4 Basic Takeaways from Taiwan’s Elections


Sunday, January 21, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Taiwanese recently went to the polls to elect their next president; it was a beautiful day. Why is that important? Because, the weather could not be used as an excuse for not voting. Yet, while the turnout at a respectable 71 percent; it was still some 3 per cent less than it was 4 years previous. Why?

This election was crucial, but it wasn’t as crucial as some outsiders may have thought. Taiwanese pretty well had their finger on the pulse of what the nation’s diverse needs were and how they could best be met.

Four basic takeaways explain this:

The first takeaway is the presidency. Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, William Lai’s victory was a major change from the past. The nation stayed with the DPP after 8 years, despite China’s attempted intimidation and despite the third party Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) candidate, Ko Wen-je, gaining 26.4 percent of the vote.

The DPP was able to break the tradition of alternating party presidencies. Previously, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Lee Teng-hui was the first president elected by the people in 1996. He was followed by DPP Chen Shui-bian who was elected for two consecutive terms (2000 and 2004); the first was the result of a split ticket and the second by a slim majority. KMT Ma Ying-jeou then restored the KMT with his two wins in 2008 and 2012. He in turn surrendered to DPP Tsai Ing-wen who won two terms (2016 and 2020).

Lai broke this tradition of the voters alternating trust with one party and then the other. Lai’s victory marked three consecutive terms for the DPP with the possibility of four. Note that well.

However, the day did not completely end in the DPP’s favor. While this was a great start, Lai won with only 40 percent of the vote. The KMT candidate Hou You-yi followed with 33.4 percent. Both parties had lost votes due to the entrance of TPP Ko Wen-je. His participation in the election became a game changer particularly in the Legislative Yuan (LY).

Understanding the Legislative Yuan vote is the second takeaway. In it, the DPP lost 10 seats and the majority it had held for the past eight years. This was the first time in the past 16 years that the party holding the presidency could not count on having a majority in the LY.

It was not the end of the world for the DPP but it meant it would have to do some horse-trading. It had dropped from 61 to 51 seats of the 113 seat legislature. However while the KMT gained seats, it also only held 52 seats plus two independents that favored it. No party had 57, a majority of the 113 seats. The TPP therefore with 8 seats could be the king maker, depending on which party it chose to team up with to name the speaker of the house.

However, the TPP’s position was also not that strong. It had gained only 3 seats, and those seats were from the party vote. The TPP had no individually elected district candidates.

This imbalance is not the same imbalance which DPP Chen Shui-bian faced in 2000 and 2004 when the KMT and People’s First Party united against him in Pan-Blue opposition. Nonetheless, the TPP had bargaining power; it could help either the DPP or the KMT name the speaker.

This brings us to the third takeaway, the role of third parties in Taiwan politics.

Taiwan has not lacked in having three or more parties in elections. These parties rise to meet and express certain needs, but they lack sustainability. The past is littered with the fallen bodies of such. Over the years, Taiwan has seen the rise and fall of the New Party, the People’s First Party, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, and the New Power Party, to name a few. They rose and they fell.

This is what the TPP and other third parties face. Ko, the TPP presidential candidate received 26.4 percent of the vote; compare that with James Soong’s 36.8 percent when running as an independent he almost won the 2000 election. Soong then went on to form the PFP, which played a dominant role but eventually faded. He could not build a long-standing team and this proved to be the case where if you strike the shepherd, the sheep will scatter.

I personally do not expect the TPP to survive the next presidential election in 2028.

Moreover, if one looks at the popular party vote for the Legislature, the DPP gained over 150,000 votes from its popular vote in 2020, and the KMT gained some 60,000 votes over the same period. They both maxed out, naming 13 legislators at large.

Where then did the 8 at large legislators of the TPP come from? It already had had 5 legislators at large; it gained only 3 more. The popular vote losers this time were in the New Power Party and the State-building Party.

Taiwan is in need of third parties and they constantly rise to express the needs of the moment, but none have taken hold.

This brings up the final takeaway, the role of China. Despite its threats and bullying, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) did not influence elections as much as it wished. Its time would be better spent trying to solve its own growing problems in economy, corruption and despotism. Good luck with that.

Voter turnout in Taiwan had dropped even with the good weather and the DPP was still more trusted in dealing with the PRC. The people were satisfied with the status quo and de facto independence that they already possessed. There are more pressing needs than saying the dreaded “I” for Independence word.

The KMT sensed this and did not invite pro-unification Ma Ying-jeou to speak at its rallies. His speaking would only put another nail in the party’s coffin. However, what the KMT still lacks is the ability to forego mentioning the fake 1992 consensus.

With the temporary acceptance of the TPP, the people were saying that they wanted the DPP to figure out a way to foster trade with China, while still keeping it at arm’s length.

I voted in this election and it proved to be a satisfying day. There were no dominant winners. The DPP learned that it needs to work harder to maintain viable district legislators. The KMT is learning to abandon its pro-unification jargon. And the TPP needs to do some homework if it expects to survive. I still don’t think it will; its members will only morph into another need of the nation as it progresses.