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Taiwan’s 2024 Elections: What Taiwan can teach the UK about democracy

It’s 8am in Taipei, on the 24th November 2022. This morning as I walk to class, negotiating my way around the noodle carts and motorbikes parked half-way out into the pavement, I am stopped at the crossroads by a local election candidate, brandishing a loudspeaker in one hand and a foam finger pointer in the other. A couple of campaign volunteers lean out of their retro-fitted pick-up truck, handing morning commuters leaflets and badges with a manga-style drawing of their candidate giving a big thumbs up: “讚! zan!”, or “great!” in Mandarin. As I flip the badge over between my fingers, I can’t help but compare the festive scene to our elections back home in the UK. What would my MP look like manga-style on a badge? 

Throughout my year living in Taipei, I was repeatedly struck by the vibrancy of Taiwanese political culture. As a fledgling democracy caught between the US and China, it is perhaps not surprising that people here take voting so seriously. But what caught my attention most was how politicians, like my local candidate, were always out on the streets and listening to their constituents. Coming from the UK, where it often feels like politicians are chronically disengaged from their voters, watching Taiwanese democracy in action was as bittersweet as it was inspiring. 

Just over a year later, Taiwan’s 2024 presidential elections this January saw a series of “firsts”: Taiwan’s voters elected current vice-president Lai Ching-te as president, winning the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) a historically unprecedented third term in office. Joining his party in parliament is also the island’s first openly LGBTQ+ legislator. Most crucially, despite the presidential victory, major DPP losses in the district elections means Taiwan faces a hung parliament for the first time since 2008. Having reached 8 seats in the Legislative Yuan, political newcomer Ko Wen-je and his party the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) will now become a gatekeeper to passing legislation, with both the KMT and DPP vying for an alliance with him. One thing is for certain – Taiwanese politics will look very different in the coming years, and the world will be watching.  

The 2024 calendar is full of significant elections, but many have pointed to Taiwan’s election as critically important. Just across the Taiwan Strait is the People’s Republic of China, which states that the self-governing island is an “inseparable” part of its territory. On the other hand, after more than seventy years of self-rule, Taiwan increasingly sees itself as an independent entity, with a unique blend of cultures, a democratic government, and its own national identity. Amidst tense US-China relations, fears of war and its potential global impacts have been splashed across frontpages worldwide. 

But this narrative Western media tells us of Taiwan, a story of clashing egos and superpowers staking their claims, has blinded much of the world to a simple fact – Taiwan isn’t just a prize piece on a giant geopolitical chessboard; it is home to 23 million people. Whilst the world watched anxiously to see if voters would swing towards the “pro-China” Nationalist Party (KMT) or forge on behind the “pro-Independence” DPP, Taiwanese people were focussed on their own priorities:  low wages, high house prices, and social security – in short, the policies that affect people’s everyday lives. To fully grasp the results of this election, and the implications it may have diplomatically, we must dig beneath sensationalist rhetoric and understand what it is like to live as a Taiwanese person in 2024. 

So how can we understand these results? Party affiliation in Taiwan has long been dominated by identity. The KMT’s base are immigrants from Mainland China and their descendants, who maintain a strong sense of “Chinese” identity. On the other hand, the DPP has its roots in the Taiwanese democracy movement. Touting progressive values, its supporters have been younger and prefer to identify as “Taiwanese”. Although the “identity question” undoubtedly still plays a role in voter decision making – many younger, Taiwanese-identifying voters would be hard-pressed to vote for the KMT – the growing misalignment between the district vote and the presidential vote, as well as the increase in votes for the TPP, reflects how many young voters are prioritising economic policy, and seeking a change in the dynamics driving Taiwanese politics.   

Since no party won a majority of seats in the Legislative Yuan, governance over the next four years will indeed look very different. Despite clinging on to the presidency, the DPP has not entirely managed to escape the “curse” of a third term in government. Serious losses in the district elections have left them with 50 seats to the KMT’s 51. That means passing legislation for both parties will hinge on their ability to strike a deal with the TPP led by Ko Wen-je. Having achieved eight seats in the Legislative Yuan, Ko may be the biggest winner of this year’s election. Many young Taiwanese in the high-tech sector were driven away from the DPP by rising house prices and falling wages, and drawn to Ko’s promise of finding a middle-ground on cross-strait relations. As the centre of gravity for his party-cum-social movement, Ko will play the role of “Kingmaker”, with both the DPP and KMT in with a chance of courting him on a policy-by-policy basis. Ko has history with both parties – he even attempted to form a joint ticket with the KMT last November – so which party he will choose to collaborate with remains up in the air. 

The biggest risk for Taiwanese democracy is a weak government. For the past eight years, the DPP majority has been able to push through legislation with relatively little difficulty. Now, effective governance will depend on cross-party collaboration. Voters will recall with trepidation Taiwan’s last divided government in 2008, overshadowed by hostile inter-party relations. However, Taiwan watchers have pointed to important social reforms, such as gender equality legislation, that came out of this period. More negotiation on core issues could lead to novel solutions and consensus forming. How the main parties communicate with each other over the next few months, and whether the TPP can maintain its independence as a “Third Front”, will give crucial clues as to the likelihood of this scenario. 

With the threat of Chinese intervention, voters have also had a choice to make about which party they believe offers the best strategy for maintaining the status quo. The KMT prioritises warmer cross-strait relations, playing to domestic concerns of job losses following a suspension of favourable trade conditions by the Mainland in December. DPP supporters believe the party’s strategy of strengthening ties with the US and global democratic community offers the best deterrent against military intervention. Lai’s election promises a continuation of his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen’s diplomatic policy and is evidence that many voters support Taiwan taking a more prominent role on the world stage. 

Last week the US senate had passed a $95 billion aid package, including $4.3 billion earmarked for the defence of Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific region. This example of all-to-rare bipartisan collaboration is encouraging news for Lai, who sees the US-Taiwan security partnership as crucial for maintaining the island’s freedom.

But Lai is not without his critics, and anti-American sentiment is on the rise. TSMC, Taiwan’s world-class semiconductor chip manufacturers, made a recent decision to establish a factory in the US, which drew accusations that the US was seeking to “hollow out Taiwan”. Moreover, as the DPP refuses to accept the 1992 Consensus, which states that there is only “one China”, it is likely Beijing will continue to refuse to communicate with a DPP administration. Under these circumstances, it is hard to see how Lai will fulfil his commitment to developing cross-strait relations. 

It is important to beware of sensationalist articles about Lai. It is true that he was not China’s favoured candidate – the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has attacked Lai as a “destroyer of peace” and claim that Lai and the DPP “do not represent mainstream public opinion on the island”. When it comes to talking about Taiwan’s international status, wording is crucial, and in the past Lai has been more provocative on the subject than his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen. Particularly, Lai’s 2017 comments in which he described himself as “a pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence” crossed Beijing’s red-line of advocating for the formal declaration of the island’s independence. However, on the campaign trail Lai has stuck to Tsai’s formula, treading a line of ambiguity to insist that there is no need to declare independence since Taiwan is “already an independent sovereign state named The Republic of China, Taiwan”. This, too, is testament to the culture of listening in Taiwanese politics. Surveys show most Taiwanese people want to maintain the status-quo with China, and as a representative of the whole nation Lai has committed to govern by majority public opinion, whatever his own views may be. 

What we do know is that Lai’s election does not immediately increase the risk of conflict with the PRC. Beijing’s response so far has been measured, simply reiterating their position that the results: “will not change the basic fact that Taiwan is part of China and there is only one China in the world.” Amid record youth unemployment, high inflation and corruption in the army, Beijing’s priority over the near future is to maintain external stability amid economic headwinds domestically. A split government will be a big reassurance to Xi, as decisions on cross-strait policy and military spending will likely hit a stalemate in the Legislative Yuan. That’s not to say Beijing won’t be keeping up its pressure on the island. All-out military intervention might be off the cards, but a foreign policy dispute could provide Xi a welcome distraction from China’s internal dilemmas. 

As we reflect on these elections, we can of course learn a lot about the current social and political trends at play in Taiwan, from growing disillusionment with the 2 major political parties to the focus on day to day issues. But for me, the real lessons to be learned go beyond the results, and instead come from Taiwanese democracy as a whole. For sure, politics in Taiwan is not perfect; online misinformation, hyper-partisanism, and distrust of the political establishment have emerged here as they have in all modern democracies. However, Taiwanese people’s commitment to the democratic process, with a 72% turnout rate, stands in stark opposition to the US and the UK. Looking back to when I frequently saw candidates out on the streets, it occurs to me that it is precisely politicians’ commitment to being amongst their voters that makes politics feel more participative there. If you saw your representative chatting to voters on your street corner, you would probably be more inclined to think they were in touch with local issues too. There is a lot for UK politicians to take away from how the Taiwanese do democracy. Maybe it’s time for some manga-style Starmer badges?

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