Taiwan’s voters will go to the polls on January 11 in one of the most consequential presidential elections in the island’s history. The two major candidates—incumbent Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and challenger Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT)—provide stark contrasts on the most significant economic, security, and social issues.
The biggest difference is over China policy. Han favors closer ties to China and essentially agrees with Beijing’s view that Taiwan and China are part of the same country. Beijing has allegedly used disinformation and its media allies to back Han. Tsai, whose party favors Taiwanese independence, has become increasingly outspoken about the dangers China poses to the island as well as to democracy worldwide.
China. Relations with China remain the primary campaign issue, especially in the wake of mass protests in Hong Kong; the protest movement has heightened concerns in Taiwan about how Beijing’s mishandling of promises to respect Hong Kong’s political and economic freedoms. Han has recently modulated his tone on Beijing, saying that he would never agree to a “one country, two systems” reunification plan for Taiwan. Still, he has called Taiwan and China “one family,” and he has met with top Chinese officials. Han’s campaign has been roiled by reports that an alleged Chinese spy helped funnel nearly $3 million in donations from China to Han in 2018; Han denies the claims.
Tsai has taken advantage of Han’s friendlier approach to Beijing. She has ramped up criticisms of the Chinese leadership and blasted Beijing’s and the Hong Kong government’s responses to the protests. She has also said that Taiwan will redouble its efforts to defend itself from China. The addition of a third candidate in the race, veteran politician James Soong, could help Tsai. Soong will likely draw a small share of votes, and with sympathetic views toward Beijing, he could siphon some support from the KMT.
Economy. Taiwan has struggled for years to maintain solid growth and raise wages. Inequality has risen, private investment remains sluggish, and the island has failed to develop global brand names the way countries such as South Korea have done. However, growth has increased during each of Tsai’s three full years as president, and Taiwan’s economy expanded in 2019. To address economic problems, Tsai has sought to deepen economic links with Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, and make Taiwan more competitive in industries including clean energy.
Han, the mayor of the large southern city of Kaohsiung, has been compared to populists around the world for his brash speaking style. Despite his anti-elite sheen, he has offered few ideas for fixing the economy. With limited executive experience, Han seemingly plans to boost growth by increasing economic ties with China.
Social issues. In 2019, Taiwan became the first Asian state to legalize gay marriage, but the shift has polarized voters, and it remains unclear whether a majority supports the change. Han draws his support from working-class and lower-middle-class Taiwanese, many of whom opposed the legalization. In office, he would likely promote more conservative social norms. Tsai, on the other hand, backed the legalization.
Taiwan is a consolidated democracy, and elections are expected to be free and fair, despite the allegations of Chinese meddling. Turnout is usually relatively high; two-thirds of registered voters participated in the 2016 presidential election. The president is elected in first-past-the-post voting, and results should be announced by nighttime that same day. Taiwan will also hold elections for its legislature, but the outlook for parties is less clear.
Tsai appears poised to win reelection, as the Hong Kong protests and a series of personal scandals have hurt Han’s campaign. But if Han is elected, he could boost links to China. Beijing would likely initiate a new round of talks and exchanges, and potentially push harder to co-opt Taiwan’s opinion leaders. Han could also diminish the island’s relationship with the United States, though he has said he values U.S.-Taiwan ties.
If Tsai is reelected, she will likely continue courting Southeast Asian nations and ramping up strategic ties to the United States. She has a willing partner, as the Donald J. Trump administration has been more amenable than previous administrations to the idea that Taiwan is separate from China. In a 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Defense, for example, Taiwan was labeled as a country. Additionally, Trump has signed legislation to boost military support for Taiwan and a bill that encourages top U.S. officials to visit the island, despite Beijing’s objections.
Tsai, Trump, and Chinese President Xi Jinping are a combustible mix. Under Xi, China has adopted a more threatening public posture toward Taiwan. Several countries have severed their diplomatic ties with Taiwan in the Xi era. A win for Tsai, combined with more comprehensive links between Taiwan and the United States, could make the next year of China-Taiwan relations one of the most tense in recent memory.