Three Domestic Political Variables to Watch in Taiwan’s 2024 Presidential Election

Three Domestic Political Variables to Watch in Taiwan’s 2024 Presidential Election

Subway Masthead
Three Domestic Political Variables to Watch in Taiwan’s 2024 Presidential Election

On May 17, Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨), announced that it would be nominating New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜) as its presidential candidate for the 2024 presidential election. The long-awaited nomination solidifies a three-way race between the KMT nominee, Lai Ching-te (賴清德) of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨), and Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 民眾黨). Based on current polling, political observers expect the election will be one of the most competitive—and potentially consequential—electoral battles in Taiwan’s democratic history.

Polling Out of the Gate

Despite a contested internal selection process between Hou and Terry Gou (郭台銘)—the billionaire founder of tech giant Foxconn (富士康)—most polls indicated that Hou was the most electable candidate among the nominees being considered by KMT Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫). While it was an open secret that Chairman Chu had harbored an ambition to be the party’s candidate again for the nation’s top post after coming up short in the 2016 election, he removed himself from consideration as a candidate in the spring. Given Chu’s position as chairman of the ailing party, this decision was ostensibly intended to mitigate potential perceptions of conflict of interest, while also allowing him to shepherd the selection process for the party’s “best” nominee to unseat the DPP from power. 

While it is still too early to call the race for any candidate or party in the 2024 elections—which will also determine the membership of the national legislature—the latest polling from the KMT, TVBS, and United Daily News (all Blue-leaning media) provides some insights into current levels of support within Taiwan, as well as areas in which candidates could potentially gain or lose political ground in the less than eight months left before the elections.

KMT Internal Polling

A very interesting poll to reference is the KMT’s internal polling, which it conducted in the lead-up to Chairman Chu’s final decision to nominate Hou. Presumably, the results of these polls played a significant role in Chu’s decision-making. That the KMT had publicized these internal polls after the formal announcement of Hou’s nomination appeared to be an attempt to justify his nomination to any doubters that might remain following the contested selection process. Regardless, the results of the internal polls were quite revealing.

In a three-way race between the presidential candidates from the KMT-DPP-TPP, the KMT’s internal polls conducted between May 5-14 showed support ratings for Hou at 25.43 percent, Ko at 25.27 percent, and Lai at 30.4 percent. This placed Hou nearly five points (4.97 percent) behind his DPP opponent. However, the poll also found that in a three-way race with Terry Gou as the KMT nominee, Gou would have lagged even further behind Lai by 5.63 percent. In both scenarios, the TPP’s Ko polled within striking range at 25.27 percent (with Hou as nominee) and 23.97 percent (with Gou as nominee)—within 2 percent of both KMT presidential nominees.



Graphic: The results of the KMT’s internal polling, showing both Hou You-yi and Terry Gou lagging behind the DPP’s Lai Ching-te. (Source: CNA)

In addition to its internal polling, the KMT aggregated and then publicized the results of 13 other public opinion polls (conducted from April 18 to May 14) that had been conducted on the potential three-way race. According to these polls, respondents favored Hou (40.5 percent) over Gou (31.66 percent) as KMT nominee. However, they also found Hou (37 percent) losing to Lai (37.9 percent), slightly better than Gou, who lagged behind Lai 36.6 percent to 38.5 percent. In both scenarios, the TPP’s Ko again polled within striking range at 21.93 percent and 20.81 percent, respectively. 



Graphic: The results of 13 polls—aggregated by the KMT—showing both Hou You-yi and Terry Gou trailing Lai Ching-te. (Source: CNA)

According to KMT Spokesman Lin Kuanyu (林寬裕), it is undeniable that public support for Hou and Gou are very close. However, among KMT party members, the story is quite different. In particular, among the county and city chiefs holding party membership, 10 supported Hou, whereas only one supported Gou and the remaining two supported the Party Central Committee in deciding the candidate. Among legislators, 22 KMT lawmakers supported Hou, 13 supported Gou, and 22 supported the decision of the Party Central Committee.


In another poll conducted after Hou was announced as the KMT’s presidential candidate, the TVBS Poll Center (TVBS, 民調中心)—a major Blue-leaning television outlet—released its latest poll results on May 19. Notably, the poll found that 30 percent of respondents indicated their support for Hou to win the presidential election, followed by Lai with 27 percent, Ko with 23 percent, and the remaining 20 percent not expressing an opinion. Interestingly, the poll revealed that among young voters aged 20 to 29, as many as 43 percent supported Ko, with only 26 percent supporting Hou. While the DPP has long relied on the youth vote, Lai only received 22 percent support from this voting segment in the poll. 

UDN Poll

The most detailed polling completed after Hou’s formal nomination was conducted by United Daily News (UDN, 聯合報)—another major Blue-leaning media outlet. The media company completed the poll from May 18-21, immediately after the announcement of Hou as the KMT’s nominee. In contrast to the TVBS poll, the UDN survey showed Lai slightly ahead of Hou, 28 percent to 24 percent, with Ko coming in a close third at 22 percent. Compared to a poll of the three potential candidates conducted by UDN in late April, the latest results reflected a slight increase of 1 percent for Lai, a decrease of 5 percent for Hou, a decrease of 1 percent for Ko, and an increase of 5 percent (22 percent to 27 percent) among respondents who did not express a preference for any of the candidates.


Graphic: The results of polling conducted by UDN, including changes in support from previous polls conducted in April. (Source: UDN)

According to UDN, KMT and independent voters appear to be adopting a “wait-and-see” attitude about Hou’s candidacy. For instance, the proportion of KMT supporters backing Hou fell by 4 percent (from 74 percent at the end of April, to 70 percent in May), while the proportion of independent voters supporting Hou also decreased by 7 percent (from 22 percent to 15 percent) over the same period.

The UDN poll also revealed interesting generational and party loyalty trends in their preference for president. First, Ko is more favored than the two other candidates by young voters. Among voters under the age of 40, Ko leads Lai and Hou with 35 percent support. Conversely, among voters aged 40 to 59, Lai fares slightly better with 29 percent support, leading Hou and Ko by at least 5 percentage points. As for voters over the age of 60, Hou and Lai are evenly matched, with both enjoying support rates of about 30 percent. Second, both the DPP and the TPP have stronger party cohesion, with about 80 percent of both parties supporting their respective candidates—a full ten percentage points higher than Hou’s 70 percent. Third, support for Ko (21 percent) exceeds Lai’s (16 percent) and Hou’s (15 percent) among independent voters. [1]

Three Variables: KMT Party Cohesion, Youth Votes, Ko Wen-je

Whether the KMT Can Maintain Party Cohesion

More so for the KMT than the DPP, the issue of party cohesion going into this election could seriously affect the chances of the former emerging victorious. The KMT’s traditional base of supporters—which tended to support Terry Gou—appears to remain uncertain of Hou, potentially due to his local Taiwanese identity and past affinity with the DPP

Given that the KMT’s selection process did not require a reconciliation process between the KMT’s major factions—with the decision almost exclusively controlled by Chu—Hou will likely need to personally shore up his support within this flank of the party, or at the very least rely heavily on party central. These dynamics could force Hou to make concessions politically, potentially leading him to take positions on policy issues that favor particular factional preferences. In doing so, he could inadvertently trap himself in policy positions that would make it harder for him to capture more centrist voters, who tend to be more fluid and unpredictable in their voting behavior.

It should be noted that Hou’s strongest selling point leading up to his nomination was his reputation as a centrist, which was mostly the result of his refusal to take positions on controversial issues: for example, the most he has been willing to say on controversial cross-Strait issues is that he opposed “One Country, Two Systems” (一國兩制) and “Taiwan independence.” Since he will rely on party central to determine many of his campaign positions, this could mean a more orthodox approach to cross-Strait relations, which may or may not resonate with voters. Second, the KMT’s nomination process only reflects that the party infrastructure is united behind Hou himself, but not necessarily over his policies. Will the KMT’s determination to win prevail over factional interests and policy preferences? Perhaps tellingly, while Gou has already pledged to support Hou, he has been missing in action in all the key moments thus far and there are already whispers that he could team up with Ko, potentially undermining the party’s solidarity. 

By contrast, the DPP seems to be united behind Lai, as exemplified by his uncontested nomination as the party’s candidate and the recent polling results referenced earlier. The electoral challenge for the DPP come 2024 is whether Lai will be able to capture more centrist voters. With his policy positions on cross-Strait issues already well-known, there appears to be a ceiling to Lai’s support rate at around 35-40 percent, and it could be difficult for him to break that ceiling. Moreover, his low support rating among the youth could prove challenging for him to overcome, particularly as opposition parties have mobilized to attack President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) records on domestic issues. Ko’s apparent appeal to this demographic could also be a threat. 

Some Taiwanese political observers were also surprised by the polling results. According to Wang Ye-li (王業立), a professor of political science at National Taiwan University (NTU, 國立臺灣大學), support for a political candidate typically rises after his or her nomination is confirmed. However, it appears that doubts over Hou have persisted, and it remains to be seen whether the drop of 5 percent in Hou’s support rating could represent voters temporarily taking a step back rather than permanently abandoning the KMT candidate in favor of either the DPP or TPP. 

According to Liao Da-chi (廖達琪), a comparative politics professor at the National Sun Yat-sen University (NSYU, 國立中山大學), Gou still hangs heavily over Hou’s candidacy. This effect is reflected in Hou’s low support ratings among the youth, as well Hou’s 70 percent support rating within the KMT. According to Liao, Gou’s base of supporters is primarily composed of young people, the middle class, and traditional Blue-camp voters, making him an important variable who could influence support for Hou.

Who Will the Youth Vote For?  

Another key variable in this election will be the more than 2.9 million youths in their 20s—a demographic that was critical to President Tsai’s 2020 re-election—who will be eligible to vote in the 2024 elections. While younger voters have been turning away from the DPP, they are not turning to the KMT, but rather to the TPP. 

On May 19, the KMT-affiliated Foundation for the People (啟思民本基金會) released a set of polls that it conducted related to domestic affairs, in particular relating to youths. KMT Legislator Johnny Chiang (江啟臣), who serves as the organization’s chairman, stated that in the 2016 presidential election, President Tsai and the DPP won overwhelming support from young people, contributing to the total of 6.89 million votes (56.12 percent) they received. 

According to the results of a Foundation poll that graded the Tsai Administration’s record on a scale of 1-10, respondents gave a score of 3.72 in the section “building a better country for young people.” Meanwhile, Tsai’s score among voters under 40 was a meager 4.03, highlighting the disappointment of Taiwan’s youth with the administration’s performance.

This souring of younger voters toward the DPP does not seem to reflect broader distaste for the party. Instead, its seems to be individual-driven, as Lai is seen as part of the older generation of the party. By contrast, the Foundation poll shows support for Ko above 40 percent. And while both the KMT and TPP would be expected to attack the DPP and Tsai’s record on domestic issues—including youth unemployment, stagnant wages, and high housing costs—Hou’s appeal to youth voters could be sapped by his reliance on the Party’s old guards to define his campaign policy positions.

In response to results showing high youth support for the TPP, Legislator Chiang called it a warning signal for the KMT. Chiang also noted that the Tsai Administration has been in power for seven years, but the youth unemployment rate has not improved, wage growth has been offset by inflation, and housing prices are unaffordable for many young people. These governance difficulties should dampen the electability of Lai. 

TPP’s Political Leverage is Growing

While most political observers view Ko’s chances to win the presidency as low due to his relative lack of political organization nationwide and the absence of a core support base, multiple political trends will enhance his—and his party’s—political leverage over the two major political parties. First, many voters are seeking political change. Second, Ko enjoys strong and enduring support among youth and independent voters. Finally, the close contest between the KMT and DPP could make Ko the kingmaker in terms of how he could lead his supporters on election day.

Other factors could increase Ko and the TPP’s leverage in bargaining for favorable political posts and conditions in the 2024 elections. These include the apparent ceiling on Lai’s support and the KMT’s lack of party cohesion.

Ko is aware of the fact that the DPP and KMT may be trying to marginalize him, but their efforts to do so could prove increasingly difficult in an election where attracting independent voters could be paramount. Some observers believe that Ko could be angling for the position of premier in a future administration, or even Legislative Yuan president, if it could get Ko on the at-large ticket of the party. Nevertheless, doubts remain within both the KMT and the DPP about the wisdom of working with Ko due to his unpredictability and tendency to lean either way when it suits his political interests. However, in the case of the KMT, teaming up with the TPP could become the only path to victory, as most polls indicate that KMT support alone may be insufficient.

Although the three polls show varying results, one thing is clear: the 2024 presidential election has no clear front-runner, and will be highly competitive. The three candidates also share relatively similar characteristics compared to recent contests, such as in the 2016 and 2020 elections. Also, in an unprecedented first in Taiwan’s democratic history, all the candidates are native Taiwanese. While cross-Strait relations will certainly weigh on voters’ considerations, in light of the tightness of the race, the results could boil down to three key determining factors: KMT’s party cohesion, youth voting behavior, and how Ko plays his cards. 

The main point: Based on several recent polls conducted by the KMT and Blue-leaning media outlets, the 2024 election promises to be exceptionally competitive. While much remains uncertain, it is clear that all three parties will need to overcome considerable challenges to win the presidency.

[1] Another poll conducted by the Normal Country Promotion Foundation (正常國家文化基金會) from May 20-22 following Hou’ nomination showed Lai leading in his support rating in the three-way race—beating the two other candidates by 11 percent. The poll from the DPP-aligned foundation showed that if Gou was Hou’s running mate they could pull within three percent of Lai’s support with Lai still winning (30:33). The poll also presented respondents with a hypothetical pairing of Ko serving as Gou’s running mate, in which case they could pull within seven percent of Lai’s support with Lai still winning (27:34).