Taiwanese President-elect Lai Ching-te speaks on stage in Taipei at a rally following his victory in the presidential elections January 13, 2024 (OSV News photo/Carlos Garcia Rawlins, Reuters).

Attend a dinner banquet with Taiwanese people over a certain age—say, sixty—and you can expect a favorite genre of conversation: swapping tales of vote-buying and rigged elections. About a month ago, my wife and I found ourselves at a wedding banquet, seated next to several elders active in the pro-democracy, anti-authoritarian circles in the 1970s. At that time the people of Taiwan were living through the third decade of martial law imposed by the Kuomintang (KMT) party-state. Among other oppressive measures, the government forbade the use of local languages in public settings, imposed strict political censorship, enforced a regime of mass surveillance, and tortured dissidents. But even in the depths of the period now referred to as the “White Terror,” the KMT allowed local elections for posts such as city mayor. (No central institutions were open to popular election.) In those days, the elder sitting next to us said, everybody knew that on Election Day the electricity would go out. That was when the authorities would finish “counting” the votes; citizens who came to monitor the election were literally in the dark. Soon after, the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate would be declared the victor. In 1977, he and his college classmates went to watch the vote counting of the Tainan mayoral election by bringing flashlights. When the electricity went out, they shone their lights onto officials and made them count the votes. That election would be one of the first wins for a non-KMT candidate.

Our conversation turned to the then-upcoming presidential election. The elders at the table remarked on how far Taiwanese democracy had come. In 1987, martial law was lifted; in 1996, Taiwanese people were allowed to vote for president for the first time. When the Taiwanese people went to the polls on January 13, it was only the eighth time that they voted for their own president. But everybody at the table assumed it was going to be a fair and free election, and they all animatedly discussed the different presidential and legislative candidates. Nobody was going to stay home.

The top-line story coming out of this election: the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won a historic third consecutive term. Since 1996, no party had controlled the presidency for more than eight years. The incoming presidential ticket of William Lai and his VP Bi-khim Hsiao cement a shift that has been decades in the making: the transformation of the DPP into the establishment party.


This is a stunning reversal. The founders of the DPP were dissidents under martial law and had spent years in jail. The party was founded in 1986—martial law would not be lifted until a year later, so their new party was technically illegal—by a ragtag group of outsiders to the halls of power. Their most controversial founding principle: working toward the eventual goal of an independent Taiwan. The party’s first breakthrough on the national stage came in 2000, when Chen Shui-bian won a slim and surprising victory. During his two terms of office, President Chen launched a series of “Taiwanization” policies, which included treating all local languages as legal equals, ridding the country of statues and symbols celebrating the KMT’s authoritarian rule, and, most controversially, promoting a Taiwan-centric—rather than China-centric—approach to the teaching of history in schools. But Chen’s presidency was rocked by a series of corruption scandals, and the 2008 elections were a far-reaching humiliation for his party. The DPP presidential candidate lost by almost twenty points. The party lost sixty-two seats in parliament. The victorious party, the KMT, along with its pan-blue coalition, held a supermajority. An hour after Chen Shui-bian left office in May 2008, he was arrested, and the images of him being cuffed were meant to discredit the entire DPP apparatus. Even as recently as 2008, the DPP looked like a party on the verge of collapse.

But in the ensuing sixteen years, the DPP has risen like a phoenix from the ashes. The main architect behind this resurrection is the outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen. In 2008, Tsai took over as party chair and substantially reformed the DPP. Tsai—an academic trained in international trade law—pushed the party into more centrist positions on Taiwanese independence. Her technocratic centrism appealed to big business, which had traditionally distrusted DPP politicians because it feared that their pro-independence stance would harm business with China. At the same time, she coopted the energy of socially progressive activists—dominated by young people fighting for economic justice, transitional justice, LGBTQ rights, and a more expansive social safety net.

Perhaps most importantly, Tsai transformed the image of the DPP. Forged in the anti-authoritarian circles of the 1960s and 1970s, the DPP in the late 1980s and early ’90s was propelled by left-leaning radical ideas—Taiwanese independence, social democracy, and collective action. While it had already begun to moderate its positions by the time Chen Shui-bian won the presidency in 2000, its opponents continued to attack the DPP as a bunch of radical troublemakers intent on disrupting cross-strait relations. At the same time, the KMT doubled down on rejecting the turn toward “Taiwanese” identity. In 2001, the party expelled its former chairman and President Lee Teng-hui from its ranks for being too pro-Taiwan. It attacked Chen Shui-bian’s Taiwanization policies, seeing them as rooted in a reactionary, uncultured, ignorant, and local mindset—as opposed to what the KMT regards as its own more cosmopolitan and worldly outlook.

The top-line story coming out of this election: the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won a historic third consecutive term.

In the past sixteen years, at least in the international sphere, Tsai Ing-wen has rehabilitated the DPP’s image. Once defined in the Western media as “troublemakers,” the DPP is now seen as the party committed to international engagement, liberal democracy, the international human-rights regime, and multilateral cooperation. Meanwhile, the positive image of the DPP in Western media has been aided by China’s authoritarian and inward turn, coupled with an increasingly anti-China consensus in Washington. By contrast, the KMT’s “all our eggs in the China basket” approach looks narrow and single-minded.

Nonetheless, you still see this lingering mistrust of the DPP in international reporting of Taiwan; the headlines in the wake of DPP’s victory have framed Tsai’s successor William Lai as a risky choice who will ratchet up tensions with China. This is largely due to Lai’s statement in 2017 that he is a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence.” But throughout this campaign, Lai has stated repeatedly that he will not deviate from Tsai’s approach, which has been admirably disciplined with regard to China. Lai has often reiterated that he will not upend the status quo and declare independence.

But the media also distrust Lai because, before the campaign, he was a largely unknown figure on the global stage. Even though he has served as Tsai’s vice president for four years, he has mostly stayed out of the international spotlight. Unlike Tsai, who earned a doctorate at the London School of Economics, Lai speaks English haltingly. But Lai’s story is well known in Taiwan. He was born in 1958 to a coal-mining family. His father died of carbon-monoxide poisoning in the mines when he was two years old. Raised by a single mother who had six children, Lai worked hard and made a career as a doctor. He was swept into politics in that first flowering of democracy in the late 1980s. Since then, he has doggedly worked his way up from local politics all the way to the presidency. The fact that a child of miners is now the Taiwanese president is a particular point of pride for a country that loves to root for the underdog.


Still, the DPP’s transition from underdog to establishment has come at a cost. Once the party of the people, the DPP looks increasingly like the party of big business. It has been wracked by a series of corruption scandals connected to kickbacks. It has also lost the trust of the youth. The DPP’s big moment of betrayal came in 2017, when the party put its full force behind revising a labor bill. Taiwan has one of the most punishing working conditions in the world—long working hours, few public holidays, and low pay. Many hoped that the bill would improve working conditions in Taiwan, but instead it was revised to favor employers. The DPP’s revisions led to massive, sometimes violent street protests, and most of the protestors were young people.

The sense of betrayal that many young people feel toward the DPP partly explains the second big story of the night: the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) outperformed expectations. With almost no party apparatus, the presidential candidate Ko Wen-je won almost 4 million votes. This is an enormous number, and the TPP’s main support came from young people disillusioned with the DPP. Third parties have had short shelf lives in Taiwanese politics, and only time will tell if Ko Wen-je is skilled enough as a politician to channel the current electoral energy into a lasting party structure.

And what do recent events mean for the KMT? While it lost its third consecutive presidential election, it flipped several seats in the legislature and is now the biggest party in parliament. And this comes after a major victory in 2022, when the KMT swept the local elections. In short, the KMT continues to be very competitive, as it can mobilize longstanding factional interests.

But this, too, represents a major transformation. The KMT—long the party that dictated Taiwan’s place in the world—has become increasingly marginalized at the central, national, and international levels. This is largely due to its insistence that Taiwan still represents a “free China” and its murky stance on Taiwanese sovereignty, which is increasingly at odds with mainstream public opinion. In the past decade, the KMT party establishment has doubled down on its overt pro-China stance, willfully ignoring the Chinese Communist Party’s human-rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and its belligerency against Taiwan. Many people to whom my wife and I spoke—among them KMT supporters—were turned off by former president Ma Ying-jeou’s ill-advised interview with the German news broadcaster Deutsche Welle two days before the election. Ma said that the people of Taiwan need to trust Xi Jinping. This was a breathtakingly silly thing to say, especially on the eve of an election.

Ma said that the people of Taiwan need to trust Xi Jinping. This was a breathtakingly silly thing to say, especially on the eve of an election.

But the results of the election are ultimately confusing: no party can declare complete victory, and almost every party can claim some sort of victory. The DPP won the presidency; the KMT became the largest party in parliament; the TPP made its breakthrough. The TPP also gets to play kingmaker because it has the swing vote in parliament. The Taiwanese government is now entering murky and uncharted waters. Taiwan has no experience with a coalition government, so everybody is wondering how the three parties will work together to tackle the central challenges facing advanced industrial countries: rising inequality and climate change. And, of course, there’s still the ever-present China factor. Will a coalition government be able to present a united front as China’s rhetoric becomes increasingly confrontational? We’ll see, but most of us expect gridlock for the next four years.


Ultimately, the winners on January 13 were the people of Taiwan, who once again showed the world that they are committed to upholding the peaceful democratic transition of power. Election day was beautiful, sunny, and temperate. My wife, her parents, and I strolled down to our voting station—housed in a local high school—where we saw multi-generational families lining up. Elderly people were wheeled by their children. Young parents pushed their babies in strollers. Our four-year-old daughter joined us on her balance bike, and even she seemed to understand that something important was happening as she wheeled around, waiting for her grandparents to finish voting. Turnout was somewhat lower than historic norms, but 72 percent of eligible voters still showed up to vote.

When the polls closed at 4 p.m., we went to observe the vote counting. In Taiwan, all votes are counted by hand; the ballots are taken out of the box and each vote is called out in a process known as changpiao (唱票), or singing the vote.” Every moment is open and transparent. Watching the vote counters sing, I was reminded of my friend’s stories of ballot stuffing. I thought of my grandparents, none of whom were ever able to vote for their own president. I said a prayer for my mother, who couldn’t vote this year because she is very sick. She always told me how much she cherished her right to cast a ballot and how much she loved Election Day.

A few hours later, we watched the concession speeches of the losing candidates and attended the DPP’s victory rally. These were tame affairs compared to the electoral rallies of my youth. I was thirteen when Taiwan held its first direct presidential election in 1996. The three election campaigns from 1996 to 2000—the Taipei mayoral election of 1998, and the presidential election of 2000—make up some of my formative memories, when my love for Taiwanese democracy was forged. Part of me misses the renao (熱鬧)—bustling, wild energy—of elections in the 1990s: unending firecrackers, the messy chaos of huge flags posted everywhere on crowded skybridges and sidewalks.

I know this is just nostalgia. The dark side of renao was the constant possibility of backsliding into authoritarianism. In 2000, when Chen Shui-bian ended the KMT’s fifty-year hold on the presidential office, there were rumors that the military would launch a coup to prevent the DPP from taking office. We all feared the worst. In 2004, Chen Shui-bian was grazed by a bullet; for a moment, people thought elections would be called off, and the country would disintegrate into chaos.

Throughout those times I remember thinking: I just want to live in a normal country. This year, I kept marveling at how normal everything felt. On Election Day everything was calm; people were out savoring the day, moving at a slightly slower pace than usual. And there were still moments of renao—at the DPP’s victory rally on Saturday night, party supporters took selfies and videos in front of a big digital screen of the candidates as confetti fell from the sky. Afterward, the crowd stuck around to pick up trash and stack chairs. We passed the rally site the next day, and the area was so clean you could hardly tell that tens of thousands of people had been in that same space the night before. The orderly experience of this year’s election made me think for the first time: My gosh, how far we’ve come in a short time. This is more than a normal country—it’s extraordinary. Let’s hope things are even better four years from now.

Albert Wu is a global historian at the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan. He is the author of From Christ to Confucius (Yale University Press) and is working on a second book on the history of medicine and mistrust. With his wife Michelle Kuo, he writes a newsletter from Taiwan, A Broad and Ample Road.

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Published in the March 2024 issue: View Contents
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