A Japanese academic's view of Taiwan's presidential election

The people of Taiwan pick a new president on January 13 in an election widely seen as critical to the direction of global geopolitics. NHK World spoke with Professor Fukuda Madoka of Hosei University's Faculty of Law about the parties, the candidates and their flagship policies.

First, can you tell us about the different parties?

Professor Fukuda Madoka: The ruling Democratic Progressive Party was founded by a group of people who long campaigned for democracy instead of the Kuomintang's dictatorship after World War Two. The overriding policy is to maintain independence, and the party takes a rather liberal approach to domestic issues — for example, calling for the abandonment of nuclear power.

The Kuomintang held on to power long after the war. The party emphasizes dialogue and economic relations with Beijing, and has a strong support base among the elderly and people who do business with China.

And the Taiwan People's Party criticizes the other two major political forces for arguing over issues such as "unification versus independence," and whether to use the name "Republic of China" or "Taiwan." The TPP calls for a different type of politics, and has gained support among young people.

And who are the candidates?

Fukuda: Lai Ching-te represents the DPP. He previously worked as a doctor, and then served as the mayor of Tainan City. He became Taiwan's premier during incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen's first term, and was later her vice president.

Hou Yu-ih is the Kuomintang's candidate. He currently serves as the mayor of New Taipei city and was once a police bureaucrat.

And the TPP is represented by Ko Wen-je. He previously served as Taipei mayor for eight years and calls for the other two major parties to "engage in more new politics."

The opposition failed to back a unified candidate. Can you tell us why?

Fukuda:The Kuomintang has many conservative domestic policies, and does not appeal to young people. The party's approach appeared to be, "The TPP is small, and we should just cooperate in a way that would allow us to absorb it." But the TPP had doubts about backing a candidate with the Kuomintang.

The Taiwan People's Party has a predominantly young support base.

How does China view the presidential election?

Fukuda:Beijing maintains that Taiwan is part of China, and has no independent government. But in reality, China has to respond to whatever policy is promoted by the next Taiwanese president. It would be more advantageous for Beijing to be able to negotiate and interact, to some extent.

China has previously tried to sway elections in Taiwan by threatening military drills and engaged in various propaganda campaigns to that effect. But it didn't go well. This time, I feel Beijing is watching quietly.

China has been trying to influence the outcome of the election.

There are reports of disinformation coming from China.

Fukuda:There is disinformation that can discredit a particular candidate. However, in the past five or six years, Taiwan has enacted legal revisions such as penalties for spreading fake information. Fact checking has also progressed, and public awareness is rising. The amount of fake information may not have decreased, but the impact is less decisive.

Still, disinformation about Taiwan's relationship with the United States has become a big issue in the past few years. Much of it suggests Washington would eventually betray Taiwan.

How will the election affect regional security?

Fukuda:China's military has been increasing its pressure on Taiwan, and all three parties are calling for stronger defensive capabilities, mainly in cooperation with the US. However, they differ greatly on how to achieve that. If the DPP cannot engage in dialogue with Beijing, the party plans to cooperate with other countries such as the US, Japan, the Philippines and Australia. The Kuomintang insists on dialogue and exchanges with China.

Professor Fukuda Madoka, Faculty of Law, Hosei University

Could the outcome heighten tensions in the Taiwan Strait?

Fukuda:Possibly. A DPP victory would ensure the party becomes the first in history to hold power for more than eight straight years. Lai is believed to have a stronger attachment to Taiwan than the current president. If he wins, China's concern will only grow. And if Beijing deems the outcome unfavorable, the response could come in the form of large-scale military exercises.

And what are the potential changes to society in Taiwan?

Fukuda:I think the Kuomintang would place importance on economic relations with China in much the same way as before, or perhaps with a little more emphasis. The DPP's basic policy is to withdraw from China as much as possible.

One key issue involves the movement of people, such as whether to accept international students from China. Such activity virtually stopped during the coronavirus pandemic, but I think it could soon impact how Taiwanese society evolves.


Finally, what is most at stake?

Fukuda:The biggest issues are how to deal with China, and Taiwan's place in the global community. Cooperation between the opposition parties failed to materialize, and the election has largely become a showdown between the DPP and the Kuomintang. The TPP claims the DPP would raise tensions with China, and the Kuomintang would fall in line with Beijing too much.

China has actually been less confrontational this time, and there has been less noticeable interference. Also, tensions in the Taiwan Strait have calmed somewhat.

*Click here to read:
The ins and outs of Taiwan's China conundrum (January 10, 2024)
How tension in the Taiwan Strait could trigger a war (January 11, 2024)