Beyond the China Narrative: Exploring Domestic Issues in the 2024 Taiwan Elections

Beyond the China Narrative: Exploring Domestic Issues in the 2024 Taiwan Elections

The popular media narrative, especially after the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DDP) win over the Taiwan Presidency, is that the 2024 elections revolved around being “pro” or “anti” China. However, Taiwan’s foreign, security and economic policy approaches towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were just one of the many important issues deliberated during the national elections. The 2024 Taiwan election was fought on domestic issues and governance challenges. A survey in the Common Wealth Magazine, a Taiwanese business magazine, highlights economic development as the most important election issue for the island country. This was further affirmed by the election results, which hide more than it reveal. While it looks like the DPP’s incoming President, Lai Ching-te, won handsomely by securing 40.1% of the popular votes, results would have been different if Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) had not had a dramatic alliance collapse in November 2023. KMT’s Hou Yu-ih secured 33.5% of the votes, and TPP’s Ko Wen-je won 26.5% of the votes, thus allowing the DPP a historic third-term continuation of the presidency. Similarly, the three-way contest resulted in a split verdict in the Taiwanese Legislative Yuan, with KMT, DPP and TPP securing 52, 51 and 8 seats, respectively, in the unicameral legislature of 113 members. The DPP is known for its Beijing scepticism, and the split verdict, with KMT as the single largest party in the Legislative Yuan, is indicative that the elections were much more than Taiwan’s approach to dealing with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). 

Domestic Issues during Taiwan Elections

First, like in most countries heading to elections this year, COVID-19 mismanagement has been a central theme in the 2024 Taiwan elections. This is despite Taiwan being one of the few success stories due to its strict border control measures. The monthly cases only peaked in Taiwan in May 2022, when vaccination was already available. However, despite this, the DPP government was severely criticised for its strong push for promoting the domestically developed Medigen Vaccine Biologics at a very high price over foreign vaccines like Moderna and AstraZeneca in the initial stages of the outbreak. The outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen administration’s justification was that since Taiwan is not a member of the World Health Organisation (WHO), it could not have counted on being able to expeditiously secure vaccines from international producers through WHO’s COVAX program. However, the lack of transparency on the deal between the outgoing administration and Medigen and the shortage of face masks and self-testing kits were some significant issues on which the 2024 Taiwan election was contested. It is important to note that Taiwan was one of the major affected countries during the SARS-CoV-1 outbreak in November 2002, and since then, face masks have become an essential part of Taiwanese lifestyle, especially in public spaces. Thus, the outgoing government had been under tremendous pressure due to the shortage of face masks during the outbreak of the pandemic. 

Another major issue for the 2024 Taiwan election was egg inflation, which reflects the larger food inflation in Taiwan. An egg is a staple of the Taiwanese diet and is consumed with almost every dish, including vegetarian food. Early 2023 witnessed a fall in egg production due to bird flu, reducing over 2,000 boxes per day. It led to a severe egg shortage across the island. In select places, a Catty of eggs (一斤, 600gms) costs up to NT$70, an increase of more than 50%. Furthermore, each person could only buy 20 eggs at a time. To tackle this situation, the outgoing government imported eggs from Brazil, which had an incorrect expiration date, and the shipments were found to contain florfenicol and chloramphenicol residues. Thus, more than 54 million imported eggs were disposed of in September 2023. Thus, the shortage of eggs drove food inflation, which put pressure on household wages in Taiwan, making it a severely debated issue in the recently concluded elections. 

Third, the ageing population and compulsory military service also dominated the election discourse. Notably, the share of the population in Taiwan over 65 years of age has increased from 2.5 per cent in the 1950s to 17.56 per cent in 2021. At the same time, life expectancy at birth has increased from 53.4 years for males and 56.3 years for females in 1951 to 77.7 years and 84.3 years in 2021. According to Taiwan’s National Development Council, the island country will become one of the oldest countries in the world in 2060, when the share of the elderly is likely to reach 41.4 per cent of the population. Thus, elderly care has been one of the most critical issues for the Taiwanese population, and policies relating to the long-term care of the elderly population, pension reforms, extension of employment age, expansion of national health insurance and incentives to increase birth rates were in all three parties’ election manifestos. 

Similarly, all three parties had a similar stand on compulsory military service for the Taiwanese male youth despite having different approaches to deter the PRC. Under the previous Tsai Ing-wen administration, compulsory military service was extended from four months to one year, and the incoming DPP president had hinted towards continuing this policy. KMT’s presidential candidate, Hou Yu-ih, had been a bit inconsistent, as in July 2023, he promised a return to four months of mandatory military service before backpedalling the next day. However, during his visit to the United States (US) in September 2023, he claimed that he would continue with the compulsory military service for the Taiwanese youth but with an innovative and need-based training approach backed by financial incentives. 

But besides these four major issues, universal healthcare, affordable housing prices, labour policies, minimum wage hikes, energy policies, education policies, and judicial reforms also dominated the election campaign. Equally important was Taiwan’s approach to the cross-strait policy issue, especially after the past eight years of the Tsai Ing-wen administration, when cross-strait relations were at an all-time low. 

Elections and Approaches to Cross Strait Policy Issue

Noticeably, the incoming President Lai, in 2017, had advocated for “Taiwan independence.” However, he later clarified it as a “pragmatic” expression of maintaining the current status quo, which has been the DPP’s Cross-Strait policy approach. His approach to maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait relies on “Four Pillars” of enhancing deterrence, strengthening economic security, deepening democratic partnerships, and maintaining a pragmatic and principled cross-strait policy. But like DPP, Lai rejects the 1992 Consensus. On the contrary, the KMT and Hou had endorsed the 1992 Consensus, implying that Taiwan and the Chinese mainland belong to one China without specifying what ‘China’ means. The KMT aims at preserving peace through deterrence (strengthening self-defence), dialogue (based on the ROC Constitution and related cross-strait laws) and de-escalation (facilitating cross-strait exchanges based on equality, goodwill, and dignity and reducing the risk of conflict). Finally, TPP’s Ko had maintained that he would ensure that Taiwan’s relationship with the US remains solid before attempting to open communications with China if he had come to power. TPP called this strategy to preserve peace through deterrence and communication. 

A part of the Cross-Strait policy approach is dealing with China, but the other part also includes engaging with the US, regional allies and trading blocs. DPP’s Lai had advocated for joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a higher-standard initiative led by Western democracies in contrast to the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). However, KMT’s Hoh and TPP’s Ko were in favour of joining RCEP. While dealing with the US, the incoming government had promised that it would continue to prioritise the procurement of asymmetric capabilities such as missiles and aircraft from the US, like under the previous Tsai administration, and push forward the development of indigenous capabilities such as submarines, drones, and mines. On the contrary, the KMT and TTP’s presidential candidates had promised an increase in the defence budget and continuation of acquisition of asymmetric capabilities, but with diversified procurement channels. Furthermore, a section of KMT leaders was also in favour of a symmetric defence posture while seeking to pursue more autonomy from Washington in Taipei’s force planning. These were the major differences in the approaches of the three parties’ towards the Cross-Strait policy.

Some Misses during the Election Campaign

There were several important issues missing from the election campaign, which requires some clarity from the incoming government. For instance, there was no mention of the semiconductor strategy by any party. Taiwan has been the unchallenged leader in the semiconductor supply chain for the past few decades. But with China’s state-backed investment, the PRC’s industrial area share in the market is tipped to increase to over 30 percent by 2027. Furthermore, with the US, Japan, and South Korea all investing heavily to enhance their chip manufacturing industry, Taiwan will soon be challenged in the field of innovative technologies and advanced processes. 

Similarly, although the role of foreign policy in an election campaign is often limited, there were sporadic mentions of the New Southbound policy by the DPP candidate. Similarly, KMT and TPP’s Presidential candidates put limited emphasis on dealing with regionalism during the 2024 Taiwan election campaign. Regionalism and enhanced economic cooperation have been not only historically important for Taiwan to reduce its dependency on the mainland but also an essential aspect of Taiwan’s economic, trade, and security strategy to integrate with the larger Indo-Pacific region. Limited mentions by all three parties during the election campaign are reflective of the diminishing importance of foreign and security policies over domestic politics within the Taiwanese electorate.  

Although these election issues highlight the possible policy trajectory that the incoming government would adopt, the split verdict in the Legislative Yuan compels the DPP to work with KMT for the next four years – making its policy approach to the Cross-Strait Issue, foreign and security policy and domestic issues much more interesting.

Suyash Desai is a research scholar studying China’s defence and foreign policies.  His research areas include Chinese security and foreign policies, Chinese military affairs, Chinese nuclear strategy, India-China relations, and strategic and security developments in East Asia. He is currently studying advanced Chinese language at the National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU), Taipei. 

Suyash Desai

Suyash Desai is an independent research scholar studying China’s defence and foreign policies.

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