Lai wins but DPP lose majority in Taiwan

Phil Bennion with William Lai

With other members of the Liberal International Bureau and senior members of CALD (Council of Asian Liberal and Democrats) I flew to Taiwan for a 5-day mission in solidarity with the Democratic Progressive Party, our sister party in Taiwan, who were facing a challenging election.

The emergence of the Taiwan People’s Party as a third force made the election results less predictable and unprecedented and relentless messaging from China was urging the Taiwanese to “choose peace” by ditching the Democratic Progressive Party.

Our first meeting was with the International Republican Institute, a refreshingly centrist group of people considering the current direction of their US sponsors. Their work in Taiwan is outward looking across East Asia, including mainland China, but they have now closed their office in Hong Kong and programs in China are now virtually impossible to deliver. Some of their work is related to influence and disinformation emanating from the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP narrative on voting  Kuomintang (KMT – Chinese Nationalist Party) for peace or DPP for war were being amplified by Chinese state operatives through online media.  Internally they work cross party on democratic principles with youth across Taiwan. They find that the younger KMT supporters are not interested in any form of unification with China. They are generally third generation since the 1949 influx and have grown up as Taiwanese. Hence the actual positions of the two main parties is now much closer and both are supporting the status quo, albeit with differing levels of enthusiasm.

Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) are working on similar themes and told us that the CCP were also pushing the idea that the US is an unreliable ally and may abandon Taiwan, or that the DPP would use conscription to force young voters to take up arms against China. The CCP is now mainly using Tik-Tok to spread distrust of democracy and antipathy to the DPP amongst Taiwanese youth, but research shows that only 6% of Taiwanese support unification with China at any point in the future.

Our questions included some regarding the issue of same sex marriage introduced by the DPP, which the two opposition parties officially support, but comments by TPP leader Ko has cast doubt on this and many KMT legislators have openly stated their wish to abolish it. Despite this lack of commitment by the opposition, the DPP have been losing support from the youth vote. This is partly due to the Chinese Tik-Tok barrage of messaging, but also due to lack of affordable housing which affects young voters most. The TPP and Ko have seized on this issue in the election campaign. Ko has also attracted younger voters with his vulgar style, somewhat similar to that of Trump.

The KMT have not had much success with the youth vote as they are seen as gerontocratic, keeping back the young. Also there policy on economic engagement with China results in Taiwanese companies exploiting cheaper workers in China, thereby suppressing wages in Taiwan, particularly of younger workers.

The CCP Tik-Tok campaign has also been casting accusations of corruption at DPP legislators without backing them up with evidence. This has been damaging and resulted in a drop in support, but the other parties have also been hit by scandals.

At DPP HQ, academic Puma Shen, an expert in countering disinformation gave us a rundown on China’s disinformation machine. They had started their cyber warfare only around 2014, initially with Facebook and YouTube. As these channels began to remove Chinese content, they moved their attention to Tik-Tok, which is Chinese owned and administered. We were told that China now has at least 100,000 state paid hackers, either in the military or the Ministry of State Security, involved in disinformation production and distribution, as well as monitoring social media posts worldwide. Many of these work directly inside Tik-Tok sites amplifying the disinformation through a range of techniques. The only means of countering this that was mentioned was through alerting and training young people to recognise disinformation when they see it.

A small group of the delegation was invited to the Presidential Office for a chat with Tsai Ing-wen. Much of the discourse was on a personal level, but I was able to introduce a discussion on how we in Europe have been reviewing our policy on China in light of our recognition of the CCP as a systemic threat to our democratic systems and the global rules-based order. She agreed that persuading China that military action was not in its own interests was important, but continuing trade and engagement was necessary. Our delegation leader Karl-Heinz Paque was also interested in how Taiwan could make itself indigestible by China; something he called “the porcupine effect”.

We were bussed to the main election rallies on the two nights prior to the election; both raucous affairs that would be unimaginable in the UK. We were told that 150000 thronged around Liberty Square in the centre of Taipei. We were introduced to William Lai Ching-te, the Presidential candidate and running mate Bi-Khim Hsiao, whom we all know as she is a former Vice President of Liberal International. We again had ringside seats at the victory celebrations on Saturday night, following a brief visit to observe the count at a polling station. The results were being compiled on a big screen as we watched and it quickly became clear that the polls had been correct, that William Lai and Bi-Khim had won with 40% of the vote, but the TPP held the balance of power in parliament with 8 seats, with DPP and KMT neck and neck. The Chinese propaganda had been less effective than some feared as the Taiwanese electorate largely ignored this external pressure.

President-elect Lai was generous to the opposition in his acceptance speech and said that he would include opposition policies in his programme for government. I took that as looking at ways to address the youth disaffection caused by high property prices and low early career salaries. He still faces the challenge of working with a parliament where the TPP may side with the KMT.

Our delegation was very much aware that this election begins a series of important elections in 2024, which will present a real challenge to our democratic way of life. We discounted the Bangladeshi election of the previous week, where the opposition again boycotted the poll after thousands of their activists and candidates were detained as the election approached. The first real test in Taiwan has been successfully negotiated but the prospects for the most important test in the US in November are increasingly worrying. Liberal International and its partners will be taking an active role throughout the year as we try to turn the tide on our authoritarian opponents.

* Phil Bennion is Vice President of Liberal International and former MEP for the West Midlands.

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One Comment

  • As a Taiwanese, this year’s election did feel very different yet it does reflect the current trend – that elections are getting more and more unpredictable, and that small parties can suddenly emerge and become a major force.

    Most people I spoke to back home did not vote in the same way as in the past. I was very surprised at that. It is certainly refreshing to see the traditional voting division based on family backgrounds (pre- or post-1949) being blurred.

    I am not sure how much TikTok has dominated the youth’s media consumption, but it certainly played a major role in the older generation in recent years (probably 90% of my dad’s consumption… you can probably work out which party he supports :p). The current disinformation strategy is to promote the idea of a common enemy of the US, instead of promoting unification. A very cunning approach in my opinion.

    The disenfranchised youths’ sentiment against DPP is about the same issue elsewhere in developed countries – affordability of houses. Houses in Taipei are often more expensive than in London…

    Although Taiwan has enjoyed the success in its chip production, the new wealth I think really has widened the gap too.

    Overall I thought it was an interesting election – no clear winner and no clear losers. The future is still to be decided but I do trust that the people who lead the government are competent enough.

    Thank you so much for sharing and exchanging ideas and experience with Taiwanese 🙂

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