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What’s at stake in Taiwan’s elections?

Whichever party wins, there will be no major changes to the status quo and there is no danger of confrontation with China. Voters are concerned about internal problems

A woman walks past an election poster for Taiwan People's Party candidate Ko Wen-je in Kinmen in late December.ANN WANG (REUTERS)

The Taiwan Strait has been described as the tensest spot on the planet, where a third world war could start. Both the major Taiwanese parties and international commentators have warned that the January 13 elections could tip the balance and embolden China to take action against Taiwan. These are exaggerations: whichever party wins, the situation with China will not change very much.

The rhetoric of the island’s two major parties — the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT) — is that, if the other side wins, a Chinese offensive will become more likely. The DPP claims that the KMT wants to “sell” Taiwan to Beijing by fostering more cross-strait ties, and that the island will end up like Hong Kong, under tight Chinese control. The KMT, for its part, argues that the DPP has cut off communication channels with Beijing and is positioning itself very closely in line with the United States, which increases the likelihood of a conflict. Both accuse the other of being irresponsible and of paving the way for Taiwan to be the next Ukraine.

But, looking at the profile of the candidates, it is most likely that there will not be substantial change in either case. If the DPP wins, its candidate Lai Ching-te — also known as William Lai — will continue with the low-intensity confrontational model of Tsai Ing-wen, who has been president of Taiwan for the past eight years. Under Tsai there has been tension with China, but that is inevitable, since Beijing has always distrusted the DPP’s more pro-independence position. However, at no point has the situation escalated radically and the DPP has been cautious about what it says. In the opposite scenario, if the KMT were to win, there would not be much of a change either: Hou Yu-hi is more skeptical of Beijing than previous KMT candidates, who even talked about long-term unification with China. This brings him closer to the average voter on the island. With a Hou victory, there might simply be a slight improvement in relations with China, with some of China’s trade restrictions lifted and more trade channels open. In any case, neither the victory of the DPP nor the KMT will trigger a radical change in the status quo.

What’s more, for China, this would be one of the worst moments to respond militarily to the election results. In recent months, Xi Jinping has carried out important purges in the military: he dismissed the Chinese defense minister, senior officials of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and executives of state arms companies. This hints at a worrying level of corruption within the army, which raises doubts about the real capabilities of China’s military power. The fact that Xi is carrying out these purges shows that he does not trust the current state of the PLA, and his most urgent goal is to reform it. In the midst of this instability, it would be irrational to carry out any military action. China has also not significantly changed its discourse regarding Taiwan, or showed more belligerent intentions. The most dangerous source of conflict may come from the United States, where being pro-Taiwan has served to win votes and politicians compete to see who is more of a hawk. If explicit steps were taken in Washington to encourage a formal declaration of independence from Taiwan, that would indeed be a trigger.

In these next elections, the really most important changes will be internal ones. We always see Taiwan as a chess piece between China and the United States. But within the island there is a society with its own problems and expectations. There are issues that concern citizens, especially young people, that go beyond the island’s relationship with China. That’s why, a third, outsider contender has emerged in the presidential elections: Ko Wen-je — the former mayor of Taipei and leader of the Taiwan People’s Party — who has focused his speeches on internal issues on the island and left foreign policy aside.

The Taiwanese are suffering from problems such as low wages among young people, high housing prices, corruption and telephone scams run by organized crime. On the island, there is also heated debate on issues such as prioritizing nuclear or renewable energy, the economy’s high dependence on the semiconductor industry and the abolition of the death penalty. Foreign and domestic policy are connected: a strong economy, a cohesive society and an energetically resilient territory makes Taiwan stronger, whatever its leader’s particular strategy may be. The current presidential race — with three candidates instead of the traditional two-party system — means more democracy and more pressure for the new leader to really solve the island’s internal problems. This would give new impetus to almost 30 years of uninterrupted democracy in Taiwan.

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