Waiting for the Taiwanese Trump
Taiwan’s election results show a broad dissatisfaction with the existing political establishment, but no clear path forward.
The polls ahead of Taiwan’s January 13 election proved correct—if anything, they underestimated the support that William Lai would eventually receive. Lai’s victory via plurality—40 percent versus 33 percent for Kuomintang candidate Hou Yu-ih and 26 percent for third-party candidate Ko Wen-je—is certainly less impressive than the dominant victories that incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen achieved in 2020 and 2016, when she won 57 and 56 percent respectively. This can be, and has been, attributed to voter fatigue with eight years of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rule.
However, despite the diminishing returns for the pro-independence DPP of Lai and Tsai, it must be noted that the more soft-line Kuomintang (KMT) failed to grow its support, with the moderate New Taipei City Mayor Hou earning even fewer votes and a smaller percentage than the 2020 nominee, the charismatic but abrasive Han Kuo-yu. The loss of votes on the DPP’s side thus appears attributable to Ko, who declared himself “deep-green” (a supporter of Taiwan’s independence) in his heart, even as he cast both of the major parties as part of the problem and not the solution. In that light, it stands to reason that those who share the DPP’s urge to promote a separate identity for Taiwan, but are dissatisfied with the results domestically, would see Ko rather than Han as the preferred alternative.
That said, the KMT’s streak of success in local elections, starting in fall 2022 continued with their surpassing of the DPP in the Legislative Yuan. Neither party has captured a majority outright—the KMT have 52 seats to the DPP’s 51, and a minimum 57 is required for a majority—while Ko’s Taiwan People’s Party is expected to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with the KMT. This is bad news for Lai, as it will stymie his governing agenda and hinder his ability to shore up the DPP’s domestic weaknesses. It also represents good news for the center-right KMT at the local level, who appear likely to capitalize on the general sense of malaise.
Yet can the KMT translate this into an island-wide result at some point? The DPP’s success in presidential elections—having now won three in a row—is unprecedented since Taiwan began direct presidential elections in 1996, and cross-strait policy remains their ace in the hole. Since Tsai’s first successful campaign for office Taiwanese voters have rejected an explicitly pro-China KMT (in 2016), one who played up economic ties while rejecting Beijing’s calls for a “one country, two systems” model (a la Hong Kong), and now Hou, who vowed to defend Taiwan’s democracy from both China’s interference and its military, even while keeping channels of communication open with them and eschewing formal independence.
The KMT’s continued failure to make inroads at the executive level suggests voters continue to distrust China, and by extension the party that most wants better relations with them. This, combined with their continued success in legislative and mayoral elections, suggests the country’s politics are ripe for re-alignment.
Will this actually take place? A center-right candidate that shares the DPP’s determination to foster a distinct Taiwanese identity might be able to win a general election—the question is whether it could overcome the party’s old guard, such as the former President Ma Ying-jeou, whose declarations that Taiwan would have to trust Xi Jinping probably gave the Hou campaign conniptions in the days before the vote.
Two lessons come to mind: Ahead of the 2016 presidential election in the United States, Republican voters signaled clearly at the local level that they wanted a change—that the GOP establishment characterized by the Bush dynasty, expansive foreign policy commitments and a trade policy that disregarded the median Republican voter was not what they wanted. The party’s standard-bearer in that election reflected those concerns, ultimately overcoming establishment opposition thanks to his rapport with the base and by refusing to be cowed by more famous Republican officeholders’ chastisement.
Today, while the older breed of establishment Republican is still out there, it is very much Donald Trump’s party, and talk of nation-building and multilateral trade agreements is foreign to the party’s thinking.
An example closer to home for Taiwan would be Tsai herself. As hard as it is to believe now, the DPP was once the party that could not find the pulse of the Taiwanese public. The party’s first president, Chen Shui-bian (2000–08) had left office under a cloud of unpopularity (not to mention corruption scandals). Its leftist inclinations and Chen’s own calls for a referendum on independence had earned a rebuke from the White House and a reputation for dangerous radicalism. Ma’s first successful presidential campaign ran up margins similar to those of Tsai’s, and he actually handily defeated Tsai in her first quest for the presidential residence in 2012.
Yet analysts have noted Tsai’s behind-the-scenes work to take the party in a new, more technocratic direction the public would find more palatable—though at a cost, as interest groups the DPP once spoke for no longer feel represented. It also must be noted that Tsai, while firmly in favor of Taiwan as an independent country (and thus persona non grata in Beijing), has declined to poke the dragon throughout her time in office: never threatening to declare independence formally, regularly offering assistance to the outside world irrespective of whether they recognize Taiwan diplomatically, and continually declaring herself open to dialogue with (and even aid to) Beijing. Such moves may have done nothing to temper views of her party among the Chinese Communist Party, but they were surely noticed in Washington and elsewhere. Beijing may consider Tsai dangerous, but few others do.
The question now is whether there are any figures in KMT circles who can accomplish a similar image makeover. It may not be populist in tone—Taiwan already had its Trumpian moment in the ill-fated Han Kuo-yu campaign—but there are voters in Taiwan looking for a voice, if someone out there can connect with them and has the fortitude to challenge the KMT old guard.
If a center-right candidate emerges who reflects the desire of Taiwanese independence, Beijing will truly be in a bind—one they cannot solve by mere poaching of diplomatic partners.