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Lai Ching-te Inaugurated in Taiwan: Managing Legislative Turmoil and Cross-Strait Status Quo

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On January 13, 2024, Lai Ching-te, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nominee, secured the presidency of the Republic of China (Taiwan), marking the first instance (post-democratization) when a party’s nominee won the presidential election for the third consecutive time.


Lai Ching-te Inaugurated in Taiwan: Managing Legislative Turmoil and Cross-Strait Status Quo

On January 13, 2024, Lai Ching-te, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nominee, secured the presidency of the Republic of China (Taiwan), marking the first instance (post-democratization) when a party’s nominee won the presidential election for the third consecutive time. However, Lai’s victory, albeit historic, was tempered by the fact that he clinched the presidency with ‘merely’ a plurality of votes, unlike his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen, who secured resounding majorities in 2016 and 2020. Moreover, the DPP faced a setback as it lost the majority in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan it had enjoyed since 2016.


Turmoil in and around the Legislative Yuan

The DPP’s legislative woes can be related to the rise of the third-force Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) and to the fact that the main opposition party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), performed considerably better in the simultaneous legislative elections than in the presidential vote. While its nominee was soundly defeated by Lai, the elections for the 113 seats of the Legislative Yuan culminated in a narrow KMT victory (52 seats plus two Blue independents) over the DPP (51 seats), which also lost its deep Green ally, the New Power Party (NPP), to the five percent electoral threshold.

This would not have been a major setback for Lai if the TPP, which essentially became kingmaker by capturing eight seats, would have come to (some kind of) a coalition agreement with the DPP. However, very shortly after the election the TPP essentially (by first voting for its own candidate, then abstaining and thereby lowering the quorum) joined ranks with the KMT in electing maverick Han Kuo-yu, the KMT’s presidential candidate in 2020, as president of Taiwan’s legislation. Noteworthy is that Han’s vice president is the KMT’s former chairman Johnny Chiang, a ‘light Blue’ moderate who had previously sought to alter the pro-China image of the KMT, so as to ‘sell’ the controversial and often explicitly pro-Chinese Han somewhat to centrist supporters.

The KMT and TPP have also – unsurprisingly considering they lost the presidency to the DPP due to a mutual spat – started exploring ways to expand legislative power at the expense of the executive. One reform would require the president to give a yearly ‘state of the union’ in the legislature. Although not inherently the most controversial proposal, it was introduced in a notably opaque manner: The related bills and amendments allegedly bypassed reviews by the responsible committee, the DPP’s counterinitiatives were ignored, and the revised version was not made publicly available on the Legislative Yuan’s website. The bills also included massive infrastructure projects in east Taiwan’s Blue heartlands, highlighting the enduring influence of the island’s clientelist past. Even more controversial were the proposals granting increased investigative rights over both private and public entities, as well as those bestowing the legislation with powers to condemn those not cooperating when summoned as being ‘in contempt of the legislature’ (imposing fines exceeding 5000 euros). A potential endgame of such powers could mirror 2008, when outgoing DPP president Chen Shui-bian (r. 2000–2008) was charged with corruption.

In May, scuffles – an endemic feature of Taiwanese politics and essentially a violent version of the American filibuster – occurred in the Legislative Yuan. Outside the building, large-scale anti-TPP/KMT protests also took place that seemed reminiscent of the 2014 Sunflower Movement that also was opposed to the KMT’s ‘black box’ (heixiang) style of untransparent politics. Ironically, it was one of the most prominent conveyers of the Sunflower Movement, the TPP’s caucus convener Huang Kuo-Chang (until last year a member of the deep Green NPP), who found himself being labeled a ‘hypocrite’ (wei junzi) over his cooperation with the KMT by many who had previously cheered him on.

The TPP’s covert support for Han and the united front on increasing legislative powers does not automatically mean that the party has unconditionally joined the KMT’s Blue camp. To avoid the fate of all previous ‘minor Blue’ parties that became irrelevant and/or were (re)absorbed into the KMT, the TPP is going to have to prove its independent position to the Taiwanese electorate. Especially considering that the party’s support in 2024 was the most youthful out of the three parties, it is unlikely to back potential conservative policies proposed by the KMT (e.g., overturning Taiwan’s relatively liberal LGBTQ+ rights).


So What Did Lai Say?

While the DPP’s legislative dominance during Tsai Ing-wen’s presidency is over, and the chaos of May 2024 is likely emblematic for the challenging legislative tightrope Lai will have to walk over the next four years – the Taiwanese presidency does not come with veto powers – Lai is unlikely to be as hapless as his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, who faced a much more united Blue legislative majority throughout his two terms in power. Whether the moderate and hardline elements of the KMT will stick together, and whether figures like the TPP’s Huang Kuo-chang can withstand the negative public outcry from their former Green support base, remains to be seen. Pragmatic legislative case-by-case coalition building might therefore still be possible for Lai.

While most of this was still transpiring, Lai and his administration were in the midst of Taiwan’s notoriously lengthy four-month transition. In his Inaugural Address of May 20, Lai attested to the underlying anxiety of a split government and pledged to strive for tripartisan cooperation. He aimed to showcase a conciliatory stance by intermediately using the denominations ‘Republic of China’ (preferred by the pan-Blue camp), ‘Republic of China (Taiwan)’ (the compromise formula of predecessor Tsai), and ‘Taiwan’ (preferred by the pan-Green camp). Lai also reiterated his predecessor’s ‘Four Commitments’ (si ge jianchi) which advocate for the cross-Strait status quo and assert that Taiwan and China are not subordinate to each other. In essence, Lai conveyed that, despite his earlier self-identification as a ‘pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence,’ continuity and no de jure changes to the cross-Strait status quo should be expected.

Covertly, however, Lai still positioned himself as slightly more hardline than Tsai toward China. He omitted any mention of the 1992 consensus, which pertains, albeit often differently interpreted, to the existence of some kind of ‘one China.’ Tsai in 2016 had acknowledged a cross-Strait meeting in 1992 under a spirit of ‘agreeing to disagree’ had taken place, though she disagreed a consensus on ‘one China’ had been achieved. The PRC then criticized Tsai’s interpretation as an ‘incomplete test paper,’ while this time the PRC outright blasted Lai for failing to mention the concept at all and conducted (clearly prepared) military drills days later. Given his omission of ‘1992,’ it is no surprise that Lai also chose to directly refer to ‘China’ and the ‘PRC,’ avoiding the indirect wording Tsai used, who framed the relations ambiguously as ‘the two sides [of the Taiwan Strait]’ (liang’an).

Lai’s twofold message is clear: Like Tsai, he is willing to set aside constitutional changes toward de jure independence, affirming his commitment to serve ‘according to the Republic of China’s constitution.’ However, Beijing should not expect any compromises on Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty. His relatively prominent invocation of the ‘Republic of China’ and its constitution is, at most, aimed at smoothening legislative cooperation with the KMT, which nevertheless alleged a constitutional breach due to Lai’s references to ‘China’ as a foreign entity. If Lai hopes to secure any legislative deals, he will likely need to turn to the TPP, which prioritizes domestic reforms over cross-Strait relations.


Maintaining the Status Quo: Taiwan in the World

Although Lai’s rhetoric ultimately skirted Beijing’s ‘red lines’ without breaching them, the current frosty cross-Strait relations are likely to persist over the next four years. Recognizing that both deterrence and cooperation with Taiwan’s allies are indispensable in weathering Chinese pressure, Lai dedicated considerable time to discussing Taiwan’s geopolitical position in the world, emphasizing its strategic importance in the US’s first island chain and its recent Indo-Pacific Security Supplemental Appropriations Act. The importance Lai attached to Taiwan’s relations with the US is further corroborated by the fact that no other actors were directly mentioned.

However, by emphasizing Taiwan’s credentials as a liberal democracy and extending invitations to further normalize Taiwan’s role on the world stage, Lai also hinted at strengthening its alignment with other ‘like-minded partners’ in Europe. It would therefore be no surprise if the long-standing quest for establishing a Bilateral Investment Agreement (BIA) with the EU is put on the table sooner rather than later – an indignant European Parliament already pledged its support in 2021. With the European elections approaching in June, the Union may soon need to clarify its stance vis-à-vis Taiwan under ‘its “One China” policy.’ Given that the European People’s Party (EPP), likely to emerge as the largest party, calls for a long-term strategy “including China and Taiwan” in its manifesto, it is conceivable that Taiwan will play a more significant role in the next major policy document on China (and Taiwan?) beyond a mere footnote. The following years will reveal whether the frozen Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China will be revived (or a new treaty negotiated), a BIA with Taiwan will take shape, or a scenario materializes where both prevail.

National and EU-wide parliamentary delegations will likely continue visiting Taiwan, thereby further elevating its status as a part of the free world. However, as Sven Biscop has rightly argued, empty-handed political tourism only enables Beijing to claim that Europe seeks to change the cross-Strait status quo. Instead, visits should be meaningful, with something substantial to offer, and involve dialogue with all parties of the fractured Legislative Yuan to seek compromises. Ultimately, a path to normalizing the status quo must be found, as Taiwan has demonstrated its enduring presence on the global stage. To this end, maintaining a ‘constructive dialogue’ with both sides of the Taiwan Strait is equally essential – after all, for now Brussels still adheres to ‘its “one China” policy.’


Jasper Roctus is an Associate Fellow at Egmont working on domestic Chinese Politics and cross-Strait Relations. He also pursues a PhD in the “East Asian Culture in Perspective: Identity, Historical Consciousness, Modernity” research group at Ghent University, where he works on evolutions in narratives surrounding Sun Yat-sen. His “PhD Fellowship fundamental research” is funded by the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO).

(Photo credit:  Jasper Roctus )