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Radio Free Asia asks: Who will be the next president of the island?

Taiwan is gearing up for a pivotal presidential election that will shape its future relationship with China and its stance on independence. The election will decide whether to continue on the path set by the current President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), known for her independence-minded approach.

Despite never having governed the democratic island of 24 million people, China considers Taiwan part of its territory and does not dismiss the possibility of using military force to occupy it. Beijing regularly sends warplanes near the island, crossing into the Taiwan Strait. In response, the United States has increased its military exercises with allies in the region.

The incoming president of Taiwan will play a crucial role in defusing or escalating tensions between these global powers. Here are guides to each candidate and a short explanation of what the election means for Taiwan.

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 Jan. 3, 2024. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

Lai Ching-te, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)

Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, is a former physician with a gentle demeanor who has risen to prominence in Taiwan’s political landscape. He has served in various high-level positions, including as the mayor of Tainan, a major city in southern Taiwan.

Lai is particularly favored by staunch supporters of Taiwan independence, yet he has historically also garnered support from centrist voters. Viewed with suspicion by China, Lai has previously identified himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence.” Lai has committed to maintaining the current President Tsai’s cautious approach: that because Taiwan is already independent, it needs no further declarations.

Tsai, first elected in 2016, cannot run for a third term due to constitutional limits. Her tenure has been marked by a refusal to acknowledge Taiwan as part of China, a stance that has led to heightened tensions with Beijing, including severed formal communications and increased military pressure. Among these challenges, Tsai has successfully forged a strong partnership with the U.S. in balancing China’s influence.

Despite Lai’s pledges to continue Tsai’s policies, his victory is not assured. The Taiwan electorate, while predominantly identifying as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, is also keen on re-establishing dialogue with mainland China. Nevertheless, should he emerge victorious, it is expected that Beijing will persist in its threats and efforts to isolate Taiwan.

Apart from that, the DPP, originally an opposition party to the Kuomintang’s (KMT’s) decades-long dictatorship, now faces criticism for becoming the establishment, particularly from the younger generation. Under Tsai’s rule, issues like slow wage growth, high housing costs, and power shortages have become points of contention.

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Hou Yu-ih, the presidential candidate of the main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT), speaks during a campaign rally in Taoyuan, Taiwan Jan. 6, 2024. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Hou Yu-ih, Kuomintang (KMT)

Hou Yu-ih, a robust former police officer who led Taiwan’s National Police Agency in 2006, carries what a former DPP legislator describes as a “Taiwanese flavor” thanks to his background – born to street-market pork dealers in Chiayi, a pro-independence stronghold in the south.

The KMT sees his roots as advantageous, potentially helping to shed the party’s elite image and attract voters beyond its traditional base of mainland Chinese immigrants and their descendants. In the previous year, Hou was re-elected as the mayor of New Taipei City, an area encircling the capital, where he is appreciated as a moderate with a reputation for effective governance.

Hou advocates for reducing tensions across the Taiwan Strait through dialogue with Beijing, aligning with the “1992 consensus.” This consensus holds that both sides acknowledge the existence of “one China” but interpret it differently. This approach, used by the current leader Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT, had eased cross-strait tensions.

However, the flexibility around this consensus may be diminishing. In 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping linked the 1992 consensus with the mainland’s stringent “one China principle,” suggesting a governance model for Taiwan similar to Hong Kong’s. This model theoretically allows for an autonomous political system, but in practice, China has significantly eroded democratic freedoms in Hong Kong.

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Ko Wen-je, Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) presidential candidate makes a speech during an election campaign event ahead of the election in Kaohsiung, Taiwan Jan. 7,2024. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

Ko Wen-je, Taiwan People’s Party (TPP)

Ko Wen-je, originally a surgeon, made a dramatic shift to politics in 2014 when he ran as an independent candidate for the mayorship of Taipei, Taiwan’s capital. His entry into politics was marked by a stunning victory over a KMT candidate despite his lack of political experience.

Four years ago, he established the TPP, positioning himself as a “rational” and “scientific” technocrat. Unlike many of his counterparts, Ko’s focus has primarily been on domestic issues, such as energy and housing, rather than on cross-strait relations with China.

The TPP, under Ko’s leadership, is not yet strong enough to secure a legislative majority. However, Ko’s strategy seems to be positioning the party to potentially hold the balance of power in parliament. Advocating for a coalition with the KMT, Ko presents himself as offering a “third choice” to voters, aiming to strike a balance between provoking and deferring to China. However, his policies regarding China align more closely with those of the KMT.

In fact, Ko and Hou announced a partnership in November, signaling a potential threat to the DPP rule. Polls indicated that this alliance could have overturned the DPP’s dominance. However, the coalition quickly unraveled due to disagreements over who would run for president and vice president, despite earlier agreements to collaborate on legislative candidates to optimize their representation in Taiwan’s 113-seat parliament.

Edited by Elaine Chan and Mike Firn

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