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Taiwan Elections 101: Understanding the Politics on Beautiful Island for Beginners

On January 13th, 2024, the people of Taiwan went to the polls to elect their next president and the 11th Legislative Yuan. This guide will help you understand more about the results of the most recent elections and the Taiwanese political scene.

 

I. Who ran?

In the presidential elections, there were three tickets. Each listed a candidate for the president (the former) and the vice-president (the latter).

William Lai (Ching-Te Lai; 賴清德), the incumbent Vice-President of Taiwan, former Premier, and former Mayor of Tainan, and Bi-Khim Hsiao (蕭美琴), former de facto ambassador to the US and legislator, represented the Democratic Progressive Party. They secured 40.05% of the votes.

Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜), current Mayor of New Taipei City and former high-ranking police officer, and Jaw Shaw-kong (趙少康), prominent media personality and former legislator and Minister of the Environmental Protection Agency, ran as candidates of the Chinese Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang). They came second, winning 33.49% of votes.

Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), former Mayor of Taipei and physician, and Cynthia Wu (Hsin-ying Wu; 吳欣盈), sitting legislator and the Shin Kong Group (新光集團) heiress, were the official candidates of the Taiwan People’s Party. They attained 26.46% of the votes.

Even though the Taiwanese party system is dominated by the Democratic Progressive Party and the Chinese Nationalist Party, as many as 16 parties competed in this year’s legislative elections. Some of the smaller parties that ran candidates in 2024 include the New Power Party, the Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party, and the People First Party.

To learn more about the main political parties in Taiwan, see Section 3: “What is the Taiwanese party system like?”.

 

II. Who won?

William Lai and Bi-Khim Hsiao won the presidential elections. However, unlike his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), Lai will be a minority president, meaning those who voted for him are fewer than those who voted for his opponents. This undermines the strength of his mandate. In 2020, Tsai won a second term in a landslide 57.13% victory.

Despite his status as a minority president, Lai’s victory was historic. He secured a third presidential term for his Democratic Progressive Party, which is unprecedented since Taiwan started to hold free and direct presidential elections in 1996.

When it comes to the legislative race, it is more difficult to identify clear “winners” and “losers.”

No party secured an absolute majority of 57 seats or above. The Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) won 52 seats, the Democratic Progressive Party secured 51 seats (the seats of the DPP and its coalition in the legislature have diminished from 68), and the relatively new Taiwan People’s Party attained eight seats in the legislature. The two remaining seats went to independent candidates, but they are expected to work closely with the Kuomintang. Since neither of Taiwan’s two major parties gained an absolute majority in the unicameral legislature, positioning the relatively new Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) as the “critical minority” (關鍵少數).

Unlike the Czech Republic, which is an example of a parliamentary system, Taiwan’s government system can be described as semi-presidential. This means that an elected president serves as head of state and unilaterally appoints a Cabinet and a premier without the legislature’s approval. At the same time, he will need the Legislative Yuan’s support for his cabinet’s initiatives, most crucially since the legislature approves the budget. Cooperation with Ko Wen-je’s TPP will be essential to avoid gridlock.

It remains unclear whether a formal coalition will form between the TPP and either the KMT or the DPP. During the presidential campaign, the KMT and TPP broached the idea of putting forward a joint presidential ticket. However, their negotiations failed in a very dramatic way. It is possible that instead of a permanent coalition, the KMT and the DPP will seek the TPP’s support on an issue-by-issue basis. An important litmus test for future cooperation between the TPP and the two major parties will come on February 1, when the 11th Legislative Yuan will elect its Speaker.

 

III. What is the Taiwanese party system like?

Taiwan has a multi-party system characterized by the dominance of two major political parties: the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In the most recent elections, the Taiwan People’s Party emerged as an important contender. Here is a brief overview of the major political parties in Taiwan:

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP): The DPP is the main opposition party in Taiwan and has its roots in the pro-democracy movement. It emerged in the late 1980s as a response to the authoritarian rule of the KMT. The DPP advocates for Taiwan’s sovereignty and a more distinct Taiwanese identity. However, describing it as a “pro-independence” party is incorrect – the DPP advocates for maintaining the status quo and recognizes that a formal declaration of independence is unnecessary, as it views the Republic of China on Taiwan as already de facto independent. It has seen significant electoral success, with multiple presidential terms and periods of control in the Legislative Yuan. DPP advocates for diversification of Taiwan’s political and economic relations to lower the country’s dependence on China.

Kuomintang (KMT): The KMT is one of the oldest political parties in Taiwan and has played a significant role in the country’s history. Historically, the KMT was the ruling party in China before retreating to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the Chinese Civil War to the Chinese Communist Party. Following the Second World War, the Kuomintang was an authoritarian party responsible for the brutal “White Terror” era. While it is challenging to determine the exact figure of people who fell victim to the White Terror, it is widely acknowledged that thousands of people were arrested, imprisoned, and executed during this period. The KMT held power in Taiwan for many years until the early 2000s. The party traditionally advocates for closer cross-strait relations and the 1992 Consensus.

Taiwan People’s Party (TPP): A relative newcomer to the Taiwanese political scene, TPP was founded by former Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), who initially gained prominence as an independent candidate. The party positions itself as centrist and pragmatic, advocating for policies that prioritize the well-being and interests of the people. The party relies heavily on personalistic appeal and is centered around its chairman, Ko Wen-je.

As of December 31, 2023, 92 political parties were officially registered in Taiwan. Sixteen of them participated in the most recent legislative elections. Here is an overview of some of these smaller political establishments:

New Power Party (NPP): NPP is a social movement party born out of the Sunflower Movement (2015). (The Sunflower Movement was a series of protests led by students advocating for greater transparency and public participation in the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement negotiations.) An explicitly pro-independence party, NPP has focused on issues including social justice, youth empowerment, environmental advocacy, labor rights, and political reform. It held three seats in the 10th Legislative Yuan (2020-2024) but lost its parliamentary representation in the most recent elections as it failed to meet the 5% threshold. It ranked 4th in the party list elections.

Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party: Established in 2017 by a group of women activists, the Taiwan Obasang Political Equality Party focuses on children’s rights and other issues related to the family and gender. They came 5th in the party list elections.

People First Party: The PFP positions itself as a center-right political party that split from the Kuomintang in 2000. Its founder and current chairman, James Soong (Chu-yu Soong; 宋楚瑜), has previously advocated for unification between China and Taiwan. The party now adopts a more pragmatic stance on managing cross-strait relations and explicitly rejects the “One Country, Two Systems” formula. The People First Party came 8th in this year’s elections.

 

IV. What is the Taiwanese electoral system like?

In Taiwan, each voter receives three ballots. One allows them to choose their preferred candidate for president and vice-president. The second ballot is for electing single-member district representatives or Indigenous representatives occupying reserved seats. The third ballot is for the party list. This way of voting is called “parallel voting.”

The president is elected through a direct popular vote. The presidential election in Taiwan is held every four years. Each president can serve a maximum of two terms. Here is an overview of the presidential election process in Taiwan:

  1. Direct Popular Vote: The President and Vice-President of Taiwan are elected by the citizens through a direct popular vote. Each voter casts a single vote for their preferred presidential and vice-presidential candidates on the ballot.
  2. Plurality System: The candidate who receives the highest number of votes in the election is declared the winner. Taiwan uses a simple plurality system for the presidential election, where the candidate with the most votes wins, even if they do not secure an absolute majority (more than 50%).
  3. No Runoff Election: Unlike some electoral systems that include a runoff election if no candidate receives an absolute majority, Taiwan’s presidential election does not have a separate runoff. The candidate with the highest number of votes in the first round is declared the winner.


In legislative elections, which also take place every four years at the same time as presidential elections, Taiwan has a mixed-member majoritarian electoral system, which combines elements of first-past-the-post  (FPTP), proportional representation  (PR), and single non-transferrable vote  (SNTV) systems. The electoral system is used to elect members to the Legislative Yuan, the 113-seat unicameral legislature of Taiwan.

Here’s an overview of how the system works:

  1. Single-Member Districts (FPTP): In Taiwan, there are 73 single-member districts. In each of these districts, candidates compete in a first-past-the-post system, where the candidate with the highest number of votes wins the seat.
  2. Proportional Representation (PR): In addition to the single-member districts, there are also 34 seats allocated through a proportional representation system. Political parties nominate lists of candidates for these seats, and the allocation is based on the percentage of the overall party vote that each party receives. The goal is to ensure that the overall composition of the Legislative Yuan reflects the proportion of votes received by each party. It is also supposed to help smaller parties enter the legislature.
  3. Threshold Requirement: To be eligible for proportional representation seats, a party must surpass the threshold of 5 percent of the overall party vote. Parties that fail to meet this threshold do not receive proportional representation seats, even if they win seats in the single-member districts.
  4. Reserved Seats for Indigenous Peoples: There are 16 officially recognized Indigenous groups in Taiwan. To ensure their representation in the legislature, six out of 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan are reserved for Indigenous people. Three seats are reserved for lowland Indigenous people (平地原住民), and another three seats are reserved for highland Indigenous people (山地原住民). At least ten further communities are fighting for legal recognition.

 

V. What do the results mean for Taiwan’s relations with European countries?

 William Lai and Vice-President-elect Bi-khim Hsiao are likely to continue the foreign policy direction set by outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen. This strategy emphasizes diversifying Taiwan’s foreign relations by strengthening informal yet significant ties with partners like the US, Japan, and also the EU and individual member states such as Czechia. However, the results of the legislative elections suggest some possible roadblocks to deepening ties between Taiwan and Europe. Firstly, the possible gridlock resulting from a divided government could halt the launch of new bilateral initiatives. Additionally, the choice of the next Speaker of the Legislative Yuan and their approach to international engagements remain uncertain. Additionally, the poor performance of progressive candidates in legislative elections raises questions about the future of the human rights agenda in the Legislative Yuan, a matter closely monitored by Brussels.

Despite these potential obstacles, relations between Taiwan and Europe rest on a strong foundation. Under the current Tsai administration, both sides made considerable efforts to strengthen their ties. In Taipei, the push to decrease the country’s dependence on China and enlarge its international space strengthened the interest of policymakers, government officials, entrepreneurs, and civil society leaders in engaging with Europe. In Brussels and several member states, Taiwan is increasingly viewed as a like-minded partner in its own right rather than a festering sore in China-Europe relations. The Lai administration will be well-equipped to hit the ground running with its Europe-bound engagements.

Yet, progress will require efforts from both sides. Taipei must enhance the transparency of its EU strategy, especially in the economic domain, prioritizing pragmatic sectoral cooperation agreements. Commitment to addressing trade barriers is also crucial for the development of Taiwan-EU ties. The New Southbound Policy (NSP) is a valuable framework for engaging with Europe, allowing pragmatic cooperation while considering political sensitivities. A cohesive all-of-government approach towards Europe could assist the Lai administration in overcoming potential legislative challenges in Taiwan’s engagement with Europe.

Europe must also recognize the profound interconnectedness of its interests with the current situation in the Taiwan Strait and learn to navigate the complexities of its “One-China policies.” To safeguard its interests and contribute to stability, the EU should strengthen ties with Taiwan by allocating resources to understanding Taiwan’s domestic politics, cross-strait relations, and the impact of a potential Taiwan contingency on European stakeholders. Despite potential challenges, the EU has an opportune moment to focus on Taiwan and prepare for productive cooperation with the incoming administration and legislature.