Taiwan’s Political Landscape after the 2024 Elections
On January 13, 2024, Taiwanese voters elected the island’s 8th president, William Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Securing just over 40 percent of votes, the DPP’s victory marked the third consecutive presidency by a DPP candidate – much to the displeasure of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Meanwhile, the Chinese Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang, or KMT) received 33.5 percent of the votes, experiencing a decrease from previous elections. This can partly be attributed to the rise of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which garnered 26.5 percent, hollowing out the KMT’s share. The TPP’s Ko Wen-je emerged as a critical third candidate, demonstrating the increasing influence of new political factions within the long-standing two-party-system since Taiwan’s democratization in the late 1980s. With the centrist TPP offering a distinct agenda directed at economic prosperity, social welfare and political security, particularly the younger generations of voters welcomed the opportunity for a third alternative.

January 13th was not only a day for presidential elections, but also saw elections for the 113-seat legislature, known as the “Legislative Yuan”. In Taiwan, these elections hold particular significance as the president’s ability to govern greatly depends on legislative cooperation. While the head of state may initiate policy proposals as well as executive actions, grand decisions such as passage of laws and budgetary considerations require legislative consent. For the first time since 2016, the DPP failed to secure an outright majority, which means the party is now poised to enter into a phase of cooperation with the other political factions. Remarkably, with the DPP securing 51 seats, the KMT 52, and the TPP eight (other seats being won by independents), the TPP now finds itself as an important “middle man” between the DPP and KMT.

When asked about the elections in Taiwan, Professor Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik from the University of Vienna’s Department of East Asian Studies suggests that Taiwanese voters opted for a “weak” president – in lacking a parliamentary majority and requiring collaboration with other parties. This new political landscape raises questions about the DPP’s ability to pursue its agenda, particularly concerning support for Taiwanese independence, as enshrined in their party statute. With the new legislative constellation, any official “declaration of independence” would now require support by other parties. What may come as a surprise to the West, however, is that Taiwan’s independence and relations with the PRC received relatively little attention during the presidential campaigns, with the focus primarily lying on domestic issues and socio-economic reforms. This naturally raises the question: have the Taiwanese learned to live with this “fear” from the mainland? The majority of Taiwan’s population remains in favor of maintaining the Status Quo when asked about this issue. Furthermore, despite differing campaign rhetoric, all presidential candidates – including the mainland-friendlier KMT – emphasized the importance of maintaining peaceful and stable relations with the PRC. The outcomes of the 2024 elections thus reflect two things: a shift in voter preferences as well as a newly emerged nuanced interplay between party dynamics. This may become a crucial factor in geopolitical considerations.

Beijing’s Response to the Elections
Under Xi Jinping, tensions across the Taiwan Strait have escalated significantly. His government has undertaken major military modernization, intensified its activities in the South China Sea, and voiced ambitions for “unification” with Taiwan on several occasions – turning it into a crucial element of the ideological imperative driving the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. On election day, a high-altitude balloon was detected near Taiwan’s Northern coast. Two days later, the Pacific Island state Nauru terminated its diplomatic relations with the island in favor of establishing ties with the PRC. This tactic of diplomatic isolation has already been employed by the PRC during former president Tsai Ing-wen’s tenure, resulting in ten countries switching their allegiance – a rate significantly higher than during KMT administrations. The PRC labeled the newly elected president Lai a dangerous “separatist” and rebuked the United States (US), Japan, and certain European nations for their interactions with Taiwan and congratulatory messages to Lai. A Chinese spokesperson reiterated that the fundamental fact of “there being but one China and Taiwan being part of it” remains unchanged, “regardless of whatever developments may occur on the island”. Targeted (international) trade measures, such as investigations into Taiwanese compliance with the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) governing ties with the PRC, have also been recurrent. Nevertheless, Beijing’s direct responses to the elections have not markedly deviated from previous years.

Just a few weeks later, however, on May 20th, Lai’s official inauguration took place. In his inauguration speech, the new president directly called on China to “cease intimidation” and urged Beijing to take on its global responsibility of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. He highlighted China’s military actions and gray-zone coercion as the “greatest challenges” to global peace and stability. Lai also asserted that the ROC (Taiwan) and PRC are “not subordinate to each other,” signaling his stance on Taiwan’s sovereignty. These remarks were sharply condemned by the Chinese mainland, with officials such as PRC’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office’s Chen Bin-hua expressing strong opposition. In response, China has increased its military drills encircling the island as a form of “punishment.” What actions will be taken next remains to be seen, as geopolitical tensions continue to escalate.

Looking back, Cross-Strait relations experienced a serious downturn during Tsai’s tenure. Adopting an “economic decoupling” strategy, ties with the Chinese mainland were actively weakened. The New Southbound Policy of 2016 aimed at bolstering cultural and economic links with Taiwan’s neighbors in South and Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, including support for Taiwanese businesses and diplomatic initiatives in the region. With the PRC remaining Taiwan’s top trade partner and many Taiwanese firms heavily relying on mainland partners, the long-term success of this initiative is still uncertain.

The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) similarly depends on cooperation with the PRC. In opposition to national and global urges, TSMC’s chief executives have been wary of diversifying production locations to the US, Japan and Germany due to higher costs, and are thus striving to maintain Taiwan as the primary production site. As economic actors in Taiwan are growing uneasy about political decisions by their government, Weigelin-Schwiedrzik suggests that this may hint at a dangerous divergence within the elite, possibly aligning with Beijing’s objectives. The Global Taiwan Institute similarly describes a “United Front Subversion” in terms of exercising control over individuals and social groups outside the ranks of political parties as a fundamental pillar of the CCP’s strategy towards Taiwan. This may include financial and media support for pro-annexation figures, cultivating local political leaders through subsidized trips to the PRC, as well as increasing their influence over institutions in Taiwan.

The (In)Security of US Guarantees
Under President Joe Biden, the US maintained neutrality regarding Taiwan’s 2024 elections. Despite a substantial naval presence in the region and legal commitments to secure Taiwan’s self-defense under the Taiwan Relations Act, the specifics of US support in the event of a mainland attack remain vague, following with the long US tactic of strategic ambiguity. It is also uncertain whether Japan, hosting a significant portion of US troops, would engage in a potential conflict. Taiwan’s actions hinge on the outcome of US elections. A clarification of US support may embolden Taiwan to take risks, however, as we saw, the new parliamentary conditions complicate this prospect to a great extent.

International Security Concerns
In light of the recent developments under Xi Jinping’s leadership, many observers fear to what extent the PRC will escalate tensions. Furthermore, uncertainties surrounding US support combined with the approaching elections add an additional layer of unpredictability. The PRC’s reiterated calls for “reunification”, increased number of military drills, and harder rhetoric towards Taiwan have long attracted international security concerns. When asked about factors that may not have received enough attention, Weigelin-Schwiedrzik highlights the following two considerations: Taiwan being a “democracy under stress” facing major international pressure and Xi Jinping’s specific goal of unification. The media tends to overlook the fact that Taiwan’s democratic system is fairly young and may not be as flawless as commonly portrayed. Hence, questionable actions from Taiwan may result from this. Another concern Weiglin-Schwiedrzik mentions is regarding Xi’s specific goal of unification growing more unsettling as his age advances. In fact, with his firm stance, the pressure on him personally has only intensified. Considering Chinese political culture paired with Xi’s leadership style and personal legacy, a significant shift in policy towards Taiwan would likely require a change in leadership. While Weigelin-Schwiedrzik perceives specific predictions of when “China would strike” as irrelevant, she believes these factors are crucial to consider – for Taiwan, the PRC and the rest of the world.

Written by Fiona Haiwen Rischka, Edited by Maryam Sindi
Photo credit: leannstills, Unsplash