A victory for Taiwanese autonomy comes with bad news for the DPP

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Following elections held on the 13th January in Taiwan, on the surface there is minimal change – the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) continues to play the dominant role, winning the popular vote and the presidency for a third successive election. However, these elections might prove pivotal in reassessing Taiwan’s relationship with China, with support from the DPP markedly declining relative to the 2020 election, as well as in the domestic sphere, with the DPP losing its parliamentary majority, thereby creating significant issues of governance.

Winning roughly 40% of the vote, the DPP is still the most powerful party in Taiwan. Its candidate for presidency, Lai Ching-te, did win his election soundly, despite fears that the presidency would be more contested than in previous years. Tsai Ing-wen, the previous president, could not run again due to term limits. Other major Taiwanese parties, not least the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), only received 33.5% and 26.5% of the vote respectively. Despite successes in the presidential election, it was a more mixed picture elsewhere, with the DPP no longer retaining a majority in the Taiwanese parliament. Elections in Taiwan were only established relatively recently, with full democratisation only occurring during the 1990s, and have been fervently embraced as a symbol of national identity.

The declining support for the DPP is a clear worry for the party

Thousands of Taiwanese expats flew home to cast their ballots, and the electoral message sent by the people is contextualised not just domestically, but especially regarding China. Relationships between China and Taiwan have significantly worsened in the run- up to the election, and there are increasing anxieties worldwide about the possibility of a full-scale invasion. In this sense, the DPP’s electoral victory might be seen as a continued desire for full sovereignty and independence. Acting as the party most keen to distance itself from Beijing, the DPP argues its lack of contact with China is confirmed by this electoral result. In the coming months, there are likely to be increasing appeals from the DPP and Taiwanese government for continued support by the USA and major European powers to promote sovereignty in the region. The declining support for the DPP is a clear worry for the party, and some commentators suggest a desire to ameliorate links with China, albeit continuing to hold a firm line on sovereignty.

The KMT and TPP, in contrast, both have sought to somewhat improve relationships between Taiwan and China, especially regarding trade and economic services. Both parties, especially the KMT, believe more moderate ties to China will increase economic opportunities but also act to support the peacekeeping process in the Taiwan Strait, which has been put under strain in recent months.

In practice, TPP policies were never as divergent as they sought to make out

With most elections serving as a direct contest between the DPP and KMT for the presidency and parliament, the entry of the TPP into this election has certainty disrupted proceedings, with TPP leaders, including its presidential candidate Ko Wen-je, embracing its role as an electoral wildcard. In practice, TPP policies were never as divergent as they sought to make out, with the party broadly in line with the conservative KMT. Despite this, the political messaging set out by party representatives did often alter the status quo of Taiwanese electoral debates, with many of Ko Wen-je’s speeches and comments on policy provoking a polarised reaction.

In response to the election, China has painted the election as a loss for the independence movement in Taiwan, and it believes the election further vindicates its rights to control and govern Taiwan, given the reduced vote share of the DPP and its loss of its parliamentary majority. For most leaders in the West, the results of the election serve as further recognition of the unique and challenging geopolitical circumstances in the region. With many European leaders seeking to court further economic ties with China without drawing the ire of Taiwan, this might prove a difficult mission.

Ties with both China and the West might face momentous strain during this electoral term

Domestically, the DPP might face far more resistance on its policies relative to previous terms, with its attempts to liberalise laws on LGBTQ+ rights perhaps unlikely to reach fruition. With the KMT and TPP holding a combined majority, there is also the likelihood that these parties seek to resuscitate repealed laws to remove restrictions on trade with China. Regardless of the policy discourse in respect to Taiwan’s position in the world, it is clear that spending and policy commitments might be less obtainable for the DPP. In some respects, the recent Taiwanese elections reflect little change from the past, most notably in the presidential race, but this obscures an increasingly nuanced and challenging domestic picture for the DPP. Equally, ties with both China and the West might face momentous strain during this electoral term, forcing Lai Ching-te and the DPP to make potentially pivotal choices on the future of Taiwan and its sovereignty.

Image: Taiwan Presidential Palace (CE Photo, Uwu Aranas, via Wikimedia Commons)

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