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Challenges for Taiwan’s next president

Lai Ching-te faces a divided parliament and likely more pressure from China

Lai Ching-te celebrates his victory in Taipei, Taiwan, Saturday. Associated Press/Photo by Louise Delmotte

Challenges for Taiwan’s next president

Following Taiwan’s election last weekend, China has stepped up its harassment of the self-governing island. On Monday, the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru with a population of about 10,000 people announced it was ending diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and resuming relations with China, leaving Taiwan with only 12 diplomatic allies. Taiwan accused China of timing the diplomatic switch after the election to attack Taiwan’s democracy. On Wednesday, 18 Chinese air force planes patrolled around Taiwan, conducting joint combat readiness drills with Chinese warships.

Taiwanese voters chose incumbent Vice President Lai Ching-te, who also goes by William Lai, as their next president in Saturday’s election. Lai, who has vowed to safeguard Taiwan’s autonomy, has drawn denunciation from China as a dangerous separatist.

While China will likely continue pressuring Taiwan, especially in the leadup to Lai’s May 20 inauguration, Lai insists he will continue the status quo in relation to China. That means avoiding provocations and maintaining deterrence.

Lai, 64, won 40 percent of the vote in the presidential election that had a voter turnout of nearly 72 percent, cementing a historic, third consecutive four-year term for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Lai will succeed current President Tsai Ing-wen, who will step down after reaching her two-term limit.

Analysts expected Lai’s victory because he led in opinion polls. He appealed to voters with his assurance that he would be “Tsai 2.0” by maintaining his predecessor’s foreign policy, said Lev Nachman, a political scientist and professor at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, in a post on the platform X, formerly known as Twitter. A disagreement between leaders of two opposition parties leading up to the presidential race also helped Lai win.

Lai, a Harvard-educated former physician, beat New Taipei City Mayor Hou Yu-ih of the main opposition Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang or KMT, which favors closer ties with China. Hou claimed just over 33 percent of the ballots. Former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, who founded his Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) in 2019, trailed further behind with about 26 percent.

In terms of election results, Lai is “a very weak president” as he faces a “double minority,” said Fang-Yu Chen, a political science professor at Soochow University in Taiwan. Not only did Lai lack an absolute majority in the presidential vote, his party also lost its majority in parliament in Saturday’s elections. Of the legislature’s 113 seats, the DPP garnered 51, the KMT claimed 52 and the TPP won eight. It’ll be difficult for Lai to bring elected officials together as “the KMT is not likely to play along and the TPP will work with the highest bidder,” Nachman said.

It’s not clear if the KMT is forming a governing coalition with the TPP. Unlike the more independence-leaning DPP, the KMT advocates stronger trade partnerships with China. It also has a consensus with the Chinese Communist Party that there is “one China,” but each side has its own interpretation of what “China” means. Presenting itself as the middle of the DPP and KMT, which have long dominated Taiwan’s politics, the TPP has been popular among younger voters.

Among the urgent domestic issues that Lai aims to tackle is the financial sustainability of Taiwan’s labor force and health insurance offerings. As the island of 23 million people is facing a slowed economy since the pandemic, it is also grappling with soaring housing prices, the rising cost of living, stagnating wages, and shrinking job opportunities.

With regard to cross-strait relations, Chen expects China’s response to Lai’s upcoming presidency will include economic pressure, such as restrictions on imports from Taiwan. Although China has repeatedly insisted on what it calls “reunification” with Taiwan, Chen doubts it would use force to “reunify” within the next five years. He said China’s People’s Liberation Army is not ready yet, pointing to the recent purge of senior military leaders, which would weaken the force. He also thinks China has other priorities, including domestic economic issues and competition with the United States in technology and trade.

Under Lai’s presidency, Taiwan will likely seek stronger ties with the United States in areas including investment and the military. In a show of continued support for the island, a U.S. delegation of former high-ranking officials met with Tsai, Lai, and Taiwan’s Vice President-elect Bi-khim Hsiao on Monday. Hsiao is Taiwan’s former de facto ambassador to the United States. 

“The American commitment to Taiwan is rock solid, principled and bipartisan,” former U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley told Taiwanese officials.

These summarize the news that I could never assemble or discover by myself. —Keith

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