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.
Existing opinion polls have created more confusion than clarification about the outcome of Taiwan’s presidential race. There are signs that the incumbent presidential candidate, William Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), remains in an advantageous position ahead of the challengers — Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT, the Nationalist Party) and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party. However, while predicting the outcome of this uncertainty-laden campaign remains elusive, several election insights can be gleaned. The three candidates have expressed a similar position of maintaining peaceful and stable cross-Strait relations regardless of their differing campaign rhetoric. Comparatively, domestic issues in the domain of socio-economic reforms have played a more significant role than in previous elections.
A positive incumbent legacy
A familiar rule of thumb to gauge the prospects of a presidential election begins with an examination of the assets as well as liabilities of the DPP’s governing in seven-plus years. As Figure 1 shows, a relative majority of Taiwanese have indicated that they are “satisfied” (in which more respondents felt positively than negatively) with President Tsai Ing-wen’s overall performance. With the exception of the second half of 2022, during which the DPP faced setbacks in local elections, Tsai has adeptly navigated her presidency. In particular, the Tsai administration has earned this support under the headwinds of an unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and turbulent Taiwan-U.S.-China triangular relations.
On the other hand, Figure 1 also reveals a considerable number of popular disappointments, stemming primarily from socio-economic issues exacerbated by global economic downturns, inflation, and geopolitical factors. People are frustrated with issues like low wages (particularly for young people and laborers), high living costs (particularly housing prices), insufficient public facilities (such as transportation and education), and an inadequate social care system (such as a declining birth rate and insufficient care for preschool children and the elderly). These popular dissatisfactions are reflected in Figure 2, which conveys that Taiwanese believe economic development is the most pressing issue that their next president should address.
The main drama of the 2024 presidential election
Therefore, the main theme of the presidential election in 2024 is economic issues, particularly those closely associated with people’s daily lives. This echoes a familiar pattern in Taiwan’s electoral history. In 2015, Tsai pledged to “Building a Better Country for the Younger Generation” by transforming economic structures, strengthening the social safety net, and enhancing social fairness and justice. Figure 2 suggests that there remains a widespread expectation for socio-economic improvement in 2024.
Undoubtedly, Lai, the incumbent candidate, will continue the DPP government’s socio-economic policies. His flagship manifesto, the National Project of Hope, has detailed his commitment to implementing policies that advance technology, finance, communication, social justice, and a healthy aged society, among other things, which are crucial for the next stage of Taiwan’s development. Lai has also continued to emphasize policies related to sustainable development such as the application of green energy and accomplishing Taiwan’s net zero emissions goals.
By contrast, while not disagreeing with the importance of Lai’s proposed socio-economic reforms, the KMT’s Hou has highlighted the Tsai administration’s failure to deliver on the president’s campaign promises since 2016. Hou advocates for reforming the current care system for the elderly, such as by increasing free health insurance and facilitating the process of hiring foreign caregivers. Hou also proposes an overarching policy of public-funded child care for children up to six years old and an increase in benefits for child care personnel. More recently, Hou released his housing policy, with a special focus on helping young people buy a home. Hou’s proposals aim to ease the burden on families and the young. It is expected that Hou will continue to offer new socio-economic reforms in areas that have not been addressed by the Tsai administration.
Noticeably, cross-Strait issues continue to be a hot zone of crossfire in the campaign. Lai claimed to be a “political worker advocating Taiwan independence” when he served the premiership in 2017. Even though Lai later justified that as a “pragmatic” expression of maintaining the current status quo, the opposition has warned voters that Lai’s devotion to Taiwan independence would provoke a disastrous Chinese military invasion. As opinion surveys have repeatedly indicated, Lai’s commitment to Taiwan independence does worry some Taiwanese and may jeopardize his electoral prospects. This concern is not without foundation. Neither unification nor independence is endorsed by the majority of Taiwanese. Previous presidents like Chen Shui-bian, Ma Ying-jeou, and Tsai all have kept a close position on maintaining the status quo. Lai’s overt affection toward Taiwan independence could undercut his odds of winning the presidential election.
Policy deliberation on the energy issue
The socio-economic issues being discussed during the campaign are mainly valance issues in which candidates are eager to appease the majority of the voters by promising additional benefits. Relatively speaking, the candidates’ positions are fairly similar on most issues. However, this is not the case with energy. The DPP has adopted policies promoting a nuclear-free homeland and net zero emissions by 2050.
The opposition has harshly criticized these new energy policies for being overly idealistic. For some, the abolition of nuclear power would result in an electricity shortage in Taiwan. For others, the application of renewable energy, such as solar, wind, and thermal power, is far from sufficient to meet Taiwan’s imminent needs. Hence, Hou argues Taiwan should reopen its fourth nuclear power plant for immediate use before Taiwan completely transitions to meet its clean energy goals.
One episode of the debate on energy issues is the allegedly illegal connections among the government, business groups, and organized crime. The DPP government has enthusiastically encouraged the development of new energy technologies via eased regulations and financial subsidies, including 900 billion NT$ (approximately $28.7 billion) for investments before 2030. The opposition has criticized the government’s lack of transparency in the budget distribution and policy implementation processes. There are also some criminal cases involving illegal subsidies from the government to business groups. If the DPP is found culpable, it would certainly hurt Lai’s presidential election chances.
The outcome of the presidential election is likely to have more impact on Taiwan’s democratic governance than on cross-Strait relations. The candidates’ electoral rhetoric has been different, but none of them have advocated a move toward unification or independence. In fact, all candidates have embraced a common position, in line with the Taiwanese public’s preference over the last three decades, of maintaining peace and the status quo. By contrast, the election will likely engender a re-examination of the socio-economic reforms that have occurred in Taiwan since 2016. The progress and achievements of this grand social engineering will continue to be the foremost task for Taiwan in the next decade, regardless of who wins the 2024 election.
Finally, the question remains whether this will be a “successful” campaign for Taiwan. The campaign so far has exhibited Taiwanese political polarization based on partisan interests and negative attacks against the candidates’ personal character, with far less impartial discourse on key issues. Namely, not many opposition figures acknowledge the Tsai administration’s efforts to counteract China’s increasing threat to Taiwan or its responses to rapidly changing geopolitics. Likewise, very few members in the incumbent camp have wholeheartedly listened to the opposition’s criticisms against the DPP’s socio-economic reforms. Therefore, the widespread political polarization seen during the campaign is a canary in the coal mine, revealing the defects of democracy in Taiwan. Political elites, not the Taiwanese voters, are duty-bound to stop the degradation of democratic quality.