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The Sinic Analysis


The last democracy on the planet

Taiwan has been running free elections for almost thirty years now. The world should finally take note. Most European governments have not even dared to name the winner of the elections in their reactions. Such self-restraint does not only betray a model democracy.
By Martín Hála
Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, on the left, celebrates his victory with his running mate Bi-khim Hsiao in Taipei, Taiwan, on January 13, 2024. © Louise Delmotte, AP, on

The first free presidential election was held in Taiwan in 1996. This was the culmination of the democratisation process begun with the lifting of decades of martial law in 1987. Beijing marked this landmark by firing missiles into the coastal waters around the island. Undeterred, the Taiwanese elected Li Teng-hui as president, who was a thorn in the side of the Chinese Communists at the time, much like  William Lai (Lai Ching-te), elected on Saturday.

Divisions fading

Taiwan has changed a lot in those 30 years. The former tensions between the original inhabitants and the millions of newcomers who arrived to the island along with Chiang Kai-shek after the lost the civil war on the Mainland in 1949 are gradually easing. All three candidates in this presidential election were native Taiwanese, including the Kumonitang (KMT), the former ruling party of mainland immigrants. The KMT candidate  was in fact the only to spontaneously switch from mainland Mandarin to the local Taiwanese "dialect" (in reality a separate Sinic language) in the debates.

The whole campaign was markedly civil and non-confrontational by th standards of today’s world. Gone are the days when political disputes were settled in the Taiwanese parliament by group brawls.

The candidates behaved with unusual grace in the debates - they avoided personal attacks, did not jump into each other’s mouths and respected their allotted time. In today’s polarised, "post-truth" world, the campaign felt like from another, better planet.

An oasis of civility

Taiwan seems to be resistant to the current wave of populism and culture wars devastating the social fabric in other countries. There emerged, of course, polarising issues in the campaign, such as the rights of sexual minorities, nuclear power and the death penalty, but these did not escalate into the irreconcilable divisions that are now common even in established democracies. One of the strongest electoral themes was affordable housing for young families, a supremely civic issue of a technical nature that is addressed (usually without success) by governments around the world without arousing political passions.

The big toxic and polarizing issues seemed to be missing from the campaign, and the society at large. Even on the existential issue of strained relations with mainland China, there was relative consensus. All the presidential candidates, explicitly or implicitly, declared continuity in the foreign policy of the current president, Tsai Jing-wen. The Kuomintang (KMT), of course, emphasizes building relations with the PRC, while the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), on the other hand, with the democratic world (the TPP does not dwell much on the details); other than that, however, they all more or less agree on maintaining the current course and the status quo, i.e. de facto independence without an official declaration that could trigger an attack from the Chinese mainland. This also happens to be the preference of the vast majority of the Taiwanese people.

The Great Compromise

Taiwan runs a semi-presidential to presidential system, but the parallel elections for the Legislative Yuan (parliament) were not insignificant. The Parliament wields important powers; among other things, it approves the budget, including the crucial defence budget. Parliamentary majority is usually held by the ruling, ’presidential’ party. It does not to have be that way always, and it will not be the case this time either. While William Lai defended an unprecedented third consecutive mandate for the DPP in the presidential election, his party lost control of the Legislative Yuan. No party will have a majority there.

Even in the presidential election, William Lai only won 40% of the vote. In the one-round system (First Past the Post), this was enough for him to win, but together with the loss of the majority in the Yuan, it is a warning for the DPP for the future. Overall, the election ended up being a kind of grand compromise that reflects the state of Taiwan’s current politics. All actors will have to come to some sort of understanding among themselves.

The framework compromise and the overall high level of consensus testifies to the maturity of Taiwan’s democracy today. In the end, the outcome of the election can even be  partially to Beijing’s liking. Although the winner, William Lai, is seen as a “troublemaker” hell-bent on declaring formal independence, his triumph is in the eyes of the Chinese comrades at least partly offset by hisless than 50 percent result and the loss of the DPP’s majority in parliament. The PRC can take comfort that its policy of isolating the DPP is at least marginally successful. Beijing will save face, and perhaps save its obligatory sabre rattling for another occasion.

Partners official and unofficial

The more focused it will be on further isolating Taiwan internationally. Mere days after the elections, Nauru, an island state in the Pacific Ocean with a population of 12,000, announced the severing of diplomatic relations with Taipei. Nauru shifts diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC and back again more or less regularly, and Beijing seems to have kept this not-so-subtle signal in reserve for this particular occasion. Next up could be Guatemala, where a new government is in the process of taking power.

Diplomatic isolation is a preparation for Beijing’s eventual annexation of the island. Taiwan is now left under Chinese pressure with only a dozen official diplomatic partners, mostly not very populous countries in the Pacific and Latin America. President Tsai Ying-wen’s government has tried to compensate for the declining number of official diplomatic relations by building unofficial but all the more intensive ties with democratic partners such as the Czech Republic or Lithuania. As a mature democracy and an important node in global supply chains in key industries such as advanced chip manufacturing, there seems no shortage of such “unofficial" partners.

Diplomatic bullying

Beijing dos not sit idle, either, and attacks even these unofficial partnerships. It strongly protested against foreign governments (American, British, Australian and Singaporean) who dared to congratulate the new Taiwanese president. In some cases, as with the Philippines, it called their ambassador to the carpet.

Such petty bullying should present an acceptable price to pay for symbolically supporting an exemplary democracy in peril. Such a symbolic step can have a very practical impact - breaking the island’s enforced international isolation could play a significant role in deterring possible Chinese aggression, which would have far-reaching consequences for the whole world. Yet many democratic countries would not even make such a simple gesture. Most European governments have not even dared to name the winner of the elections in their reactions.

Such self-restraint does not only betray a model democracy. In the long run, it will prove self-defeating even in relation to Beijing.

Martín Hála
Martín Hála
Born 1961, is a Prague-based sinologist. Trained in Prague, Shanghai, Berkeley and Harvard, he has taught at universities in Prague and Bratislava and has done research in China, Taiwan and the United States. He helped set up the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong in 2003 and co-edited his first book in English (2010). He worked for several media assistance organizations in Europe and Asia, and in 2014-2015 was the Asia-Pacific regional director for the Open Society Foundations. He currently teaches at Charles University in Prague and is founder and director of the non-profit institute AcaMedia (2016), and its flagship project Contributor to the project Análisis Sínico at CADAL.

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