Lai Ching-Te (William Lai) won Taiwan’s presidential election on January 13, with 40.5% of the vote. Having succeeded Tsai Ing-Wen, who won the presidency in 2016, this result is a record third term for the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Lai defeated the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT) candidate and New Taipei mayor Hou Yu-ihon, who won 33.5% of the vote. The populist Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) candidate and former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-Je won 24.5%.
Taiwan’s presidential elections are run on a first-past-the-post system.
The DPP lost its majority in the 113 seat Legislative Yuan (parliament), with the KMT gaining 52 seats to the DPP’s 51. The DPP will now be forced to rely on the TPP to pass legislation, as it holds the balance of power with 8 seats (26%).
There was a 71% voter turnout, with the Taiwan Railway Corporation (TRC) recording 314,000 ticket sales in the week leading up to the election. Moreover, the polls ten days before the vote — after which a polling blackout is imposed — correctly predicted that the DPP would win a plurality in the presidential vote.
The TPP has positioned itself as the alternative to the DPP-KMT two-party system. It is to the left of the DPP on policies such as public housing, rent subsidies and even property tax hikes, aiming to make housing more affordable, and ran an effective social media campaign.
Despite the TPP’s claims to be an alternative, it was willing to unite with the KMT in an anti-DPP ticket. It remains to be seen whether the TPP cooperates with the KMT in the Yuan, as it pledged to do before the election.
The election took place amid Taiwanese government allegations that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government was interfering in the elections and seeking to influence the result in the KMT’s favour.
The KMT are seen to be more in favour of a rapprochement with China, whereas the DPP is seen as Taiwanese nationalist.
China launched a satellite over Taiwanese territory on January 9. In response, the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense (MND) sent out a nationwide alert. The English translation of the alert mistakenly referred to the incident as a “missile launch”, while the Chinese-language sources stated it was “satellite launch”. The MND later corrected the mistake.
Brian Hioe reported in New Bloom magazine on January 12 that the Chinese government — through various online bots — spreads disinformation to amplify the perception that Taiwanese people are afraid of Chinese military threats. The KMT accused the DPP of orchestrating the confusion over the incident.
Other disinformation efforts included a series of "deepfake" videos on social media of voiced and acted versions of a 300-page dossier purporting to contain information on outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen. The dossier was uploaded last month to Zenodo, a website for storing open documents. However, many of the voice-overs or individuals that appear in the video clips were AI-generated.
Chinese officials have denounced Ching-Te and the DPP as “separatists”. Chinese foreign affairs minister Wang Yi said: “Taiwan has never been a country, not in the past and certainly not in the future. Taiwanese independence has never been possible. It has not been possible in the past, and it will never be possible in the future. Anyone on the island of Taiwan who wants to pursue Taiwanese independence or split China’s territory will be severely punished by history and law.”
The DPP, while being seen as the pro-independence party, must carefully tread a path of defending Taiwan’s sovereignty while not declaring independence and balancing relations with China and the United States.
In his victory speech, Lai emphasised that his win was for democratic values against authoritarianism, and pledged to continue social progress. More importantly, on the key issue of relations with China, he said that Taiwan will seek to maintain the current cross-straits status quo.
Historically, the Chinese government has claimed the East Asian nation as its own, however it was only in the 17th century that the Qing dynasty formally annexed Taiwan, which it ruled over until 1895, when Taiwan was annexed by Japan.
After the Japanese surrender in 1945, the Chinese Civil War erupted on the mainland. The Chinese Communist Party won in 1949, and the defeated KMT, led by General Chiang Kai-Shek, was confined to the island of Taiwan.
Due to the Cold War, the US and its allies refused to recognise the Communist-led PRC as the legitimate Chinese government, instead recognising Chiang’s KMT regime, known as the Republic of China (ROC) in the United Nations.
It wasn’t until 1971, as the US ruling class pursued its own rapprochement with China, that the UN recognised the mainland government as the sole Chinese government.
The US backed the repressive KMT regime, which ruled Taiwan under martial law from 1947‒87. This followed an uprising by the Taiwanese people against the KMT regime on February 28, 1947, known as “the 228 incident”, when the army and KMT government killed between 18,000 and 28,000 people.
This period became known as the “White Terror” and it is estimated that 140,000 people were imprisoned and up to 4000 killed as the KMT targeted leftists, liberals, independence activists and intellectuals.
The DPP was founded in 1986 and has its roots in the Tangwai movement that formed in the mid-1970s in opposition to the KMT regime.
After martial law ended in 1987, Taiwan held its first presidential election in 1996. However, it took until 2000 for the DPP to defeat the KMT in a presidential election. Since then, the DPP has held power for 16 of the past 24 years. The DPP government legalised same-sex marriage in 2019 — the first Asian country to do so.
While cross-straits relations were an important factor for Taiwanese voters, a third of voters said that cost of living issues were the most important.
Lai and Hou pledged to raise the minimum wage, with Lai promising to raise it from NT$26,400 to $27,470 by 2025.
Trade unions called for an increase in the minimum wage during the Autumn Struggle demonstrations in December — the largest union demonstrations in the country after International Workers' Day (May Day).
All candidates pledged to increase renewable energy to 30% by 2030. However, only Lai promised that Taiwan would achieve net-zero emissions and phase out the nuclear industry by 2050.
In the aftermath of the election, Taiwan’s political status remains complicated, maintaining official diplomatic relations with only 12 nations. Soon after the election, the Pacific Island of Nauru announced it was severing its diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of China, while Western nations such as the US, Britain and Australia still do not recognise Taiwan as a nation.
In an interview with the ABC’s 7.30, Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu rejected China’s claims that Lai’s election would jeopardise the status quo, saying “China does not have any jurisdiction over Taiwan. We have a president that is democratically elected”.
While China claims that almost 60% voted against Lai, meaning the DPP lacks a mandate, it failed to sway voters with its balloons, satellite launch, TikTok misinformation campaigns and the threat of informal economic sanctions. Instead, voters preferred to maintain the status quo — Taiwan maintains its de facto sovereignty, while not declaring independence.