Both the United States and China will be watching the outcome of Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election.
For China, another victory for President Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) could
portend prolonged hostilities between Taipei and Beijing. But the first-order effects will be felt in
Taiwan, where the race for president will implicate national identity, energy policy and the economy.
Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election is a three-way contest between William Lai, Hou Yu-ih and Ko Wen-je. With polls tightening in recent months, each candidate has a genuine chance to win.
Lai, the current vice president and former mayor of Tainan, represents the DPP, the China-sceptical party that rules Taiwan’s central government. With a platform that largely mirrors President Tsai Ing-wen’s policy positions and two opponents syphoning votes from each other, Lai maintains the best chance of winning.
Still, Lai’s odds of victory narrowed in the final months of 2023. The polls now show a tight race, with Lai typically leading by no more than five points. Compared to his sizeable mid-year polling margins, recent results suggest that continuing the DPP’s eight-year presidential reign will not be easy. And beyond abysmal polling trends, the macro headwinds facing Lai are significant. Taiwan is just emerging from a recession, his party’s approval rating is 27 per cent and opponents are picking apart his old pro-independence comments in an effort to paint him as a radical.
Despite these challenges, Lai remains a slight favourite — and he has a fractured opposition to thank for it. Kuomintang (KMT) presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih averages roughly 30 per cent in most polling, placing him in second place. Hou has emphasised pro-business pragmatism in his campaign thus far, arguing that he can enhance communications with China and that continued DPP governance would lead to war with the mainland.
But Hou has failed to surpass Lai because of the upstart Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), headed by presidential candidate Ko Wen-je. Ko founded the TPP and single-handedly determines the party’s platform, which echoes the KMT by focusing on economic growth and improved relations with Beijing. The KMT and TPP also agree on energy policy, as both opposition parties want to reopen decommissioned nuclear power plants for environmental sustainability and national security reasons.
But even if Ko’s TPP is more likely to swipe KMT than DPP voters, it has separated itself from the other parties with its ambiguity on key issues. Ko has been vague on the China question, saying that the ‘two sides of the [Taiwan] Strait are one family’ and strategically sidestepping Beijing’s insistence that Taiwan is part of the mainland. With some polls showing him gaining, Ko’s elusiveness might be helping him avoid political landmines while making him palatable to a larger group of voters.
A potentially race-altering development came in late November 2023, when former Foxconn chairman Terry Gou dropped out. The billionaire had been running as an independent with policy positions closer to the KMT and TPP than the DPP. Gou’s support — even if it was capped at only 10 per cent — will likely flow towards Hou and Ko, further complicating the DPP’s attempt to retain the presidency.
Around the same time Gou exited the race, the other candidates chose their running mates. Lai’s choice of former Taiwanese representative to the United States Hsiao Bi-khim gives the DPP increased credibility on foreign affairs and might boost turnout among young voters.
On the KMT side, Hou tapped Jaw Shao-kang, a media personality and former member of the Legislative Yuan. Jaw represents the mainland faction of the KMT, a ‘unification fundamentalist’ sceptical of Taiwan–US ties.
The TPP will be led by Ko and his running mate Cynthia Wu, a legislator-at-large and the daughter of Taiwanese billionaire Eugene Wu. Wu has only served within the Legislative Yuan since November 2022, so her lack of political experience will be something to watch as the campaign continues.
Both China and the United States have a stake in this race. China wants to hold Taiwan close within its orbit and it likely sees a DPP defeat as the best opportunity to rein Taiwan in. But Chinese President Xi Jinping faces a stark truth no matter which party wins — Taiwanese support for unification remains low, while the island’s embrace of Taiwanese identity is higher than ever.
In the United States, government officials have held reservations about all the major candidates. As of mid-2023, Ko was an unknown player and Lai was seen as a potential disrupter of the status quo, especially after he told supporters in July that his political goal was for the Taiwanese president to visit the White House.
Though the questions about Ko remain, Lai’s temperament and restraint during his mid-August trip to the United States have quelled at least some of US foreign policy experts’ initial fears. His embrace of Tsai’s international policies has further appeased US officials about the prospect of a President Lai. Hou, on the other hand, causes concern because of his party’s general hostility towards Washington. Though Hou’s September trip to the United States was well-received, a KMT victory in January would undoubtedly still engender US worry about closer Taiwan–China ties.
Billy Stampfl is Juris Doctor Candidate at the University of Michigan Law School.