Taiwan’s 2024 twin elections: Triumph of democracy and global implications

Emily Sum Yue Cheng

Emily Sum Yue Cheng

Emily Cheng is a journalism student at the University of Toronto and Centennial College. She has previously written for a Hong Kong local magazine and The Varsity, the campus newspaper of her university. She partnered with the Global Summitry Project as part of Centennial College's experiential program in 2024.

In her free time, she enjoys playing the piano, listening to music, doing ballet, and going to cafés around the city with friends.

As the tensions between China and the U.S. persist, the question of Taiwan’s sovereignty remains a critical issue to the relationship between the two great powers in the world. 

Taiwan held presidential and legislature elections on Jan. 13 amid geopolitical tensions in the region.

The elections gained the spotlight internationally, as the change in leadership of the island could impact stability in the region and the China-U.S. relationship.

Here’s what you need to know regarding the implications of Taiwan’s elections.

What was the result of the twin elections?

There were three candidates in the presidential election. Lai Ching-te, Taiwan’s then-current vice president from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). He won the election, securing around 40 per cent of the ballots. The DPP is often characterized as pro-independence. The party has a “Taiwan independence clause” (台獨黨綱) but independence is not pursued at the moment. Lai, who claimed to be a “practical political worker for Taiwan independence,” has been repeatedly labelled as a “separatist” and “troublemaker” by the Beijing government over the years. 

Hou You-yi from Kuomintang (KMT) garnered 33.5 per cent of the votes. The KMT ruled mainland China for 30 years before retreating to and remaining in Taiwan in 1949. Unlike the DPP, the KMT recognizes the 1992 Consensus, a mutual understanding between the KMT government and Beijing that recognizes “one China”  as in Taiwan being a part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)

Ko Wen-je from the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) got 26.5 per cent of the ballots. The former mayor of Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, and founder of the TPP, positions himself as a populist and claims to create a third way out of the Taiwan question by simultaneously boosting Taiwan’s defences while restarting communication with China. 

The DPP lost control of the Legislature Yuan to the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) making Lai a “weak president,” according to Yves Tiberghien, professor of political science at the University of British Columbia and visiting professor at the Taipei School of Economic and Political Science.

However, Tiberghien remains optimistic that stability in the region will continue.

What are the implications for Taiwan’s democracy?

“I think it became a quite strong victory for democracy,” Tiberghien said in an interview.

In an article written by Tiberghien and his colleague Chung-min Tsai, a political science professor at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, they noted that democracy in Taiwan remains “remarkably resilient despite Chinese pressures and geopolitical tensions around the island.” 

Ko and Hou congratulated Lai after the election. The election concluded smoothly and the losers took their defeats well, which “is the very precious part of democracy in Taiwan,” Tsai said in an interview.

Firm democratic institutions in Taiwan are significant to the region. The island is surrounded by countries that are not democracies, such as China, North Korea, and Vietnam. “There’s always the question, can Taiwan be the beacon for democracy in the region,” Tiberghien said.

Taiwan is the only region among Hong Kong, Macau, and mainland China that has successfully completed the democratization process and consolidated its democratic institutions, according to Tsai: 

“1996 was the first time we had [a] direct Presidential election, and it’s already 28 years ago. We can almost say that it’s confirmed — Taiwan is a democracy for sure. So that’s the most valuable part and that’s also the model for other developing countries, or even China in the future.”

Although Taiwan’s democracy is relatively young, the election result reflective of the pre-election opinion poll results demonstrates the robustness of Taiwan’s democratic institutions and the maturity of voters, Tiberghien said.

What are the implications for the cross-strait relationship between China and Taiwan?

Lai as Taiwan’s president-elect and Beijing’s emphasis on reunification have raised concerns regarding continued stability between the two, or the risk of war along the Taiwan Strait. 

Lai has declared Taiwan’s independence and sovereignty on multiple occasions. He positions himself on the more pro-independence side of the DPP, and thus Beijing does not trust him, Tiberghien explained. “The guy has been active in this side of the party historically. So, deep, deep stress [for the PRC government], no question.”

At the DPP pre-election international press conference on Jan. 9, Lai said “The Republic of China is already a sovereign country. There is no plan or need to declare its independence.” 

In fact, this was not the first time Lai has expressed his stance on Taiwan’s sovereignty question. 

During an interview with Bloomberg TV in August 2023, he said that his responsibility as the vice president of Taiwan was to maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait because “Taiwan is already a sovereign country.”

The PRC, on the other hand, has always claimed power over the region of Taiwan under its One China principle and has threatened to reunify Taiwan with mainland China multiple times. 

China’s President Xi Jinping has said that reunification is inevitable.

“Whatever changes take place in Taiwan, the basic fact that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China will not change,” a Chinese spokesperson said a month before the election. “The One-China principle is the solid anchor for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

After the election in Taiwan, there was initial silence from Beijing.

China may not be happy about Lai’s victory but “they are prepared to have DPP for another four years,” Tsai said, “so that’s why after Lai’s victory in January, CCP (i.e. Chinese Communist Party) has not reacted to this election result very radically or surprisingly.”

Beijing is initially doing “a lot of watching and a lot of gaming,” according to Tiberghien. 

Lai’s inauguration speech on May 20 is key to what actions the Beijing government will take in response. 

“It’s too early to say that they’re furious and they’re going to take all kinds of actions. So far, everything they have said is classic. There’s nothing new. They just repeated their normal positions,” Tiberghien said. “Also, Beijing is still happy that the DPP lost parliament.”

Despite the ongoing tensions along the Strait, Tiberghien expressed optimism about stability in the region. 

On the Taipei side, Lai and the DPP’s stance regarding the Taiwan question has softened. Lai mentioned in his victory speech that he supports the cross-strait status quo and peace. 

DPP China Affairs Department Director Wu Jun-zhi stated that the DPP’s “Taiwan independence clause” is a “historical document” during a recent virtual address at a non-governmental cross-strait forum hosted in Xiamen attended by mainland experts. 

In a press release, DPP spokesperson Justin Wu said that Wu Jun-zhi’s stance expressed in the forum was based on the DPP’s positivity towards cross-strait exchanges and willingness to have more dialogue with Beijing. 

Both Wu Jun-zhi and Justin Wu emphasized that Taiwan is already a sovereign country and thus it does not need to declare its independence again. 

Tiberghien said that the DPP referring to its “Taiwan independence clause” as a “historical document” is “a major concession” and a “major signal” to Beijing.

 “So they’re not abolishing it, but they’re saying we’re not pursuing it now.

“Peace happens usually when it’s compromised and when everybody thinks there’s a win-win set. I tend to come out of this optimistic. There is a degree of stability going on.”

How do the elections in Taiwan impact the relationship between Taiwan, China and the U.S.?

 The Taiwan question is ‘centre stage’ of the U.S.-China relationship.

The U.S. expressed confidence and bipartisan support for the elections in Taiwan and did not take sides. 

During a background press call, a U.S. senior administration official said, “Regardless of who is elected, our policy toward Taiwan will remain the same, and our strong unofficial relationship will also continue.”

Despite breaking off official diplomatic ties in 1979, the U.S. has established an unofficial relationship with Taiwan. The Americans’ ambiguous policy has maintained a delicate balance between the three powers.

Tiberghien explained that the U.S. prefers maintaining the status quo with the issue of Taiwan. 

Tsai said because Taiwan’s independence does not suit American interests, the DPP guarantees the interests of the U.S. by referencing the “Taiwan independence clause” as a “historical document.”

Three U.S. delegations visited Taiwan after the elections, and all expressed support for Taiwan’s elections and democracy. 

 “America stands with Taiwan, and you can draw upon a deep reservoir of friendship and support from the United States Congress,” U.S. Congressman Mike Gallagher, who chairs the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, told Lai during their meeting in February.

Taiwan’s vice president-elect Hsiao Bi-khim is experienced in handling foreign affairs and has gained the trust of the U.S. during her time as the island’s de facto ambassador to Washington, according to Tsai.

With the DPP remaining in power, both Tiberghien and Tsai foresee a stable Taiwan-U.S. relationship.

What to watch for regarding the Taiwan issue?

“The big unknown here is on the cross-Straits relations … whether this time the DPP manages to develop a communication channel with China,” Tiberghien said. 

The DPP’s refusal to formally recognize the 1992 Consensus is “not good enough for Beijing.” 

“There’s some feelers, there’s some effort to some communication because you cannot have stability without some communication of some kind,” he said.

There is ongoing bargaining between China and Taiwan and there are a variety of factors that could impact it, Tiberghien said.

“The DPP says they want communication with mainland China. They just want communication with that condition. They want the recognition of two parties, of two sides being mutually respecting each other as equal, which Beijing doesn’t accept because … for them is a provincial level.”