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Review Apr 10, 2024

China review 2024-1. Elections in Taiwan. China‘s Reaction and Upcoming Challenges

Photo source: Alastair PIKE / AFP

The significance of Taiwan’s elections and new challenges

The presidential and parliamentary (Legislative Yuan, 立法院) elections of the Republic of China (Taiwan) took place on 13 January without any major intrigue. Out of three candidates, Lai Ching-te (賴清德), the vice-president of outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), was elected President of Taiwan. Meanwhile, Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), Taiwan’s representative to the US and the self-coined ‘cat fighter’[1], would be the new Vice President. Despite the ‘political bomb’ detonated by the announced formation of a presidential elections alliance by the candidates of the  Nationalist Party (better known as the Kuomintang, KMT, 國民黨)[2] and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 民眾黨), previously hostile to each other, which unsurprisingly only lasted a few days, it was a victory for a candidate who, in all of the election period, maintained the lead in the opinion polls. The new President and Vice-President are due to be sworn in on 20 May.

At the same time, Taiwan’s 113-seat[3] parliamentary elections, which are more closely linked to public sentiment and voters‘ assessment of the outgoing party‘s performance indomestic politics, showed that the new president of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) will have a difficult term: in Taiwan’s 11th Parliament, no party will have a parliamentary majority. According to the Central Electoral Committee, the election was won by the Kuomintang (46.02%, 52 seats), followed by the Democratic Progressive Party (45.13%, 51 seats), with the Taiwan People’s Party in third place (7.08%, 8 seats), followed by independent candidates (1.77%, 2 seats).


Fig. 1: Composition of the 11th Parliament of Taiwan. Source: Central Electoral Committee, Legislative Yuan

Despite the rigid[4] electoral system in Taiwan, the voter turnout (71.28%) is quite impressive (in comparison, the turnout during the 2020 Lithuanian Seimas elections was 47.81%). Nevertheless, this year’s turnout was the second lowest in the country’s electoral history (after the 2016 elections). A voter turnout of more than 3% less than in the previous year indicates that pragmatic choices led people to the ballot box. It seems that despite the efforts of the Chinese and Taiwanese opposition parties to portray the elections as a referendum between peace and war (a narrative that has also been used extensively by the foreign media), the clanging of guns has not led to a surge in electoral turnout.

Election year Presidential Elections Parliamentary Elections
2024 71.86% (-3.04%) 71.28% (-3.65%)
2020 74.90% 74.93%
2016 66.27% 66.34%
2012 74.38% 74.47%

Fig. 2: Electoral turnout from 2012 to 2024. Source: Central Electoral Committee

Key highlights

1. Lai – the minority president. Lai’s victory is historic; his DPP is the first party whose president has won more than two consecutive terms in office. On the other hand, however, he only managed to win 40.05% of the vote. (In comparison, Tsai Ing-wen won 57.13% of the vote in the 2020 elections.) This shows that Lai Ching-te’s starting position is significantly weaker, which means there will be a number of challenges at the beginning of his presidency that will require firm decisions, especially the ones tackling domestic issues. On the other hand, the popular and internationally well-known former Taiwanese representative to the US, Hsiao Bi-khim, made a significant contribution to Lai’s victory, which is a good reflection of the electorate’s mood: the desire to see the continuity of the Tsai-era foreign policy, to see a close and active relationship with the US and other Western partners, and to preserve the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. It is this President/Vice President combination that has proved to be the most capable in maintaining this direction for the majority of voters.

2. Continuity of the DPP’s foreign policy. Perhaps one of the keywords in post-election speeches and analysts’ assessments was ‘continuity’. However, the DPP’s relatively weaker starting position signals that the public is more divided and that much more attention will be needed to correct the past administration’s mistakes in domestic politics while maintaining the overall foreign policy trajectory launched by Tsai.

3. The effectiveness of the new Parliament will depend on the success of consensus-building. The 11th Legislative Yuan faces a difficult time of political debate and consensus-building. Compared to the last elections, the KMT won 14 more seats, the TPP gained 3 seats, while the DPP lost 10 seats. The KMT has a total of 54 MPs (with the addition of 2 independent MPs), while the TPP has decided to remain a third force and did not join any coalition. The election results show that the dominance of the DPP and the KMT in the political arena, which has prevailed so far, is being changed by the emergence of a third choice – the TPP. In the new parliament, it is this party that will assume the role of a ‘wild card’ and play a critical role in important votes – in particular, presumably, in the areas of foreign policy, China–Taiwan relations, and security policy, where the views of the KMT and the DPP may be fundamentally different. On the other hand, the situation in domestic politics is different; in health, education and other areas, we can expect much more political unity.

The challenges of not having a majority in Parliament have been demonstrated by this Parliament from the very first days, for example, in the election of the new Speaker of Parliament. As the DPP did not have a majority, its candidate – the former Speaker of Parliament – failed to secure the required number of votes. Meanwhile, the TPP has decided to show its third-force stance in this situation by nominating its own candidate which had no chance to be elected. In the final vote, all TPP MPs decided to refrain from voting for other party’s candidates, so the victory went to the majority-holding KMT’s heavyweight Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), a controversial political figure, even within his own party, who represents the interests of the ‘deep blue’[5] group of voters. For Eric Chu (朱立倫), the KMT’s chairman who belongs to the more moderate branch of the party, this could create additional challenges. Han’s becoming the Speaker of Parliament will undoubtedly complicate the situation in Parliament.

China’s Reaction to the Elections

With the maintenance of the Democratic Progressive Party’s hold of the Executive Yuan[6] (行政院) and the emphasis on continuity, it is already relatively clear what can be expected from China – a continuity of aggressive and uncompromising policies. A few days after the elections, China carried out the now routine air manoeuvres off the coast of Taiwan.

The DPP President’s victory is undoubtedly unfavourable to Beijing, as can be seen from the tough tone. On 17 January, Chen Binhua (陈斌华), spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, reassured that the results of the Taiwan elections did not change the fact of future reunification of China and Taiwan. Chen also assured that “our pledge not to renounce the use of force is absolutely not directed against our compatriots in Taiwan. We are targeting the interference of external forces and the tiny group of Taiwan independence separatists and their separatist actions.”

Tensions have also heated up considerably following the incident off the Kinmen Islands on 14 February, in which a Chinese fishing boat overturned while being pursued by a Taiwanese coastguard vessel for illegally crossing Taiwanese waters, resulting in the death of two Chinese fishermen. Zhu Fenglian (朱凤莲), a spokeswoman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, aimed the accusations directly at the DPP, claiming that “the party is using all kinds of excuses to forcibly detain Chinese fishing boats and take dangerous and aggressive actions against Chinese fishermen.” However, this event represents a change from the status quo where both China and Taiwan used to abide by unwritten rules on territorial sea lines, which can be attributed to Taiwan’s election results and the DPP’s staying in power. According to Li Wen (李問), Director of the DPP’s Department of International Affairs, Taiwan’s disregard for the conventions and the blurring lines of its territorial waters are a cause for great concern. According to Li, “All of this reflects the broader context of Beijing’s aggressive actions, including the frequent crossings of the median line of the Taiwan Strait by Chinese troops, and now the waters near the Kinmen Islands”.

China ‘Two Sessions’

It would be very difficult to expect a change in China’s attitude in the wake of the Taiwan election results. The government work report presented by the new Prime Minister Li Qiang (李强) at the ‘Two Sessions[7]’ at the beginning of March did not stand out at first glance for its format, which traditionally touches on Taiwan only in a vague way. However, China’s anger over the Taiwanese elections can be partly seen from its content. The 2024 Government Work Report continues to have a tough tone on Taiwan. Compared to the 2023 report, the mention of ‘peaceful development’ in the guidelines for the overall policy towards Taiwan could have even brought some positivity. However, one small but significant detail was that the phrase ‘peaceful reunification’ used in the 2023 report was paraphrased in 2024 as ‘Chinese reunification’. Avoiding the word ‘peaceful’ signals that tensions between Taiwan and China will certainly continue to manifest themselves in economic, military and diplomatic pressure. Moreover, China’s tough and uncompromising stance towards Taiwan is also reflected in the change from ‘should’ to ‘will’ in last year’s report.

However, in the current context, when a ‘peaceful reunification’ between Taiwan and China is becoming more than ever unimaginable, and when the Taiwanese identity is undergoing a transformation, Beijing will be forced to reconsider its strategy, as the aggressive measures that have prevailed so far have been counterproductive. This is well reflected in Xi Jinping’s (习近平) recent speech, which emphasised the strengthening of patriotic and pro-reunification forces in Taiwan and the need to “win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese society”. In the short term, however, China’s aggressive military position in the Taiwan Strait and its foreign policy towards Taiwan will not ease. The priorities will remain to isolate Taiwan as much as possible in the international arena, to woo Taiwan’s diplomatic partners, and to exert multiple pressures on other countries that are developing closer relationships with Taiwan.


[1] Hsiao popularised the epithet of Taiwan’s diplomatic style in response to China’s aggressive ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy.

[2] TPP candidate Ko’s negative attitude towards the Kuomintang has been known before.  He has said in the past that there are three things he hates most in life: mosquitoes, cockroaches and Kuomintang.

[3] The Legislative Yuan comprises 73 seats directly elected in single-mandate districts and 34 on a list prepared by the parties and composed of at least half women. The remaining 6 seats are reserved for local (non-Han Chinese) candidates, who are also divided into two groups: Indigenous people from the Highlands and Lowlands (three seats each).

[4] Absentee ballot is not legal in Taiwan, and there is no possibility of voting in advance or by post. Citizens living abroad return to Taiwan to perform their civic duty during elections. The debate on the legalisation of a more flexible system is ongoing, with the KMT and the TPP recently proposing a related bill, while the DPP has criticised the idea on the grounds that such changes could increase the risk of Chinese interference in Taiwan’s elections, due to its large Taiwanese population in China.

[5] The KMT’s party colour is blue, so the ‘deep blue’ faction describes a group within the party that advocates strengthening relations with China and maintaining its historical/cultural roots with China. This still influential group is largely made up of descendants of Chinese who fled mainland China for Taiwan after the civil war.

[6] The President of Taiwan has the discretion (no parliamentary approval required) to appoint the Prime Minister, who is responsible for the composition of the government (proposals are made directly to the President). For this reason, the DPP’s presidential victory means that the party will also form the government.

[7] Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and National People’s Congress.

Associate Expert of RESC China Research Program, PhD student at VU Institute of International Relations and Political Science. Raigirdas holds a bachelor’s degree in Asian and Pacific Studies (Chinese Studies) from Lancashire Central University (UK). After studying, he went to China, where he spent five years studying and working. Raigirdas completed a year-long intensive Chinese language and culture course at the Sichuan University (Confucius Institute Scholarship). In 2020, he graduated from Sichuan University (China) with a Master’s degree in International Relations in Chinese. Raigirdas interests: sinology, Chinese foreign and domestic policy, history of the PRC, relations and conflicts between East Asian countries.