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The future of Taiwan placed in the uncertainty of a crucial election

Alastair Pike Agence France-Presse A Democratic Progressive Party campaign poster in Taipei on Wednesday

Fabien Deglise

January 11, 2024 Analysis

  • Asia

The most unpredictable presidential election in 30 years will be held next Saturday on the island of Taiwan, an independent and democratic territory claimed by China, with two candidates having almost equal chances victory by the final polls.

A very local election, with an uncertain outcome, but which nevertheless attracts the attention of the world because of the consequences it could have on diplomatic relations on both sides of the Formosa Strait as well as on the balance of global geopolitical and economic forces — forces that the Taiwanese ballot box may be preparing to shake.

Taiwan is home to the world's largest independent producer of microprocessors, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., whose products have become essential to the rest of the planet.

“These elections represent an important test as much for Taiwanese democracy as for China and the United States,” summarizes political scientist Wang Hung-jen, professor at National Cheng Kung University, contacted this week by Le Devoirin Tainan, in the Taiwanese autonomous territory. They give Beijing the opportunity to see whether its strategy of diplomatic persuasion and military intimidation continues to be effective on Taiwan by leading voters, as China wishes, to move away from questions of democracy and sovereignty to focus more on economic and livelihood issues. » For Washington, this vote is also crucial, since it will measure the seriousness and “the coherence of the Taiwanese” in relation to the support offered to them by the United States to defend the autonomy of the island, he adds .

The voter’s strategy

Just a few days before the opening of the polling stations, Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te, candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is currently in power and who is raising the ire of Beijing because of its pro-Western and sovereignist postures, advances on the race field with a slight lead in voting intentions over its main opponent, Hou Yu-ih, of the Kuomintang (KMT), a pro-political group Chinese.

A third candidate, a little more ambivalent on the Chinese question, Ko Wen-je, ex-mayor of Taipei, who heads the Taiwan People's Party, however, is muddying the waters. He managed to court a quarter of voters during the campaign, especially young people. Some of them could strategically decide to fall back on the KMT candidate, once in the voting booth, to avoid defeat.

“Strategic voting is a constant in Taiwanese elections,” summarizes T. Y. Wang, professor of political science and specialist on the Taiwanese question at Illinois State University, in an interview. It is interesting to note that during this campaign, Hou, while reducing his gap with the leader, refrained from attacking Ko. This undoubtedly indicates that the KMT candidate hopes for a disaffection of the Ko electorate with his profit or last minute support from Ko to his campaign. » Which remains possible on the eve of the vote, and could have “major consequences” on the result, according to him.

A victory for the KMT would also be a victory for China and its reunification plan, which would then find an important ally at the head of the autonomous territory. Hou Yu-ih does not hide his intention to reopen the dialogue with the Xi Jinping regime, broken since the election in 2016 of the DPP of Tsai Ing-wen, who ends his second term at the head of Taiwan on May 20. Hou's running mate, Zhao Shaokang, whose presence on the electoral field has considerably increased the KMT's appeal to voters in recent months, is also considered a hard-line Chinese nationalist who believes that the sovereignist party in power puts Taiwan on the brink of war with Beijing.

Paradigm shift

“In the event of victory, the KMT risks opting for strong symbolic measures such as Taiwan's recognition of the 1992 consensus [which affirms the existence of a single China of which the Taiwanese island would be a part],” summarizes Dafydd Fell , director of the Center for Taiwan Studies, joined by Le Devoir at the University of London. “He could also be more open to increased economic integration with China,” at the risk of agitating the country’s youth.

In 2014, this integration project, led by the KMT, then in power, triggered the Sunflower student movement, which saw it as a way for Beijing to increase its political influence on Taiwan, to place the island on the same trajectory that destroyed democracy and freedom of expression in Hong Kong in the last decade.

A victorious KMT could also change the island's relationship with Washington, adds Wang Hung-jen. “If voters express indecision on this relationship, by voting for the KMT on Saturday or by accepting China's terms, it risks leading the United States to review its Taiwan defense policy, in the face of a desire to protect Taiwanese which would then become less clear. »

Conversely, maintaining the DPP in power should ensure the continuity of this relationship with Washington, but necessarily also maintain tensions with neighboring China.

“If the DPP wins the elections, Beijing will likely resort to diplomatic isolation and military coercion against Taiwan,” assures T. Y. Wang, while pointing to recent acts of intimidation as a harbinger of other tensions to come.

On Saturday, the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense denounced the sending of Chinese balloons above the island. He described it, a few days before the presidential election, which Beijing seeks to influence to its advantage, as “an attempt to use psychological warfare to affect the morale of our people”. China also unilaterally withdrew 12 Taiwanese petrochemical products from the China-Taiwan Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement in late December, and has since threatened to end other trade deals with the island in the future. of the year to damage the Taiwanese economy.

“In the event of re-election, the DPP will have to prepare adequately for imminent external threats,” says Wang Hung-jen, “as much in the commercial field as in the economic and security fields, in order to respond to a military escalation possible after the elections. »

Preparation for the worst now dependent on the decision of the ballot boxes, on an island where all scenarios remain possible, but where, “whoever the winner is”, the challenges will remain significant “for Taiwan in its relations with China, the United States” and other democracies around the world, concludes T. Y. Wang.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116