The candidates for Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election, set for January 13, 2024, were finally announced on Friday, November 24 after a dramatic failure of opposition parties to form a coalition against Taiwan’s ruling party. One factor setting this election apart from those previous is the exceptional popularity of a third-party candidate, Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party, which signals a shift in voters’ attitude toward the political system traditionally dominated by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and the Kuomintang. But even as many voters look for politicians to address issues like the increasing cost of living, unaffordable housing, and low salaries, debate over the cross-strait relationship continues to underpin the political climate leading up to the elections.
In an interview filmed on November 29, 2023, Dr. Wei-Ting Yen, joins us to discuss what voters in Taiwan have top of mind and what lessons the January elections carry for the United States and beyond.
Prayuj Pushkarna (National Committee staff): It’s so great to be sitting down with you, Professor Yen. Could you just introduce yourself for our audience?
Wei-Ting Yen: My name is Wei-Ting Yen. I’m currently an assistant professor in the government department at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania.
Prayuj Pushkarna: Great. Thank you so much. Okay, so we have a presidential election coming up in Taiwan in January, and there have been so many new developments it feels like on a daily basis over the last few weeks that it’s been very hard to keep up, but it seems like things are starting to take their form. Can you give a broad overview of how the different contenders in this election are shaking out? Who is going to be participating as of now in the 2024 election?
Wei-Ting Yen: So of today, November 27, we know for sure that for the upcoming election, it’s going to be a three-way election. And so we have, a long-confirmed candidate is the ruling party’s candidate who is the sitting vice president, William Lai. And he’s representing the Democratic Progressive Party. And he also just announced his running mate, whose name is Bi-khim Hsiao, who was Taiwan’s de facto envoy/ambassador to the United States for more than three years, since 2020. And his running mate is very well-known in Washington, D.C. and is a high-profile diplomat.
We are just sure about who the opposition contenders are. So the opposition have been trying to form a coalition against the ruling party basically for the past six months. And last week they finally failed [to create] the coalition, so they couldn’t reach an agreement for a joint ticket. So we’re now sure that there are two challengers from the opposition parties. The first one is Hou You-yih, so he is representing the Kuomintang (the KMT). He’s currently the mayor of New Taipei City, and he also just announced his running mate. And his running mate is Jaw Shaw-kong, who is currently a political commentator and who has a very clear pro-China stance.
And then we have a second contender from the opposition party whose name is Ko Wen-je. So he is currently the chairperson of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). He used to be the mayor of Taipei City, which is the capital city in Taiwan. And he also just announced his running mate. So his running mate is Cynthia Wu. And so Cynthia Wu is currently a legislator, but she’s very new to politics, as she has only been a politician in the Legislative Yuan since 2022. And before that, she has been a very high profile or highly involved in business, as her family is one of Taiwan’s big conglomerates.
And so those are the three candidates we have right now for the upcoming election. There was a fourth candidate, Terry Gou, who was Foxconn’s boss, who’s basically the owner of Foxconn business, but he dropped out last week from the election. So now we have three people running for election.
Prayuj Pushkarna: Well, thanks for that broad overview. Can you give us a sense of how or if this election is different from previous Taiwanese elections? In the past, has it been common to have more than two strong contenders for the presidency beyond the two major parties in Taiwan? Have three- or four-way elections been common? And how else does this election stand out, if at all?
Wei-Ting Yen: Oh, okay. So In In previous elections, there have always been three candidates running for election. But the third person is usually not a very important force, like James Soong has been running for election from election to election. But he has been not a very important player in the field.
The last time Taiwan had a competitive three-way election was in the year 2000, and so that was basically the second presidential election Taiwan had. The first one was 1996, so the second one was 2000. And that was also the election in which—at the time, it was the ruling party splitting into two. And the ruling party at the time was the Kuomintang (KMT) and the opposition party at the time was the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). And because the Kuomintang split its ticket into two candidates, they lost that election and the DPP won the election in 2000. So it’s very similar to what we have right now, except that now the split in tickets happened in the opposition force while the ruling party is the the Democratic Progressive Party.
And I would say there is also another difference, which is that the DPP has now been in office for eight years. So I think now in this election there is—so they have been a majority in both capturing the presidency as well as the legislative branch. So I think there is a very substantial amount of voters that do want to have a need for change. And so I think in the sense voters are in Taiwan right now are similar to voters in the United States in that they want a certain level of check and balance in the political system. And so that’s kind of what they’re hoping and why—like, the fundamental reason for a change right now.
Prayuj Pushkarna: Yeah, that makes sense that maybe this kind of appetite for change didn’t exist in the last election when the DPP was only in power for four years. I’m just curious, do you see any parallels between 2024 after eight years of the DPP in power and 2016 after eight years of the KMT in power? Do you think the is a similar sentiment to what you described in terms of the need for checks and balances or wanting something new, feeling maybe a little bit dissatisfied by a party that’s had the presidency for two terms and maybe not achieved all of the goals that it necessarily set out to be? Do you see any sort of parallels in the national attitude or national mood toward the political system between now and 2016?
Wei-Ting Yen: Oh, so that’s a very good question. I think there is some level of parallel in that after a ruling party is in office for eight years and it was the same for the KMT of the time.
There is a high demand, like a demand for change for sure, but there is this one very big difference between the upcoming 2024 election compared to the 2016 election, which is that in the 2016 election, two years prior to the 2016 election, there was the 2014 Sunflower Movement, which was a civil society movement against the then ruling party, the KMT, at the time for how they were handling the China-related policy, which means that in the 2016 election, citizens of Taiwan didn’t wait until the election time to express their discontent with the ruling party’s political decision. And so I would say the election in 2016 was kind of a continuation of the 2014 civil society. And so it was clear at the time that the DPP might win, because it was just a continuation of that discontent toward the then-ruling party, the KMT.
But unlike that one, right for the upcoming 2024 election, there was not any huge, you know, civil society movement like the one we saw in 2014. And so people are going to leverage the voting booth more, I think, to express their demand, their need for a change. So we want to be observing both the presidency, as well as the legislative branch, because we might see that need for change reflecting in the outcome of the legislative branch.
Prayuj Pushkarna: That’s a really good point, that maybe leading into the 2016 election, because there was so much activity in civil society that it sort of set the tone, whereas it does—from what you’re saying, it does kind of feel like the election itself is almost going to be the referendum on whether the DPP is almost allowed to stay in power by voters. But we don’t necessarily have that runway that Taiwan saw in the 2016 election.
Well, you mentioned that in 2014, the Sunflower movement, as kind of a response to policies related to cross-strait relations. So, some of our listeners may be familiar with the Sunflower Movement. Could you just give us like—I know it’s a big history, so I won’t to ask you to recount the whole thing—but could you tell us in a minute or two what the Sunflower Movement was, and what prompted it?
Wei-Ting Yen: So the KMT administration went into power in 2008. So the then-president was Ma Ying-jeou, and after he was in office, starting from 2008, he was very active in promoting a more interactive cross-strait relations by engaging with China more. And so during his term, he passed several bills related to, you know, trade agreements. One is a very famous one is ECTA, I think it’s Economic Cooperation Framework Act. And so that’s like promoting economic integration or economic engagement between Taiwan and China.
And the 2014 Sunflower Movement happened right after when Ma Ying-jeou was trying to propose another serve US trade agreement related to the service industry. And it was passed in a very the bill was shaped like passed, pushed through the floor in the legislative branch in a very undemocratic way, and that triggered the civil society movement, a kind of a disobedience movement in 2014 that resulted in over a month long occupation of the legislative branch in Taiwan by student activists.
Prayuj Pushkarna: So, it seems like the Sunflower Movement is a seminal part of Taiwan’s recent domestic politics and another peg in the history of democratization in Taiwan that there could be such a visceral reaction to what it sounds like was seen as infringements upon the democratic process of how bills get passed and proposed.
But also, I don’t think it’s lost on anyone that it was also a response to something related to cross-strait relations and integration or cooperation with China. We in the U.S. often think about Taiwan in the context of U.S.-China relations, even though, you know, Taiwan has so many other so many other issues and topics that are worth talking about.
But what about people in Taiwan when it comes to election time? How big is the China factor? Do people in Taiwan themselves also think of the Taiwan-China relationship as the most important thing when it comes to deciding Taiwan’s future or political issues related to Taiwan? How does the China issue rank when it comes to other issues like wages and housing and immigration?
Wei-Ting Yen: For a lot of voters, especially younger voters, what’s on their mind is definitely not the China issue. So there are a lot of voters that want to focus on domestic issues, such as high housing prices and low wages, which is like a common phenomenon, especially in the post-COVID world across the globe. And so young people in Taiwan are no different from other young people in other nations. They want a government that can be responsive to those livelihood-related issues that are more close to their daily life as opposed to a government only focusing on the China factor that seems to be distant from their daily life, so there is a certain level of sentiment like that in Taiwan’s election.
That being said, I think right now with the way the three-way election works and especially with, you know, the VP nominees in the ruling party as opposed to the VP nominees in the opposition party, Bi-khim Hsiao is very famous for a pro like, you know, [her] pro-Washington stance. On the other hand, the VP nominee from the KMT, which—Jaw Shaw-kang, he is very famous for his pro-China stance.
So I think even though there are a substantial share of voters in Taiwan that prefer to have the election focusing on domestic issues, I think in the last 50 days of the election, we will see the dominating issue going back to the cross-strait relations, unfortunately.
Prayuj Pushkarna: And how does that compare to previous presidential elections in Taiwan? You said “going back” to cross-strait relations. Is this a recurring theme?
Wei-Ting Yen: Yes. So I think the cross-strait relations is the one single most important dominating issue in Taiwan’s elections. And since 1996, when Taiwan had its first presidential election, China’s—the China factor or China has been influencing or trying to make an influence on Taiwan’s election. And so it has always being the one kind of issue that each and every one presidential candidate needs to tackle. And it always ends up being how their different approaches toward China will usually have a significant impact on the election results. And it has always been like this since 1996.
Prayuj Pushkarna: Yeah, that’s I guess it’s it resonates, I think, with the U.S. audience because we hear of Taiwan as constantly sort of in the crosshairs when it comes to U.S.-China relations or threats that the Chinese government makes toward Taiwan.
But sometimes we get mixed messages about how Taiwanese voters or Taiwanese citizens feel about these threats, like when Nancy Pelosi visited last year, there seemed to be a little bit of a divergence in terms of a lot of Americans viewing the situation as very, very tense and precarious. But some people in Taiwan said it’s just another day. Nobody here is super worried that today will be the day that China’s red lines are crossed.
But it does sound like on the macro level, the cross-strait issue is kind of the one that that stays constant even though there are other domestic issues.
Wei-Ting Yen: So, yeah. Sorry, I just want to add one more thing here, is that I think you’re absolutely right in that I think for U.S. voters, when they view what has been happening in Taiwan or cross-strait relations because it has been on the news, especially after Nancy Pelosi’s visit in 2022, people are very all of a sudden kind of worried about, oh, the situation in Taiwan or across the Taiwan Strait is very tense. Is there a possibility for a war, you know, in the coming future?
But what they don’t realize is that this is kind of the status Taiwanese people are living for more than, I don’t know, half a century. And so when you have missiles targeting you ever since 1996 for a presidential election, people kind of live, find a way to cope with that mentally, psychologically. It doesn’t mean they don’t care about it, but with it being a constant threat and when you live in that situation, you don’t interpret tension and threat in the same way, I guess, as outsiders who are viewing this for the first time. I think that’s indeed a very major difference that you capture very well.
Prayuj Pushkarna: Yeah, that makes that makes so much sense almost as just as a survival mechanism. It’s impossible to be in that sort of state of fear for so many decades.
When we think about how at the end of the day, the cross-strait relationship is, if not the biggest issue in the presidential election, at least one of the most major issues, what’s your sense of how people, especially [people] who are dissatisfied with the status quo, kind of view this phenomenon? As in, okay, you know, maybe salaries are too low, housing costs are too high, there might be corruption in the political system—but at the end of the day, none of these issues are as empowered as the cross-strait issue? Especially since we have, as you mentioned, a third-party candidate who is in a very exceptional way in recent history, posing a serious challenge to both the two largest parties, presumably because people want something different, want something new. They don’t want to just keep going back to the same old.
Do you get the sense that there is almost like a fatigue or a disappointment that the cross-strait relationship continues to overshadow other issues, especially for young voters? Especially those who are prone to vote for the third party.
Wei-Ting Yen: Yes. So I think the existence of the third party, the TPP [Taiwan People’s Party], their existence and current running for president definitely signals that there is a portion of voters who are just so tired of having cross-strait relations as the only dominating issue in Taiwan’s national election. And these voters tend to be between [ages] 20 to 29, highly educated male voters. That’s the profile of Ko Wen-je’s base supporters. And those voters—so Ko Wen-je will definitely still get a portion of votes in the presidential election, and we can anticipate that the votes he gets will be the core people who are just tired of cross-strait relations.
But I think for the rest of the voters, especially for older voters, they will still go back to this blue-green kind of divide like the pro-China, anti-China kind of stance. They will fall back to their partisan lines for sure. Yes.
Prayuj Pushkarna: So given that, at least for the majority of the electorate, being pro-China or anti-China is still a factor, and you also mentioned that William Lai of the DPP’s vice presidential pick Bi-khim Hsiao is well known in the United States, how are China and the United States viewing this election? Is it clear in your view, and also in the view of Taiwanese people, that the U.S. and China have their picks, have their hopes?
Wei-Ting Yen: For the upcoming 2024 election, we know that the geopolitical situation in the Indo-Pacific has been changing tremendously in the past couple of years, especially since Biden went into office. And so I think for the United States, they have met, Washington has met with all three candidates, and Washington has made it very clear that they’re very ready to work with any one of them after the election, as long as I think Taiwan remains as a stable partner of the United States, for the region in the region. And Taiwan’s behaviors can remain stable and fit the interest of the United States.
So I think as long as whoever gets elected can maintain the same level of relations with the U.S. as the way it is, I don’t think the United States has any strong preference or wants to interfere in a democratic election in Taiwan.
For China, on the other hand, China has been very clear and has been consistently showing that they dislike the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, and they are hoping for any pro-China opposition, whether it’s the Kuomintang or whether it’s the Taiwan People’s Party. As long as there is a pro-China party ruling Taiwan, they will prefer that over the Democratic Progressive Party. So China has a very strong preference to work with any non-DPP parties, basically.
However, I think with the three-way race, it increases the likelihood for the current ruling party, the DPP, to win the presidency because the opposition parties split their ticket. So in this case, I think China will also have preference from preference for who the legislators are, you know, in the legislative branch, because we can imagine that even if the opposition parties lose the presidency, as long as the legislative branch is not captured by the DPP (the ruling Democratic Progressive Party), you know, it may be evenly distributed across different parties, then it will still give China more leverage to work with more pro-China legislators, or at least to stop some of the anti-China policy bills.
Prayuj Pushkarna: Yeah, that that makes a lot of sense that even if the presidency goes one way, I guess control of the Legislative Yuan is also important for any administration to be able to kind of get its way.
Given that, even if the United States doesn’t necessarily have its preference officially, China’s government has made it very clear that they at least stand against Taiwan and the DPP, and I guess William Lai as well, what is what is the reaction or of Taiwanese voters when there is such a clear preference explicated by the Chinese government? Given that the Chinese government and its relationship with Taiwan is such a huge issue in Taiwanese elections, does this raise eyebrows in Taiwan, like the fact that China really doesn’t want the DPP to be reelected, does that push people toward or away from the DPP in any way?
And then also toward the U.S., I’m curious about Taiwanese voters’ stance. Even if there isn’t any stated preference for parties, the official stance is that the U.S. has been very open to working with all parties, do Taiwanese people believe that or do they view the U.S. as kind of an actor that must have its own interests? And have you found any clear trend in how that is also influencing voters in one way or another? Sorry, that was a long question, so feel free to take that one by one.
Wei-Ting Yen: So let me answer that one by one. Okay. You have a first question that is whether China—how voters in Taiwan view China having a strong preference for what candidates Taiwanese voters should vote for. That’s the first question, okay, let’s answer that first.
So despite [the fact] that China has a very strong preference, very clear what their preferences are, I would say China has learned to actually stay quiet during Taiwan’s presidential election, because in the past couple of elections, China had was kind of active in expressing their preference. And every time that happened, it backfired and then put up the DPP for better electoral outcomes. And so China has learned about this. And so they have stayed quieter during the election season.
Instead, they have been trying different ways to influence Taiwan voters, and the most important piece of effort is through disinformation and misinformation campaign. So they have been trying to use a lot of disinformation to kind of either disengage voters or to spread the anti-U.S. or U.S. skepticism, like the rhetoric around [skepticism toward the U.S.] in Taiwan.
And I think that’s related to your second question because I think there is a certain—the KMT base voters are also very receptive to this skepticism toward the United States, which is, you know, keeping a very skeptical view toward whether the U.S. is truly committed to help Taiwan if there is a conflict between China and Taiwan, and for China’s interest, China doesn’t have to actively say don’t vote for the DPP. But if they can implement—okay not implement—but if they can make people feel that they are skeptical toward the United States, it’s going to be even more effective because people will feel like, oh, there is a low chance for Taiwan to fight against China and without U.S. help, we might as well try to negotiate a peace deal with China.
So that is an indirect way to affect voters. But I think it’s an even more effective way because voters do not directly get any coercion signals from China.
Prayuj Pushkarna: Yeah, that’s so interesting. I think you laid that out so clearly and I’ve never actually heard someone make those logical connections so succinctly. But it does make a lot of sense that if given that most Taiwanese people don’t want a war with China and that the United States security backing is a huge deterrent against China, that lack of faith in the U.S. coming to save Taiwan in a conflict with China would then, I guess, incentivize people to not poke the bear or not provoke China. Those are my words, not yours. But yeah, that’s really interesting.
And I guess it’s also it’s also interesting to hear that China has learned some of those lessons from previous elections where the more explicit anti-DPP messages backfired. I guess in a way, I would imagine that the DPP almost would wish that China would be a little aggressive toward Taiwan in this time to sort of be fully mask off and alienate some voters who are on the fence.
And I just have one more question. Much of our audience is in the United States and most of what we hear about Taiwan and Taiwanese elections is in the context of the U.S.-China relationship. But I would love to know why you think Americans should care about what’s happening in Taiwan and specifically why should Americans pay attention to whatever happens in January in the Taiwanese elections? Or if we should, even?
Wei-Ting Yen: So I think for American voters, they should pay attention to Taiwan’s elections for three reasons.
The first reason is that I think for peace, stability in the Indo-Pacific and also between U.S.-China relations, how [Taiwan] inevitably plays a very critical role there. And so who the next president is has a significant impact on what kind of role Taiwan plays in keeping regional stability. That’s the first reason.
The second reason is that I think it is important to stress that the election of Taiwan as a democracy, I think having a successful democratic election is also important for, I would say, the future of democracy. It seems to be a big statement. But if you think about it, Taiwan is the only democracy in the Chinese-speaking world, and it still is. And it is a self-ruling democracy since 1996, and in this era, we see there so many democracies backsliding. It’s a challenge to sustain democracy. And so I think Taiwan, as an example of a successful democracy in Asia, having another successful democratic election will have implications for the democratic consolidation or the prospect for democracy in the region.
And as I mentioned before, Taiwan is also subject to high level of disinformation, misinformation campaign from China. So observing Taiwan’s election, you know, this is hitting home closely because this misinformation campaign is also a huge thing in the United States. So I think observing how Taiwan runs its election, I think it will have implications for America’s democracy domestically.
And the last point I will make is about prosperity. So we know, especially after the in the post-COVID world or during COVID, we started to learn how sensitive the supply chain issue is. And we know Taiwan is a powerhouse for—a huge supplier for the chips and the semiconductor industry. And so I think that observing Taiwan’s electoral outcome will also send strong signals or implications for, I guess, the future of the world’s prosperity in the years to come. So these are the three main reasons I can think of why American voters should also pay attention to Taiwan’s election.
Prayuj Pushkarna: Thank you so much for laying those out. And those are really, I think, compelling, especially I think a lot of people probably aren’t familiar with the whole story of Taiwan’s democratization and kind of emergence from the four decades long authoritarian period. I mean, I see all these rankings from Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit, and Taiwan is consistently one of the most highly rated, you know, on different, different metrics, whether it’s press freedom or transparency, democratic countries in Asia and the world even.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us Professor in this really enlightening discussion. Really appreciate your time. And thank you everyone for listening.