No losers, two winners in Taiwan poll

No losers, two winners in Taiwan poll


Photo: New york time
Photo: New york time

Among elections in Asia this year, Taiwan's is no less consequential, not just for the island country's political future but also for the United States-China rivalry and broader geopolitics. In the event, the results from the Jan 13 general election in Taiwan ended up with no major losers among the main contenders and two big wins for democracy in Asia and the geopolitical status quo.

Lai Ching-te, the presidential candidate from the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), topped the field with 40% of the vote, down from the ruling party's previous showings of 56-57% in 2016 and 2020 when outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen contested. As the DPP is seen as more "pro-independence" vis-à-vis mainland China, Mr Lai's numbers suggest that voters are not inclined to intensify tensions with Beijing. At the same time, having retained the presidency means the DPP can still be in charge under Mr Lai and recalibrate its policy priorities to regain electoral ground.

The opposition Kuomintang Party (KMT), which ran with Hou Yu-ih as its presidential contestant, also experienced less popular support, declining from 38% in 2020 to 33% in the latest poll, ahead of the 31% the party garnered in 2016. Yet the KMT, which is viewed as friendlier towards Beijing with a greater willingness to compromise on cross-strait issues, lost less support than the DPP. The KMT also won the overall legislative poll, which means Taiwan's executive and lawmaking body are split and balanced between the two perennial parties. The KMT, thus, cannot be too upset with the outcome.

The big surprise is the Taiwan People's Party (TPP), which shot up from nowhere to capture 26% of the tally, headed by Ko Wen-je. With a support base among younger demographics, the TPP is somewhat similar to Thailand's Future Forward Party (FFP) with its youthful base and reform programme. The TPP's impressive results suggest that Taiwanese politics is not all about being pro- or against Beijing. Other more pressing concerns, from housing and welfare to jobs and wages, mattered no less.

Back when the FFP rose up with a wide-ranging agenda of structural reforms for a better future, a significant part of the electorate, particularly younger and first-time voters, had been fed up with the for and against movements centring on Thaksin Shinawatra and the yellow versus red street protests and the two military coups and multiple judicial interventions that went with it. Younger voters in Thailand wanted to transcend the Thaksin divide and get right to the crux of institutional reforms of the military, monarchy, bureaucracy, economy, governance, and so forth. The big difference, of course, is that Taiwan's TPP will not be judicially dissolved summarily like Thailand's FFP.

But the DPP and KMT should take notice of the TPP. The two largest parties presumably will pay more attention to local issues and domestic priorities, not just the geopolitics and the existential threat that China poses to Taiwan's identity and longevity. This does not mean that the TPP is soft on China. All three parties, in fact, are adamant on the need for self-defence and deterrence. Domestic concerns will merely gain more policy attention.

With voter turnout above 70% in the past two polls and more than 60% previously, well over most Western democracies, the Taiwanese electorate speaks up when they are given a chance. The vote count was fast and efficient, taking a matter of hours. Most importantly, once the results were known, the losers accepted and promptly conceded and congratulated the winner. This is one key gauge for democracies anywhere -- if losers don't accept the results of a free and fair poll, then bickering, squabbling, and political volatility will ensue.

One might say that this is the basic problem in Thai politics. When there's a poll, the winner cannot really govern because the losers keep destabilising and trying to bring it down. But Thailand is not the only one where losers tend to become spoilers. Even the US, the supposed beacon of democracy, has suffered from this trend. This is why Indonesia's democracy is vibrant and secure. Its general election next month will be hotly contested, but ultimately, the winner will emerge as the losers will stand down, as evident in previous elections.

For China, Taiwan's results should be seen as satisfactory. Had the DPP gained more ground, then Beijing would have been alarmed at pro-independence preferences on the island. Beijing unnecessarily shot itself in the foot by painting the Taiwan poll as a binary between war and peace if the DPP won. The DPP did come out on top but with less of a margin than before, forcing Beijing to tone down its bullying rhetoric. The Chinese government would also be heartened by the TPP's showing because the more Taiwanese politics is divisive at home, the better it is for Beijing's interests to keep its island neighbour down and weak.

The good news for the US is that the DPP still carried the day. Had the KMT triumphed, Washington might have been more concerned about a Taiwanese tilt towards Beijing. But with the status quo as the ultimate geopolitical winner, the US is likely to keep up its support for Taiwan, although the White House and the Congress may continue to send mixed signals. President Joe Biden, for instance, reacted to Taiwan's election results by saying the US does not support Taiwanese independence, while there have been controversial congressional moves in the recent past to side with Taiwan at the risk of provoking China. For the US, the trick will be to do just enough to keep China off Taiwan, but not a tad more in order to maintain the status quo.

Taiwan's election results also matter in the global narrative and contest between autocracy versus democracy. In the face of what is known as "democratic backsliding" around the world, Taiwan has shown time and again that it is a vibrant Asian democracy. Its election results and strong democratic outcome are a boost to emerging democracies in Asia and beyond, not least here in Thailand. Taiwan serves as an example that strong economic performance coupled with democratic rule under popular legitimacy can thrive in Asia.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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