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Is This the End of Ideology in Taiwanese Politics?

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Is This the End of Ideology in Taiwanese Politics?

Ideology does not guide the 2024 presidential candidates’ policies on cross-strait and international relations. Yet party dynamics will inform how candidates would manage these relations if victorious. 

Is This the End of Ideology in Taiwanese Politics?

Taiwan’s Vice President William Lai speaks during a welcome event in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Aug. 16, 2023.

Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

In Taiwan, three political parties have sent their aspirants into the race for the country’s top political job, the presidency. A fourth hopeful has promised he will meet the requirements to officially register as an independent candidate. 

Given the slate of candidates, we know three things for certain: Taiwan’s next president is going to be a man, one with a “native” Taiwanese background (i.e., his ancestors did not settle in Taiwan when the Kuomintang [KMT, or Nationalist Party] retreated to Taiwan in 1949), and he will forgo Taiwan’s formal independence, prioritizing the status quo of the country’s de facto autonomy.

Other than those commonalities, the four presidential candidates’ profiles differ significantly. William Lai from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the current vice president, draws on a long and successful political career, setting him up as an established figure in local and national politics. 

Hou Yu-ih from the KMT and Ko Wen-je from the upstart Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) had professional careers in law enforcement and medicine before entering municipality-level politics in the early 2010s. Their major claims to fame are holding mayorships, Hou in New Taipei City and Ko in Taipei. They both lack experience in national politics and international relations. 

The final contender, Terry Gou, founder of Foxconn, the world’s largest technology manufacturer and service provider, has no political experience whatsoever, aside from unsuccessfully running to be the KMT’s presidential candidate in 2020 and 2024. Gou, who is running as an independent, is currently collecting signatures for his candidacy, which he must submit to the election authorities by November 2 to make the ballot. According to Gou’s campaign manager, he has already passed the necessary threshold of 290,000 signatures. However, the prospects of him being elected are extremely slight, and he complicates vote distribution in the pan-Blue camp. 

Despite their different backgrounds, the policy stances and propositions on cross-strait and foreign relations of the three official candidates are moderate and share a striking among of overlap at first sight. All three are campaigning for the status quo to keep China’s territorial claims at bay and avoid military confrontation. They seek to increase Taiwan’s possibilities for meaningful participation in international organizations, notably through free trade agreements. Finally, they reject “one country, two systems,” the Chinese government’s formula for Taiwan to come under Beijing’s rule. 

However, the implementation of these proposals will differ substantially based on who wins. Moreover, despite their pledges to handle cross-strait and external relations pragmatically, not all candidates are fully detached from ideological liabilities.

One exception is TPP frontrunner Ko Wen-je. He founded the party in 2019 intending to establish a third political force that transgresses the two traditional political camps – in particular their ideological clashes on either seeking independence or a form of integration or unification with China. Most observers and political opponents now classify Ko as a pan-Blue candidate for his China-friendly approach. Yet despite advocating more and improved engagement with China, Ko has never refrained from openly criticizing the Chinese government for its actions and statements that have increased resentment and antagonism within the Taiwanese society. 

Ko supports neither independence nor unification, but envisions Taiwan becoming a bridge in the geopolitical confrontation between China and the United States and a (democratic) model for China through constructive exchange and dialogue. Although convinced that the people in Taiwan and China belong to “one family,” sharing a common culture and history, he strongly objects to the idea of a shared political entity. He furthermore rejects the controversial 1992 Consensus, which claims that both sides of the strait agree that there is only one China, with each side having its interpretation. 

Ko’s professional background and chairing of a comparably young and unburdened party make him currently the only candidate without meaningful ideological baggage. He would, therefore, handle cross-strait and external relations with much greater flexibility – but less predictability – than his contenders.

William Lai and Hou Yu-ih, on the other hand, will have to respond to some extent to the policy preferences of different factions within their parties. 

It remains to be seen whether Lai would prove as adept as incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen in balancing inner-party competition and maintaining the support of the deep Green camp. Despite his considerably moderated political stance, Lai emerged from the strong independence-leaning faction “New Tide.” Arguably, all DPP politicians who changed from local to national politics adopted a moderation strategy for pragmatic reasons. 

Judging from the current election campaign, it seems that the DPP has learned its lesson, recognizing the advantages of a united party behind a strong leader. Nonetheless, Lai’s unopposed election as the DPP chair in January – which also served as his de facto nomination as the party’s presidential candidate – was not entirely uncontested. In the internal party vote, he received surprisingly low support from his former political base in Tainan. Lai could, therefore, find it harder to keep the party united behind his approach to managing international relations.

Hou Yu-ih is the candidate who faces the greatest challenge in forging his own path on cross-strait and international relations. All signs indicate that he will remain a pawn in the hands of two competing KMT factions. Hou, who was reconfirmed as mayor of the KMT stronghold of New Taipei City in last year’s municipality elections, was chosen as the KMT’s presidential candidate for his popularity and unscathed, moderate, and performance-oriented political image. Nevertheless, he had a slow and troubled start, lacking unequivocal support within his party. 

These internal reservations partly originated in his reticence to take a clear stance on cornerstones of party ideology, such as the 1992 Consensus. Eventually, he gave in, embracing the formula shortly before the party congress in July to secure the support of the deep Blue faction for his nomination. But Hou has turned out to be a rather uninspiring candidate who lacks a distinct and persuasive political branding. In polls, he consistently trails both Lai and Ko. Moreover, Hou apparently lacks the capacity to maintain his ground in the ongoing and openly displayed factional competition between moderates and conservatives. 

On the one hand, Hou must promote and explain reformed concepts developed by masterminds of the KMT’s moderate faction, which nominated him in the first place. On the other hand, he is forced to accept influential proponents of the deep Blue faction to staff his campaign team and travel entourage. His election campaign is managed by King Pu-Tsung, an experienced aide of former President Ma Ying-jeou who pursues deep integration with China. Further, Hou was accompanied by KMT Vice Chair Andrew Hsia on his trip to the United States. Hsia has traveled to China to meet the director of the Taiwan Affairs Council of the Chinese Communist Party, Song Tao, twice this year. The last time was only shortly before Hsia embarked to the United States. 

Hou, if elected as Taiwan’s president, will have to continue making compromises with the policy preferences of these factional leaders, thus affecting relations with both the United States and Japan. One outcome of his presidency would be a lack of coherence and overly messy handling of external relations.

Taiwan’s democratic party system is changing, and ideology, in terms of a traditional dichotomy of independence vs. unification, has increasingly lost influence on voters’ decisions. One driving factor behind this trend is voter preferences. The majority of Taiwanese people take a pragmatic approach to their place in the international community, preferring the status quo of its de facto autonomy. The share of non-partisan and undecided voters has also grown to approximately 30 percent. These voters evaluate the substance of presidential candidates’ policy proposals and their prospective capacity to effectuate them. 

Ko has realized this more than any other candidate, but even Lai has prefixed his image as a “worker for Taiwan’s independence” with the adjective “pragmatic.” He asserts that Taiwan is already independent in practice and does not necessitate a formal declaration. Whether Lai’s farewell to ideology is pure rhetoric or continues to translate into substance remains to be seen. It will depend on his ability to further convince deep Green supporters about the advantages of this approach. 

Hou, meanwhile, is caught in a contested process within his party. For obvious reasons, the KMT cannot just abdicate its foundational cornerstones, but the party needs to adapt its ideas to contemporary conditions in order to remain a meaningful political force. Due to the KMT’s structures and age, this process of adaptation is accompanied by fierce inner-party competition about ideological reform and the need to seek a compromise. 

Hou might not have been the best choice for the KMT to face this challenge. As president, he will probably be further tossed between competing ideational and policy preferences in managing cross-strait and external relations.

This op-ed is based on a think tank analysis of the presidential candidates’ policy propositions on cross-strait and foreign relations written by Julia Marinaccio, Dominika Remzova, and Yi-ju Chen. You can download the entire report from the website of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS).