Even if the ruling Democratic People’s Party holds power in Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election, the current campaign signals a changing Taiwan. Restive voters are showing an interest in moving beyond Taiwan’s two-party divide, seeking out candidates that will emphasize domestic issues. Both Washington and Beijing are watching with interest.

Four main candidates are vying for the January 13, 2024, presidential election: the current vice president, Lai Ching-te of the Democratic People’s Party (DPP), Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang Party (KMT), Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), and Terry Gou, who is running as an independent. Gou, founder of the world’s largest electronics manufacturer, Foxconn, officially stepped down as chairman of the company earlier this month to focus on the campaign.

Minor candidates, major impact on Taiwan

The number of serious candidates could have a significant impact, because the presidential election will be a single-round, first-past-the-post vote. In a four-way contest, the winner needs a simple plurality of votes cast, not a majority. Past elections traditionally shifted between the two major parties—the KMT and DPP—and nearly a quarter century has passed since a Taiwanese president took control without a majority of votes. But polls to date have the strongest contender, Vice President Lai, consistently polling in the 33–40% range. One recent poll put Lai at 35%, Hou at 18%, Ko at 17%, and Gou at 11.6%. If that were to hold true in January, Lai would have sufficient support to win unless opposition voters rally around a single opposition candidate. But even if Lai wins, his ruling DPP may lose its majority in elections for the legislature, held at the same time.  

The outcome of the election is important for two reasons. First, a victory for Lai could exacerbate tensions across the Taiwan Strait, as Beijing is deeply suspicious of the DPP and particularly Lai’s past statements in support of an independent Taiwan. In contrast, Gou, Ho, and Ko have each advocated for some form of engagement with Beijing in an attempt to reduce cross-strait tensions. Second, the election may indicate a longer-term political shift away from the traditional KMT-DPP split, which focused heavily on Taiwan’s identity and relationship with China, and toward a politics that focuses more on economic, social, and other domestic issues.

China’s problem with the Democratic People’s Party

Relations between Taipei and Beijing tend to be more cordial under KMT-led governments. Beijing prefers the KMT’s historical emphasis on a Chinese identity for Taiwan, and the KMT continues to affirm the 1992 consensus stating that Taiwan is part of China, even though Taiwan and China have different interpretations of what that means. The DPP, in contrast, stands for Taiwanese identity and eventual independence for Taiwan. While the DPP under current President Tsai Ing-Wen has not explicitly rejected the 1992 consensus, she has pushed for more diplomatic space for Taiwan and called for a more equal relationship with China. Relations have deteriorated, and China is subjecting Taiwan to a military and diplomatic pressure campaign. If Lai were to win the election in January, that would be the third presidential victory in a row for the DPP, likely further increasing Beijing’s fears about Taiwanese independence. Lai’s recent comments on China have mirrored the president’s, but Lai is viewed by some, in both Taiwan and China, as being more proactive on the issue of independence. Moreover, he has not yet offered an approach for reengaging with Beijing. His election could therefore lead to a further deterioration in cross-strait relations and possible intensification of Beijing’s pressure campaign.

In contrast, the other three candidates have all advocated for engagement with China. The KMT’s Hou has clearly stated that he would maintain the status of Taiwan as the Republic of China and that he would seek better relations with China. The electronics magnate Gou, a former member of the KMT, says he accepts that there is one China. He argues for stable relations with China for the sake of the economy and to avoid conflict so that Taiwan does not become the next Ukraine. Ko Wen-Je, like the DPP, embraces a Taiwanese identity but calls for a constructive engagement with China, citing his experience working with the Shanghai city government when he was mayor of Taipei. Ko argues for a dialogue with China and asserts that Taiwan cannot always say no. None of the three candidates advocating improved relations with China is making new concessions that would undermine the status quo. Rather, the emphasis is on finding pragmatic ways to engage constructively with China and reduce current tensions.

What Young Taiwanese Voters want

There is evidence that many Taiwanese voters, especially younger voters, want to move beyond the prevailing KMT-DPP divide on the island’s identity and future status and focus more on Taiwan’s domestic issues. In particular, voters are discontented over such issues as low starting salaries for younger workers, stagnant wages, and the high cost of housing. The decision by the current government to increase the period of conscription from four months to one year is unpopular. And environmental issues are becoming increasingly important to voters. Ko Wen-je, popular with young voters, may be well-placed to take advantage of these concerns and improve his poll numbers.

The election is still a little more than three months away. One thing watch for will be whether voters unhappy with the DPP will rally around a single opposition candidate. Another possibility is that China will overplay its hand and drive voters to the DPP. Finally, while most attention has been focused on the presidential contest, it is important to remember that there is also a legislative election. If no party wins a majority, that could lead to some very complicated political coalitions that will have significant impact on both Taiwan’s domestic politics and its relations with Beijing.

Dr. Thomas Bickford is a principal research scientist in CNA's Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Program.