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Taiwan chooses Vice President Lai as new leader in rebuke to China

But the results split between 3 parties spells a tough path for him balancing Beijing’s pressure and domestic issues.

Updated Jan. 13, 2024, 10:48 a.m. ET

Taiwanese voters elected Vice President Lai Ching-te from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, as their new president on Saturday, signaling a continuation of the island’s policies aimed at preserving its de facto independence, despite increasing tensions with China.

Nonetheless, the results were split between three main candidates, and Lai and his party will face a challenging journey in managing the escalating pressure from Beijing.

As of 09:10 p.m. local time, with the vote still being tallied, Lai had received 5.57 million votes, or 40.1%, while Lai’s main opposition Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang, or KMT, had received about 4.66 million votes, or 33.5%. Ko Wen-je of Taiwan’s People’s Party, or TPP, considered an “alternative option,” garnered 3.68 million votes, or 26.5%.

In a press conference on Saturday night after his win, Lai thanked the Taiwanese people for writing a new chapter in democracy and likened it as the “first victory for the global community of democracy.”

“We have shown the world how much we cherish our democracy; this is our unwavering commitment,” said Lai, thanking his opponents for demonstrating the spirit of democracy.

Hou, Beijing’s preferred candidate, conceded the election by saying he respects the final choice that the Taiwanese people made.

“I would not only like to extend my congratulations to Lai Ching-te and Hsiao Bi-khim [Lai’s running mate] for being elected, but also hope that they will live up to Taiwanese people’s expectations of a ruling party,” said Hou, calling for all parties to unite, and urged the DPP to build a new and efficient government that Taiwan could trust.

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Taiwan’s presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih of the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party (L) bows beside his running mate Jaw Shaw-kong as they concede in the presidential election outside Banqiao stadium in New Taipei City on Jan. 13, 2024. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

Separately, Ko noted that despite the defeat, the election has turned the TPP into a significant force, highlighting a positive outcome from the setback.

“Every vote represented an endorsement of us. This is also the first time in Taiwan, amid the blue-green [KMT-DPP] structure, that a three-party situation has emerged. It shows that Taiwan needs another voice.” 

Voters from the island of 24 million people journeyed back to their hometowns to participate in the presidential and legislative elections on Saturday. They cast their votes in a variety of locations, including schools, temples, parking lots and community centers. 

Taiwanese also voted for representatives in the 113-seat legislature. As of 09:10 p.m. local time none of the seats had been officially declared but Lai acknowledged that the DPP had failed to hold onto a majority.

Viewed with suspicion

Lai, a former physician and mayor of Tainan, is viewed with suspicion by China’s ruling Communist Party.

China regards Taiwan as a renegade province that should be politically reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary. The democratic island of Taiwan has been self-governing since it effectively separated from mainland China in 1949 after the Chinese civil war.

China has dialed up diplomatic and economic pressure on the island since the incumbent Tsai Ing-wen’s administration first came to power in 2016, as Tsai and her party refuse to acknowledge that Taiwan and the mainland belong to “One China.”

During the election period, China’s actions, such as floating balloons through Taiwan airspace and deploying aircraft carriers in the critical Taiwan Strait, heightened its unpopularity in Taiwan. These military maneuvers, viewed by Taipei as intimidation tactics, exacerbated the already tense relationship.

China also has successfully swayed several of Taipei’s diplomatic allies to shift their recognition to Beijing. As a result, only 13 countries currently maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Dialogue, not confrontation

Lai’s election triumph doesn’t solve the issue of Beijing’s aggression and is more likely to heighten tensions. Nevertheless, Lai expressed confidence that despite dwindling official recognition on the world stage, support for Taiwan’s de facto independence remains robust.

During his Saturday winning speech, Lai said that he has the important responsibility to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, while keeping the cross-strait status quo.

“We will use changes to replace obstructionism, dialogues to replace confrontations,” said Lai, adding Taiwan “will stand on the side of democracy” between democracy and authoritarianism.

“Taiwanese people resisted the efforts from external influence to this election and trusted only that they themselves had the right to choose their leader,” he said. 

In response to the election result, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said on Saturday the victory of Lai would not change the basic landscape of cross strait relations.

In a statement carried on China's state Xinhua news agency, Chen Binhua, a spokesperson for the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, said the results showed the DPP cannot represent mainstream public opinion on the island.

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The crowd cheers at a Democratic Progressive Party rally in New Taipei City, Taiwan, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Louise Delmotte)

George Ren, a political analyst, believes that Lai’s win would not deal the Chinese Communist Party, or CPP, an unknown card, as a Ko victory could.

“I’d be more concerned if the DPP was able to warrant a majority win in the legislature. If there was one, it would be easier for Lai to implement his policy, which means the CCP may have some countermeasures,” Ren said.

He also pointed out that the bigger worry is implementing domestic policies in the legislature that address issues critical to the voting public such as policies to improve infrastructure and housing construction. 

Economic worries

The DPP has recently faced criticism for becoming the establishment, particularly from the younger generation. Under Tsai’s rule, issues like slow wage growth, high housing costs, and power shortages have become points of contention. 

In November, Taiwan’s statistics bureau reported a reduction in the island’s 2023 GDP growth forecast to just 1.42%, the lowest since the 2008 global financial crisis.

Furthermore, Taiwan is grappling with soaring housing prices, ranked among the highest globally, while its wage levels were among the lowest compared to other developed economies, according to March figures.

Addressing these challenges will be a primary focus for Lai and the DPP moving forward.

The president-elect said he will “prioritize issues that have consensus with other political parties and would embrace them as long as they benefit the people.” 

Edited by Mike Firn and Malcolm Foster.

Updated to add percentages of votes won, and add a statement from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson.


This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Taejun Kang and Elaine Chan for RFA.


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