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Lai Ching-te to Be Taiwan's New President, but Many Challenges Await

Lai Ching-te won the presidency, but the China-friendly opposition KMT secured more votes than expected, signaling domestic and diplomatic challenges to come.



Democratic Progressive Party's Lai Ching-te, declares victory in the Taiwan presidential election on January 13, Taipei City. (©Sankei by Kengo Matsumoto)

As readers know, Vice President Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the Taiwanese presidential election on January 13. The heated contest received a great deal of international attention for its significance for future cross-Strait relations. It was also the first major national election in a very busy political year, including the United States presidential election and a contest for president of the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan. 

These latter two countries were particularly interested in the election and its results. Quite a few Japanese, many of whom I know personally, and Americans were in Taipei for the election over the weekend of January 12-13. 

Supporters gather in front of DPP Headquarters on election night to watch the countdown. On January 13 in Taipei. (©Robert D Eldridge)

China's Reaction

To observe the elections, I arrived in Taiwan ten days ahead of time. I will stay on to conduct research on the transition period and explore what the election results will mean for Taiwan's future foreign relations. 

For example, I had already predicted that if Lai won, the People's Republic of China would step up Taiwan's international isolation. It would do this by further exerting enormous pressure on the remaining 13 countries that continued to bravely maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan. As expected, on Monday, January 15, Nauru announced it was recognizing the PRC. This forced Taiwan to sever relations with it later that day. It won't be the last.

Some of the flags of other nations, including Nauru, which switched its recognition from the Republic of China to the People's Republic of China in 2023. (©Robert D Eldridge)

Three main parties vied for the presidency to replace Tsai Ing-wen, who led the DPP to victory in 2016. The first female president of Taiwan, she will complete her second four-year term in May, as the constitution forbids incumbents from seeking a third term. The other two parties were the KMT, or Chinese Nationalist Party, and the Taiwan People's Party (TPP).

Lai's victory this time was historic. It was the first time since direct presidential elections began in Taiwan in 1996 that a political party has won the presidency in more than two consecutive elections. 

Voter Turnout

Taiwanese voter turnout was the second lowest since becoming a democracy. This was despite the number of parties participating and the very high level of international interest. (TPP was formed in August 2019 but did not field a candidate in the presidential election in January 2020.)

Over the past 28 years, voter turnout fluctuated between 66.2% and 82.6%, with the average being 75.8%. In 2024, however, the percentage was lower than the average at 71.9%. It was also 3 percentage points lower than the 2020 voter turnout of 74.9%. 

These are still very high numbers, especially compared to those in Japan and the United States. What makes these percentages particularly impressive is that polls are open only from 8 am until 4 pm and voting takes place in person. There is no electronic, absentee, proxy, or early voting, which sustains voting percentages in Japan and the United States.

A young boy waives flags at a DPP rally. (©Robert D Eldridge)

I had the opportunity to visit two polling stations in two separate locations. One was in Taipei City, and the other was in adjacent New Taipei City. Two young men, who were voting for the first time in a presidential election, were my guides. The polling stations I went to were in local elementary schools. 

Taiwan mobilized nearly 18,000 polling stations for its 19,548,531 voters eligible to cast their ballots for president. (There were an additional 17,476 eligible voters for the election of legislators-at-large. This was due to a two-month difference — six months versus four months — in the residency requirements for the elections.)

Emergence of the TPP

Both of my young guides voted for the relatively new opposition TPP, for separate reasons. One was strongly in favor of the TPP's policies, such as increased public support for childcare and public housing. The other voted out of dissatisfaction with the two main parties. 

As a result of the public's yearning, especially among the younger voters, for change, the TPP picked up three seats in the legislature. This gave it eight in total. Many observers see the TPP, which seeks the speakership, as holding the casting vote in legislative affairs.

Lai's DPP received only 40 percent of the votes cast in the presidential election, or 5,586,019. This was approximately 2.5 million votes lower than those cast in 2020 for Tsai, who received 57.1% of the total vote.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen greets American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Chair Lauren Rosenberger at the Presidential building in Taipei, Taiwan, January 15, 2024. (©Central News Agency/Pool via REUTERS)

Presidential Win, Parliamentary Loss

Nevertheless, it was exciting to stand (and sometimes sit) with thousands of people in front of DPP headquarters and watch the count. Every time a new, large total was reached — 10,000 and then 50,000, and 100,000, and then 1,000,000, etc, DPP supporters went wild.
The count began shortly after 4 pm on a sunny Saturday afternoon. It was clear from the beginning that Lai was going to win due to the growing difference in percentage. 

Only two things were unclear. One was at what point his lead would become unstoppable. The other was the final number of votes he would attain.

It was widely assumed before the voting that the DPP would win the presidential contest. The DPP saw Taiwan as already independent and was very wary of China. But it was also assumed that the TPP would lose its majority in the 113-seat Legislative Yuan. That is in fact what happened. 

Despite stating it would capture more than half the number of seats (ie, 57), the DPP in fact lost ten seats in the legislature, leaving it with 51. (It had lost seven seats earlier in 2020 from a high of 68.) The TPP sought 10 seats, but it, too, did not reach its goal. 

In contrast, the KMT, which seeks a more cooperative relationship with China, gained 14 seats to reach 52. Two independents, aligned with the KMT, were also elected.

Supporters gather at a rally of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in New Taipei City on January 12. (©Robert D Eldridge)

Diverse Turnout at DPP Rally 

In the run-up to the election, I attended a large DPP rally in front of the Presidential Office. It was attended by all the candidates, including Lai and his running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim. Hsiao is a former Taiwanese representative to the United States who was born in Kobe and raised partly in the US. President Tsai spoke at the rally, which finished at 10 pm, before turning the microphone over to Lai. 

I was particularly impressed by the rally, attended by 100,000 people, according to organizers' estimates. People of all ages of all different backgrounds and economic circumstances were represented fairly equally.

Challenges Ahead for Lai Ching-te

I also attended a KMT rally, its last one before the election. Perhaps because it was held in New Taipei City, where its candidate served as mayor, it was also well attended. It was far louder than the other rallies I had seen. (I also briefly witnessed one for the TPP near my apartment in Taipei). It almost felt like a concert. 

However, most of the participants belonged to groups (fishermen, medical practitioners, etc). Many were clearly mobilized by their organizations to attend. A lot of people began leaving at 9 pm, a full hour before the grand finale. 

Nevertheless, the popularity of the KMT, which received 33.49% (4,671,021) of the votes cast, cannot be downplayed. Nor can that of the TPP which received 26.6%, or 3,690,466 votes, much more than observers were expecting. 

Recognizing this reality, Lai took an accommodating stance at his victory rally. He stated that he would seek to adopt the better policies of his rivals and even include their personnel in his administration. Despite this effort to reach out to his opponents, he will have a challenging time ahead domestically and diplomatically, which I intend to follow closely over the coming months.


Author: Robert D Eldridge

Robert D Eldridge, PhD, is a former political advisor to the US Marine Corps in Japan and is a 2024 Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs Fellow at Tamkang University. He is the translator of "The Meiji Japanese Who Made Modern Taiwan" (Lexington, 2022). Read his essays and analysis in English on JAPAN Forward.


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