New Polls Show Volatility in Taiwan’s High-Stakes Election

With just over a month to go before Taiwan picks its next president, volatility in the polls has injected fresh uncertainty into the outcome of the January 13 election and is keeping the rest of the world on edge about its possible geopolitical ramifications.

The contest is a three-way race between Vice President Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP); Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party; and Ko Wen-je of the upstart Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). Lai has held a consistent lead since May, but as of December 1, Hou is trailing by just three percentage points (37% vs. 34%).

Some votes still up for grabs

The narrowing of Lai’s lead was somewhat unexpected; in late November, Hou (KMT) and Ko (TPP) flirted with forming a unity ticket, but those efforts collapsed in spectacular fashion after the two parties argued in public over which candidate should appear at the top of the ticket. However, the KMT’s subsequent choice of party stalwart Jaw Shaw-kong as Hou’s running mate has helped shore up support of the base voters for the more pro-Beijing KMT.

That leaves two wildcards. One is whether the 18 per cent of voters currently supporting the TPP will abandon Ko and throw their support behind one of the two leading candidates. The other wildcard is younger voters, many of whom, after eight years of DPP rule, are looking for a change. And while some younger Taiwanese are not unaware of the election’s high geopolitical stakes, they are also looking for a leader who will address bread-and-butter domestic issues such as high housing costs.

Waiting and watching

Lai has stated that he will “support the cross-strait status quo” policies of outgoing president, Tsai Ing-wen. But Beijing is far from assured; it believes that Lai is a separatist and has called him a “troublemaker through and through.” In recent months, China has ramped up military exercises in the Taiwan Strait to combat the “arrogance” of what it calls separatist forces. In August 2022, Canada, along with the other members of the G7, reaffirmed the “shared commitment to maintaining the rules-based international order, peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

In its Indo-Pacific Strategy, released three months later, Ottawa vowed to “work with partners to push back against any unilateral actions that threaten the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.” One demonstration of its commitment was the Royal Canadian Navy’s transiting of the Taiwan Strait in September. That makes next month’s vote — and China’s reaction to it — of clear interest to Canada.