Voting has ended and counting is underway in Taiwan’s presidential election, a ballot that will shape its future relationship with China and stance on independence and stability.
Polls opened at 8:00 a.m. at nearly 18,000 locations, from the island’s south to its capital Taipei and closed at 4 p.m with votes immediately being counted and reported to the election authorities soon after.
The result for Saturday’s election should be clear by late evening when the losers concede and the winner gives a victory speech.
At stake is the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait between the Chinese mainland and the self-governed island, claimed by Beijing as its own, but equally important are bread-and-butter issues.
Key candidates in the presidential race are: Vice President Lai Ching-te of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Hou Yu-ih of the Beijing-favored Kuomintang (KMT) and Ko Wen-je of Taiwan’s People’s Party (TPP).
Former physician and mayor of Tainan, Lai, known for his support of Taiwan independence, aims to continue President Tsai’s policies of maintaining Taiwan’s de facto independence amidst heightened tensions with Beijing. Facing challenges like slow wage growth and high housing costs, Lai’s DPP, once an opposition to the KMT’s rule, now faces criticisms of being the establishment.
“Today is a glorious day, great weather to vote. I encourage everyone to go vote, demonstrate the vigor of Taiwanese democracy,” said Lai after casting his vote in his hometown of Tainan. “Let Taiwan continue to move forward.”
Hou from the KMT, a former police officer and mayor of New Taipei City, represents a “Taiwanese flavor” in politics, which his party believes could help attract a broader voter base beyond its traditional supporters; he advocates for dialogue with Beijing under the “1992 consensus” to reduce cross-strait tensions. However, the viability of this consensus is in question since Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2019 interpretation aligned it with a stringent “one China principle,” echoing the increasingly restrictive model seen in Hong Kong.
“I am very happy to see people voluntarily come out to vote early in the morning. This demonstrates a very important voting behavior of Taiwanese democracy in the electoral process – where democracy is used to select the most ideal president, vice president and legislators,” said Hou after voting in New Taipei City. “More importantly, no matter how chaotic the election process is, everyone must unite after the election.”
Ko, a former surgeon turned politician, founded the TPP four years ago, focusing on domestic issues like energy and housing, after a surprising victory in Taipei’s mayoral race as an independent. While the TPP isn’t strong enough to dominate the legislature, Ko aims to position it as a parliamentary power broker, advocating for a coalition with the KMT and offering a “third choice” to voters, with policies aligning more closely with the KMT’s stance on China.
Asked by journalists how he felt after casting his ballot in Taipei, Ko said:”Keep a normal mind, finish what one needs to finish every day, and plan for the next stage after each is completed.”
Just hours before the polls got underway China continued to assert its presence in the region. Taiwan’s defense ministry said eight People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft and six PLA Navy vessels were detected around the island as of 6 a.m. local time, with one aircraft entering Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone.
Some voters may be dissuaded from supporting independence-leaning candidates by China’s military threats, but the United States has pledged support for whichever government forms. A White House official said on Wednesday that U.S. President Joe Biden will send an “unofficial” delegation of former officials to Taiwan following the presidential elections.
Aside from tensions with China, the Taiwan election is also predominantly determined by domestic concerns. In November 2023, Taiwan’s statistics bureau reported its GDP growth forecast as 1.42%, the lowest since 2008. Taiwan is grappling with soaring housing prices, ranked among the highest globally, while its wage levels were among the lowest compared to other developed economies, according to March figures.
The outcome of the elections will also impact the security and economy of neighboring countries like Japan and South Korea. Taro Aso, the former Prime Minister of Japan, recently warned that China’s territorial claims on Taiwan could lead to a dire crisis for Japan, necessitating Tokyo’s intervention in the Taiwan Strait during any conflict to protect its citizens. Additionally, a Bloomberg Economics report released on Tuesday indicated that South Korea’s GDP would face the second-largest drop, after Taiwan, if a war were to break out between China and the democratic island.
Experts who spoke to Radio Free Asia said they believe maintaining the status quo is considered the safest approach regardless of the outcome of the elections.
Despite Beijing’s ongoing threats to use force to reclaim Taiwan, there’s little belief in an immediate invasion by China, they said, citing several factors at play: Taiwan’s determination to maintain its freedom and identity, the relations between Washington and Beijing, and the U.S.’s commitment to protecting Taiwan’s interests. Above all, the economic cost of a conflict could be devastating for the region and the world. For one, Taiwan is the leading global producer of the most advanced semiconductors.
Beyond the presidential and vice presidential elections, there are also 113 legislative seats up for grabs. More than 83% of the total population, or approximately 19.55 million voters, are eligible to cast their ballot.
In 2020, DPP President Tsai Ing-wen and her running mate Lai won over 8.17 million votes, or 57.13% of the total, to defeat Han Kuo-yu and Chang San-cheng of the KMT.
Additionally, a majority of seats was gained by the DPP in the 2020 legislative election.
Edited by Mike Firn and Elaine Chan.