Previewing Taiwan's 2024 Presidential Election
Bonny Lin: Good morning. My name is Bonny Lin. I’m director of the China Power Project at CSIS. I am delighted to co-host this event previewing Taiwan’s upcoming elections with my colleague Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies.
So in a little over a month on January 13 Taiwan will be a presidential and legislative elections. Taiwan’s current president, – (audio break) – served two terms – (audio break) – stepped down. Since Taiwan’s first – (audio break) – elections in – (audio break) – presidency for more than two terms, and it remains to be seen in Tsai’s intended successor, Vice President William Lai, can break this pattern. Currently, the DPP and the pan-Green parties also have a majority in the Legislative Yuan. The DPP’s hold is also becoming increasingly contested.
So today we’re delighted to have three top experts joining us from Taiwan to dissect what they are seeing on the ground. So let me turn the floor to my colleague Jude to introduce the experts.
Jude Blanchette: Thanks. Bonny. And thanks to everyone joining.
Just a quick logistical note before we kick off the program. If you go to the CSIS website and click the link for this event, you’ll see a button where you can send through a question. Please at any point send those through. We will – we will look at those and, if apposite to the discussion, we will try to work these in. So please do make use of that function.
As Bonny said, this is an important time to be having this discussion. And we couldn’t be more delighted to be joined by our three guests. In no particular order, we have Nathan Batto, who’s associate research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Political Science with a joint appointment at Chengchi University’s Election Study Center; Brian Hioe, who’s the co-founder of New Bloom Magazine; and Kathrin Hille, who’s the greater China correspondent for Financial Times.
We thought it was important to have three individuals who are in Taiwan to help us make sense of this. Lord knows we in Washington, D.C., have enough Washington-based, D.C. – Washington, D.C.-based analysts trying to make sense of this. So really excited for this discussion.
And we thought it might be helpful just to start with right now before we start asking questions about some of the broader dynamics in the race. So I’ll just go Nathan, Brian, and Kathrin, in that order I introduced you: Can you give us a sense of, as of December 5th in the evening, where is the race right now, a sense of where and how things have sort of changed over the last week or so as we enter this final sprint of just over a month? So, Nathan, if you were in an elevator with someone and they said – they asked you what’s the state of the race, what would be your answer?
Nathan Batto: Well, thanks for having me in this event.
We finally learned who the candidates will be last week, and it was up in the air. The deadline for registration was Friday. And three candidates could have registered on Friday; two did – the three opposition candidates. One did not. And so there are now three candidates in the – in the presidential race: William Lai of the DPP, who’s the ruling party; Hou Yu-ih from the KMT; and Ko Wen-je, who is the leader of the Taiwan People’s Party.
Last week, when they registered, the polls showed a fairly tight three-way race, with Lai probably a little bit ahead and Hou and Ko neck and neck a little bit behind – so at about low 30s for Lai and high 20s to about 30 (percent) for the other two. This last week, we’ve seen a dramatic change in those polls. Lai has rebounded to his previous levels of around 35 to 40 percent. Today, I think the daily tracking poll is at 37 (percent). Hou has continued to go up. He was at 32 (percent), I think, today. And the astounding thing is that Ko has fallen way off, and I think today he was at 17 (percent) – or, no, sorry, today was at 15 (percent). Yesterday was 17 (percent). And so the – what looked like a very close three-way race a week ago has turned into a clear first and second and a far – a little bit more distant third-place candidate in Ko Wen-je.
So I don’t know if that is the new normal for this race, or if that’s just a crazy week and it’ll bounce back next week, or what. We’re all watching. But it’s been a – it’s been a dramatic change this week from last week.
Mr. Blanchette: Thanks. Nathan.
Brian, same question to you. And as everyone answers I might tack on a slight addition, which is Nathan just talked about this pretty noticeable drop-off for Ko Wen-je over the last week. So what’s your description of the state of the race, building on Nathan, and any sense of is this a story more about, you know, KMT consolidation or is this a story of Ko Wen-je, you know, starting to flail out?
Brian Hioe: Yeah, it’s a very interesting outcome because – particularly the way they split. The pan-Blue camp, the strictly more pro-China camp, was very acrimonious, and it occurred on live television, the three candidates arguing. And this came after weeks of speculation about whether they would actually unite together and all these meetings that were then called off.
And so then one explanation is that this doesn’t reflect well on them. That’s one of the reasons, then, people think that the polling has dropped in particular for Ko, who was seen as a kind of weak negotiator throughout this process, agreeing to things that his party did not and then not actually being very savvy about the moves he made. But in this sense, too, poll after poll did also show that if the pan-Blue camp had come together they could actually defeat William Lai, and this did not occur.
I think, though, what is quite interesting is that splits exist in the deep Green – sorry, in the deep Blue to light Blue side of the political spectrum between different factions in the KMT and the pan-Blue camp more widely now that we have the splinter party of the TPP under Ko Wen-je, and they have not been able to heal the split in quite a long time. You have this pattern in which, for example, they could not decide on who the candidate would be for a while. The chair of the party, Eric Chu, wanted it for himself. And so he sought to block the current candidate, Hou Yu-ih, despite that at that point in time polls showed him to be the strongest candidate. And then, when Hou came out, he unexpectedly turned out to be quite weak. He didn’t seem to be doing things in coordination, in a way that was really backed by the party, or, you know, campaign in a very effective way. And then we get to the other splits with the rise of the TPP, Terry Gou’s insurgent run as an independent despite previously promising not to run and to back the KMT.
And so I think that’s the interesting thing, is the pan-Blue camp has not been able to come together. That has been one of their major weaknesses in previous elections and that has also been the case this time.
And so in the past week what we see is that they did not come together. Would they actually be able to stand against William Lai? That’s a question. I mean, there’s plenty of room for missteps. There is nothing certain until the very end, as I think the fact that people waited to register until the very last day also shows. But I think it does seem like the overall dynamic now is quite clear.
Mr. Blanchette: Wonderful, Brian. Thank you. And also, Brian, I should note that you’re the only one who gets points for Christmas decorations in your background, so appreciate the festive – the festive spirit.
Kathrin, over to you. I realize the two previous speakers have set the broad dynamics, but anything you’d like to supplement or add about your take on where the race is as of December 5th?
Kathrin Hille: Well, what I find really striking, it’s not really the first time that this happens, but it’s the split of the electorate, what I can see right now while I’m observing is by age groups. So I’ve been speaking to a lot of young people over the last two weeks and I have not been able to find a single voter – young voter who would say they consider voting for the KMT. This is not surprising if you look at the polling. It’s the age group, the young ones, where the KMT is consistently doing worst.
But then, on the other hand, what I also – what we also have been able to pick up is a real disillusionment and sense of disappointment with the DPP. And the question is how far that will translate into actual votes. It’s most pronounced with young voters, as far as I can see, but they’re also the most unlikely to vote or the most likely to stay away. And so the question is, will this race once again burn down to, really, the core support bases of the DPP and the KMT turning out and being mobilized?
And so I’ve had lots of conversations with people who told me, yeah, you know, the DPP, they’ve been in power for almost eight years, and why haven’t they delivered on lots of things we want in terms of reform? And why is it that the economy is not doing better, and why is there corruption, and why are they not more humble, and whatever – lots of complaints and lots of things that have nothing to do with the issues that you would normally pay attention to in D.C. But then, for a sizeable chunk of people who are sympathetic to the Green side of the political spectrum – to the DPP – then comes the consideration: But this is the presidential election. It concerns the future of the country, so I still will vote for the DPP again. And that’s for part of the people, and then some others can’t really make up their mind.
And the other thing that I’ve been picking up is really that a sizeable chunk of the people who were intrigued with Ko Wen-je have decided that after his performance he put on in the negotiations over a potential joint ticket with the KMT, they’ve decided that they just cannot risk putting the future of the country in this guy’s hands because he’s just – yeah, basically, I mean, a lot of young people on the internet until today are still being entertained by the whole episode, right? There’s, like, lots and lots of memes around it. But the conclusion is you can’t take him seriously. So that is for a group of people who would have probably previously considered voting for him.
So that’s kind of the impression from doing lots of interviews in recent days.
Mr. Blanchette: Thanks, Kathrin.
I wanted to just do one final question and I’ll turn it over to Bonny, which is, of course, it’s not just a presidential election. We have the election of the Legislative Yuan and the 113 seats. This one, I have to admit, here in Washington feels like it gets less airtime, but is not less important because of the dynamics that may occur if there is a split LY. So same order, maybe I could just do a round robin of how do you – how are you handicapping the LY race. And I think a little bit later on in the discussion we’ll start asking about what a possible hung means in terms of the next president’s legislative agenda. But just as of now, Nathan, what’s your sense of where the LY race stands?
Dr. Batto: Well, looking at the most recent polling, it looks to me like the most likely outcomes are either a hung parliament in which the TPP holds the balance of power or an outright KMT majority. And I think we should note that if the – if it is a hung parliament with the TPP holding the balance of power, it will be because they win, you know, seven or eight or nine party list seats. And those are – that’s important that it would be the list seats because if the critical seats were district seats, those people would have their own electoral mandate and could be persuaded to vote against their party and pulled a little bit to one of the big parties, picked off one by one. But if they’re the party list seats, party list seats can be – can be revoked at any time, and if – you just kick somebody out of the party, and so they have to follow party discipline. If it is a hung parliament and the TPP holds the balance of power and Ko Wen-je maintains strong control over his party, he will be the one who controls the balance of power in the legislature.
Mr. Blanchette: Great. Thanks, Nathan. Sorry, couldn’t find my mute button.
Brian, your sense of the LY race.
Mr. Hioe: Yeah. I agree with Nathan. I think that is likely the case.
I do believe the DPP is planning for the scenario that they don’t control the parliament in that sense, and so they are expecting perhaps the pan-Blue camp to hold the majority in that sense. And so you do see some messaging from even the smaller pan-Green parties such as the New Power Party that emphasize that this seems to be the likely outcome.
But then I think what is worth noting – and perhaps we can’t really balance out or see currently – is the way that the presidential race, the impact or how it’s perceived bleeds into the legislative elections, particularly when it comes to the party list. The TPP has the interesting dilemma of being so tied to one politician, which is Ko Wen-je. And so after these scandals that have affected him, it was actually very interesting to see what messaging the DPP took. Immediately, the attack on Ko was directed at the party members, saying that: Look at your leader, Ko. He’s not reliable. You have no political future with him. You should leave the party. And so that is strategic because I think this is known.
I also think that because of the factions, many of the politicians from the TPP already had a political background. They didn’t have a kind of loyalty to Ko that drove them into the party. But they were often, for example, pan-Blue candidates that were in other third parties, or former KMT, or in some cases they might have been the perennial person that was running against both the KMT and DPP but was more pan-Blue in district elections.
So I think it is to be seen. But I also do think that the DPP, if there is an outcome – it would be to the pleasant surprise of the DPP if they do better than expected. And I do think that particularly sometimes there has been – a lot of the local district elections, it’s a blend of local issues and kind of national issues. And the DPP is often strongest on national issues, whereas KMT politicians or pan-Blue politicians that have been in an area for a very long time have very deep networks, and it’s very hard for them to kind of work against that. But perhaps some missteps by the party central or the tendency of the party central at present in the KMT to fight with local politicians may actually be to the DPP’s advantage. But I do expect kind of similar to what Nathan described as the overall outcome.
Mr. Blanchette: Great. Thank you.
Ms. Hille: Yeah. At the risk of boring everyone, I also agree with what Nathan said.
I think that in the case of the TPP playing a crucial role, it would be very, very interesting who Ko Wen-je listens to because in the, like, most recent episode, it’s become quite clear that he gets very conflicting advice from, well, this really motley crew of advisors and people close to him that he has. And if he ends up playing such a – such a crucial role, it’s kind of erratic what advice and what direction he might want to go into.
I have also picked up for a long time already serious worries on the part of the – of the DPP that they will not be able to win a legislative majority again, so I think they are definitely prepared for that. But in – yeah, on that half of the election, you never know. So I think it’s very, very hard to predict for the local reasons.
Dr. Lin: Great. Thank you, Kathrin.
I’m actually going to do reverse order and start with you first. So I wanted to unpack a little bit more of what we’re seeing in terms of the – why we’re seeing these changes, right? So I think there’s two main factors that we were discussing. One is the new announcement of the VP candidates and the other is the breakdown in the attempt to forge a pan-Blue-White coalition.
But on the first factor about the VP candidates, I’d love your thoughts on what you think of particularly the two recently announced VP candidates of the KMT and TPP side. I think most in D.C. are quite familiar with William Lai’s VP pick, Bi-khim Hsiao, but they’re not very familiar with the two other VP candidates. So I would love your thoughts on those VP – those two candidates and what do they bring to the table.
Ms. Hille: Right. On the KMT side, Chao Shao-kang is a very interesting choice because he would be viewed by most of those, I guess, as part of what we call the deep Blue spectrum, so really orthodox, traditional, old KMT in terms of the positions he has often taken. He is a very skilled politician and media personality, very strong speaker and personality. And he – but it’s astonishing that he now becomes the figure that brings the KMT base back together, because he used to be – I mean, part of his political biography is that he left the party, and he founded one of the split-offs in the 1990s that at the time felt that the KMT was becoming too Taiwanese and that it didn’t stick to its pedigree and its roots enough. So he – and now he’s very, very complementary in terms of what part of the KMT spectrum he occupies with Hou, the presidential candidate. And he was also already, when the party tried to manage – when Hou Yu-ih, the presidential candidate, earlier on in his campaign really tanked and he was struggling to convince the core traditional KMT support base of his credibility, Chao Shao-kang, because he has a talk show, he helped in the efforts to try and convince the KMT support base that this was a candidate the party should get behind. But of course, now, as vice presidential candidate, sometimes he even – at rallies he even outshines the candidate, because Hou is not a great speaker but Chao Shao-kang is. So the dynamic in that combination is very interesting.
And for Ko Wen-je’s vice presidential candidate, it’s – it feels a bit like she was a last-minute choice or she was kind of an option that he had held in reserve and then it fell on her. And people in the TPP tried to convince maybe one another, maybe others that she can be the TPP’s Bi-khim Hsiao, if you will, because she has an international background. So she’s worked abroad. She speaks English very well. But clearly, she’s very, very inexperienced when it comes to Taiwan politics. So it’s unclear to me so far what contribution she can make to help Ko win over voters.
Dr. Lin: Thank you, Kathrin.
Brian, same questions to you. But also, from your perspective, Kathrin was mentioning how some of Chao’s background has influenced the campaign. Do you see his influence similarly? Thanks.
Mr. Hioe: Yeah, absolutely. In many ways, he is a good choice, but also a surprising choice. He has a skillset that Hou Yu-ih lacks, as was mentioned. He’s very good at grabbing headlines and being very vocal, being very good at attacking; whereas Hou’s issue is that he actually just hung back and was too moderate, and so he wasn’t able to get a lot of attention when he announced his run, and so despite very high approval ratings, that just kind of sank and didn’t do him any good.
There’s also the issue of his background, that Hou, as mentioned, he’s from the prior wave of Han migration to Taiwan in the preceding hundreds of years and not from the KMT kind of wave that came over after the Chinese civil war. And so in the KMT, there is distrust of denjimin (sp), those that came from prior generations. And so that kind of balances him out in that there was always distrust of him in the KMT – the fear that he was too moderate, that in the past he was close to the DPP because they did try to recruit him, and that he could become another Lee Teng-hui. And so Chao balances that out.
But then it’s kind of unusual when we are talking about a Blue-White alliance not too long earlier, because Ko is still perceived as more moderate than the KMT, so trying to get him as a VP choice to appeal to moderates. Then, because that doesn’t work out, he switches to someone that’s very deep Blue, right, ideologically hardline. And so I think it reflects on kind of a lack of strategy.
As far as Hsiao Bi-khim, it’s interesting because the choices seemed to be her or the former minister of culture. And Cheng Li-chun was also considered more progressive and very qualified, but less international experience. And so that was maybe the decision, actually, what it ultimately came down to. There was also the fact that she was considered closer to Lai’s camp, whereas Hsiao is closer to Tsai’s camp. And Lai did, of course, try to challenge Tsai previously in the 2020 presidential race for the nomination. So he did seem to want to swap out some of Tsai’s people in the past, but in the end he did go with one from Tsai’s camp.
As for the TPP, it does seem like their candidate was able to get less attention. The KMT and TPP announced their candidates very late because they were trying to decide an alliance until the very last moment. And so it’s very sporadic, then, that Chao or Wu – Cynthia Wu, the TPP vice presidential candidate – were announced, but then Chao got a lot of attention and Wu did not. She is from the Shin Kong family that run the Shin Kong Group, which is a very large conglomerate. And so then some speculation was that he needed money because they are a smaller party, and he was criticized because of his antiestablishment message for now having a conglomerate kind of background person and family as his VP candidate. And he responded that Shin Kong is not a conglomerate, it’s not a massive corporation, and that’s kind of an absurd claim, and so that’s been used to attack him. So it seems like it kind of worked out a little less well for Ko in terms of announcing a VP candidate.
Dr. Lin: Thank you, Brian.
I definitely also wanted, Nathan, for you to weigh in on this. And particularly, if you could share with us, in terms of the VP candidates, are – have their picks gained any of the presidential candidates additional votes, whether those are from the youth or any of the swing population?
Dr. Batto: Well, I think Hsiao was probably already baked into the – to Lai’s vote. We’ve mostly been expecting the DPP to pick her for a few months now. It would have been surprising if he had not. You said nobody in D.C. knows much about Wu Hsin-ying. But nobody here knows very much about her either. So we’re all kind of learning about her. I’m supposed to be a legislative specialist, and I don’t know much about her either.
Jaw to me is the interesting one. Hou earlier on in the campaign wasn’t doing very well. And the reason he wasn’t doing very well in the – in the spring and early summer is because he wasn’t getting all of the Blue votes. All of the people who would normally vote where the KMT weren’t really that enthusiastic about Hou. And one of the big reasons is that Hou was not a strong campaigner for Han Kuo-yu four years ago. Four years ago, when Han Kuo-yu was out campaigning for president, Hou said: I need to be in New Taipei City doing local government. I’m the mayor. I need to be mayor. He didn’t go all out for that.
And so a lot of the campaign has been trying to bring all those Blue voters back home, back into the camp. Some of the earliest surveys said he was only getting about 60 percent of the Blue camp voters. Now he’s up in the 80s. So a lot of – a lot of what he’s been doing for the entire campaign is just trying to bring people home to their natural base. And Jaw helps with that. He’s just another reminder, another kind of reassuring voice that, yes, you can count on Hou. He keeps saying – he keeps repeating Ma Ying-jeou’s policies towards China. He keeps telling you that, yes, he’s for traditional KMT positions like nuclear power, or he wants traditional KMT things like a special investigation into KMT – into DPP corruption. And this is just another reminder, that Hou is really a KMT figure, and you can trust him. So I think that’s what he’s bringing to the table.
Dr. Lin: Great. Thank you. I did actually have the chance to meet Cynthia when she was traveling with Ko Wen-je in April. She struck me as very composed and, as Kathrin mentioned, excellent English. Very excellent. So in some ways, she is – I do see some parallels between her and Bi-khim Hsiao.
But let me turn to – back to you, Kathrin, and follow up with a point that you made earlier which I thought was very interesting. You said that the failure of – there’s been a lot of internet memes about the failure of the Blue-White coalition and how that has shown to many in Taiwan that among Ko’s supporters that they can’t take him seriously. Could you unpack that a little bit? What exactly happened in the attempt for the Blue-White coalition? And what does that failure – what are the larger implications, particularly for Ko?
Ms. Hille: Right. OK. So what we got basically over the space of one week or a little more than that was, first, a high-profile announcement by Ko Wen-je and Hou Yu-ih, accompanied by the KMT Chair Eric Chu and former President Ma Ying-jeou that they had agreed to form a joint ticket. And then they gave a little bit of, like, additional information on how they would figure out who would head that ticket as the presidential candidate and who would be the running mate. And then just a few days after that, it turned out that the expert group of pollsters who were supposed to determine the result of their joint collation of the polls could not agree on anything, basically.
So it turned out that the agreement they had announced earlier did not specify what exactly they would focus on the polls, if they would measure support for either combinations of Hou as the presidential candidate and Ko as the running mate or the other way around, or whether they would measure the advantage either of these combinations would have over a Lai-Hsiao ticket. So that’s the first point they disagreed on. Then they disagreed on how to define the margin of error, the statistical margin of error. And then they also disagreed on which polls to allow in the collection of polls they would look at.
After that, Ko Wen-je then started very publicly making – trying to reassure his supporters, who it turned out pretty quickly were just plain shocked at him having signed that agreement with the KMT. And when he came out of the initial deal announcement, were just basically shell shocked. And immediately many of his aides, or several of his aides, said that they realized that the KMT had, well, kind of set a trap for him. And so he gave the impression that he was – number one, he didn’t listen to his aides. And, number two, he was not capable of handling the situation well. And he kind of had a – seemed to have a lot of errors in judgment over what was happening and whether he was getting a good deal.
Which in turn, then, of course, also, beyond his own supporters, raised the question of what if this guy ever ends up the president and has to negotiate with people other than the KMT? In other words, China or whoever. So that was, I guess, the other doubt. And then, of course, also the third question among his supporters was, in the past – and he started his political career signing with the DPP, and then gradually shifted in the other direction. But he had still earlier on opposed radical slogans like, let’s – down with the DPP, or let’s get rid of the DPP at any cost. But now suddenly, by teaming up with the KMT, that is exactly what he’s doing. So he was –there was a sizable portion, I think, of his supporters really started having second thoughts about him trying to form a joint ticker with the KMT, anyway.
Dr. Lin: Thank you.
Brian, how do you assess sort of the KMT’s role in bringing this ticket together, particularly Ma Ying-jeou’s role? I couldn’t help notice in D.C. that the timing of this meeting between these four leaders was, how shall I say, very well-timed with the Biden-Xi meeting. How do we interpret that, and what the KMT is trying to do in orchestrating this attempt at alliance?
Mr. Hioe: Yeah, Ma Ying-jeou’s role in the party is quite interesting at present because I think in Taiwan there’s not a clear template for what former presidents do. I mean, often in the U.S. they go off and retire. Lee Teng-hui had his kind of spiritual successor party, but was not always the most involved. Ma Ying-jeou went off for a while, and now he’s back with a vengeance and very active. And so even some of the KMT chairs that tried to push the party in a more moderate direction, such as Johnny Chiang in particular, were always appearing with Ma Ying-jeou, just to kind of make sure he wouldn’t go after them, because he’s still commands a presence in the party. Eric Chu is, of course, someone that rose through connection with Ma Ying-jeou, but they don’t really get along now.
And so Ma is still there. This has led to some torturous policy turns for the KMT. For example, Hou Yu-ih, he didn’t really acknowledge the ‘92 Consensus until rather late in his campaigning. Initially, he said he respected Ma Ying-jeou’s advocacy or his contributions where that was concerned, but not explicitly. And so I think there are a lot of these structural dynamics at work in the KMT. And that really impacted the ability to have a Blue-White alliance. But then – even then the kind of TPP, as many of the third parties, was also having issues of its own.
Apparently, a lot of the third party products in the past decade in Taiwan have kind of faltered when it comes to how to relate to the bigger party in their camp. For the New Power Party, which emerged after the Sunflower Movement, as regards to the DPP. But the TPP, which relates to the KMT then, they also faltered. But what’s interesting is that these are kind of often more youth-oriented parties. And so that is kind of an interesting dynamic there. And so I think a lot of it does play into Ko Wen-je’s missteps, but there also are some structural factors.
The TPP has mentioned it always has to come off as different from the KMT, even if it aligns from it. And so Ko was still criticizing the KMT as he said he was going to align for it. I hate the KM, but I hate the DPP more. That’s what he said. And the KMT has to be stepping back for a smaller party, because it is the big fish. It is the grand old party. And so that is very difficult. And so I think that inherent relationship was always a stumbling block.
Dr. Lin: Thank you. Nathan, and I want to bring you into the conversation, but also moving beyond just the presidential election. So part of the agreement or the attempted agreement was also to work together between the Blue and the White parties in the Legislative Yuan. Is that part still possible? We know, clearly, the presidential – discussion on the presidential candidates have fallen apart. But what about for the Legislative Yuan elections?
Dr. Batto: So in in the Legislative Yuan there are two votes. You have a district vote and a party list vote. And the party list, everybody’s on their own. So there’s no cooperation there. That’s straight competition. In the districts, there are 73 districts plus six aboriginal seats, six indigenous seats. And the KMT is basically nominating a full slate. The TPP has nominated 11 people. It’s almost nobody and none of them are expected to win. They are competing with the KMT in several districts, but there are only a couple of districts in which those are really important. I think there are three districts in which the KMT stepped aside and let the TPP have that district. But those are going to be easy DPP wins. So that’s not very useful. There’s another one that’s an easy KMT win. That also doesn’t matter.
I think there are only two seats where the TPP is running a candidate in a district that the KMT is even a little bit vulnerable, where they could split the vote and throw the seat to the DPP. So for the most part, it won’t matter very much in the legislative races. The real contest is in the party list for the 34 party list seats. And, you know, it matters whether the TPP can get 11 percent like last time, or go as high as, you know, 20 percent this time. And that depends a lot on how well Ko Wen-je drives the vote.
I did want to say one thing about the Blue-White negotiations. It’s important to remember that during the run-up to the negotiations, everybody seemed to assume that Ko Wen-je was winning the polls, was leading Ho Yu-ih in the polls. And when Ma Ying-Jeou announced suddenly that he wanted to sit down and form a ticket, and he didn’t care whether it was Ko or Hou at the top of the ticket, it sure seemed like he was – he was preparing to push Ko Wen-je at the top of the ticket. Ko had been saying for months that he would cooperate, as long as they did a straight polling primary. And Hou had said, no, we don’t want to do a polling primary. We want to do all these other things. We’ll have local voting, or we’ll have something else.
Everybody seemed to assume that Ko would win a polling primary. And I assume that when Ma forced him to the table, that he was going to force Ko to take the second position. The KMT clearly didn’t want to do that. And the TPP clearly didn’t want to take the second position. But it looked to me like everybody was trying to avoid blame. And Ma was the one trying to push them to the table. And he did not do that very – he pushed them to the table, but then didn’t force them to come to a very good agreement, a very complete agreement. As Kathrin said, they were missing all the details that might form a useful agreement.
And so in the aftermath of that, it looked to me like Ma had kind of lost a step. That he had tried to get something done and he waited too late and he didn’t force them to make the necessary compromises and it all fell apart. A week later, after the polls had shown a sudden surge for Hou Yu-ih and a sudden collapse for Ko Wen-je, I’m reevaluating that. Maybe Ma was – made a brilliant move on behalf of the KMT to consolidate the vote behind Hou Yu-ih in some way that I still don’t quite fully understand. But we didn’t quite understand while it was happening that this was going to be the outcome, that a week, after all this – after the registration that Hou would be in a commanding position vis-à-vis Ko. So we’re all still trying to figure out exactly what happened.
Mr. Blanchette: Thanks, Nathan. And also appreciate your willingness to publicly state that you’re reevaluating your position, not something we often do over on this side of the Pacific. I wonder if we could shift the frame a little bit. or zoom out a bit to talk about some geopolitical dynamics.
And I I’d like to ask specifically about your assessment up until now about how cross-strait – or how Beijing has factored into this election, both in terms of your assessment of what Beijing has been doing to try to steer electoral outcomes and also your sense of to what extent foreign policy or cross-strait relations is factoring into voters’ minds. I sense there may be an overemphasis here in terms of the saliency of cross-strait relations. And we almost completely obliterate other issues that are on the minds of voters – housing costs, immigration, energy security. But nonetheless, cross-strait relations matters.
So, Brian, maybe I’ll start with you. It’s a two-parter. So number one is, you know, things like the Foxconn investigation, you know, Beijing stating that it would – you know, coincidentally it’ll extend the ECFA, you know, investigation to July 12th – or, January 12th, which just happens to be one day before the election. You know, narratives in Global Times and others that, you know, a vote for the DPP is a vote for war. Which, of course, is being echoed and amplified by the KMT. How does that factor in – functionally into the election? And then the second part of that is just to what extent does cross-strait relations factor into voters’ minds? If this was a pie chart, you know, how big is the slice of cross-strait?
Mr. Hioe: Yeah, I think it’s a very interesting question. Because I think an answer you’ll often get from Taiwanese people is that, well, this election is not about cross-strait issues. But I don’t think that’s true, because I think there’s a tendency for Taiwanese people not to want – I think, understandably – to see the entire domestic political issues – whether environmental, or social issues, or economic inequality – to be secondary to an external factor, that of China. I can understand totally, because of autonomy and just, you know, there are more issues that matter. But then at the end of the day, I still think that’s the most important determinant. That, also party ID, but also this kind of – these deep, fundamental splits that exists in Taiwanese society. And I think that still does determine the outcome of the presidency, that people vote for who they think is the outcome that’ll preserve Taiwan’s democratic freedoms. And so I think there is that.
There are certain stances then that, for example, the KMT and DPP have been criticized in past years of swapping position on between when they’re in power when they’re outside of it. Cross-strait, they don’t as much. Nuclear energy is another one they don’t as much. But then on other issues, they’re accused of switching positions. And that irritates voters. But I think the DPP, as incumbent for the past eight years then, now is facing a lot of blowback for failing to resolve issues of economic inequality or other kinds of similar issues, because oftentimes what you see in the two parties going head to head is they agree on what are the problems. They have solutions that are differing in details, but then they start to see each other’s proposed solutions. And so then the fundamental differences regarding this kind of issue of independence, unification, of party identification, et cetera.
When it comes to China then, particularly around the talks of the Blue and White – you know, the TPP and KMT – you saw this discourse claiming that China is behind this, the sudden unity of those two. I think that’s maybe not necessarily the case, but it’s useful for the DPP and pan-Green camp to then introduce the China frame. And we have seen various attempts of them to try to reintroduce the China frame in a way to benefit them electorally, because it worked in the past. Puma Shen, for example, is very high on the party list for the DPP, the disinformation expert, and also involved in civil defense kind of organizations. And that signals, for example, that the DPP is hoping to really push on this issue.
But I think what is interesting is when the KMT, instead of leveraging, let’s say, on domestic issues attack, the DPP as incumbent as failing to resolve these issues, also starts to introduce the cross-strait frame. For example, proposing to revive the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement, the trade agreement that allowed for investment in Taiwan’s service sector industry that was opposed by the 2014 Sunflower Movement. Why introduce this idea suddenly? Part of it is that someone like Ma, for whom this is maybe – he would like to see as far as political legacy, wants to push for it and he’s still powerful the party. But then it’s kind of going back to old ideas. And this idea was actually first introduced by Ko, and then picked up by Hou, but now Hou is more pushing for it.
And the framing of war versus peace, that’s still present, in varying extents, though. It’s kind of – the KMT is a little bit, I think, trying to figure out how to navigate this. Hou Yu-ih, for example, proposed re-raising the draft – sorry – re-lowering the draft back to four months from the current one year that the Tsai administration proposed. Then there was kind of backlash, because it just seems like he’s trying to roll back Tsai and her doing this in a very kind of inauthentic manner, that he raised it quite late in the race. And then Jaw came into the picture, and he proposed this idea again. And so now it’s also, again, in the picture.
And so that part I think they’re still trying to figure out. But broadly, it is not a new narrative, claiming that the DPP is provocative of China, the KMT can maintain stable relations with China, and so forth. But then as for the role that China itself plays, what it prefers, who its preferred candidate is – for example, it didn’t seem too happy with Terry Gou. There was that. That is a little bit more opaque to me. And so that’s something I’m also still kind of wondering.
Mr. Blanchette: Great. Thanks, Brian.
Kathrin, same two-parter to you. Maybe picking up on where Brian left off. What has been your assessment of Beijing’s involvement thus far in the election? And if – on your pie chart of where cross-strait relations as an election electoral issue stands, vis-à-vis other issues around sort of wage growth, housing, how big is the slice?
Ms. Hille: Yeah. The slice is very big. And I think I mentioned this earlier during our discussion, that I think many voters are unhappy with the DPP and have very real, burning concerns about public policy issues around energy, housing, low and un-dynamic salaries, especially for people early in their careers, and lots of other things. But then, tell themselves or realize that they also have to consider the issue of – well, the future of the country, and the security of the country, and preserving the democracy. And then they – one of the two needs to take priority. And when it comes to a presidential election, that is national security and cross-strait relations. I think that that’s how it’s going to go.
In terms of real involvement of China in the campaign, well, I’m kind of still waiting for the big one to happen or to drop, because what we’re seeing so far is kind of the usual toolbox in play. So when you look at the patterns and frequency of military intimidation moves around Taiwan, there’s not really been anything out of the ordinary recently. So the question is, will there be even closer to the date? I don’t know.
Then, in terms of other interference, well, we’ve of course heard a lot of public statements from Beijing calling on Taiwan’s voters to make the right choice, from their perspective. I think we can also say with quite a lot of confidence that there is information – there are information operations. There’s a lot of – if you look at the details of what kinds of content appear in social media that are used by Taiwanese, there are – there have been, for example, examples of social media accounts being hacked by actors that all fit the description of certain Chinese actors. And then, shortly afterwards, these accounts being used to distribute Chinese-generated information. Not always fake news, but information that is aimed at dividing the electorate in Taiwan, for example, or trying to capitalize on existing rifts in public opinion in Taiwan. So that’s definitely picking up. But that’s also nothing out of the ordinary. It’s the same kind of thing we’ve seen in previous elections.
Mr. Blanchette: Nathan, I think I kind of saw you nodding your head. Is that your assessment as well, that the Beijing’s response has been relatively conventional and you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop?
Dr. Batto: Yeah. I think so. I really – I have a difficult time with this sort of question because the threshold for a scholar to say that Beijing is interfering in the election is higher than for other people. They have – they do things in an opaque matter to make it hard for us to see it, which makes it very hard to collect data on it and to say in any kind of a really rigorous way: Beijing is definitely doing this, are definitely doing that, for this purpose, or that purpose. They probably are, but I’m not comfortable being the one saying it.
What I will say is that every election in Taiwan is, in some way, about China. The party system is based on attitudes towards China, being Chinese, Chinese culture, Chinese history, or not. And it’s not just cross-straits relations; it’s also about: Who am I? Who do I want to be? What do – who do I think I am? And where do we want our future to go? If I go to this temple, does that make me more Chinese or less Chinese, or does it matter?
The China factor comes into every election because the parties are built on attitudes towards Chineseness or Taiwaneseness, and that’s the most enduring thing. And Brian was talking about how the parties have flipped sides on many issues. Well, that’s because those aren’t the central issues. The things they can’t flip on are attitudes towards what it means to be Taiwanese or what it means to be Chinese.
China is a factor in every election, but it’s a factor in a different way every time. So four years ago we were talking about Hong Kong, and the – that really mobilized a lot of especially younger voters. This time, we’re talking more about the choice between war and peace, and that seems to be the dominant way that the China question is coming into this. And that framing seems to be much more advantageous to the KMT, and the reason I say that is because they’re the ones that keep bringing it up. The DPP doesn’t like that framing. They don’t – they don’t say it that way. They say this is a choice between democracy and authoritarianism. But that seems to be the way that we’re talking about China this election, and that seems to be working much, much more in the KMT’s favor than four years ago when we were talking about Hong Kong and whether Taiwan would become the next Hong Kong.
So China probably matters, if you want a – if you want a pie chart, I’d say because the parties are baked in this – in this rock, in this kiln, it probably matters about 80 percent of the vote. But that’s not all cross-straits. That’s a lot of identity and who I am. The cross-straits portion of it – how do we deal with the PRC – is not that big, maybe a third of that. So that’s just a guess, though; I don’t have an actual number.
Mr. Blanchette: Kathrin, you wanted to – do you have a different pie recipe to bake?
Ms. Hille: No, but I – just very, very briefly, I think the China – the PRC portion of the China component is bigger than it used to be. I mean, think back to the Chen Shui-bian years. Then it was – a much larger portion of the China factor in the election was about identity than about the PRC, and I think now it’s the other way around because of China’s behavior.
Dr. Lin: Great. Thank you.
So we have a little bit less than three minutes left, but I did want to ask one final round of questions on the U.S. factor in the Taiwan election. And if you could really quickly share your thoughts on to what extent – even though the United States has been relatively evenhanded, how have our efforts of engagement with Taiwan impacted the election at all, from your perspective? And also, how is each of the different parties positioning themselves vis-à-vis the United States. So I’m going to go to Brian first, Nathan, and then Kathrin.
Mr. Hioe: So it’s quite interesting because the DPP now, in fact, enjoys strong relations with the U.S. under the Tsai administration.
And the KMT has at various points tried to re-pivot towards the U.S., seeing how it’s reopened its D.C. office, and then it kind of goes and stops and goes and stops. And it doesn’t really work out, I think, on a continuous matter. It’s pretty clear sometimes their priorities are elsewhere.
And I think that’s even all the more so for the TPP. I mean, Ko Wen-je’s very fond of meeting with people from AIT and then saying everything out loud because I don’t think it matters to him. I think his point is actually to use this, saying that, well, I mean, the international world, they support me, they back me, so vote for me. So there is that issue.
I think that particularly there are ways in which, for example, the U.S. has come up and become a question much more, particularly after the war in Ukraine. We talk about the war and peace narrative, and what’s actually quite interesting about that is a lot of it actually is drawn from the U.S. because there is this discourse around Ukraine and war and peace and the antiwar movement that has actually led to Taiwan. For example, there was a group of prominent socially influential left-wing scholars that issued an antiwar statement, and that was very influential on the kind of framing of war and peace for everyone, basically, whether you are DPP or KMT and so forth. And a lot of their ideas were actually from the U.S. They were very heavily citing, for example, Noam Chomsky. And so it is quite interesting how it ties into this way.
So I think oftentimes we focus on the state and how the state has really tried to be kind of evenhanded, but there are moments in which probably the U.S. would have been attacked as siding with one candidate or another, particularly, for example, for candidates that had vice presidential candidates, in particular, that had U.S. citizenship or were trying to give it up, such as Tammy Lai, Terry Gou’s – you know, his vice presidential candidate or some of the others. And so that is one way it could come up. But I think it’s important to note the cultural attitudes or the connections of discourse regarding these kind of global framings, I think, regarding war and peace, Ukraine, Taiwan, the U.S., Russia, China, and so forth, I think have been very powerful in this election.
Dr. Lin: Thank you.
Dr. Batto: So the DPP strategy, their grand strategy is to be part of the democratic camp internationally, and part of that is being as close as possible to the United States. There’s not much conflict within the DPP on how to approach the United States.
The KMT and TPP are much more conflicted, because they want to have good relations with the United States but they also want to have good relations with China. And so what you’ll get is these statements that there’s a triangular relationship, and Taiwan doesn’t really want to be in that. A few weeks ago, Ko actually said we want to be a bridge between China and the United States; we don’t want to be caught in the middle of their power struggle, kind of – which is echoing an old KMT talking point – but kind of assuming that Taiwan can just opt out of this whole mess and be, I don’t know, Costa Rica or something, and that it’s not fundamentally inherently part of the struggle. And that is a message that they talk – they tell to the electorate here and they don’t tell to American audiences. So it’s difficult for those two parties because they’re – they don’t know quite which message to tell everyone.
Dr. Lin: And, Kathrin, last word from you?
Ms. Hille: Right. Maybe I say something about the electorate, what they feel and think about the U.S.
There was a period, especially when – around the Pelosi visit in Taiwan and then also when the U.S. was pushing very hard for supply chain – chip supply chain diversification, and the information about TSMC investing big in Arizona was discussed a lot, and there were a lot of U.S. visitors to Taiwan by politicians, and everyone wanted to meet TSMC and talk about building fabs in the U.S. instead of Taiwan. This caused a lot of unease with people here because there was this emerging sense that somehow there’s a risk of abandonment – if the chip fabs are no longer all here in Taiwan, what do they need us for?
I feel that this is – the DPP has worked very, very hard – the government – to counter this and reassure people, and I sense that they have been somewhat successful and people are a little less worried about how reassured they can be of U.S. support. I think this is quite important in this election as well.
Mr. Blanchette: Well, we’re at time, so I wanted to thank the three panelists for their insights.
And also, for viewers, if you want to read more from these three – and I’m sure you will – Nathan can be found, among other places, on his blog, Frozen Garlic. But I would put Frozen Garlic Nathan Batto, otherwise you will get sent to Target’s website where you can actually buy frozen garlic. Kathrin, of course, is writing for the Financial Times, and Brian at New Bloom Magazine. So thanks to the three of you. We’ll continue to be reading your works as we try to make sense of this really consequential democratic election happening in January. So thanks for your time.
Thanks to everyone for tuning in, and hope to see you all in person or virtually sometime soon.