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Taiwan’s Presidential Election Explained – And China’s Preferences

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On the 13th of January 2024, Taiwan, a nation at the heart of significant global geopolitical dynamics, is poised to hold a presidential election that is drawing the intense attention of major world powers, particularly China and the United States. The election is not just a pivotal moment in Taiwan’s domestic politics but also a crucial event in determining the island’s international relations and stance in the ongoing geopolitical tensions involving China.

Among the candidates, Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT) is particularly notable for his stance favoring closer ties with China. His advocacy for dialogue with the Chinese Communist Party and his support for the “1992 consensus” – a somewhat ambiguous acknowledgment of “one China” with different interpretations – position him as the candidate most likely to seek warmer relations with Beijing. This stance is in line with the interests of the Chinese government, which has long claimed sovereignty over Taiwan and has expressed its desire for closer ties under certain conditions. Hou’s background as a former policeman and his successful tenure as the mayor of New Taipei City have given him a reputation for moderation and administrative efficiency. His approach to cross-strait relations marks a potential shift from the current government’s policies and raises questions about the future of Taiwan’s sovereignty and democratic values.

In stark contrast to Hou’s approach is Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who is leading the polls with a median of 36% and a range between 32% and 39%. Lai, a former doctor, and politician, has a history of advocating for Taiwan’s independence, which has garnered him support from both hardline independence advocates and some centrist voters. His assertive stance on maintaining Taiwan’s independence aligns with the DPP’s traditional position, which has been characterized by a more confrontational approach towards Beijing. Lai’s commitment to continuing the current administration’s policy under President Tsai Ing-wen could maintain the ongoing tensions and isolation tactics from China. His victory would likely signify a continuation of the status quo in cross-strait relations, with Taiwan asserting its independence and China continuing its pressure tactics.

The third key candidate in the race is Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), who is trailing in the polls with a median of 24% and a likely range of 17% to 31%. A former surgeon and mayor of Taipei, Ko represents a centrist alternative, focusing on domestic issues such as housing and energy rather than cross-strait relations. However, his policies on China, which lean closer to the KMT’s stance, suggest a potential for warmer relations with Beijing if he were to secure a significant role in the government. Ko’s vision for a coalition with the KMT indicates his willingness to bridge the divide between the traditional DPP-KMT polarization in Taiwanese politics.

The election is unfolding against a backdrop of several key domestic challenges, such as Taiwan’s stagnant economy, high housing costs, and evolving energy policies. These issues are crucial for voters, but the election is largely overshadowed by the more pressing matter of Taiwan’s political status and its relations with China. Beijing’s claim over Taiwan and its refusal to rule out a military attack on the island remain central issues in the election. The outcome will significantly influence Taiwan’s future, particularly its ability to navigate the complex dynamics of its relationship with China and maintain its sovereignty and democratic way of life.

China’s preference in this election seems to lean towards Hou Yu-ih of the KMT, whose approach suggests a potential for dialogue and possibly more amicable relations with the mainland. This prospect raises concerns among those who fear it could lead to increased Chinese influence over Taiwan’s internal affairs and possibly compromise the island’s democratic freedoms.

In contrast, a victory for Lai Ching-te would likely be viewed unfavorably by Beijing but could ensure the continuation of Taiwan’s current trajectory towards asserting its distinct identity and maintaining strategic ties with the United States. Lai’s administration would likely face continued pressure and isolation tactics from China, a scenario that has become increasingly familiar under the DPP’s rule.

Ko Wen-je’s potential role in shaping Taiwan’s future cannot be overlooked. His position as a centrist might offer a different perspective in the highly polarized landscape of Taiwanese politics. His policies, while domestically focused, could have implications for Taiwan’s foreign relations, especially if he facilitates a coalition with the KMT that could influence the island’s approach to China.

As Taiwan prepares for this crucial election, the decision made by its voters will have far-reaching implications. The election is not just about choosing the next leader of Taiwan but also about determining the island’s path in a rapidly changing world, where its relationship with China, the United States, and other global powers remains a subject of significant strategic importance.

The last presidential election was a landslide against China, this one is much closer. So China can declare victory in its propaganda wars, even if their chosen candidate does not succeed, because in their very long time frame they are making progress. And if their candidate should happen to win, then the U.S. will have no reason to stop the absorption of Taiwan into China – a horrific possibility.

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