Taiwan’s new president will face a divided parliament. Here’s why it matters

A child runs over the flag of Taiwan during the official results announcement on January 13, 2024 in Taipei, Taiwan.

Sawayasu Tsuji | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Taipei – Newly elected Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te will face a divided parliament that is likely to moderate his political agenda, with the Taiwan People’s Party seen as the eight-seat kingmaker as neither of the two main parties won an outright majority in the 113-seat Legislative Yuan.

Saturday’s presidential race was a three-way battle between candidates from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which China describes as a “serious threat”, the main opposition to Beijing’s Kuomintang and the smaller Taiwan People’s Party. or TPP.

The Kuomintang, or KMT, won 52 seats in the legislature – one more than the DPP – and the embattled Han Kuo-yu could be the choice for party chairman upon his return to Taiwan’s parliament.

If the KMT forms a coalition with the TPP, Han’s displeasure — after being dismissed as mayor of Kaoshiung and losing the 2020 presidential election as a KMT candidate — may be assuaged by his potential coalition partner.

While Lai won the presidential election on Saturday with 40% of the popular vote, his DPP lost 10 of the previous 61 seats in Taiwan’s parliament, giving up its majority.

The TPP is in a great strategic position to make or break Lai’s legislative hopes.

Timothy S. Rich

Western Kentucky University

In a post-election press conference, Lai pledged to remain open in his governance while pledging to build consensus in a divided legislature.

“Since the KMT has not won a majority in the legislature, they will be dependent on TPP support to build a majority coalition, and if the KMT is too intransigent and tries to oppose everything the Lai administration wants to do, they may struggle to maintain that coalition,” said Sara Newland, assistant professor of government at Smith College and a scholar of local politics in China and Taiwan.

“The TPP’s political positions are not very stable, so they could just as easily work with the DPP as the KMT on many issues,” she added. “And given their criticism of the ineffectiveness of the major parties, I don’t think it’s in TPP’s interest to be part of a coalition that stalls the legislative process — that would look really hypocritical.”

More restraint on China

The result could mean that Lai adopts a more restrained China policy – ​​particularly as the KMT and TPP have advocated a more conciliatory stance – although Beijing is likely to increase pressure on the Taiwanese government when Lai is officially inaugurated as president in May. The new parliament takes office next month.

“Lai refrained from provocative pro-independence rhetoric during the campaign, and our bottom line is that his administration will demonstrate continuity with Tsai, who exploited anti-mainland sentiment while avoiding overt provocations,” Gabriel Wildau, Teneo’s China political risk managing director. wrote in the client’s note.

Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party president-elect and vice-president Lai Ching-te and Hsiao Bi-khim celebrating victory in Taiwan’s 8th presidential election on January 13, 2024, center stage in Taipei, alongside several party heavyweights.

Alberto Buzzola | Lightrocket | Getty Images

“Beijing will pay special attention to the signals from Lai’s inaugural speech,” he added. “In addition to military exercises, Beijing may also impose new tariffs or sanction Taiwanese companies that are political donors to the DPP.”

Beijing has repeatedly described Lai as a “hard-nosed Taiwan independence worker” and a dangerous separatist, framing the election as a choice between “peace and war, prosperity and decline.”

The Chinese Communist Party has refused to negotiate with outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen since she took office in 2016. Tsai did not run for office in that election, having served a maximum of two presidential terms.

Democracy is under threat. Before he can secure his insurance policies, you will be forced to reach a consensus first. It may also constrain him to be more moderate.

Wei Ting Yen

Franklin and Marshall College

China has never relinquished its claim to Taiwan – which has been self-governing since the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, fled to the island after being defeated in the Chinese Civil War in 1949.

The DPP has not accepted the so-called “1992 Consensus” and questions the tacit “one China” agreement between the then KMT government and Chinese Communist Party officials, which Beijing sees as the basis for cross-strait engagement.

Lai said on Saturday that he was committed to peace in the Taiwan Strait and open to a summary of talks based on “parity and dignity” – although he made it clear that he was “committed to protecting Taiwan from China’s threats and intimidation”.

Consensus or stalemate?

At a post-election press conference on Saturday, Lai pledged to build “a new political environment of communication, consultation, participation and cooperation” in the new legislature.

“Lai’s consensus-building statements are likely not only because he won only 40% of the vote and wants to ease concerns about relations with China, but also practical,” said Timothy S. Rich, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University. .

Supporters attend a Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) election rally on January 12, 2024 in Taipei, Taiwan.

Sawayasu Tsuji | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The emergence of Ko Wen-je as the presidential candidate of the Taiwan People’s Party split the usual duopoly of the DPP and the KMT. In part, this is due to growing disillusionment among Taiwanese youth, who say the DPP’s ruling does not adequately address their pressing everyday economic problems.

“I expect that (a divided legislature) will mean that Lai’s administration will have difficulty enacting much of his agenda unless it either coordinates with the TPP or focuses only on a few areas where there can be broader consensus. The TPP is in great shape strategic position to make or break Lai’s legislative hopes,” added Rich.

In a nod to issues that have dominated the presidential election campaign, Lai identified the financial sustainability of Taiwan’s labor and health insurance, along with the island’s energy transformation, as pressing issues he will prioritize in building consensus.

The president-elect also said that in the “spirit of a democratic alliance” he would appoint the most qualified experts and staff regardless of political affiliation.

“The upside is that it may not be bad for Taiwan’s democracy,” Wei-Ting Yen, an assistant professor of government at Franklin and Marshall College, told CNBC.

“Democracy is compromised. He will be forced to reach consensus first before he can secure his political laws. It may also constrain him to be more moderate,” she added.

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