Taiwan’s election reaffirms island’s distinct identity and dynamic democracy

Special to WorldTribune.com

By John J. Metzler, January 18, 2024

Taiwan held free presidential elections and communist China glared.

Indeed, Taiwan’s elections choose the path of continuity as voters re-elected the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for a third consecutive term to rule the self-governing island. The victory of William Lai, scored a win for democracy amid an almost carnival atmosphere of opposition parties contesting the political future for one of Asia’s freest states.

The DPP won the elections but with a plurality of 40 percent of the vote; The divided opposition and once mighty Nationalist Party KMT scored 33 percent and the upstart Taiwan People’s Party received 26 percent. Nonetheless the DPP lost its parliamentary majority to the KMT setting the stage for a divided government over the next years. Turnout was a whopping 72%.

Taiwanese President-elect Lai Ching-te / Video Image

President-elect Lai reaffirmed his goal to have Taiwan, “walk side by side with democracies from around the world.”  Lai stressed that he will strive to maintain peace and prosperity across the Taiwan Strait, and would seek exchanges and dialogue with China, “while upholding the Republic of China constitutional framework to work for the well-being of people on both sides of the Strait.”

But the story does not end here as it would for many other mainstream democracies.

DPP’s heritage is center-left and politically hardwired into a very different narrative of Taiwan’s history and heritage. The party remains decidedly Taiwanese and thus less Sino-centric and even hostile to the trappings of Chinese-ness which the formerly ruling KMT nurtured and cherished.

While DPP has been deemed hostile the People’s Republic of China (and rightly so), the KMT favors the status quo of keeping Taiwan’s prosperity, the attachment to Chinese heritage, and not rocking the boat rhetorically with China.

Despite the often-virulent political rhetoric between both sides of the Taiwan Strait, both countries remain major trading partners, thus underscoring the deep commercial links.

Taiwan’s political fortunes were shaped by national division in the aftermath of China’s civil war which ended in 1949 with a communist victory on the Mainland. Thus in the wake of WWII, albeit all for different reasons, China, like Germany and Korea became divided nations. Since the division, China and Taiwan have been governed by two separate and antagonistic governments.

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The Taiwan success story is rooted in the Divided Dynamism formula of genuine Land reform, a free entrepreneurial economy and democratic political discourse.

While Taiwan is best known for its free economy, over the past thirty years the big story has been its dynamic political democratization where the New Hampshire sized island of 23 million people remains one of  Asia’s freest societies with a vibrant tech-savvy sector.

For decades the Chinese communists have used the lure of “one Country, Two Systems” to try to seduce Taiwan into Beijing’s political embrace. Hong Kong once stood out as an example. But after China’s brutal crackdown on that once free territory, Taiwan’s not taking any deals.

Since Taiwan’s widening political democratization in the late 1980’s, the free Chinese-governed island serves as a beacon, if not embarrassment, to Mainland China’s rigid communist regime.

Still any talk of Taiwan “independence” or “separatism” from China poses a lightning rod to Beijing.

The PRC has never renounced the use of force to reunite Taiwan with the “Chinese Motherland” and communist ruler Xi Jinping regularly threatens the self-ruled island.

Just as a significant note: Taiwan’s elections were held with single day voting at the polls between 8AM and 4PM. There were no electronic nor absentee or mail-in ballots. Votes were hand counted and results delivered in hours.

The key to avoiding a further crisis is keeping within the rhetorical rules of the game; The Republic of China on Taiwan is grudgingly accepted by Beijing as long as the island adheres to the mantra of its Chinese cultural connection. Breaking that link, which is the wish of some DPP stalwarts, can easily trigger a chain of events which gives the communists the excuse to attack.

Taiwan is already de facto a sovereign state.

Lai’s predecessor President Tsai Ing-wen, despite probably conflicting personal feelings, adopted a clear policy not to confront the Dragon. Nonetheless the PRC has regularly harassed and infringed upon Taiwan’s sovereign airspace with waves of military aircraft. Lai said that he’s “determined to safeguard Taiwan from threats and intimidation from China.”

Given the geopolitical stakes in the region and China’s increasing bellicosity, the United States and Japan monitored this election with intense concern over Beijing’s possible next moves.

Just as a significant note: Taiwan’s elections were held with single day voting at the polls between 8AM and 4PM. There were no electronic nor absentee or mail-in ballots. Votes were hand counted and results delivered in hours.

Beijing’s election and military bullying may have again backfired; but for how long?

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]