Analysing international policy processes and Lithuania’s role in them
Review Dec 27, 2023

The 2024 Taiwanese Presidential Elections: A Choice Between War and Peace?

Photo source: Midjourney AI

On 13 January 2024, Taiwan will hold presidential and legislative elections. This time, the political spectacle is extremely dramatic, with the opinion polls showing that the race is going to be tight. With no candidate having a strong lead, the main political parties are entrenched in their own political ideologies and visions in order to consolidate their main support bases. The presidential elections are particularly under the spotlight because of the influence that the president has on the country’s foreign policy and, notably, on Cross-Strait relations. The aim of this analytical review is to explain the powers that the current ROC constitution gives to the president and to provide an overview of the candidates running for the president and their attitudes towards Cross-Strait ties.

The President: powers and responsibilities

Authoritarian rule in the Republic of China (Taiwan, ROC) ended when the Taiwanese political system was substantially reformed in the 1990s. In its current shape, the ROC political system can be defined as a semi-presidential, with the Central Government consisting of five branches: Executive Yuan (the formulation and implementation of policies), Legislative Yuan (enactment and review of the legislation, as well as conducting policy hearings, budgetary bills and government operations), Examination Yuan (management of the civil service system), Judicial Yuan (supervision of the court system) and the Control Yuan (impeachment of officials and the auditioning of government agencies).

Historically, the presidency was a personalised rather than an institutionalised role (which was the case throughout Chiang Kai-shek’s rule), and it was only in 1996 that the ROC held its first direct presidential elections. Currently, the previous Chiang-era presidential powers have notably weakened, and the responsibilities are divided among other branches including the Legislative Yuan, whose operational mechanism now largely corresponds to other parliaments in democratic countries. The President and Vice President (a ceremonial role with no exclusive power) are directly elected, serve a term of four years, and may be re-elected for one additional term.

According to the ROC Constitution, The President of the ROC is the head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. His responsibilities relate to foreign affairs. He is also empowered to appoint the heads of four branches of the government and must report to the Legislative Yuan. According to the President’s official website, the President is responsible for determining major policies in relation to national security, such as national defence, foreign affairs and Cross-Strait (referring to the PRC-ROC) relations. However, the president also has an exclusive right that can be exercised independently: the power to appoint and remove the Prime Minister (head of government – Executive Yuan) without the parliament’s approval. The Prime Minister, consequently, appoints heads of the ministries, agencies and commissions under the Executive Yuan (and forms the Executive Yuan Council).

As mentioned above, the President is responsible for formulating the country’s Cross-Strait policy, and the formulation of this policy plays a crucial role in voters’ considerations. The Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) is an authorised agency that is responsible for the overall planning and handling of Mainland affairs. According to the MAC website, the President, along with the Executive Yuan, oversees Cross-Strait policies and it is this contentious sphere that is giving the presidential elections their significance and leading to deep domestic divisions.

2024 Presidential Elections: who are the candidates?

After the Oscar-worthy drama among the opposition that culminated in the live-streamed spat between the parties and the failure of efforts to form a joint ticket, three candidates have successfully registered for the presidential elections: Ko Wen-je (Taiwan People’s Party, TPP), Hou Yu-ih (Chinese Nationalist Party, better known as Kuomintang, KMT) and Lai Ching-te (Democratic Progressive Party, DPP). All three of the parties have different power bases, with often significantly different views on Taiwan’s future. As was explained in the previous part, the President is responsible for foreign affairs and, notably, Cross-Strait relations; therefore the main battle revolves around competing views of Taiwan’s identity, its place in the world and how the country should conduct its relationship with the PRC. While domestic scandals and the economic underperformance undoubtedly have some influence on candidates’ approval rating, the aforementioned foreign-related considerations play one of the key roles (although Taiwanese voters are also considering their proposed policies for domestic issues, such as housing, the labour market and energy security).

  Ko Wen-je
(柯文哲)
Hou Yu-ih
(侯友宜)
Lai Ching-te
(賴清德)
Political affiliation Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) Kuomintang (KMT) Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)
Running mate Wu Hsin-ying Jaw Shau-kong Hsiao Bi-khim
Current occupation Chairman of the TPP Mayor of New Taipei City (since 2018) – Vice-President of the ROC (Taiwan)
– Chairman of the DPP
Occupation prior to a political career Physician, Professor Police Chief Physician
Previous political experience – Mayor of Taipei City (2014-2022) – Deputy Mayor of New Taipei City (2010-2018)
– Acting Mayor of New Taipei City (2015 October – 2016 January)
– Member of the Legislative Yuan (1999-2010)
– Mayor of Tainan (2010-2017)
– Premier of the ROC (2017-2019)

Graph 1: The main contestants in the 2024 Presidential Elections. Compiled by the author.

To a certain extent, the recently published approval ratings have diminished the intrigue and excitement that was observed before the vice-presidential announcements and formal registration. Recent polls suggest that the elections are, once again, going to be a typical KMT-DPP battle. The KMT’s candidate seems to have been quite successful in consolidating the KMT voter base, as opposed to Ko Wen-je, who was once a strong contender and a threat to the KMT but is now trailing well behind.

Graph 2: Presidential candidates’ approval ratings. Source: The Economist

An insight into the Cross-Strait relations: how the parties view the “1992 Consensus”?

Since it came into existence in 2000, the so-called “1992 Consensus” has remained perhaps the most controversial term in Taiwanese politics. Over time, it became underpinned by various contentious issues, until even its existence became questionable due to the fact that in 2006, former MAC Chairman Su Chi admitted to making the term up in 2000. Notably, China has not made it clear exactly how it sees such a consensus and whether it even acknowledges its existence.

The so-called “1992 Consensus” refers to the outcome of the meeting, held in Hong Kong, between Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS). After being unable to build a common basis to kickstart the broader negotiations on Cross-Strait relations, the two parties agreed to orally state their position on “One China” (an “agreement” by the KMT and CCP that there is only one China, but what that “China” entails rests on different interpretations). In 2008, the “1992 Consensus” was transformed into a policy and adopted by President Ma Ying-jeou (KMT). The Consensus played an important role in achieving progress in the Cross-Straits engagement: at the first meeting between the ROC and the PRC presidents in 2015, both sides particularly emphasised the importance of the “1992 Consensus”.

While the “1992 Consensus” has never received wide public support, over time, Beijing’s assertiveness and its crackdown on Hong Kong have further affected the public perception toward it. A significant blow, as is often emphasised by the DPP, was made by Xi Jinping himself who, in his 2019 speech, tied the 1992 Consensus with “One Country Two Systems” – the Beijing-supported “mechanism” that is applied in Hong Kong, but is overwhelmingly rejected by both the major Taiwanese parties and the population as a whole. However, the Consensus remains a hot topic, where each candidate’s views towards it can help us to understand his vision regarding Cross-Strait ties.

KMT: an “unconventional” Hou, with a not-so Shaw

The KMT’s attitude towards cross-Strait relations, to a large extent, can be understood through its support of the “1992 Consensus”. It still enjoys support within the “blue camp”; however, some changes and softening over time have become evident, mostly as a response to drastic changes in the society’s perception. The KMT’s presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih, a moderate within his party, has demonstrated his carefully calculated approach to sensitive issues, often deviating from the established party lines. For a long time, he has been rather vague concerning his views of the “1992 Consensus”l however, given the level of approval within the KMT base, on 4 July he made his position clear by reiterating his support for the Consensus “that conforms with the ROC Constitution”. In other words, Hou supports communication and closer exchanges with the PRC while, at the same time, maintaining the status quo and the continuation of the “One China, Two Respective Interpretations” approach. During his campaign, Hou also introduced the “3Ds Strategy” to manage Cross-Strait relations, namely: Deterrence, Dialogue and De-escalation.

While Hou’s moderate stance might be attractive to “light blue” and non-partisan voters, a slightly different (but strategic) direction was chosen with his vice-presidential choice. Once a political rising star, Jaw Shaw-kong, a controversial pro-KMT political commentator with a previous career in local politics, was chosen to be Hou’s running mate who has recently returned to the KMT after 30 years away. As a child of Chinese parents, he represents the KMT’s “Mainland faction” (waishengren, referring to the descendants of people who came from China after 1945 but before 1987). This is markedly in contrast with Hou, who has a Taiwanese family background (benshengren, referring to the descendants of Taiwanese settlers before or during the Japanese colonisation). He is often seen as a staunch unification supporter, who promotes closer cooperation between the two sides and emphasises that there is no need to fight, because “Chinese people do not fight other Chinese people”. While this choice is likely to detract some moderates from the “blue camp”, it will surely help to consolidate the “deep blue” KMT base that was not overly supportive of Hou and his moderate and flexible stance (as well as his benshengren identity).

TPP: A blue(ish) alternative?

With his first steps into politics, Ko Wen-je was closely associated with the independence-leaning “green camp” (in the 2014 Taipei mayoral elections, he was endorsed by the DPP). Later, his political views evolved and became relatively more in sync with the China-friendly “blue camp”. During his mayorship, Ko continued to participate in the Taipei-Shanghai City Forum (established in 2010), which institutionalised an annual dialogue between the city officials, although he continued to be critical of Beijing’s approach and its assertiveness. In 2019, he founded the TPP as the “third alternative” to the other major parties.

Ko’s overall attitude to Cross-Strait relations is more-or-less relatable to that of the KMT’s, although it is more cautious. His statement, delivered at the 2015 Taipei-Shanghai City Forum, in which he stated that “both sides of the Taiwan Strait are one family” has continued to haunt him. Ko is now trying to distance himself from that line, especially since this exact phrase was also used by Xi Jinping. While some common points with the KMT are evident, especially when it comes to the support for Taiwan’s closer engagement with China, recent attempts to form a joint TPP-KMT ticket have dramatically failed. This is not that surprising given that, in 2015, Ko once famously said that the things he hate the most are “mosquitos, cockroaches and Kuomintang”. His comment was, unsurprisingly, brought up again just after the news of the initial decision to form an election coalition with the KMT. He responded by stating: “Of course I hate Kuomintang, but I hate the DPP even more”.

However, the positioning as an alternative has resulted in his related communication being less concise and it is not always clear as to how exactly he sees contentious issues. His views of the “1992 Consensus” are also not particularly clear: while campaigning for the Taipei mayorship in 2014, Ko rejected the Consensus as having no real content. Currently, he maintains a flexible stance, and often avoids directly addressing the issue. While giving a lecture at a Taiwanese university recently, he was asked: “How do you define the 1992 Consensus?” to which he answered: “I don’t know. I must pretend to not know.” With regard to the Cross-Strait engagement and the Consensus, Ko recently stated that “if [both sides] can communicate, let’s communicate, including student, tourist and cultural exchanges. During such exchanges, it can be seen if both sides can come up with a new term [as opposed to the 1992 Consensus] to manage their issues.”

For an international audience, Ko is more concise in his message. In a Blomberg TV interview, Ko emphasised that Taiwan has no choice but to maintain the “status quo”, with its main priorities being “deterrence and communication”. Speaking of independence versus unification, he stated that “the US won’t let Taiwan to unify with China, and China won’t let Taiwan become independent”. Responding to a question regarding the 1992 Consensus, Ko stated that it has been “stigmatised”; therefore, he intends to deal with the issue pragmatically, without getting involved in the different terminological interpretations. He stated: “There doesn’t seem to be a market for this [Consensus] in Taiwan, so should we change the name of the term?” Talking about Xi Jinping, he reiterated his belief that, for the Chinese leader, Taiwan was “not near the top of his list”, and that Taiwan should not undertake any drastic decisions because “you don‘t want to be your enemy’s No. 1 target”.

Ko’s vice-presidential candidate is an interesting one: Wu Hsin-yeh, a TPP Legislator since 2022 (after having replaced Tsai Pi-Ru, who left the office). More importantly, she hails from an influential business mogul family and is the granddaughter of Shin Kong Group founder Wu Ho-su. Her minimal political experience could significantly limit her actual impact on the joint Ko-Wu presidential ticket, as well as her identity as a “princess” from a highly-influential business dynasty.

DPP: the “worker for Taiwanese independence” Lai

The DPP, given its “Taiwanese roots”, has always maintained its alienation and complete refusal of the “1992 Consensus” and has kept a very cautious attitude towards any engagement with the PRC. Therefore, the presidential candidate Lai is adhering to this overall DPP line; however, he had to “soften” his personal stance as that could have dissuaded a part of his potential voters (and to some extent, sow unease among Taiwan’s international partners). In 2017, while working as Mayor of Tainan and later as a Premier, he stated that “supporting Taiwan’s independence does not mean one cannot make friends with China”, while also referring to himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence”. This year, he had to continuously provide explanations for his previous remarks, in order to emphasise his now more moderate position. For the international audience, Lai is also taking a more cautious approach: in a Bloomberg interview, when asked about his status as a “worker for independence”, he stated that there is no such framework and that he had no plans to pursue formal independence, because Taiwan is already independent.

Lai’s Cross-Strait policy is the most clear and well-understood, since it is largely a continuation of the current President’s policy. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, he outlined a 4-pillar plan for Cross-Strait ties based on deterrence, economic security, global democratic partnership building and Cross-Strait management that is steady and principled. He did not rule out the possibility of engaging with China; however, the preconditions for this were less clear.

His vice-presidential candidate Hsiao Bi-khim, is a now-former Taiwanese ambassador to the US and a close confidant of President Tsai. She maintained a high profile throughout her role in Washington D.C.; furthermore, her rankings have remained favourable as she was not involved in any local DPP scandals. This choice also signifies a focus on foreign policy and is firmly grounded in Taiwanese party politics, but more importantly, it helps to soften Lai’s previous not-so-moderate stance and acts as an assurance to international partners that Lai, along with Hsiao, will support the status quo and the overall continuation of the Tsai-era foreign policy.

Conclusion: entrenched political divisions

The three candidates’ stances on foreign policy, Cross-Strait relations and related policy matters overlap, but their approaches are distinct, as will be the consequences for Taiwan depending on who is elected. The major parties have different roots that have led to stark differences in how they perceive Taiwan’s identity and its place in the world, but the most important and contentious topic undoubtedly concerns the vision of the future of Cross-Strait ties.

For the international audience, all three candidates have toured the US, its crucial partner, to provide assurances that they are committed towards maintaining the stability of Cross-Strait ties and the status quo. Furthermore, all of them have emphasised that Taiwan is ready to engage in constructive dialogue with the PRC, although a more concrete vision of that  and preconditions are not clear. “Predictability” and the “status quo” are the keywords that were delivered to the international audience.

For the domestic audience however, the messages are much more complex. In this regard, both the “green” and “blue” camps are maintaining a sharp division in how they see the future trajectory of Taiwan and Cross-Strait ties. The deep political entrenchment seems to be further magnified, with the opposition using the hostility in relation to Cross-Strait ties under the DPP’s Tsai as a dangerous situation, and are therefore portraying the incoming Taiwanese presidential elections as looking increasingly like a referendum on Taiwan’s future ties with China. In other words, the opposition is portraying the elections as giving the Taiwanese people a choice between peace and war.

As for the vice-presidential picks, both the KMT and TPP seem to have made strategic choices that address the presidential candidate’s drawbacks and are seen to act as a boost (for the KMT it is a consolidation of the KMT voter base and reassurance that the party is not giving up on its long-held beliefs; while for the DPP it is a softening of Lai’s position and a way to reassure international partners of a maintenance of the status quo and a continuation of its current foreign policy). However, the TPP’s choice might have a negative effect, as it may be seen that Ko is over-reliant on business circles.

The recent polls indicate that the presidential elections are most likely going to be a typical KMT-DPP battle. In the case of the KMT candidate’s victory, we could expect a very different approach to Cross-Strait ties and a likely resumption of engagement and cooperation (Hou has already hinted that if he wins, he will renegotiate the Cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement and relaunch Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement talks). In terms of the ROC’s foreign policy, any drastic changes are unlikely as both parties positively view maintaining strong ties with the US and its regional allies. In the case of the DPP candidate’s victory, the current Cross-Strait hostility and shared distrust would ensue, and it is highly unlikely that economic and other engagements would be promoted. With regards to the foreign policy, Tsai’s initiated policies would continue to be pursued, as well as Taiwan’s internationalisation and emphasis of building democratic friendships, albeit those new partnerships are not always rich in content. Nevertheless, these elections are not a choice between peace and war, as both parties are emphasising the need for peace and stability, even though their actual actions plan for achieving those goals differ significantly.

All in all, regardless of who will eventually win the election, all the competing party ideologies are increasingly “Taiwan-centred”, thus offering the Taiwanese different options for the ROC (Taiwan) and its future. While some of the parties are often labelled as “pro-China”, which carries a negative connotation and gives the impression that they support the vision for Taiwan as a subordinate to the PRC, however, it can be argued that both the KMT and TPP do not support the view of Taiwan as becoming a province within the PRC, but rather advocate a closer engagement and exchanges with the PRC. As for the differing views on identity (ROC/Chinese versus Taiwanese), the parties certainly have significant differences; however, they do not suggest that any side views Taiwan’s future as being a part of the PRC. For instance, the KMT’s vice-presidential candidate is historically known as a staunch unification supporter, but this does not suggest the adherence to CCP ideas; instead, it refers to long-held convictions within the KMT for unifying Taiwan with Mainland China under the ROC’s leadership.

 

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.