The 2024 Taiwanese elections take place at a time that Taiwan has seen more international attention than ever, amidst rising United States-China tensions, and Chinese military drills that have stepped up since the visit of then-U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August 2022.
Taiwanese voters have historically had to choose between the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a center-left party that emerged from Taiwan’s democracy movement, and the Kuomintang (KMT, also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party), which once ruled over Taiwan in an authoritarian manner during the period known as the White Terror. Since democratization, the KMT has reinvented itself as the pro-China party in Taiwanese politics, while the historically pro-independence DPP has distanced itself from this position to avoid the risk of provoking China.
The KMT’s push for closer political and economic relations with China has sometimes heretofore met with opposition from the Taiwanese public. But the DPP’s eight years in power have led to rising dissatisfaction with its rule for failing to address long standing issues of economic inequality in Taiwan. That has left an opening for the rise of a new populist right in the form of the Taiwanese People’s Party to pose as an alternative to both the DPP and KMT.
After the dust settled, Lai Ching-te of the DPP won the presidential election, marking an unprecedented third consecutive term in office for the center-left party. Lai’s election victory occurs in spite of attempts by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to undermine his campaign, framing the vote as a choice between war and peace.
The KMT picked up the discourse of war and peace and instilled a sense of fear in Taiwanese civil society as the theme of their campaign. The KMT candidate, Hou You-yi, repeatedly argued that “a vote for the DPP is a vote for war.”
Such discourse also circulated in the Anglophone media. Even some on the western Left joined in the chorus in an odd case of self-proclaimed radicals siding with the former authoritarian party in Taiwan. Ironically, the KMT seemed to mimic talking points from such radicals, posturing as an anti-war party.
In one example of this confluence, a group of Taiwanese leftist scholars issued a statement that drew on publications by Noam Chomsky, Code Pink, and the Progressive International. It uncritically dismissed threats from China and praised the KMT. The KMT’s adoption of this supposed anti-war position seemed to come in the wake of this statement–a strange chain of events in which discourse from Chomsky or Code Pink were up taken up by a party, which during the authoritarian period had been a classic example of a right-wing dictatorship backed by the US in the interests of anti-Communism.
By contrast, the DPP’s Lai had been portrayed as a “pro-independence” radical by the international media. It is true that in the past, he had identified himself as a “pragmatic advocate for Taiwan independence.” But, in this race, he vowed to maintain the status quo and follow Tsai Ing-wen’s path of diplomacy and the national framework of “the Republic of China, Taiwan,” rather than taking any steps toward any declaration of official independence.
The China fatigue factor
Lai’s win partially showed that the fear discourse pushed by Beijing’s and the KMT was no longer effective. While the KMT’s fear mongering allowed it to consolidate an electoral base, it was not enough to win the presidency. The majority of people preferred the DPP’s strategy of strengthening national security and maintaining the status quo of de facto sovereignty.
However, the rise of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) as a third party—with the ex-Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je as its presidential candidate—provided an alternative for those who saw both the KMT and the DPP as the establishment. The TPP presented itself as a force to build a “new political culture” and push for domestic reforms, something appealing especially for the younger generations.
The TPP’s Ko won an impressive 3.7 million votes, putting him only a million votes behind the KMT’s Hou You-yi’s with his 4.6 million votes. Ko appears to be highly popular among young people, despite his reputation for misogyny and ideological inconsistency.
The TPP took advantage of Taiwanese people’s fatigue over the “China issue” and popularized a discourse proclaiming the irrelevance of the debate over independence vs. unification. It accused the DPP of selling “dried mangos,” a slang phrase in Mandarin referring to a sense of “national doom” and anxiety about Taiwan’s fate faced with threats from China. The TPP’s electoral base, mostly young people between the ages of 20-40, identify as Taiwanese and see China as a separate country, but do not view national sovereignty as a priority.
Ko has sometimes been labeled a “populist,” because he has adopted an anti-establishment message and positioned himself against the two major parties. He has also crafted a political persona of an everyman–prone to gaffes in contrast to the slick and polished politicians from the DPP or KMT. On top of that, Ko’s base seems mainly to consist of angry, disenfranchised young men who may resonate with his misogyny and homophobia, viewing Ko as taking a stand against “political correctness.”
Thus, despite the DPP securing an unprecedented 3rd consecutive presidential term, the party emerges from the election with many challenges. For one, it faces the loss of the young and swing voters who chose Tsai four years ago. This time they voted for Ko and the TPP.
While Taiwan’s economy, particularly its high tech and semiconductor industry, has benefitted the high income sectors, real wages for most people, especially in the service sector, have been stagnant and housing prices continue to soar. These issues are deeply embedded in the country’s neoliberal strategy and economic structure.
All three parties raise different policies to address these issues like offering rental subsidies, lowering down payments on real estate, and building new public housing. But these are superficial measures that do not address the deep economic roots of the problems most people are experiencing. So, it’s unlikely that working people will see major improvements in their living standards faced with inflation and continuous economic restructuring.
The rise of populism in Taiwan?
These are the conditions for the growth of right wing populism. Sensing that, Ko and TPP framed themselves during the campaign as a “social movement.” The TPP has appropriated the rhetoric and imagery of Chinese citizens’ “White Paper Movement” in defiance of Beijing’s inhuman lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ko also claims to carry on the values of the 2014 Sunflower Movement, in which the youth-led demonstrations against a trade agreement with China culminated in students occupying the Taiwanese legislature. Showing all this to be posturing, Ko actually supports reviving that trade agreement.
Ko has adopted an unclear stance on cross-strait relations. On the one hand, he promises such trade agreements and even building a bridge connecting Taiwan’s outlying islands with China. On the other hand, he declares his support for the Tsai administration’s foreign policy.
Like a classic demagogue, Ko has implied that he wants to create a “religion-like” party culture. The TPP’s campaign slogan ominously proclaimed its intent to “return the state to you.” After Ko’s defeat, some internet influencers spread disinformation that the election was stolen, while Ko himself remained ambiguous about whether he views this to have taken place.
Despite coming in third in the presidential election, Ko and his TPP are well positioned in the legislature. The DPP lost control of the legislature, despite Lai winning the presidency. It garnered 51 seats to the KMT’s 52. As a result, neither can get legislation through the body without reaching out to the TPP, which won 8 seats.
So, the balance of power may well be controlled by Ko’s TPP, an upstart third party that hews closer to the KMT’s stances on China. This puts the TPP in a position to be the “kingmaker” able to decide which bills pass in the legislature.
Small parties, including the progressive ones, were wiped out. The New Power Party, which emerged after the 2014 Sunflower Movement, failed to win any seats. Nor did the Green Party Taiwan, the Taiwan Statebuilding Party, or the Obasan Alliance win any seats. The Social Democratic Party’s sole candidate, Miao Poya, who was endorsed by the DPP, also failed to win in Taipei’s Daan district.
Now without any steadfast progressive third parties in the legislature, and with the TPP as a pivotal minority, it’s likely that formal politics will swing to the right. Whether that happens or not will largely depend on whether the DPP restructures itself to overcome its internal problems, reengages with civil society in its four-year presidential term, and appeals to disaffected young voters.
Domestic versus cross-strait issues
Ko and the TPP achieved their successes by tapping into a sense of disenfranchisement among young people and through a political message that called for focusing on reviving the economy and avoiding cross-strait issues. Ko frames himself as beyond the traditional distinctions of KMT versus DPP policies, even if he and the TPP are closer to the KMT. Ko’s run as the third candidate in an already contentious race took place after failed negotiations with the KMT over a joint ticket, and the TPP’s politicians are mainly drawn from former KMT politicians or politicians from parties that split from the KMT.
It may be that the DPP was able to hold onto power by emphasizing that it is the only party that defends Taiwanese sovereignty. But its lack of an appealing domestic message to the Taiwanese public, especially their concerns about rising social inequality, allowed for the rise of the TPP.
Many questions remain, then, for Taiwanese society going forward. It is yet to be seen if the Ko phenomenon signifies the early phase of a wave of reaction, following a decade in which progressive political voices were relatively successful in influencing mainstream discourse—even if most were gradually absorbed into the DPP as the decade went on.
It is possible that the failure of the Left to win substantive power combined with the failure of the DPP to address social inequality may enable Ko and the TPP to consolidate an electoral base for right-wing populism. With a DPP president, a divided legislature, potential political paralysis, and growing geopolitical pressures, social and class struggles in civil society must take charge, steer the civic conversations toward progressive solutions, and build an alternative to an emergent right wing populism.
Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”
Featured image credit: Flikr; modified by Tempest.
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Brian Hioe is one of the founding editors of New Bloom, an online magazine covering activism and youth politics in Taiwan and the Asia Pacific that was founded after the 2014 Sunflower Movement.
Wen Liu is an Assistant Research Fellow at the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. Her research focuses on transnational LGBTQ politics, Asian American identity, and US-China-Taiwan geopolitics.