Taiwan’s presidential election: Who are the candidates in high-stakes vote?

Voters in Taiwan choose their new president on Saturday in a high-stakes election that carries huge geopolitical relevance. With the threat of a Chinese invasion looming larger than ever, the self-governing island’s upcoming vote is capturing global attention. FRANCE 24 takes a look at the three candidates vying for Taiwan’s top job.  

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Taiwanese voters head to the polls on January 13 to pick a new leader who will set the tone for future relations with China and the US – a choice with far-reaching consequences amid escalating tensions between the island and the mainland.  

After eight years of governance by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Beijing has increasingly hardened its stance against Taipei – from cutting diplomatic contact to expanding military drills in the Taiwan Strait.  

Warning against the DPP’s continued rule, deemed as separatist” and “incompatible with cross-strait peace, China has ramped up pressure ahead of what it called a “peace and war” election by flying balloons over the island while doubling down on the rhetoric that the country’s “reunification” with Taiwan is inevitable.  

Barred from running again after two consecutive terms in office, incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen is due to step down at the end of her mandate in May.   

Presidents in Taiwan are directly elected by a simple majority every four years.  

Looking to succeed Tsai is current Vice President Lai Ching-te, who is tipped to win the election with an average 36 percent of the vote, according to the latest polls before a 10-day blackout period.  

DPP successor  

Known by his English name as William Lai, the 64-year-old also serves as the chairman of the DPP.    

Previously describing himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence”, Lai is a staunch defender of Taiwan’s self-governing status.

The stance, also held by Tsai, has angered China, which asserts that the island is part of its territory.  

Lai previously worked as a physician before engaging in politics by becoming a legislator in 1998, a position he held for more than a decade.   

Lai Ching-te, Taiwan’s vice president and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) presidential candidate gestures at an election campaign event in Taipei City, Taiwan January 3, 2024. © Ann Wang, Reuters

He was then elected mayor of Tainan, a city in southern Taiwan, in 2010.  

In 2017, Lai joined Tsai’s government after he was appointed premier and held the position until 2019 when he paired with Tsai as she ran for her second term in office.   

Lai was sworn in as vice president in 2020 when Tsai won the presidential election.  

Labelled a separatist by Beijing, the frontrunner in Taiwan’s upcoming race has promised to stick to Tsai’s policy of maintaining the status quo, which avoids open declarations of independence while rejecting China’s sovereignty claims.  

Lai on Tuesday said he hopes for a reopening of dialogue between China and Taiwan following almost eight years of Beijing’s near-complete refusal to communicate with leaders of the self-governing island.

But he also pledged to build up the island’s military defence, indicating that he harbours no illusions.  

“[If Lai wins], he will carry on Tsai’s China approach: any dialogue with Beijing must be held with mutual respect and on an equal basis,” said Chang Chun-hao, professor of political science at Tunghai University in Taiwan.  

“The bottom line remains Taiwan’s sovereignty which they [Lai and the DPP] seek to guarantee by rejecting the 1992 consensus,” Chang said.   

(Editor’s note: the 1992 consensus refers to a tacit understanding between the Kuomintang (KMT) – which governed Taiwan at the time – and the Chinese Communist Party that both sides of the Taiwan Strait acknowledge that there is “one China”, with each side having its own interpretation of what “China” means.)

KMT hopeful  

Pitted against Lai is Hou Yu-ih, the mayor of New Taipei City, a municipality located on the outskirts of Taipei.  

The 66-year-old, whom opinion polls credit with around 30 percent of the vote, is the candidate for Taiwan’s main opposition party – the Kuomintang (KMT), a conservative and Beijing-friendly party that ruled Taiwan for over 50 years.  

A former police chief hailing from central Taiwan, Hou was elected mayor in 2018 and then again in 2022 in a landslide vote.   

Hou Yu-ih, a candidate for Taiwan's presidency from the main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT), gestures to his supporters at a campaign event in New Taipei City, Taiwan January 5, 2024.

Hou Yu-ih, a candidate for Taiwan’s presidency from the main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT), gestures to his supporters at a campaign event in New Taipei City, Taiwan January 5, 2024. © Ann Wang, Reuters

Despite lacking experience in foreign policy and cross-strait relations, Hou, who comes from a working-class background, boasts an everyman persona that the KMT hopes will appeal to a wider range of voters.   

While Hou opposes Taiwan independence, he also rejects Beijing’s “one country, two systems” model, which was applied to Hong Kong and Macau when they were returned to China in the late 1990s and is still in force today.   

“But contrary to Lai and the DPP, who openly identify China as a menace to Taiwan, Hou and the KMT ultimately accepts the ‘One China Policy’ – even though they avoid stating whether the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name) or the People’s Republic of China is the real China,” said Chen Fang-yu, assistant professor of political science at Soochow University in Taiwan.  

During his campaign, Hou has called for a reopening of dialogue with China, starting with “low-level and stable” exchanges in academia.

The outsider  

The third man in the race is former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-Je, who has framed the upcoming election as a choice between new politics” and “old forces

Representing the Taiwan People’s Party that he founded in 2019, Ko is considered by many as an outsider, as he entered politics less than a decade ago.  

A former surgeon, Ko was elected to office in 2014 as an independent candidate with the support of the DPP.  

He has since distanced himself from the ruling party as well as the KMT, after an effort to team up with Hou fell through last November.  

Ko Wen-je, Taiwan People's Party (TPP) presidential candidate makes a speech on stage during a campaign ahead of the election in Hsinchu, Taiwan December 23, 2023.

Ko Wen-je, Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) presidential candidate makes a speech on stage during a campaign ahead of the election in Hsinchu, Taiwan December 23, 2023. © Ann Wang, Reuters

Ko casts himself as a “third way” technocrat who provides voters with a middle ground on issues with China – an approach he has described as seeking a more “moderate and rational path”.  

“Ko remains very ambiguous on the subject of cross-strait relations … while he criticises the KMT’s aims of closer ties, he himself would probably welcome more dialogue and cooperation [with China],” Chang said.  

With his greater focus on domestic concerns such as unemployment and housing, Ko has garnered large support among younger generations who view him as an alternative to both the DPP and the KMT. 

Despite his popularity among younger voters, Ko trailed the other two presidential candidates in the polls, which predicted him averaging only 24 percent of the vote.  

Source: Thanks france24