Taipei, Taiwan – Voters have cast their ballots in Taiwan’s closely watched presidential and parliamentary elections, with initial results showing the candidate of the ruling party taking a commanding lead.
The presidential vote is a surprising three-way race between incumbent Vice President William Lai Ching-te from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP); the former mayor of New Taipei City Hou Yu-ih from the more conservative Kuomintang (KMT); and third-party candidate Ko Wen-je from the Taiwan People’s Party.
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With more than half the votes counted, Lai had a comfortable lead over his two rivals, according to Taiwanese media.
At stake is the future direction of Taiwan’s democracy: A continued push for a higher international profile as a de facto independent state by the DPP; closer ties with China but potentially better economic relations as promised by the KMT; or an untested but new third way between both parties as promised by the TPP.
Also at stake is the makeup of Taiwan’s 113-person unicameral legislature, voted in based on geographic constituency and a second list based on a party’s proportion of votes. Six seats are reserved for Indigenous Taiwanese.
In the last election, the DPP snuck through with a legislative majority, but their victory is far from certain this time thanks to competition from the KMT and TPP in many local races.
Some 19.5 million people were eligible to vote aged 20 and over, and voter turnout is expected to be high based on public transit data.
Taiwanese are required to return to the location of their household registration – typically their hometown – to vote in person, which means the leadup to elections can be a busy time for the island-wide rail service.
On Friday, Taiwan Railway Administration predicted a record 758,000 tickets in sales – higher than any previous election.
It was a surprise turnaround for what has been a relatively lacklustre campaign season focused on domestic issues, according to Brian Hioe, a frequent commentator on Taiwanese politics and founder of New Bloom Magazine.
“Shortly before train ticket sales weren’t doing that well and there was a sudden rebound,” he said. “I think it shows how quickly things can change in Taiwanese politics.”
“Oftentimes before the election itself, it suddenly sets up a national doom feeling. People suddenly worry what will happen if X candidate gets elected or if one rally turnout appears higher than expected,” Hioe also said. “That makes people mobilise.”
One of the most exciting things for me at Taiwan's elections is to witness the vote counting where votes are counted transparently in front of voters. Police just announced that polls have closed and counting has started. Hou Yu-ih has an early lead at the voting center I'm at. pic.twitter.com/LsR6SWgh7D
— Roy Ngerng 鄞義林 Khûn Gī-lîm (@royngerng) January 13, 2024
Hioe said two key events may have spooked some voters this week into voting. The first was the massive turnout of 350,000 people on Friday at a rally for third-party candidate Ko, showing voters that he was a real contender despite the relative inexperience of his party.
The second were remarks made this week by former president and KMT member Ma Ying-jeou that Taiwan should trust Chinese President Xi Jinping.
While Ma is long retired from the presidency, he still carries weight within his party and some voters may be alarmed about his sway over KMT candidate Hou, Hioe said.
Many Taiwanese are distrustful of Beijing, which claims Taiwan as a province, and want their democracy to maintain its de facto independence.
Beijing typically relies on a combination of “carrot and stick” strategies to try to lure voters and also scare them into voting for their preferred candidates at election time – typically anyone other than the DPP.
Voters told Al Jazeera that polls had been busy since they opened early on Saturday.
Taipei resident Jason Wang said his plan to get to the polls early with his wife and daughter was put off slightly by a surprisingly long and diverse queue for 8am.
“It wasn’t old people, which was surprising. It was a lot of young couples – and I mean people who would spend their Friday night partying it up,” he said.
Guava Lai, a young DPP supporter in his 20s, said his social media was full of panicked posts from friends on Friday night that candidate Ko could win.
“My friends were pretty anxious especially the night before. For context most of my friends would be voting for DPP …and then seeing the news on Friday that Ko Wen-je had this many people and Hou Yu-ih had that many people,” he said. “That was the vibe I saw on my social media feed, people being anxious and also trying to reassure each other.”
The DPP has been in power for the past eight years under President Tsai Ing-wen.
In an ordinary election, Taiwan’s two main parties, the KMT and DPP, should be due to switch power, but Ko has upset the normal trajectory.
The outspoken former mayor of Taipei has been popular with younger voters who say they want something new from the old two-party system.
They include 25-year-old Nicky who told Al Jazeera she had voted for Ko as she left an elementary school voting station in Taipei on Saturday. Declining to use her full name, she said she liked Ko’s record as mayor and his can-do attitude and plainer style of speaking.
“He was the mayor of Taipei for eight years,” she said. “He can really get things done and he can solve problems. That’s what you want.” Her friends felt the same, she added.
Nicky was uncertain about Ko’s chances to win as most older voters prefer Taiwan’s two traditional parties, but she still wanted to show her support.
“I think it’s time for a change,” she said.
Some of her concerns were echoed by Ross Feingold, a lawyer and political analyst based in Taipei.
He emphasised that some voters were concerned with issues other than China, including transparency in public office.
“Just like other countries, there are recurring corruption issues, nepotism issues under the leadership of different political parties in Taiwan, and I think voters here want to know that the person who is going to lead them for the next four years is an honest man,” he told Al Jazeera.