Three scenarios for Taiwan’s elections: Closer to China, further away, or a promise of change

The campaign events of the main parties show the island’s different options before Saturday’s elections. ‘Between three bad apples, we have to choose one,’ says a supporter of the DPP, which leads the polls

Elecciones Taiwan
Supporters of Taiwanese vice president and presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party for the 2024 elections, Lai Ching-te, during a campaign rally in front of the presidential building in Taipei, this Thursday.RITCHIE B. TONGO (EFE)
Guillermo Abril

Shortly before the time comes for citizens to go to the polls this Saturday, the streets of Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, are blanketed by the electoral atmosphere. Numerous buses display the faces of the contenders for the presidency and the Legislative Yuan (the Parliament), posters decorate buildings and stores and volunteers on street corners hand promotional material left and right. Up until that point, everything is quite familiar. Then there are the typically Taiwanese parts of the campaign: it is Wednesday, at the time when everybody usually returns home from work, and a group of about 20 people wearing the turquoise cap of the young Taiwan People Party (PPT) moves at a brisk pace through the streets of the Xinyi district, waving flags.

If you want to follow them, you have to hasten your step. They are escorted by the police, who rush them through the zebra crossing while they hand out pennants all around. As they advance, the platoon of volunteers shouts the name of Ko Wen-je, the presidential candidate. They hail him with a term in the local dialect, “A-bei, a-bei!”, which means “uncle,” a common formula to address older people, reflecting the casual, down-to-earth nature of this former doctor who served as mayor of Taipei until 2022. He has risen surprisingly in the polls, mainly due to the support of young people, the dissemination of messages on social media and the anonymous people who take the time to lend a hand, like Chen Ting-wei, a 32-year-old real estate agent who came after finishing his workday to spread the message in this sort of street gymkhana. “We don’t know for sure if he will bring change,” he says, “but at least there’s a chance.”

The group, born in 2019, presents itself as an alternative to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), the only ones that have governed the island since the first democratic elections were held in 1996. Ko Wen-je’s victory, while remote, is feasible (in the latest polls, at the beginning of January, he appeared in third position), and it would take Taiwan to uncharted territory after more than 25 years of bipartisanship. That is precisely what Chen wants, because, he complains, the two traditional parties offer no real change. For them — he continues — it all comes down to relations across the Taiwan Strait, with one party (the KMT) closer to China, and another (the DPP) more independent. “And that means that Taiwan is not making any progress; it is stuck in the middle.”

Many young people see Ko as a man with experience leading the capital, with a reputation for transparent management, who talks about their daily problems, such as access to housing or low salaries — issues that are often overshadowed by the geopolitical struggle between the two great superpowers: China, which considers the self-governed island an undeniable part of its territory, and the United States, Taiwan’s main supporter.

Another volunteer explains that he joined the march because he wants to support a party with few resources. He believes that the PPT wants to change the electoral culture, without depending on donations or loans for its campaign. On the faces of these citizens, one can see the enthusiasm of the new. “Do you want a pennant?”

It is the final stretch. Political events overlap. At one point, for instance, the squad of PPT volunteers passes in front of a parking lot where supporters of one of their rivals, the KMT, slowly begin to gather. That is the heir party of the faction that fled China in 1949 after being defeated by Mao Zedong’s communists in the Chinese civil war. The defeated settled on the island of Taiwan, where they founded a kind of government-in-exile under the leader ­of the KMT, dictator ­Chiang Kai-shek. That is the origin of one of the great geopolitical conflicts of our era. The party is second in the presidential polls, although it leads in parliamentary polls.

KMT supporters are, at first glance, older, and the flag they wave is different — it is the official flag of Taiwan. They are waiting for an electoral caravan to start. That is another of the Taiwanese peculiarities: politicians often travel the streets in Popemobile-style vehicles, greeting the people and asking for their vote through loudspeakers. In this case, it is Jaw Shaw-kong, who aspires to the vice presidency, and Hsu Chiao-hsin, who is in the legislative race.

As the caravan sets off, followers shout the name of the leader and presidential candidate: “Hou Yu-ih, win the elections!” Soon, the procession disappears down the street. One of those present, a 69-year-old retiree named Wang Dersong, says that the DPP (the current ruling party, which has been in power for eight years), “deliberately provokes China and doesn’t want to dialogue or trade” with them. The KMT is the preferred party in Beijing.

“I would like there to be peace and friendship across the Strait,” adds Hou Jun-luen, a 69-year-old former civil servant, when asked if she would be in favor of reunification with China. She positively values the progress of the Asian giant: “The buildings there are taller.” She has a son living in Beijing, whom she recently visited; another in Silicon Valley and a third one in Taipei. Her husband, a retired history teacher, mentions China’s presence in Taiwan since the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and assures that a change in the status quo would lead to conflict with that country.

Finally, there are the massive campaign closing rallies. The favorite party, the DPP, held one on Thursday night at a boulevard next to the government headquarters in Taipei. It managed to bring together thousands of people. It felt a bit like a sporting event: streams of people flowed from the exit of the nearest subway as in the distance the giant screens showed what was happening on the stage and some powerful searchlights pointed to the sky. While some epic music resonated and one of the party leaders warmed up the crowd, Yuhsiang Ying, a 35-year-old high school teacher, expressed her reasons for her support: “We all feel that China is not really friendly to Taiwan, and that we need a party that supports us and helps us defend our country.” This party is the least liked in China.

Andrew Woo, 45, a teacher at a business school, says: “Between three bad apples, we have to choose one. And of course, one is rotten, the KMT, which is more pro-China.” In his opinion, the government has done “well” in recent years. The GDP per capita exceeds that of Japan, he says, and the Taiwanese stock market is doing better than that of Hong Kong. He also sees no risk of conflict. “Many say that China will attack if this party is elected, but it has happened before. I don’t think China is a threat. It’s a paper tiger.” His girlfriend, next to him, adds: “And if we vote for the KMT we risk becoming Hong Kong or Xinjiang.”

The crowd waves the flags, the loudspeakers blare and the presenter finally announces the candidate most likely to be the next president of Taiwan: “Lai Ching-tee!” “The whole world is waiting for Taiwan’s decision,” begins his speech Lai, the current vice president. “Whether it moves forward into the future or back into the past; whether it embraces the world or locks itself in China; whether it clings to democratic values or submits to authoritarianism.”

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