The 64-year-old chairperson of the ruling DPP has named Hsiao Bi-khim, 52, who until November last year was Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the US, as his running mate.
In the debate, Lai reiterated that he would follow Tsai’s path on the relationship with mainland China and maintain the status quo, protecting Taiwan and keeping the peace in the Indo-Pacific.
“The world is watching Taiwanese people’s choice between democracy and autocracy; the international community knows very well that only Lai Ching-te and Hsiao Bi-khim could stand shoulder-to-shoulder and walk with democratic allies,” he said in Mandarin.
Lai, who began his political career as a legislator and later became mayor of the southern city of Tainan, described himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence” when he served as Tsai’s premier between 2017 and 2019. He added that “Taiwan is already an independent sovereign nation called the Republic of China…there is no need to further declare Taiwan independence.”
Lai’s stance drew criticism from both China and his opposition. In November, Beijing called Lai and Hsiao the “independence duo” who would endanger peace across the strait. Lai’s rivals, Hou and Ko, also took aim at his position on Beijing-Taipei issues. “The sovereignty of Taiwan belongs to the 23 million Taiwanese people, not to [China],” Lai said in response to a question from Ko. “The Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China are not subordinate to one another, that’s the meaning of Taiwan independence.”
Lai’s political platform includes plans for more subsidised housing as well as increasing wages and reducing taxes.
Hou Yu-ih (KMT)
Formerly the director general of the National Police Agency, Hou gained attention when he was re-elected in 2022 as mayor of the northern New Taipei City which surrounds the capital, beating his DPP rival by a landslide. That year, the KMT trounced the ruling DPP in local elections, leading to Tsai’s resignation as party head.
The 66-year-old has tailed Lai closely in most recent polls. He has named Jaw Shaw-kong, 73, a former KMT lawmaker and a media personality, as his running mate.
Hou, who originally joined the KMT in the 1970s under the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek, indicated that he opposed Taiwan independence and One Country, Two Systems, a governing framework that China imposed on Hong Kong and Macau, touting it as a way for Taiwan to achieve unification.
“No Taiwan independence, no One Country, Two Systems,” Hou said during the televised debate. “Steadfastly defend freedom and the democratic system. Taiwan’s future is decided by its 23 million residents.”
But Hou was challenged by his rivals over his – and the KMT’s – position on having warmer ties with China despite Beijing’s increasing bellicosity. Hou fended off the criticism by stressing that he was only pushing to restore cross-strait dialogue, which Beijing had halted with Tsai’s administration.
Hou has expressed his support for the 1992 consensus – a tacit agreement between Beijing and the KMT that both Taipei and Beijing are part of a single China, although each can have its own interpretation.
Tsai, however, has rejected the concept, saying in response to a speech by China’s leader Xi Jinping back in 2019, that “we have never accepted the 1992 consensus.” Hou insisted that cross-strait communication based on the 1992 consensus was the only way to mitigate the risks of a war, but also said Taiwan must strengthen its military capacity to deter a possible invasion by China.
Domestically, Hou has proposed stepping up government subsidies for youth with regard to higher education and housing.
Ko Wen-je (TPP)
The former mayor of Taipei City who founded the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) in 2019, Ko has branded himself as a “third force,” appealing to voters unhappy with both the DPP and the KMT. He has teamed up with Cynthia Wu Hsin-ying, 45, a TPP legislator and the daughter of a Taiwanese billionaire, to run in the election.
The 64-year-old worked as a surgeon for three decades before serving as mayor of the capital between 2014 and 2022. While Ko previously supported the DPP’s presidential campaign – including Tsai’s – he has moved away from the ruling party in recent years, accusing it of escalating cross-strait tensions and failing to solve bread-and-butter domestic issues.
During the debate, Ko said that the long-term domination of Taiwanese politics by the DPP and KMT had culminated in “fractures across races, communities, and the nation.” He vowed to bring about “social harmony, political reconciliation, and cross-strait peace” for Taiwan.
However, he came under attack – mainly by Lai – for expressing in 2015 that “both sides of the strait are one family.” Ko defended himself by saying that it was only a “friendly gesture,” and interactions across the strait must be based on the premise that “Taiwan’s democratic system and way of life are protected,” adding that there was no alternative for Taiwan other than “maintaining the status quo.” He said the self-ruled island must find its own position and not be a pawn in US-China rivalry.
In November, the opposition candidates attempted to form an alliance to increase their chances against Lai, but negotiations collapsed on live television as Hou and Ko could not agree on who should top the joint ticket.
On the campaign trail, Ko has honed in on social welfare policies to address the high cost of housing, low wages, and the burden of elderly care. Despite trailing in the polls, Ko has attracted young people to his rallies and garnered a huge following on his social media accounts.
The Legislative Yuan
On January 13, voters will also cast their ballots for all 113 seats of the island’s parliament. According to election rules, 73 legislators are “district-based,” elected first-past-the-post in constituencies based on geographical districts.
Another 34 seats are elected by political party-list on a second ballot, which will determine how many seats each party gets under a proportional representation system based on nationwide votes. The election rules also require that, for each party, at least half of the legislators elected on the ballot must be female.
The remaining six seats are chosen by Indigenous people who account for 2.5 percent of the island’s population, according to official figures.
The Central Election Commission says that 34.5 percent of the candidates vying for a seat on the “district-based” and Indigenous ballots are female — the highest since 2008, when the current electoral system was introduced.
Polls show that no single party is likely to obtain a majority, meaning that whoever wins the presidential election will still have to seek a political coalition in parliament.