Elections Taiwan

New Atlanticist

December 5, 2023

Meet Taiwan’s presidential candidates and their running mates

By Wen-Ti Sung and Lev Nachman

Join Global China Hub for expert insight and analysis on the global implications for Taiwan’s upcoming presidential race.

After what may go down as one of the most dramatic two weeks of Taiwanese politics in recent years, there is finally a list of the candidates who will run for president and vice president in the election next month. The candidates are Vice President William Lai and Hsiao Bi-khim of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Mayor of New Taipei City Hou Yu-ih and Jaw Shaw-kong of the Kuomintang (KMT), and Ko Wen-je and Member of the Legislative Yuan Cynthia Wu of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).

The public debacle of the failed potential KMT-TPP alliance was a major moment in Taiwanese democratic history (read about it in our previous article). But now, it is time to look forward and try to understand where this election is headed.

The question on everyone’s mind is: Who is leading in the polls? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t quite clear yet. We do know that when candidates announce that they’re running, they enjoy a bump in polls. And we also know that the very public falling out between the TPP and KMT will likely have some sort of influence on their bases of support. Finally, the vice-presidential tickets will likely influence voters’ decisions as well. With these three significant variables in play, polling at this immediate moment is somewhat unreliable. To get a more accurate read on the campaign, observers should wait for the next two weeks to pass.

Voters need to marinate with everything that has happened in Taiwan over the last month. The candidates will begin to campaign and make speeches, and all three parties will frame and reframe this election now that all the players are known. This means that the potential for dynamic changes in public opinion over the next two weeks is high.

It is reasonable, however, to hypothesize who might be in first and who might be in second. Lai and Hsiao’s ticket had the strongest performance in the past two weeks, purely because the DPP candidates had the least amount of bad press. Hsiao’s announcement was very well received by the the DPP’s “pan-green” voting base. Many green voters who may otherwise not mobilize to vote for Lai may now turn up to vote for Hsiao. The KMT, meanwhile, had a rough week in public relations with the KMT-TPP alliance falling apart, but their announcement that Jaw would run for vice president was well received from the KMT’s deep “blue” base of support. Finally, the TPP’s announcement that Wu would run as its vice-presidential candidate garnered some press, but Ko and his controversies still dominate much of the headlines about the TPP.

At the end of the month, pending no major mistakes or scandals by the DPP, it is likely that Lai will still be ahead in the polls with Hou in second. As of now, it appears that Ko will hurt the most from the lack of a KMT-TPP alliance and will likely be in third place. These predictions are based on where Taiwanese politics currently stand; the election is likely to ossify into a typical campaign season now that all the candidates are known.

Who are the three running mates and what do they bring to the table?

Hsiao, the DPP’s vice presidential candidate, brings strong foreign policy credibility and factional balance to Lai’s ticket. Hsiao has served as Taiwan’s representative to the United States for the last three years, managing Taipei’s most important relationship in an effective, bipartisan manner at a time of unprecedented international attention for the island democracy. Having Hsiao in the vice-presidential slot conveys continuity to Taiwan’s international audience, ensuring them that when it comes to foreign policy, US-Taiwan ties, and cross-strait relations, Lai would try to be Tsai Ing-wen 2.0.

Jaw, the KMT’s vice presidential nominee and one of the most effective political commentators in Taiwanese politics, was formerly an environment minister and legislator in his early political life. Most famously, Jaw was a founding member of the New Party, the pro-unification political party that broke away from the KMT in the 1990s because it thought the KMT wasn’t sufficiently pro-China. Jaw left electoral politics decades ago, however, to go into the media as a political personality. Until joining Hou’s ticket, he ran multiple blue-leaning media talk shows with large followings throughout Taiwan.

The TPP’s vice presidential nominee, Wu, is heiress to one of Taiwan’s largest business conglomerates and has a career in finance and philanthropy. She entered politics four years ago to join the TPP’s party list, winning election to the Legislative Yuan as one of the party’s at-large legislators. Although she is relatively new to politics, her addition brings fresh air to the TPP’s ticket, which has otherwise been dominated by Ko. Having an elected TPP member on the ticket also helps signal that Ko still has support from within his party, now that TPP-KMT alliance talks have failed and the upstart TPP must take on both the DPP and KMT at the same time in the upcoming presidential and legislative elections.

Each of these vice-presidential candidates will change how the three parties frame and run their campaigns. Although the election is only six weeks away, expect to see these vice-presidential candidates front and center along with their running mates. Although in the past vice presidents have not typically played much of a role, all three of these candidates are strong, qualified politicians who are ready to step into the spotlight.

Lev Nachman is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub and an assistant professor in the College of Social Science at National Chengchi University. He holds his PhD in Political Science from the University of California Irvine and is a former Taiwan Studies Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Harvard Fairbank Center for China Studies.

Wen-Ti Sung is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub. He is a sessional lecturer in the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, and a member of the Australian Centre on China in the World.

Further reading

Image: Lai Ching-te, Taiwan's vice president and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) presidential candidate, and Hsiao Bi-khim, former envoy to the United States, smile while arriving to a press conference in Taipei, Taiwan on November 20, 2023. Photo via REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins.