As Taiwan gears up for presidential elections in January 2024, former Taipei mayor and chairperson of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) continues to perform well in polls, surmounting Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) who is backed by the Taiwan’s Beijing-friendly main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT). The strong performance of the TPP, a party outside of Taiwan’s political mainstream, merits further consideration as voters in Taiwan grow increasingly disenchanted with the current two-party system whose main fault lines are defined by the outlook on the future of Taiwan’s relations with China.
While Taiwan’s party system continues to be dominated by two parties, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), the presidential elections in 2024 will follow a three-way contest. According to the most recent (June 20) poll of the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, DPP’s William Lai (賴清德) is the leading candidate with 36.5 percent of support. He is followed by TPP’s Ko Wen-je with 29.1 percent, and KMT’s occupies the third place with 20.1 percent. With the elections almost six months away, the results of the polls cannot be used as a definitive predictor. At the same time, TPP’s strong performance begs a question about the shift away from the blue-green dichotomy which has defined Taiwan’s political scene since the beginning of democratization in the island nation.
The pan-Blue camp, led by the KMT, advocates for closer relations between Taiwan and China, appealing to Chinese nationalism and alleged economic benefits of closer integration between both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Meanwhile, the pan-Green camp, in which the DPP is the dominant actor, seeks to diminish Taiwan’s dependence on China as it recognizes the nation as de facto sovereign. Consequently, in national electoral races, the unification-independence stances of voters traditionally constituted the main political fault line in Taiwan, and effectively translated into their partisan identities. Yet, the foreign policy stance of TPP is yet to be defined. According to Ko, most Taiwanese favor “no unification, no independence, and no use of force” – an ambiguous characterization (albeit consistent with public opinion research demonstrating that most Taiwanese respondents seek “to maintain the status quo indefinitely”) which might suggest that voters now prioritize other considerations than Taiwan-China relations at the polls.
The upcoming elections have been named “the island’s most consequential” as tensions in the Taiwan Strait remain very pronounced. It is thus particularly interesting to see that Ko Wen-je, who has an inconsistent record on cross-strait policy, is performing so strongly in the current polls. It is noteworthy that Ko defended his stance that “two sides of the Taiwan Strait are one family” by saying it was at least a better approach than “the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are enemies.” At the same time, it can be argued that this sentiment is a product of increasingly consolidated Taiwanese identity. According to research of the Election Studies Center at the National Chengchi University, 62.8 percent of respondents identify exclusively as Taiwanese, compared to 30.5 percent who claim both Taiwanese and Chinese identity. Consequently, as Taiwanese democracy continues to mature and Taiwanese identity emerges as increasingly assertive, voters might prioritize party ideology or domestic policy proposals over relations with China as the main factor behind their electoral choices.