The challenges ahead of Taiwan’s president-elect William Lai

Despite a historic third term for his party, Lai loses majority in legislature making DPP dependent on opposition for passage of bills

Namita Singh
Sunday 14 January 2024 11:52 GMT
Taiwan voters rebuff China, ruling party gets third presidential term; Lai Ching-te becomes new president-elect

Taiwanese voters swept the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) candidate Lai Ching-te to power, rebuffing China which labelled him a “troublemaker” and a dangerous “separatist”.

However, despite sweeping over 40 per cent of the total votes and winning a historic third term for his party, Mr Lai is expected to face a tough four years in office as DPP lost majority in the legislature.

DPP finished one seat fewer than the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party, neither holding a majority, giving the Taiwan People’s Party – a relatively new force that won eight of the 113 seats – a possible swing vote on legislation.

Both the opposition parties want to re-start a vexed service trade deal with China, while the DPP rejects China’s territorial claims. This is complicated further as Beijing sees the DPP as its nemesis and a major obstacle to its goal of bringing the island of 23 million people under its control.

The hiccups expected down the road were evident at the outset, as the verbal sparring between Beijing and Taipei began soon after the election results.

China wasted little time in pointing out that most electors, almost 60 per cent, voted against Mr Lai, with its Taiwan Affairs Office saying that the DPP "cannot represent the mainstream public opinion" on Taiwan.

Taiwan was quick to condemn the "fallacious comments" by China.

Taiwan’s President-elect Lai Ching-te and his running mate Hsiao Bi-khim
Taiwan’s President-elect Lai Ching-te and his running mate Hsiao Bi-khim (AFP via Getty Images)

A statement from Taiwan‘s foreign ministry accused its Chinese counterpart and Taiwan Affairs Office of falsehoods in the respective statements they issued on Saturday night.

It took issue specifically with China’s often-repeated line that Taiwan is a domestic Chinese issue. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and says it should not even have a foreign ministry or any official relations with foreign governments.

The Chinese foreign ministry said in its statement: "The Taiwan question is China’s internal affair. Whatever changes take place in Taiwan, the basic fact that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China will not change."

Taiwan said that statement "is completely inconsistent with international understanding and the current cross-strait situation. It goes against the expectation of global democratic communities and goes against the will of the people of Taiwan to uphold democratic values". It added: "Such cliches are not worth refuting."

Lin Fei-fan, a former DPP deputy secretary general who is now a senior member of a party think tank, says he’s "fairly worried" that the new government will have a "very tough" four years, especially on China-related issues.

He said opposition lawmakers, who together form a legislative majority, could step up exchanges with China and ask to re-start a controversial service trade pact which Taiwan shelved a decade ago in the face of mass protests.

"That’s what concerns us," he said. "Local governments and parliament could form a line to pressure the central government."

Supporters of Taiwan’s vice president and president-elect from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Lai Ching-te (C) wait for him to speak at the party’s headquarters on 13 January 2024 in Taipei, Taiwan
Supporters of Taiwan’s vice president and president-elect from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Lai Ching-te (C) wait for him to speak at the party’s headquarters on 13 January 2024 in Taipei, Taiwan (Getty Images)

Both Taiwan’s largest opposition party the Kuomintang (KMT) and small Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) campaigned to re-start the trade services pact.

Neither have confirmed if they will work together in parliament, though the TPP’s chairman Ko Wen-je said on Saturday they will play the role of a "critical minority".

The defeated KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih did not directly answer a question on the two parties teaming up on Sunday, saying only that "opposition parties have the responsibility of being opposition parties".

Lai I-chung, president of the Taipei-based think-tank the Prospect Foundation, said China was seeking to justify its approach to Taiwan by claiming they were able to end the DPP’s parliament majority.

"In my view this means they will continue its hard line towards Taiwan. There’s no relenting on the pressure in my view, by China, and so the situation will be tense. But I don’t think that will lead to conflict but of course China will make everything difficult for William Lai," he said, using Mr Lai’s English name.

Over the past year-and-a-half, China has staged two rounds of major war games around Taiwan and its forces regularly operate in the Taiwan Strait. China has also restricted or made more expensive some trade with Taiwan.

The DPP had called all that election interference. China says election interference allegations were DPP "dirty tricks" to win votes.

Su Tzu-yun, a research fellow at Taiwan’s top military think tank, the Institute for National Defence and Security Research, said that he does not expect any military action from Chinese President Xi Jinping in the coming months.

"He will observe what Lai Ching-te says leading up to his inauguration in May," Mr Su said. "The Chinese Communist Party is a super realist. What it cannot bear is political risk."

China has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan, which it calls "sacred" Chinese territory, under its control.

Victor Gao, a professor at Soochow University in China noted that 60 per cent of voters did not support Mr Lai and the KMT had won more seats in parliament, meaning the elections "have not created a storm".

"It is very clear that China has unlimited patience in promoting peaceful reunification and zero-tolerance for any push for Taiwan independence," he said. "In the end, the party that pulls the trigger will not be China, but people who push for Taiwan independence."

Additional reporting by agencies

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