Taiwan’s Democratic Consensus
I woke up to the Washington national security crowd cheering the result of Taiwan’s election, which saw voters choose Lai Ching-te, candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Notably, the Taiwanese progressives I know cheered the same!
The thing to cheer is that Taiwan has elections in the first place, and that the quality of life it offers its citizens contrasts with that in mainland China. The geopolitics of the election weren’t that important for a couple reasons, and will probably not determine much that happens between now and May (when Lai is sworn in).
This is a little more “just the facts” than my normal missives, but it seemed worthwhile to offer a short primer and a couple quick thoughts from a progressive-and-geopolitical perspective.
Lai Ching-te (DPP)—Vice president. A little more conservative than the administration he just served in, but still seen as the least-worst option among progressive Taiwanese.
Hou Yu-ih (Kuomintang/KMT)—Mayor of New Taipei City. Viewed as a “law and order” candidate (former police officer).
Ko Wen-je (Taiwan People’s Party/TPP)—Former mayor of Taipei. Viewed as a quasi-populist challenger to the two-party system.
KMT is a center-right party that supports free trade, especially with China, and neoliberal economic policies. During this campaign, the KMT and Hou—despite having a more favorable view of China—ruled out unification talks with mainland China and promised to boost defense spending.
The DPP is the center-left party that has drawn Beijing’s ire during the presidency of Tsai Ing-wen. Pre-voting polls had suggested that despite an anti-incumbency bias against the DPP, Lai Ching-te had a narrow lead in a field of candidates that offered little for progressives (Lai 35.2%, Hou 32.1%, Ko 19.7%).
But the DPP has moved from being a dissident party to being the “establishment,” and they now own responsibility for Taiwan’s economic troubles. Taiwan has a version of the same mass-precariat problem that other developed countries have—extreme inequality, too many workers on the informal economy, too many people who live paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford the basics of normal life.
Ko (TPP) was the only candidate to prioritize the “bread and butter” issues of housing costs and wage stagnation, but Lai and the DPP had governed competently with generally good social and economic indicators at the national level. The DPP was and remains generally the best party for political equality/progressive identity politics.
The most notable thing about the geopolitics of this election is that all three candidates express some wariness about China while avoiding taking any extreme position. This was the thing I thought the US national security state kind of missed—the variation in China policy among the three candidates was not wide at all. That’s important because it indicates a relative consensus in favor of a somewhat moderate position on China and the question of independence.
It's worth noting that China waged a very active disinformation campaign against the DPP and Lai, yet Lai won anyway.
Both the TPP and KMT had indicated they would conclude a cross-Strait free trade deal with China that would have created pressures for self-censorship in Taiwan’s business community and among parts of Taiwan’s political class.
China called the election result “dangerous,” which is predictable but silly. Beijing strongly preferred Hou and the KMT, and tried to frame a vote for DPP/Lai as a vote for independence and therefore war (China has long established that any Taiwanese declaration of formal independence would be a casus belli).
But the DPP is not a radical party, and does not plan to declare independence as far as we know. In fact, the lack of distance on China policy across the three candidates meant that pocketbook issues, not China, were decisive among voters.
China-Taiwan relations are in a precarious/dangerous place, and Lai’s election solidifies the current trajectory.
But if the KMT had won instead, it wouldn’t have necessarily been more stabilizing than the DPP. The Sunflower Movement in Taiwan in 2014 was a grassroots, student-led protest reaction against free-trade policies between China and Taiwan. China saw that democratic energy as a threat and it would have re-emerged organically under a Hou/KMT presidency. So it would be overly simple to the point of being wrong to say that DPP=instability, KMT=stability.
The big geopolitical implication is that Lai and the DPP have pretty openly said they see China as a threat, they think deterrence is some kind of answer to China, and they want to build closer ties to the US. There’s risk in all of that, but the devil is in the details.
While the DPP promises continuity with the past decade, that decade has been a volatile one in which cross-Strait relations have become an obsession for war planners and ethnonationalists in the US, China, and Taiwan.
One added complication is that no party won a majority in the legislature, and the KMT actually won the most seats (52 compared to the DPP’s 51 and the TPP’s 8). That’s likely to have a moderating effect all around, though it also means that Taiwan’s structural economic problems are unlikely to be dealt with.