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All eyes will be on Taiwan on January 13, 2024, as Taiwanese voters head to the polls to elect their next president. The campaign has already been full of twists and turns. Like previous Taiwanese elections, this race has the potential to drastically change the future of Taiwan and East Asian regional stability. Beyond Taiwan’s global geopolitical importance, this election also marks the end of President Tsai Ing-wen’s leadership. After eight years of leading Taiwan through relative stability, Tsai cannot run again.
In the lead-up to the elections, the candidates have predominantly concentrated on addressing the island democracy’s delicate relationship with China, marked by concerns about the potential for conflict.
The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nominated Vice President Lai Ching-te in March 2023. He selected Hsiao Bi-khim, the Representative to the US, as his running mate. The major opposition Kuomintang (KMT) nominated New Taipei mayor, Hou Yu-ih, as the candidate to the presidential campaign in May 2023. In November, Hou chose the former member of the Parliament Jaw Shaw-kong to be his running mate. The Taiwan’s People Party (TPP) has nominated its leader, Ko Wen-je, the former Mayor of Taipei, who chose MP Cynthia Wu as his running mate.
The campaign showed that all the candidates put a huge emphasis on the geostrategic importance of Taiwan and the friendship with USA. All three candidates assert that Taiwan is already an independent and sovereign nation. The prevailing sentiment among Taiwanese people is a resounding rejection of the idea of Chinese rule, favouring instead the complex yet peaceful status quo. According to recent polling, a striking 85.3% of the public opposes Beijing’s proposal of “one country, two systems.”
The relationship between Taiwan and China took a significant downturn after Tsai’s election in 2016, largely due to the Democratic Progressive Party’s stance. In response, Beijing severed all communication with Taipei, initiating a period of strained relations. China has actively pursued policies aimed at intensifying Taiwan’s international isolation and imposing economic penalties, actions that have strengthened the desire of the Taiwanese people against the prospect of reunification.
A shift was observed in the last months, as younger voters directed their questions toward everyday issues such as rental concerns, telecom scams, and the voting age. Despite the geopolitical tension, a substantial segment of Taiwanese voters, particularly those in their 20s and 30s, express fatigue with global politics and a desire for a campaign that prioritizes domestic issues. These voters articulate their concerns about escalating housing expenses, the non-existent income growth, and limited career prospects. Many among them also express disillusionment with the two dominant parties, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the opposition Kuomintang.
This sentiment has fuelled the rise of a third force in the form of the Taiwan People’s Party, which has garnered support by addressing the cost-of-living issues, particularly resonating with the younger demographic. The electoral choices of young voters, and the overall voter turnout within this age group, are going to play a huge role in determining the presidential election. Approximately 70% of Taiwanese in their 20s and 30s participated in the 2020 presidential election, constituting a lower proportion compared to middle-aged and older voters.
The prevailing sentiment among these younger voters is a desire for a departure from the divisive rhetoric and geopolitical posturing between political parties. A substantial proportion emphasizes their immediate concerns, such as job prospects and housing affordability, over the broader geopolitical landscape. Despite Taiwan’s renowned semiconductor industry, younger workers, particularly in smaller companies, grapple with comparatively low incomes, while housing prices continue to rise in many cities.
Although Vice President Lai Ching-te has maintained a lead in polls, his advantage has narrowed, with Hou Yu-ih making gains. Ko Wen-je has also garnered significant attention, especially among disenchanted youth voters, and he has positioned himself as an alternative, capitalizing on his outsider status and promising pragmatic solutions to housing and economic challenges. Lai has responded to these concerns by unveiling a series of youth-focused policies, pledging to enhance job opportunities and address high housing costs.
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