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Lai Ching-te: Taiwan’s encumbered presidential favourite

Samuel Ng


Source: Taiwan Today

Taiwan’s upcoming presidential elections in January 2024 are shaping up to be one of the most significant in the island’s three-decade experiment with democracy. These elections will have global ramifications out of proportion with Taiwan’s size and population, partly owing to the island’s role as a supply-chain lynchpin and powder keg for a potential great power conflict between the United States and China.


The current ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP 民進黨) is fielding Vice President William Lai Ching-te (賴清德). Lai is the most constrained presidential candidate of the four main contenders, despite being clearly ahead in nearly every poll conducted – why?


Health expert? Politician? Vice President? Who is Lai Ching-te?


Lai, a former health official, began his political career in 1996 and served as mayor of Tainan from 2010 to 2017. Tainan, in the south of Taiwan, has long been a stronghold for the DPP. Lai took home a record-breaking 72.9% re-election victory for the mayorship in 2014 – demonstrating his popularity down south.


From 2017, Lai Ching-te served as the Premier of Taiwan, the nominal head-of-government and the leader of the cabinet and executive arm. However, he stepped down after the DPP suffered a serious loss in the 2018 local elections.


Lai attempted to challenge President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for the party’s nomination to the 2020 presidential elections, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Lai’s challenge amplified the rifts within the DPP, particularly those between the moderates and the more hard-line independence supporters in the party. Tsai later tapped Lai to serve as her Vice President, a role which he remains in today, nominally bridging the party’s internal divide and rallying supporters.


Come 2024


William Lai has consistently remained high on the list of Taiwan’s most popular politicians since entering the public sphere, and has never lost a popular election apart from the DPP primary. For the 2024 elections, Lai faced no challenge in the DPP, and the party entered the election campaign unified, at least compared to the opposition camp.


Compared to Tsai Ing-wen, Lai does not boast similar foreign policy experience or credentials. Tsai obtained her Bachelor of Laws from National Taiwan University and LLM from Cornell Law School in the United States. She later pursued a PhD at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


With these qualifications, Tsai was appointed as Taiwan’s trade negotiator for World Trade Organization affairs and was, influentially, one of the chief drafters of the “special state-to-state relations” doctrine envisioned by Taiwan’s first democratically-elected president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝).


Lai Ching-te, on the other hand, took a different route. He studied rehabilitation health science at National Taiwan University and later received a Masters in Public Health from Harvard, becoming a national expert on spinal cord damage. Despite this unorthodox background, Lai’s English-language abilities, Harvard education, and multitude of diplomatic trips as Vice President give him a much bigger leg up than his rivals from the pro-unification Kuomintang (KMT 國民黨) Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜), Taiwan People’s Party (TPP 民眾黨) Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), and independent Terry Gou (郭台銘).


Combined with his strong popularity and legislative and executive government experiences, Lai is the closest-to-perfect candidate the DPP could field for the 2024 elections.


Domestically boxed in


Despite his ostensible perfection, William Lai is the most constrained candidate going forward into the campaign – though for reasons largely out of his control.


As Vice President and current chair of the DPP, Lai Ching-te has had the mammoth task of defending the last seven years of Tsai Ing-wen’s leadership which has not managed to avoid scandal. Opposition candidates like Hou Yu-ih or Ko Wen-je do not nearly have such a defence to undertake.


Both the KMT and TPP have attacked the DPP’s handling of key domestic issues, including Taiwan’s struggling power supply, skilled worker shortage, rising crime rate, and collapsing birth numbers, among other points. Lai has had a difficult time batting away these criticisms, often pointing out that many of these issues were already extant prior to Tsai taking office in 2016 and persisted from the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration.


This argument has not been well-received by the Taiwanese public, as these problems remain unsolved despite the DPP and Tsai having two terms of government to address them. Many issues have only amplified and worsened since Ma Ying-jeou. Lai, being conjoined to the Tsai administration, has not offered many new policy proposals to tackle these issues.


The DPP’s achievements in Tsai’s second term have been few and far between. Slow post-pandemic economic recovery has been unavoidably associated with the DPP, and by extension Lai, alienating much of Taiwan’s youth and the DPP’s voter base.


Recent #MeToo scandals have also hit the DPP, triggered by former party workers accusing officials of mismanaging sexual harassment claims. Lai has attempted to get ahead of this by apologising immediately on behalf of the DPP after the news came to light, though the effects of his lightning-fast response have been unclear.


Internationally constrained


William Lai has promised to continue Tsai’s cross-strait policy and to maintain the same foreign relations trajectory. These Tsai policies have been broadly popular. Regardless, some are wary of Lai Ching-te taking up the presidency, such as the United States, holding concerns that Lai is overly pro-independent.


Historically associated with the DPP’s “deep green” strongly pro-independence faction, Lai drew criticism in 2017 when he labelled himself as a “pragmatic Taiwanese independence political worker”. Since then, he has softened his stance and aligned himself closer with Tsai Ing-wen’s more moderate view: that Taiwan is de facto independent and a sovereign nation without a need to declare independence.


To ameliorate concerns, Lai penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal explicitly outlining his cross-strait policy, which does not stray far from Tsai’s. Bonnie Glaser, China expert and the Managing Director of the Indo-Pacific programme at the German Marshal Fund, observed that Lai’s article suggested he “will adhere to the central tenets of Tsai Ing-wen’s approach to cross-Strait relations.”


On the domestic front, Lai has utilised snappy slogans to assist his campaign. He is framing the election as a choice between Taiwanese democracy or Chinese autocracy, alluding to the conception that voting for the pro-unification KMT would invite further Chinese infiltration.


Lai has also leaned on the DPP’s traditional stance by dismissing the “One China Principle” and the “1992 Consensus”, a compromise formula developed by the KMT and China that acknowledges there is only ‘one China’ that includes Taiwan – the differencing being how each sides interpret what ‘one China’ means. This Consensus has been widely rejected by the Taiwanese public, particularly younger voters. Lai’s position on the 1992 Consensus has struck heavy blows to the KMT’s Hou Yu-ih who has campaigned in support of the formula.


To the ballot box


Most polls have Lai Ching-te hovering around the low-30s to low-40s in overall support. In a normal two-horse race, this would ring alarm bells. However, this year’s three-way competition with a recent fourth candidate has given Lai the edge compared to his fellow candidates. Taiwan’s last three-way election saw the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian winning the presidency with only 39.3% of the popular vote.


Much ink has been spilt over whether opposition candidates may group together and form a joint ticket to challenge Lai directly, though this looks increasingly unlikely with the KMT fracturing further from Terry Gou drawing away many KMT supporters.


William Lai and his campaign team has gone on strong offensive against Hou and the KMT to further split the opposition, especially as Hou Yu-ih enjoys the resources and infrastructure of the KMT’s massive election machine in comparison to Ko Wen-je and the TPP.


A Lai Ching-te presidency


Should Lai Ching-te secure a continuation of DPP governance, he faces many more constraints than his challengers. Domestically, Lai faces the titanic task of differentiating his administration from Tsai’s and the failures under her watch.


Although Lai’s staid and stable characteristics might be viewed as simply “more of the same”, this may be what many voters want to hear. Lai faces the overly pragmatic but unpredictable upstart that is Ko Wen-je, and the KMT’s cop-turned-mayor Hou Yu-ih remains completely untested in politics beyond the local level.


On cross-strait relations, tensions with Beijing are likely to remain high. China may intensify pressure on Taiwan should Lai win the presidency, restricting the space in which he can manoeuvre as president. The DPP’s rejection of the 1992 Consensus and its pro-independence stance means that China simply refuses to engage with any DPP administration, whether led by Lai Ching-te or not.


Particularly with William Lai’s ‘deep green’ faction background, Beijing will have further justification to up the cross-strait ante. Despite continuing Tsai Ing-wen’s moderate China policy, Beijing flat-out rejects Tsai, Lai, or the DPP as “moderate”.


All eyes remain fixated on who will be in Taiwan’s Presidential Office Building come 2024. No matter the election’s outcome, Lai Ching-te and the DPP will remain relevant in Taiwanese politics – with more and more of the public supporting the idea of Taiwanese independence. Although it is unclear who will take the presidency, what is clear is that this election’s impact will reverberate far beyond the shores of the Taiwan Strait.

 

Samuel Ng is currently in his final year of a dual Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and Bachelor of International Business at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. He is also a Westpac Asian Exchange Scholar for Taiwan, previously studying at the National Chengchi University having undertaken units in Taiwanese international relations, diplomacy, and political history.

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