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Taiwan’s 2024 elections were not just about China

These five points help decode the January election outcome.

- January 31, 2024
screen showing incumbent Vice President Lai Ching-te, Taiwan’s current vice president, projected to win Taiwan's presidential election on January 13, 2024.
Taiwan’s January 2024 election results (cc) albyantoniazzi

On Jan. 13, 2024, Taiwanese voters elected Ching-te Lai, the incumbent vice president and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, to be their next president. Lai clinched the presidency with approximately 40% of the vote. His election marks an unprecedented third consecutive term for the DPP since Taiwan’s inaugural presidential elections in 1996. 

But the DPP lost its majority in Taiwan’s legislature, as a 10-seat loss now leaves the party with only 51 out of 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan. The Kuomintang (KMT) secured 52 seats – 54 in total, including two pro-KMT independents – thereby claiming a legislative majority. Neither the DPP nor the KMT achieved an absolute majority. That means the newly founded Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), with 8 seats, has a critical role in the new legislature.

What do these electoral results – and the legislative unpredictability – mean for Taiwan’s domestic and foreign policy, moving forward? Here are five things you need to know.

1. China matters, but not in a binary way

The “China factor” was significant in this election. Yet the issue is not as black-and-white as the international media so often depict. In other words, a vote for the DPP did not necessarily equate to a pro-independence/pro-war preference. And a vote for the KMT didn’t signal a pro-unification/pro-peace stance. 

In fact, all of this year’s presidential candidates committed to maintaining the status quo and upholding the constitution of the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official designation. And all the candidates, including Lai, the winner from the ruling DPP, displayed a willingness to engage with China.

This unanimous stance on cross-strait relations mirrors the preference of the median Taiwanese voter: Preserve the status quo, which means seeking neither reunification with China nor formal independence. According to tracked surveys conducted by the National Chengchi University Election Study Center, as shown in the figure below, more than 80% of Taiwanese people prefer preserving the status quo – though there are divergent interpretations of what the status quo means.

Figure showing Taiwanese views of independence -- and increase in numbers of citizens who want to maintain the status quo indefinitely.
Data from National Cheng-chi University Election Study Center.

But Taiwan’s political parties diverge on the methods to maintain the status quo, despite the consensus on doing so. In particular, Taiwan’s parties don’t agree on whether the 1992 consensus – when Beijing and Taipei essentially agreed to disagree on the meaning of “One China” – should serve as the underlying principle of cross-strait relations. Thus, although the election indeed focused on relations with China, it presented more than a simplistic binary choice to Taiwanese voters.

2. Some voters are shifting away from identity politics

At a deeper level, public opinion surveys suggest that differences in Taiwanese identity have nearly vanished. Nearly three decades after democratization, a strong sense of Taiwanese identity has already consolidated, especially among the youth. In 2023, over 60% of individuals identified exclusively as Taiwanese, as the green line in the figure below indicates. In 1996, when Taiwan first held its presidential election, less than 25% of the population identified exclusively as Taiwanese. 

Figure showing rise in Taiwanese who see themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese, as fewer in Taiwan identify with being Chinese.
Data from National Cheng-chi University Election Study Center.

As the focus on identity wanes, younger voters in particular have shifted away from identity and cross-strait issues, focusing instead on domestic concerns in this election. These voters perceive that a government change wouldn’t drastically alter the fundamentals of Taiwan’s political situation. While considerations regarding China persist, domestic issues such as the economy and social welfare took precedence for these voters. This transition also reflects the maturation of Taiwan’s democracy, with voters seeking improved governance, advocating for party turnover, and valuing checks and balances. These sentiments propelled many to support the TPP, making this four-year-old party Taiwan’s third-largest political force. 

3. In a divided government, social welfare bills are more likely to pass than defense and military bills 

With the DPP securing the presidency but losing the legislature, the incoming administration will have to navigate the dynamics of a divided government. In such a setup, the increased number of veto players in the policymaking process might hinder the president’s agenda. But historical precedent suggests the Lai administration may see some legislative successes. The first DPP government, with Chen Shui-bian serving as president from 2000 to 2008 – and Taiwan’s only other divided government – helped demonstrate that the legislature could still enact critical bills, albeit with compromises.

What can we expect on the legislative front? Policies concerning cross-strait relations are likely to face the steepest challenges, potentially culminating in legislative gridlock. Equally, the legislature might struggle to reach a consensus on divisive domestic issues like energy policies. All three parties agree on the goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050, and the DPP proposes to make Taiwan nuclear-free in 2025. However, both the KMT and the TPP favor retaining nuclear energy as part of Taiwan’s power mix. 

Conversely, the anticipated gridlock in these specific areas could pave the way for social welfare policies – housing policies or measures to address low-fertility and aging issues, for instance – to advance. These policies benefited from a wide agreement among candidates’ platforms and a pronounced societal demand – and represent areas where collaborative efforts to pass legislation are more likely. 

4. Don’t expect sudden changes in U.S.-Taiwan-China relations

When DPP President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016, China cut off communication channels with Taiwan. In the past year, China again showed its strong preference for a non-DPP government. Beijing tried to influence the recent election through various means, including suspending tariff cuts within a month of the election date.

With the DPP winning three terms in a row, the chance of China reinstating any formal exchange with Taiwan is slim. Two days after the election, Nauru ended its diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognized China. That leaves just 12 nations worldwide that have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and cutting Taiwan’s international space will continue to be China’s coercive strategy moving forward.

The future of cross-strait relations also hinges on the United States, and U.S. policy towards Taiwan. The U.S. commitment to Taiwan is crucial in how Taiwanese people support self-defense. The attitude of the U.S. government plays a pivotal role in the regional stability of the Asia Pacific. And the U.S. presidential election in November adds another layer of uncertainty in this triangular relationship.

5. Taiwan is the sole consolidated democracy in the Chinese-speaking world

In 2024, Taiwan once again conducted a successful democratic election. From the perspective of democratic development, this election further consolidates Taiwan’s standing as a mature democracy. While many outside Taiwan may take Taiwan’s democratic state for granted, the journey from authoritarianism toward democratization spans just over three decades. 

At a time when democracy is receding globally, democratic elections in a relatively young democracy like Taiwan merit international attention. This significance stems not merely from Taiwan’s relations with China but from its status as the only consolidated democracy in the Chinese-speaking world that continues to flourish amidst the global democratic downturn.

Wei-Ting Yen is assistant professor of government at Franklin and Marshall College.