trying to portray themselves as more capable in managing the economy going forward as well as trying to appeal to younger voters. Hou’s KMT is struggling with an age image–that it serves the older generation and is increasingly out of touch with the youth. The TPP’s Ko seems to be resonating more with young voters, particularly those who are fed up with the traditional KMT and DPP politics. In the last December 2023 presidential debate, Ko stated the ratio for housing price to income for Taipei residents is 16-to-1, and that people are forced to siphon a large portion of their earnings towards paying their mortgage. 

Another key domestic issue in Taiwan is energy independence. All three candidates support the transition to renewable energy, but differ on nuclear power; their differences came into stark view during the presidential debate. Lai advocates phasing out nuclear power because of its safety concerns, but wants to boost renewable energy to 20 percent of the island’s overall power use. Both Hou and Ko have criticized the DPP for lacking a comprehensive energy transition plan, stating that the island cannot get to net zero emissions by 2050 without nuclear energy in the mix. Hou pointed out that the DPP’s continued reliance on coal is contributing to a rise in lung cancer; Ko has called for postponing the decommissioning of two nuclear power plants and revisiting a third nuclear plant project stopped by the DPP. 

Healthcare also serves as a key issue. While Taiwan arguably has some of the best healthcare in the world relative to its peers, local voters are still concerned about its affordability, innovation, and adequate government investment. Both DPP’s Lai and TPP’s Ko are former physicians and have taken up healthcare as one of their primary domestic policy issues. Lai’s plan includes health insurance sustainability, better work conditions for health care professionals, and a “Health Charter” that will ensure that all Taiwanese citizens are entitled to basic health rights, such as the right to clean air. Ko has advocated for the government to increase healthcare spending to 8% of its GDP in order to hire more doctors and paramedics. Related to this issue is mental health and how it impacts public security. At a recent press conference, the KMT’s Hou referenced a 1998 incident where mentally ill patients hijacked a public bus, and pledged to address mental health as president. 

Finally, the electorate cares about corruption in local politics. Hou and Ko are both being investigated for the failed joint election deal, with allegations that there was bribery involved in the deal. The DPP has also faced its share of scandals, such as a string of corrupt practices uncovered in the city of Tainan, a DPP stronghold. During the vice-presidential debate, KMT vice-presidential candidate Jaw Shaw-kong alleged that DPP’s Lai had profited from illegal land use. Ko has been accused of land speculation on a  Hsinchu City property he co-owns that was designated as farmland but was paved and leased to a tour bus company. Voters will look at the candidate who can successfully portray himself as committed to rooting out corruption and holding his party to higher standards of transparency. 

The DPP has been in power for eight years, but it has seemed to reach its maximum level of support within the so-called "green camp," according to Dr. Kwei-Bo Huang, a former KMT Deputy Secretary-General and professor of diplomacy at Taipei National Chengchi University. The independent voters, who consist of the majority of the eligible voters, do not appear to firmly endorse the DPP. Whoever wins the election must be able to gain the support of these independent voters. 

U.S.-China tensions always loom large in Taiwan’s foreign affairs. However, ordinary people in Taiwan are thinking about how far their paycheck will go, or whether they can afford a home. Many question what job opportunities are available to support a family, exemplified in the all-time low birth rate, or how to cope with rising energy bills. Other quintessential questions focus on whether they are receiving quality healthcare, and what the government is doing to fight corruption. Ultimately, it is “bread and butter” domestic issues like these that will put Lai, Hou, or Ko at the helm. Whoever that leader may be will play a key role in shaping cross-strait relations—and U.S.-China relations—in 2024 and years to come. 

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