Anti-Communist Lai Ching-te Wins Taiwan Presidential Election, Disappointing China

aiwan's President-elect Lai Ching-te (centre L) and his running mate Hsiao Bi-khim (centre
ALASTAIR PIKE/AFP via Getty Images

Anti-communist Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Lai Ching-te won Taiwan’s presidential election on Saturday, defeating his two leftist rivals on a campaign emphasizing Taiwan’s sovereignty in the face of mounting threats from China.

Lai, sometimes referred to by his Western name, William Lai, is the current vice president and the first candidate to secure a third term for a political party in the young history of Taiwanese democracy. As a former physician, Lai rose to prominence as an authority figure during the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, during which Taiwan distinguished itself as the first nation to alert the World Health Organization – in vain – to the spread of a novel disease in China and for its performance in containing infections and preventing widespread death.

Lai will succeed current President Tsai Ing-wen in an inauguration ceremony on May 20.

The victory for Lai, and continued rule for the DPP, is also in part the result of significant changes in perceptions of Taiwanese identity on the island. Only about 2.5 percent of Taiwanese identify as Chinese – a connection maintained by language and culture, but not government structures – compared to over 62 percent who identify solely as Taiwanese. Less than half that number, about 30 percent, identify as “Taiwanese-Chinese,” according to a poll by the Election Study Center of Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, Channel News Asia reported in the last week of the election.

Taiwan – formally the Republic of China – is a sovereign, democratic island nation off the coast of China. It has never in its history been governed by a regime headquartered in Beijing and has no military, administrative, or other political ties to China. Modern Taiwan was founded in 1912 but did not become an independent state until the fall of the Japanese empire in 1945.

Lai received about 5.5 million votes, or 40.1 percent, according to national tallies from the Central Election Commission documenting 99 percent of votes at press time. Lai faced a divided opposition in the polls. Hou Yu-ih, the candidate for the establishment left Kuomingtang (KMT) party, received 33.46 percent (4.7 million) of the vote with 99 percent tallied; Ko Wen-je of the outsider Taiwan People Party (TPP) received 26.44 percent (3.6 million).


L-R) Lai Ching-te, presidential candidate from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Hou Yu-ih, presidential candidate from the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT), and Ko Wen-je, presidential candidate from the opposition Taiwan People's Party (TPP), pose for a picture during a debate in Taipei on December 30, 2023. (Photo by Pei Chen / POOL / AFP) (Photo by PEI CHEN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

(L-R) Lai Ching-te, presidential candidate from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Hou Yu-ih, presidential candidate from the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT), and Ko Wen-je, presidential candidate from the opposition Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), pose for a picture during a debate in Taipei on December 30, 2023 (Photo by Pei Chen/POOL/AFP).

China loomed large in the Taiwanese presidential race – sometimes literally, as in the case of a flurry of Chinese espionage balloons floating over the country on the first weekend of the year – and disparaged Lai personally as a “separationist” who would bring China and Taiwan closer to war. Lai’s rivals, Hou and Ko, offered voters campaigns that sought more dialogue and concessions to China to avoid an invasion.

In his victory speech, Lai expected what Taiwan’s Liberty Times described as an “olive branch” to China, calling for Beijing to address Taiwan on the basis of “equal dignity” as states and accept that “peace is in the interest of both parties.”

“We have not carried out any provocations. Taiwan just wants to maintain a democratic and free way of life,” the Liberty Times paraphrased Lai as saying.

“The Taiwanese people have successfully resisted efforts from external forces to influence this election,” he told supporters, according to a translation published by Indian newspaper Hindustan Times. “We don’t want to become enemies with China. We can become friends. We are determined to safeguard Taiwan from continuing threats and intimidation from China.”

“I want to thank the Taiwanese people for writing a new chapter in our democracy,” he said to his people. “We are telling the international community that between democracy and authoritarianism, we will stand on the side of democracy”:

Ko’s rise in the polls was a disruptive factor in the election, as the KMT has traditionally been the major party with policies more friendly to China. As a result of the presence of the TPP, Taiwanese leftist groups expressed concern that the two parties would split the vote, leading to Lai’s victory. The two parties held discussions in November on the possibility of creating a “unity” ticket with both candidates, but the discussions collapsed as neither side could agree on which candidate should serve as the other’s vice-presidential running mate. A short-lived presidential run by Terry Gou, the head of the massive multinational tech company Foxconn, also threw the anti-Lai vote into disarray.

The two losing candidates combined received more than 7 million votes, compared to Lai’s 5.5 million votes, suggesting that a united opposition to the DPP could have defeated the ruling party. In contrast, President Tsai received 8.17 million votes in the 2020 election.

The DPP also had a disappointing result in legislative elections. The KMT narrowly won the plurality in the Legislative Yuan, the national lawmaking body, away from the DPP, 52 to 51 seats respectively. Keeping the KMT from a majority was the TPP, which took eight seats. The results will likely make it more difficult for Lai to enact domestic policies but have a minimal effect on his party’s approach to China.

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