With Taiwan's presidential and legislative elections fewer than six months away, it is becoming increasingly likely that neither of the two main parties will be able to win a majority of seats and that the next president will not enjoy a robust mandate based on a majority vote.
Taiwan, precariously placed center stage in the continually escalating US-China rivalry and lately often dubbed "the next Ukraine," experienced such a scenario from 2000 to 2008 under the administration of President Chen Shui-bian, when his party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was unable to secure a legislative majority, leading to important bills failing to pass while huge mass campaigns in Taipei's streets temporarily seemed to threaten the survival of the island's political system.
The reason for the messy scenario is the meteoric rise of former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je and his upstart Taiwan People's Party (TPP), which is attacking Taiwan's decades-old two-party system comprised of the ruling DPP and the Kuomintang (KMT). In a June public opinion poll, Ko received 33 percent support, topping the polls for the first time ahead of Lai Ching-te, the current vice president and DPP chairman, at 30 percent and the KMT's former mayor of New Taipei Hou Yu-ih with 23 percent. A separate opinion poll on the three parties' legislative prospects published at around the same time showed the DPP leading with 24.6 percent over the TPP at 22.2 percent, with the KMT at 20.4 percent.
Indeed, this marks the first time that three political parties have each exceeded 20 percent in public approval, representing an end to the two-party domination of Taiwan politics. The KMT favors cozy ties with Beijing, while the DPP and the Chinese communists regard each other as arch enemies. The TPP is ideologically close to the KMT but has gained momentum by tapping strong support especially from young urban voters frustrated with the rigid positions of the two dominant parties.
"Ko Wen-je's rise portends a three-way race and the possibility that the new president will not win what most consider a mandate [a majority of the popular vote], and the new president will not control the legislature resulting in a split or divided government," said John F. Copper, a Taiwan expert and professor of international studies (emeritus) at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. "Divided government in Taiwan will mean the return of paralysis in decision-making as we witnessed during the Chen Shui-bian presidency, while undermining the idea of Taiwan's saying that 'Taiwan is a democracy and China is not' since Taiwan's democracy will not be working very well."
Copper went on to point out that Taiwan has failed to implement provisions in its Constitution or election laws for a runoff election, as many countries have done to avoid political gridlock.
The current situation comes against the backdrop of solid wins by the DPP in the past two presidential elections in 2016 and 2020, the latter win driven by Taiwanese outrage over China for destroying democracy in Hong Kong. However, the more immediate backdrop is the 2022 local elections, which were a severe setback for the DPP and a big win for the KMT. But then the KMT selected Hou, whose campaign lacked organization and ambition, causing Hou's poll numbers to plummet.
Meanwhile, Ko Wen-je successfully marketed himself as a better choice than Hou among the anti-independence vote, the so-called blue vote. By contrast, the standing of the DPP's Lai suffers from fears that his strong pro-independence stance would indeed put Taiwan firmly on a path toward a Ukraine-like tragedy.
There is still yet another important unknown in the equation: Terry Gou, the tycoon founder of iPhone-assembler Foxconn. He unsuccessfully ran in the KMT's presidential primary in 2020, gave up his party membership but nonetheless again unsuccessfully sought the KMT's presidential candidacy for the 2024 elections. Although Gou said he supports Hou, he is personally closer to Ko.
Observers say the best clues for what's in store can be taken from the 2022 local elections in Hsinchu City, where the TPP managed to grab the mayorship by defeating both the DPP and KMT when KMT-leaning voters dropped a weak KMT candidate to prevent a DPP win in a strategic "dump-save" vote.
"Ko leads over the KMT's Hou in the polls so there is no reason for him to accept a KMT offer of forgoing the presidency in exchange for another top government job. For Ko to win the presidency in a Hsinchu-style vote, Ko must now expand his opinion poll lead over Hou and win the support of Terry Gou because Gou holds the power of a key minority," Shen Yu-chung, a political science professor at Tunghai University, told Asia Sentinel.
"Ko's goals are the presidency and to have a legislature in which no single party holds a majority, so that a majority can only be achieved by partnering with his TPP," he added.