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  • Matthieu Dinh

LOOKING BEYOND THE CHINA EFFECT – POPULISM ON THE RISE IN TAIWAN

Matthieu is a second year Politics and International Relations student at UCL with a keen eye on political developments in France and East Asia

Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

The free world was jubilant. Voters in Taiwan had chosen the Democratic Progressive Party’s William Lai to lead them for the next four years, a historic third consecutive term for the party. The pro-Beijing candidate Hou Yu-ih from the Kuomintang and the populist third party candidate Ko Wen-je both failed to unseat the centre-left DPP. China, rather expectedly, was not pleased with the development, reiterating its traditional positions regarding the island which enjoys de-facto independence. However, the response mostly stayed at that, and the threat of military drills, a blockde, or other such hostile action failed to materialise (1) – much to everyone’s relief, whether in Taiwan or over in Washington DC.


However, Taiwanese voters did not give Lai and the DPP a blank cheque. William Lai may have led his party to a historic third presidential term, but he has failed to hold the legislature (2), with no party controlling a majority of seats. The balance of power lies in the hands of anti-establishment Ko and his Taiwan People's Party. It is currently unclear3 whether he will form a formal coalition with either side, sign a confidence and supply agreement, or remain on the crossbench. Beyond that, Lai only won a plurality of the vote4, with the KMT candidate gathering a third of the vote and Ko just over a quarter. This sharply contrasts with his predecessor, Tsai Ying-wen, who trounced her rivals in 2016 (5) and 2020 (6)


These results reflect a growing sense of disillusion (7) of the traditional pan-blue and pan-green coalition structure of Taiwan’s political scene, particularly among young voters. These two coalitions have long held opposite views on Taiwan’s relations with China. The former is more favourable to friendly exchanges with the People’s Republic of China, believing it will cool tensions and boost the Taiwanese economy. Historically, they have also wanted reunification with the mainland – though under the Republic of China, not the People’s Republic of China – and as a result, strongly believe in a dual Taiwanese-Chinese identity. On the other hand, the pan-green coalition is more sceptical of the Communist Party authorities in Beijing and embraces Taiwanese nationalism and independence – though it has dialled back talk of the latter due to pressure from Beijing. However, its supporters argue these points are mere semantics, as Taiwan is already a sovereign and independent country.


Cross-strait relations have traditionally been a salient topic for voters. For instance, Taiwanese voters overwhelmingly opted for the DPP in 2020, predominantly due to the KMT promoting the failed One Country, Two Systems model, just as Hong Kongers took to the streets8 to push back against Beijing. However, there is concern (9) that the pan-green coalition’s strong stance against China may be having adverse effects on the country’s economy. Indeed, since the DPP took over in 2016, officials in Beijing have refused to meet (10) with their Taiwanese counterparts and placed increasingly restrictive measures which harm the island’s economy, such as a de-facto ban on its nationals visiting Taiwan for tourism and a series of bans on Taiwanese products. 


A sense of fatalism has also set in following the War in Ukraine and the lack of direct military support to the Eastern European country. Only 7% of Taiwanese are very confident that the United States would intervene and defend (11) Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion. About 60% of the population think the opposite, and around the same percentage are moderately to extremely concerned about a possible Chinese invasion. Despite this, or perhaps, because of this, only a minority of the population (12) say they are willing to fight to defend their country, quashing prospects of a strong Ukrainian style local resistance. Whilst Taiwanese people value their island’s democratic values and freedoms, they are intent on avoiding conflict.


Anti-establishment Ko Wen-je capitalised on this and other societal issues in the election. The Taiwan People’s Party candidate highlighted issues13 which have historically been the DPP’s turf, such as Taiwan’s low wages and unaffordable housing, which are salient among the youth vote. Continuous polling during the campaign shows that this was a winning strategy for him, as Ko enjoyed a significantly higher (14) approval rate among young people than his two rivals. 


The success is despite Ko’s ambiguous stances (15) on China, with his vague support for the status quo yet advocating for better relations with Beijing. As mayor of Taipei, he strengthened ties16 with the mainland on a local level. He has also supported restarting talks17 on the controversial Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, which he himself previously opposed18. The KMT’s 2013 decision to pass the CSSTA prompted widespread youth protests called the Sunflower Movement (19) in 2014 – which was seen as one of the main reasons the DPP resoundingly defeated the KMT in 2016. His support for a revisiting of the trade agreement is perplexing given how contentious this issue was for young voters – his key voter demographic. Furthermore, Ko has a history of making misogynistic comments (20), having once remarked that women leaving the house without makeup on would “scare people”. Stunts like this would presumably upset the youth vote, yet despite this, Ko managed to gain their support.


Ko’s popularity largely rests on his freshness and outsider-nature. As his running mate argued (21) during the campaign, his misogynistic remarks and similar gaffes showed that he was “authentic” and “willing to make mistakes”. Whereas, the DPP was once considered the outsider, it is now viewed as the establishment after having been in power for two full terms, and at times failing to satisfy the major changes which youth voters were expecting following the Sunflower Movement. Whereas, the traditional pan-blue party, the Kuomintang, is still toxic (22) for many young voters, who would not consider casting a ballot for them, even as a protest vote against the DPP. The KMT remains too pro-Beijing for young voters, and anyway, too out of touch with their concerns.


In his victory speech, president-elect William Lai pledged (23) to review campaign policy proposals from both the KMT and TPP candidates, stating that he would implement those which would help Taiwan “advance”. It was perhaps the clearest acknowledgement that the DPP failed to win an outright majority and that it would have to regain the trust of voters by trying to unite the country. It was an unusual development in country where political polarisation had often translated into violent brawls (24) in the legislature, but perhaps a welcome sign that Taiwan has become a mature democracy. Lai has four years to prove to voters that he can follow through, and at the very least, to win the DPP’s crucial youth vote back. If not, Taiwan may be facing the same issues other mature democracies face in four years’ time, with a misogynist populist loudmouth voted into power – with potentially dangerous consequences if he panders to the mainland in a bid for votes.


Sources:

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