Taiwan’s 2024 elections: Everyone’s a winner—and a loser

Supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) celebrate during a rally, following the victory of Lai Ching-te in the presidential elections, in Taipei, Taiwan, January 13, 2024.
Supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) celebrate during a rally, following the victory of Lai Ching-te in the presidential elections, in Taipei, Taiwan, January 13, 2024. Reuters/Ann Wang.
Editor's note:

This piece is part of the Taiwan-U.S. Quarterly Analysis series, which features the original writings of experts with the goal of providing a range of perspectives on developments relating to Taiwan.

It’s natural for people to ask who won Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections on January 13, but the reality is that everyone won—and everyone lost. The Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate won, but the party lost its majority in the legislature. The Kuomintang’s (KMT) presidential candidate lost, but the party won the most seats of any party in the legislature. The upstart Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) lost the presidential election, but it won enough seats in the legislature to ensure its support is needed for the passage of any legislation upon which the two main political parties are deadlocked.

The Taiwan People’s Party

Determining whether a party won or lost a particular election depends in part on its goals and expectations. Often, parties use their public relations apparatus and media access to try to shape the public’s preconceptions about how they will perform. Sometimes they try to inflate expectations in the hope of inspiring voters to choose a party that is in a weak position relative to its competitors. In first-past-the-post elections, which most elections in Taiwan are, it’s important to persuade voters that your candidate has a chance. Otherwise, they may turn to their second choice rather than “waste” their votes on your candidate.

This year, the TPP used just such a strategy. As a third party struggling to establish itself, the TPP and its presidential candidate Ko Wen-je faced the threat of Taiwan’s “chi-bao,” or “dump-save” effect. If voters thought Ko had no chance of winning, they would be tempted to dump him in order to “save” their second-choice candidate.

For Ko, two alternatives existed: persuade his supporters to stick with him to the end or face political oblivion. Ko benefited from polls that showed him within range of second place right up until the 10-day polling ban. Entering the final stretch before voting day, Ko’s supporters could point to evidence that voting for him was not hopeless.

In fact, Ko received 26.5 percent of the presidential ballots cast, a respectable showing for someone without a national party behind him. While Ko didn’t exactly win, remaining in the race to the end and matching the performance of the most recent “serious” third-place finisher (the KMT’s Lien Chan won about 23 percent of the vote in a three-way race in 2000) was some variety of victory—certainly not political oblivion.

But did the Taiwan People’s Party win? Yes and no.

One of Ko’s important tasks was to lead the TPP to victory in the legislative elections to show that it is more than a one-man show. Taiwan’s legislature includes 73 single-member district seats, 34 party-list proportional seats, and six seats for indigenous legislators. In order to offer a party list, a party must nominate candidates in at least 10 district seats. The TPP lost all of its contested districts but it captured eight party list seats with 22 percent of the of the party list vote.

This result constituted a TPP win in two ways. First, it looks like over 20 percent of Taiwanese support the TPP. They voted for its presidential candidate, and they voted for its party list. They didn’t just like Ko himself; they like his party, too. More importantly, the TPP is now the legislature’s swing caucus. Neither major party won a majority of seats, and the TPP’s eight seats could put either the KMT or the DPP over the line for passing legislation. That leaves the TPP in a controlling position and facing a momentous choice: side with the KMT and spend the next four years obstructing the DPP-led executive or side with the DPP and get things done—while helping the DPP bolster its political position.

Huang Shan-shan, the legislative candidate at the top of the TPP’s party list, will be a critical player in this drama. Huang’s background puts her in the Blue camp, but she can increase her influence and make policy gains for her party if she collaborates with the DPP. She has different incentives than Ko. Huang may want to make her mark on policy, but Ko may want her to deny the DPP more political achievements. At the same time, though, Ko’s brand is “rational, pragmatic, and scientific” decisionmaking and overcoming partisan divisions.

It’s fair to conclude that those who voted for Ko and the TPP party list are hoping the party will choose progress, not obstruction. In sum, the TPP’s success presents it with some tough decisions that will determine whether it expands its support base and political power or follows the pattern of other Taiwanese “third parties” and either stagnates or splits.

The Kuomintang

At first glance, the KMT was January 13’s biggest loser. The KMT has now lost three consecutive presidential elections. With pre-election surveys showing widespread fatigue and dissatisfaction with the incumbent DPP, the KMT’s status as the biggest and best-established alternative should have put the presidential race within reach.

The KMT weathered a rocky nominating process, united its internal factions, and (apparently) bested Ko in an aborted attempt at a unity ticket. When the final pre-election polls were published in early January, its candidate, Hou Yu-ih, seemed to be within striking distance of his DPP opponent. Yet when the votes were cast and counted, Hou finished a distant second, with 33.5 percent of the vote to the DPP’s Lai Ching-te’s 40 percent. The KMT also failed to recapture the legislative majority it lost in 2016.

Not surprisingly, many have asked whether this loss marks the end of the KMT. I don’t think so. Below the top-line results, there was a lot of good news for the KMT in this election.

The KMT didn’t win a legislative majority, but it did increase its representation by 14 seats, putting it one seat ahead of the DPP and holding the largest number of seats of any party in the legislature. Two successful independent candidates are expected to caucus with the KMT, giving it 54 reliable votes. That’s not enough to pass legislation without help from the TPP, but it’s three votes closer than the DPP. The KMT also won a respectable share of the party list vote, just a hair under 35 percent. With 35 percent in the party vote and 33.5 percent in the presidential vote, the KMT looks to have a lock on about 35 percent of the national vote.

The KMT’s task in the next two years is to win back Blue-leaning voters who went for Ko and the TPP this year. That should be an attainable goal: two years ago, the KMT captured just over 50 percent of the vote in local elections (county and city executives) to the TPP’s less than 5 percent. Those results prove that the KMT’s grassroots organization is still capable of mobilizing a winning vote share—even a majority.

The Democratic Progressive Party

As the DPP’s presidential candidate, Lai sailed to an easy victory in the presidential race, beating Hou by about 6.5 percentage points. That outcome was by no means preordained. After eight years of DPP rule, many voters were ready for a change. They didn’t necessarily oppose President Tsai Ing-wen’s policies, but they were frustrated by what they saw as slow progress on economic and social concerns. Tsai’s two terms in office also positioned the DPP as the “establishment party,” which made it difficult to attract some parts of its traditional voter base, especially young voters.

Winning the presidential race was meaningful and important. Still, the 2024 elections brought bad news, too. In 2020, Tsai won the presidential race with 57 percent or nearly 8.2 million votes. Lai won 40 percent this year with nearly 5.6 million. The DPP must be desperate to understand where those 2.6 million votes went.

The legislative elections were also a mixture of wins and losses for the DPP. The biggest loss was its failure to retain a majority. The DPP went from 61 seats before the election to 51 (38 district seats and 13 party list seats), which forces it to cooperate with other parties to pass legislation. Buried within that very poor result is better news: the DPP led the KMT in the party list voting, 36 percent to 34.5 percent, and it won almost 700,000 more votes than the KMT in the district elections (45 percent to the KMT’s 40 percent). Unfortunately for the DPP, Taiwan’s electoral districts are not perfectly proportional, so its larger vote share did not translate into a larger share of seats. However, the DPP has shown that even with a strong third party in the race, it can win 40 percent to 45 percent in head-to-head contests.

The TPP: 2024’s biggest surprise

The focus on the TPP’s popularity among young people has led some analysts to conclude that without Ko in the race, the presidential outcome would have been the same—that Ko’s 4 million votes came mainly from Tsai’s 8 million in 2024.

Given what we know about Ko—his background and image as a light Blue politician—and what we know about his voters—their desire for change and weariness with the DPP—it seems possible that many of his supporters might have otherwise supported the KMT’s Hou.

Future polling will clarify this picture even more, but for now, it looks like both major parties have reason to blame Ko for their disappointing showing. Which I guess means that on balance, the third-place finisher was the biggest winner, at least relative to pre-election expectations.