Three Domestic Implications of Taiwan’s 2024 Presidential and Legislative Elections

Three Domestic Implications of Taiwan’s 2024 Presidential and Legislative Elections

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Three Domestic Implications of Taiwan’s 2024 Presidential and Legislative Elections

The island democracy of Taiwan, officially referred to as the Republic of China (ROC), held its eighth direct presidential election and 11th election for the Legislative Yuan (LY, 立法院) on January 13. Close to 72 percent of registered voters (around 13.7 million out of a total 19.5 million) went to the polls to elect their president, vice president, and district representatives. With all the votes tallied and no major irregularities detected in the process or the results of the elections, three key takeaways have emerged that are both unprecedented and could potentially have important implications for the future of Taiwan’s domestic politics, cross-Strait interactions, and US-Taiwan relations.

The first feature is that the 2024 presidential elections represented the first time that voters in Taiwan have delivered to any political party a third consecutive presidential term. The second feature—another first since 2004—is that no single party commands a majority in the LY. Legislative power will be split among three political parties, with the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) holding a plurality of seats. The third feature is that the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 民眾黨)—a third party that is not firmly aligned with either the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) or the KMT—now controls a small but decisive number of votes in the LY. In a sense, an overarching characteristic of the elections is that all three major political parties can walk away claiming a victory from the results.

Relatedly, these features signal potential new challenges ahead for the incoming Taiwan government. Indeed, the 2024 elections saw Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨) influence and interference activities unprecedented in scale and scope. While the CCP failed to unseat the DPP from executive power, it will be better positioned to exploit the new power dynamics in the post-2024 elections political landscape in Taiwan.

Third Consecutive Term: Preference for the Status Quo and Continuity of National Policies

Voters in Taiwan delivered an unprecedented third consecutive term to the ruling DPP, the first time since the island democracy began holding direct presidential elections in 1996. The DPP’s presidential and vice presidential candidates, Lai Ching-te (賴清德) and Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), respectively, won the race with roughly 40 percent of the popular vote. Lagging slightly behind was the KMT’s ticket of Hou You-yi (侯友宜) and Jaw Shaw-kong (趙少康), who received around 33 percent of votes; followed by the TPP’s ticket of Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) and Cynthia Wu (吳欣盈), with 26 percent of the vote.

Overall, the results of the presidential election signal that a plurality of voters within Taiwan prefer continuity over change in national policies. While some voters have likely grown weary after eight years of DPP rule, it is clear that many would like to maintain the status quo in key areas such as national defense, international relations, and cross-Strait dynamics. However, the DPP’s margin of victory in the 2024 election was much less than in 2020, when President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and Vice President Lai won by a landslide, receiving a record-setting 8.17 million votes. This represented a massive spread of 19 percent over the KMT (57 vs. 38 percent).

While the 2020 elections reflected a clear preference of the electorate for the DPP’s candidate over the opposition candidates, it is important to remember that Tsai’s victory was far from assured, as she entered 2019 with gloomy approval ratings that appeared to signal a likely change in government in January 2020. However, following Beijing’s imposition of the Hong Kong National Security Law (香港國家安全法) in June 2020, as well as the subsequent crushing of political dissent, Tsai’s prospects began to improve. This shift was further bolstered by Xi Jinping’s (習近平) increasingly hardline policy stance on Taiwan, as enunciated in his speech commemorating the “40th Anniversary of the Message to Compatriots in Taiwan.” In this address, Xi explicitly tied Taiwan to the model of “One Country, Two Systems” (一國兩制) imposed on Hong Kong. In turn, this created a rallying effect around the incumbent in Taiwan’s 2020 elections, and rendered her opponents’ more China-friendly positions untenable. Unlike the 2020 election, the 2024 election results likely have less to do with proximate external variables such as Hong Kong and more to do with internal variables.

Indeed, the results of the 2024 election perhaps should be interpreted less as a ringing endorsement of the DPP’s policy achievements and more as a failure of the KMT and TPP to offer voters a compelling alternative to the “status quo” as presented by the DPP.

Split in the Legislative Yuan: Incumbent Fatigue and Checks and Balances

While winning the presidency reflects a significant electoral victory for the DPP, there is a critical difference in the relative power balance between the political parties from 2016 to the present, and what will now follow after the 2024 elections. In the prior 2016 and 2020 elections, the DPP managed to control a majority of seats in the LY. For the first time since 2004, no single party has an absolute majority in the national legislature.

In a sense, the incumbency fatigue that was reflected in poll after poll leading up to the elections played out most visibly in the Legislative Yuan. Although the KMT failed to clinch an outright majority, it nevertheless had a strong showing, gaining 14 seats and controlling a plurality of 52 seats. The fact that the KMT gained 14 and the DPP lost 10 seats demonstrates a clear desire of voters for some checks and balances on the ruling party. Yet, perhaps most notably, neither the DPP or the KMT received a majority of seats (with a net of 57 seats needed). Despite only holding eight seats, the TPP will likely become a decisive third party that will be essential for either DPP or KMT efforts to pass or block legislation, conduct oversight, and oversee appropriations.

Rise of a Genuine Third Party?

The third feature of the 2024 elections is the stronger-than-expected showing from Ko and the TPP, despite their clear disadvantages in both the presidential and legislative races.

Some observers may dismiss Ko due to his failure to win the presidency, and the TPP’s inability to gain more than a mere eight seats. However, clinching 26 percent of the popular vote is no small feat for a candidate that lacked a national organization or resources, and with a party that currently controls only a marginal cross section of local offices. Compared to James Soong’s (宋楚瑜) People’s First Party (PFP, 親民黨)—which received 4 percent of the vote in 2020, while Soong himself garnered 12 percent in his 2016 presidential run—Ko’s showing should raise interest among political observers about whether Taiwan may be shifting to a true three-party system. Also, unlike the more recent phenomenon of the New Power Party (NPP,  時代力量)—which failed to gain any seats in the 2024 elections as a result of internal fragmentation, and which also did not run a presidential candidate—Ko had the strongest showing for a third-party presidential candidate since 2000, when Soong received 36 percent of the popular vote.

However, the long-term viability of the TPP remains somewhat uncertain. Much like the PFP and also the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU, 台灣團結聯盟), the TPP is a personality-driven party, which is dependent entirely on Ko’s public appeal. It remains unclear whether the TPP can nurture a new generation of politicians that the electorate appears to demand. At the same time, since the other two third parties were both generally seen as part of either the “Pan-Green” or “Pan-Blue” coalitions, their eventual failings could potentially be linked to their inability to differentiate themselves from their more dominant coalition partner. Along these lines, the future viability of the TPP may depend on whether or not it can maintain its independent character. The TPP’s brief flirtation with the KMT in forming a unity ticket may have tarnished this reputation, but it is still too early to say to what extent.

Implications for Taiwan’s Domestic Politics Going Forward

With 40 percent of the popular vote, President-elect Lai and Vice President-elect Hsiao will enter office with a weaker mandate compared to the outgoing Tsai Administration. Nevertheless, the plurality of votes reflects a preference for the “status quo,” and that is precisely what the incoming Lai Administration promised to deliver on the campaign trail. A weaker central government does not necessarily mean an ineffectual one, but with the DPP still in control of the executive branch, the public is unlikely to be as forgiving, and the Lai-Hsiao Administration will likely be under considerably more scrutiny right out of the gate.

Moreover, with the opposition parties controlling a majority in the Legislative Yuan—if the KMT and TPP can successfully form a coalition—observers can at best expect more rigorous oversight of the DPP government. This dynamic could also result in gridlock in the Legislative Yuan, which could impede important authorizations, derail meaningful legislation, and hold up appropriations that would be essential for a functioning government at a critical period. On the other hand, while a Legislative Yuan split between the DPP, the KMT, and TPP will make it harder for the DPP to govern, it could also force the kind of compromises and alliance-building that can catalyze new ideas and necessitate the type of consensus-building on national security issues that will be essential for enhancing the resiliency of the Taiwanese population. Although the DPP will likely try to focus on domestic governance issues, whether it can be successful will depend on building new alliances with independents, the TPP, and “light-blue” factions within the KMT.

Another important question arising from the election is whether the loss of another presidential election will finally spur the KMT to implement the reforms necessary to bring it more in line with the mainstream of Taiwanese voters. Perhaps the success of the KMT in the Legislative Yuan race—wherein KMT Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) appeared to have made a point of fielding relatively moderate candidates (except for the at-large seats) as it had during the local elections in 2022—could reflect positively in this direction. Nevertheless, there are already calls from within the KMT for Eric Chu to step down, so all eyes will be on the next party’s chairman election to see the direction that the party base takes.

Finally, Beijing is expected to escalate its pressure campaign against Taiwan under the Lai-Hsiao Administration, an effort that will likely target the United States, as well. While not inconsistent with longstanding policy, President Biden’s immediate reaction to a media inquiry on Taiwan’s election stated only “We do not support independence.” The terseness of the president’s remark, even as he sent a high-level unofficial delegation to Taiwan, reflects, to a degree, how China is also stepping up pressure on the United States to reduce its support for Taiwan.

Beijing’s efforts to diplomatically isolate Taiwan have also gained increased urgency. Whereas in 2016, the PRC waited two months before it fired the first salvo of this geopolitical pressure campaign by establishing diplomatic ties with Gambia, it waited less than two days after Lai’s victory to poach Nauru from Taiwan’s diplomatic orbit. [For a more detailed discussion of this story, see “What Does Nauru’s Switch to Beijing Mean for William Lai’s Taiwan?” by Thomas Shattuck, elsewhere in this issue.]  Last of all, Taiwan’s divided government will prominently feature two main opposition parties interested in increasing engagement with Beijing. This will give the CCP a wider opening for it to potentially influence and interfere with the legislative process. In addition to domestic consensus-building, international engagement will be vital for ensuring that Taiwan does not become alienated and pushed toward Beijing’s embrace.

While voters in Taiwan handed the DPP an unprecedented third consecutive term in the presidential office, they also gave the KMT and TPP significant power over the Legislative Yuan. This result reflects a degree of incumbency fatigue and a desire for checks and balances. With the control of a decisive minority number of seats in the Legislative Yuan, the steady rise of the TPP also demonstrates that it is a political force to be reckoned with, though its long-term viability remains in question. Political observers are already focusing on the next general elections in 2028, but the first real test for whether the current trends hold will come sooner in 2026.

The main point: The 2024 Taiwanese elections will likely have a number of significant implications. While all three major parties can claim minor victories, a divided government will pose substantial challenges for the incoming Lai Administration, both domestically and internationally.