China skeptic William Lai wins Taiwan elections: 'A victory for democracy'

China skeptic William Lai wins Taiwan elections: 'A victory for democracy'

New President William Leigh celebrates his party's election victory.AP photo

William Lai, Taiwan's current vice president and head of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, won Saturday's election with 40 percent of the vote. Although it was not a majority, it was enough to overcome the opposition: Ho Yu-a of the pro-China opposition Kuomintang party received 33 percent, and Kuo Wen-ji of the more inward-focused New Taiwan People's Party received 26 percent. .

Lai campaigned on a platform of intransigence in the face of Chinese threats and protection of democracy in Taiwan. Taiwan is a de facto independent island, but Beijing considers it a rebellious province. The Chinese government has warned the Taiwanese people in advance that they must make the “correct choice” (for the pro-China Kuomintang), and has threatened economic sanctions if the DPP wins. She constantly describes Lai as a “separatist” and a “troublemaker.”

Finished by the author

Lin Vervaeke is China correspondent De Volkskrant. She lives in Beijing.

“In the year of global elections 2024, Taiwan has achieved the first victory of democracy,” Lai said during his victory speech on Saturday evening, referring to several important elections to be held this year. He also held a press conference for the international press in which he pointed out the great importance of the elections. Taiwan is at the heart of the deteriorating relationship between China and the United States, the two superpowers that determine global politics.

Deteriorating relations with China

Lai's election marks the third consecutive victory for the head of the Democratic Progressive Party, after two terms for President Tsai Ing-wen. Until now, the pro- and anti-China camps in Taiwan have always alternated after two terms. It shows the extent to which relations have deteriorated, including over China's takeover of Hong Kong, the Covid pandemic, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. More and more people in Taiwan consider them only Taiwanese, not Taiwanese and Chinese.

William Lai (Chinese name: Lai Ching-te) was born into a poor family in 1959, the son of a miner. His father died when he was two years old, and his mother raised six children alone. Lai became a doctor and stayed away from politics until Taiwan transitioned to democracy in the 1990s. He was elected to Parliament in 1996 and served in four legislative councils. In 2010, he became mayor of Tainan, a city in southern Taiwan, and was re-elected with a record number of votes.

In 2017, the DPP's “golden son” was brought to the national level by Tsai Ing-wen, first as Prime Minister and later as Vice President. He is seen as more extreme than Tsai, who according to the constitution must resign after two terms. Tsai is a technocrat, while Lai is a party politician with a past in the “deep green” wing of the Democratic Progressive Party, as independence advocates are called. But Lai has repeatedly stressed that he does not seek formal independence and will follow the same line as Tsai.

Peaceful meeting away

The result was bad news for the Chinese government. Beijing may respond by increasing the number of warplanes crossing the middle line of the Strait over Taiwan, or by conducting more military exercises. It is also possible that this would cancel out the benefits of a previously concluded free trade agreement.

“The DPP's third successive victory is a failure of China's strategy of peaceful development, which should lead to peaceful reunification,” said Sens Hofstede, a China and Taiwan specialist at the Clingendael think tank. It is now difficult for Chinese officials to insist that the party simply needs to be patient, and that the Taiwanese will eventually make the right choice. Beijing will want to send signals.

Despite the threatening language used by Beijing, experts believe that military escalation is unlikely. “Recently, we have seen a decline in the tone of Chinese diplomacy, as China’s leaders suffer from many internal problems,” said Chen Fangyu, a professor of political science at Soochow University in Taipei. “Xi Jinping is in charge of everything, and he is very busy. Taiwan is not the priority now.”

The Progressive Democratic Party won a third presidential term, but was unable to obtain a majority in Parliament, which was also elected on Saturday. Many Taiwanese see the DPP as the best protection against China, but are dissatisfied with the party's economic policies. Many complain of low salaries, high house prices, inflation and corruption. There is a good chance that the opposition KMT and TPP parties will work together in Parliament. This would seriously undermine the effectiveness of Lai's presidency.

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