Taiwan elections: voting for war or peace?

2024 01 06T141116Z 2118251465 RC2CC5AS6LWM RTRMADP 3 TAIWAN ELECTION
Hou Yu-ih, the presidential candidate of the main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT), speaks during a campaign rally in Taoyuan, Taiwan January 6, 2024. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

During the latest political rally held last weekend for the Kuomintang’s (KMT) candidate for the 13 January presidential election, the host shouted, “Give me a president!” and the crowd responded with a roaring chant of “Hou You-ih!” As Hou observed the scene, his running mate Jaw Shaw-kong took the microphone and launched an attack against the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). “What path are they taking? The road to war!” he exclaimed, wagging his finger. “The road that puts Taiwan in danger, the road that leads to uncertainty!”

As Taiwan approaches the upcoming election, the KMT aims to persuade voters that they are facing a choice between war and peace with China. Beijing claims Taiwan as its own, advocating for “peaceful reunification” while not ruling out the use of force.

During the last eight years of DPP rule, China has significantly increased its military presence around Taiwan. In response, the DPP underlined their commitment to peace and stability while advancing Taiwan’s progress.

A recent viral campaign advertisement featured outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen calmly driving on quiet country roads with her party’s presidential candidate William Lai. In the video, she steps out, and Lai takes the wheel with his running mate Hsiao Bi-Khim by his side. “Drive better than me,” Tsai encourages them. However, some remain sceptical of Lai’s capabilities.

Many KMT voters are expressing concerns about the economy and the cost of living. Relations with China are also on their minds. They never used to think there could be war, but now there’s this possibility, and it’s scary. Many of them say the DPP is just too aggressive towards China. They are not suggesting unification but advocating for increased collaboration.

This stance represents a significant shift for the KMT, which once fought against the Chinese Communist Party as its bitter enemy in the Chinese civil war, eventually retreating to Taiwan in defeat. Now, the party favours warmer ties, largely driven by the deepening economic interdependence between the two. As the largest buyer of Taiwanese exports, China has become a crucial economic lifeline, especially for hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese businessmen, known as “taishang,” many of whom form the traditional supporter base of the KMT.

Within the KMT, the “deep blue” faction, advocating for the closest ties with China, still holds substantial influence. Many members of this faction are descendants of the 1949 generation, which fled from China when Mao Zedong’s communist army seized control. Their emotional ties to the mainland remain strong.

However, the KMT faces a challenging balancing act. While seeking closer ties with China, it aims to stay relevant to an electorate that is increasingly distancing itself from the mainland. Despite its historical dominance in Taiwanese politics, the KMT has recently lost some elections to the DPP. Surveys consistently reveal that most Taiwanese identify with a unique Taiwanese identity and prefer the status quo, neither declaring independence nor unifying with the mainland.

In response to these dynamics, the KMT has adjusted its message, emphasizing that it is not “pro-China” but is pursuing friendlier relations. The party has chosen Hou as its presidential candidate, portraying him as a “light blue” moderate. In recent days, Hou responded to Xi Jinping’s renewed vow of unification by asserting his commitment to “forever protect Taiwan’s democratic system” and freedoms.

Similarly, Jaw, a fervent “deep blue” media personality who has previously advocated for unification, recently stated that China and Taiwan’s systems were “too different.” He assured voters that he would not push for unification if he were to become vice-president.

KMT still faces several risks. One concern is that its rhetoric closely aligns with China’s rhetoric, which may not resonate well with some voters. In November, a top Chinese official, Song Tao, asserted that Taiwan is confronted with “a choice between war and peace, prosperity and decline.” – exactly the same thing Jaw said on the rally. The DPP government reacted by claiming that China was using this narrative to influence Taiwan in the lead-up to the election. Beijing has openly expressed its preferences, labelling Lai as a “separatist” and “troublemaker.”

Another risk is the uncertainty of whether a KMT government could effectively appease Beijing and ensure peace. Some citizens voiced scepticism, stating that KMT believes that it can get Beijing to promise restraint, but looking at China’s position on Hong Kong, probably Beijing is willing to commit to anything. While a KMT victory might lead to a temporary easing from Beijing, the ultimate goal for China is control of Taiwan, whether through economic dependence, a show of force, or intimidation.



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