Taiwan has elected Lai Ching-te as its next president, securing a third term for the pro-sovereignty Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Lai has been vice president to Tsai Ing-wen since 2020 and represents a government advocating for a sovereign Taiwan and a distinct national identity separate from China.

The election outcome will likely provoke displeasure from Beijing.

Lai Ching-te secured over 40% of the vote in the early phase, surpassing opponents, including Hou You-yi from the Kuomintang (KMT). Pre-election polls had indicated a narrower lead for Lai, highlighting a shift in voter response.

Lai declared his victory as a victory for the community of democracies. He highlighted the right to choose their president and resist external influences, referring to Beijing’s efforts to influence the election in favour of the KMT.

Despite the presidential victory, the DPP lost control of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan. Lai acknowledged areas that needed review and improvement. He expressed willingness to work with opposition parties in a challenging parliamentary environment.

The entry of third-party candidate Ko Wen-je, the former mayor of Taipei City, offered an alternative for voters unhappy with the two major parties. Critics argued that Ko’s Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) campaign lacked detail and consistency, characterising it as populist.

Voter sentiment

The split among the main opposition parties, particularly the KMT could have influenced Lai’s victory. The split delayed and weakened the opposition campaign preparations, according to Huang Kwei-bo, a diplomacy professor. The election campaign featured competing parties holding large public rallies across cities and towns, drawing thousands of attendees. Many voters, including those from the Taiwanese diaspora, returned to their home neighbourhoods to vote in person.

Lai pledged to continue a cautious balancing act between the US and China. Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory and aims to reunify it with China. The Chinese government views the DPP as a party of separatists and has sanctioned Lai’s new vice-president, Hsiao Bi-Khim, who served as the Taiwanese envoy to the US.

Analysts suggest that Lai’s victory may not endorse his cross-strait policies but reflect the KMT’s inability to convince voters of an updated approach fitting new geopolitical circumstances.

Beijing will likely respond to Lai’s victory with increased pressure, especially leading up to his inauguration in May. The Chinese government aims to influence Lai to adopt a more moderate stance in characterising the cross-strait relationship. The Beijing pressure on Taiwan will likely be more discreet than large-scale military drills. It may include punitive trade decisions and military or grey-zone activities.

Taiwan emerged from authoritarian rule in the late 1980s and held its first entirely free elections in the mid-1990s.