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Inside Taiwan’s Elections

A first-time voter travels home to experience democracy in action.

Words: Bing Lin
Pictures: Bing Lin
Date:

The recent 2024 Taiwanese presidential elections were kind of a big deal. A big deal for me, a 30-year-old finally voting for the first time, but also a big deal for the world, whose fate just might rest on the future of cross-strait relations. Despite having a smaller terrestrial footprint than the Netherlands and being home to under 24 million people, Taiwan punches miles above its weight on the global stage. The island is among the world’s 20 largest economies, and were it to blink out of existence, so would up to 90% of the world’s advanced processor chip supply and seemingly half the planet’s bubble tea shops.

Ever since the Chinese Civil War in the mid-20th century, Taiwan has been stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The rock has been its commitment to democracy and self-determination, the hard place China’s unwavering edict that Taiwan is a renegade province to be reclaimed asap by whatever means necessary. However, Taiwanese citizens have quite enjoyed their island lives and liberties, and have been feeling increasingly detached from, and disillusioned by, the politics of the mainland. Meanwhile, the United States has been customarily wanting to have its cake and eat it too: it both officially recognizes the mainland as the one “true” China of which Taiwan is a part, while also concurrently providing weapons sales to Taiwan and intimating at military aid were China to forcefully invade. 

Despite the denial of some hawkish pundits and many Taiwan sympathizers, China’s claim to Taiwan is not devoid of reason. The history of the island is intricately tied to that of the mainland, and so are its people. Most of Taiwan’s residents today are of Han origin and immigrated to the island in just the past few centuries. However, the growing rift between political ideologies across the strait means that peaceful reunification is becoming a less and less likely option. Given that China continues to flex its considerable diplomatic, economic, and military might to squash all inklings of Taiwanese independence, separation is slipping off the table too. In this asymmetric game of geopolitical chess, Taiwan’s only move has been to not move at all, and this status quo has been brittle at best.

Or so I learned from the US Department of Defense’s 2023 Annual Report to Congress and my litany of other pre-trip readings on my plane ride over to Taiwan a couple days before the island’s presidential elections. On paper, I was a Ph.D. candidate in Public Affairs from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, sent as part of an 11-person delegation to observe the Taiwanese elections as a model for global democratic resilience. What my degree title masked, however, was the fact that I was a marine ecologist by training and knew embarrassingly little about the politics of my passport country. 

Prior to this trip, discussions on Taiwanese statecraft had always been my cue to leave the dinner table glazy-eyed after polite post-meal bows to my father’s friends. To my credit, I was born and raised in Indonesia and only spent my summers in Taipei’s sweltering heat, holed away in the air conditioning of my grandmother’s apartment. Roving between islands, I split my childhood in both worlds without a real foothold in either. Home was always where I was not, my enduring excuse to myself and others for feeling like an outsider no matter where I was. So, when I was offered a spot on a university-sponsored policy trip to my sole country of citizenship to learn about its self-government, I eagerly hitched the ride home to experience democracy first-hand. 

The Contenders 

On my first day in Taiwan, literally fresh off the boat from my coral reef field site in Bali, I finally met all my fellow delegates, an annoyingly impressive contingent of early- to mid-career master’s and doctoral Princeton students with a slew of regional and international policy experience and expertise. Jet-lagged but caffeinated, we convened and started our day with a rundown of Taiwan’s political and electoral landscape from Lev Nachman, a smart and smartly dressed professor at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. 

Next, we headed to the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), where we relinquished our passports in exchange for tacky plastic badges and underwent TSA-worthy security checks in case anyone was already missing home. We then had an off-the-record conversation with an AIT political officer and two Taiwanese political aides, after which we were officially up to date on all three of the presidential candidates, their running mates, and all their tea. We spent the rest of the evening attending the final campaign rallies for each of the three parties on the ballot the next day.

The first party, the blue Kuomintang (KMT), is the inveterate founding party of modern Taiwan — the party that had originally clashed with Mao’s communist party for control over mainland China during the Chinese Civil War. Summarizing party jargon, such as the 1992 Consensus, the KMT’s rhetoric has traditionally been aligned with associating more closely, in all capacities, with China. On the other side of the aisle is the green Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the party to which the two-term incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen belongs. To butcher their political nuance, they tend toward more separatist sentiments. Finally, the newest kid on the block is the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), currently a veritable one-man show riding on the cult popularity of its chairman and presidential nominee, Ko Wen-je, a quirky medical surgeon and the former mayor of Taipei. He rides the line between the other two parties and has been especially popular among Taiwan’s under-40 voters.

Election Day

Election morning brought nervous jitters. Taiwan has never allowed for absentee voting, and as someone who has never held the same address for more than a year since high school, I had also missed the memo on how voting for the first time worked. I fretted over the process and my final picks over the phone with my regional expert on all things US-China-Taiwan — my partner who works at the Asia Society Center on US-China Relations

After running out of excuses to dilly-dally further, I found myself a short walk later at the elementary-school-turned-voting-station. It was bustling with people, chattering indistinctly behind masks. I asked a police officer outside munching on a rice ball (飯糰) if I could use my phone to take pictures. He said no, even though there were people clearly on their phones right next to him. In my assigned classroom, a kind volunteer checked my identification card and used my personal seal to stamp my name in her official registry. I was handed three ballot tickets corresponding to each of the ongoing presidential, legislative, and local elections, and pointed to an empty voting stall. Inside, I found the candidates whose Chinese-character names I had arduously memorized the day before (I speak Chinese but read with the literacy of a toddler), and stamped a big red “Y” next to their names. I dropped my choices into three separate color-coded cardboard boxes and left. The entire process was admittedly foolproof, even for clueless and illiterate me. The police officer hadn’t even finished his rice ball when I passed him on my way out. 

With my part in democracy played, I rejoined my fellow delegates in the city to observe the national ballot counting procedures. At the 4 pm cut-off time, on the dot, we saw police officers barricade the entrances with cute paddle signs and promptly close shop. In the span of a couple minutes, election volunteers had disassembled the curtained voting booths, rearranged the chairs, and placed the ballot boxes front and center. Then came the famous “Singing of the Votes” (唱票). Every ballot result was announced out loud by a volunteer, visually displayed to the observing public and press, and subsequently repeated out loud, tallied, and verified by two additional volunteers. 

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For transparency, each vote was read and repeated out loud by two independent volunteers, and physically displayed to the members of the press and public.
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The vote-counting process was open for members of the press and the public to observe.
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Taiwanese citizens at the official TPP concession rally energetically stand (and shout) in solidarity as the election results are unveiled.
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In the absence of absentee and electronic voting, each vote had to be individually cast in person by exchanging a ballot ticket for physical ballots at a voting station, and only with proper identification to boot.

Within just a few hours, most of the island’s nearly 14 million votes had been tallied in this way. Our delegation had split to simultaneously attend each of the parties’ planned “victory” events, and we witnessed in real time, the DPP pull ahead, stay ahead, and secure the elections all before dinnertime. Newly minted president-elect Lai Ching-te had won a historic third consecutive term for the DPP with a 40.05% plurality of the votes through Taiwan’s first-past-the-post election system. To everyone’s relief but really no one’s surprise, the win was immediately followed by clarion concession speeches from both losing parties, a feat many Americans might no longer take for granted.

For the despairing voters whose candidates had lost, solace could be found in the little daylight separating many of the parties’ stances. All presidential candidates had vowed to not rock the boat with China and maintain the current status quo. All candidates had also vowed to increase military spending to prioritize national security in the face of existential insecurity. And on key domestic issues spanning healthcare to social welfare, all parties overlapped much more than they diverged (the role of nuclear power to fuel Taiwan’s energy mix was a notable exception).

Election Takeaways

Following the elections, the rest of our week-long policy trip was a blur of panel discussions, meetings, and meals with a host of Taiwan-based professors, NGOs, and party and government officials. From the Doublethink Lab, we learned about the prevalence of disinformation campaigns in Taiwan, mostly originating from the mainland, and their reverberating cultural consequences. From Watchout, we obtained copies of informational cartoon guidebooks on what to do in the event of a Chinese invasion. From the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we learned about the strategic importance of Taiwan’s efforts to maintain its dwindling portfolio of diplomatic allies, now down to 12 (Nauru switched its allegiances back to China during our trip). And from many of the regional experts we interviewed, we learned that while Taiwan acts like a de facto sovereign state, it is never treated like one when China is in the room. We also learned that China is always in the room.

Takeaways for democratic processes elsewhere? The level of transparency in Taiwan’s election process left little room for voter doubt or distrust. Democracy truly had nowhere to die under the bright fluorescent lights of Taiwan’s entire electoral process. The vote counting was efficient, with the manual tabulation of millions ballots in just a few hours. The requirement for in-person voting — and only in one’s registered hometown with proper identification — was an intentional but controversial trade-off prioritizing authenticity over accessibility. The eager, almost hungry, participation of everyone in the voting process nevertheless — voter turnout has consistently been above 70% — was helped by the choice to schedule the election on a Saturday.

When not contemplating democratic values and strategic rivalries, our trip also offered the chance to experience Taipei anew through the fresh eyes of my fellow delegates. I delighted in a delegate’s divine reaction to her first pork and chive dumpling, for instance, which was followed by at least 15 more. I got to relive the insane elevation gain of “Elephant Mountain” (象山) as a tourist (hiking with my two white friends automatically ensured this), as we slowly wheezed toward the summit. Another delegate struck gold at the airport through Taiwan’s tourism lottery, and turned a 7-11 corner store into a cornucopia of treats for me and my local friends with her free 5,000 NTD (~150 USD) gift card courtesy of the Taiwanese government.

An Unsteady Status Quo 

Viewing my home country through the lens of regional experts, government officials, and concerned civil society also helped to situate the precarity of the island’s current geopolitical perch. The current status quo could easily and spontaneously unravel. Nevertheless, Taiwan persists. It persists despite its future hinging entirely on the whims of others. It persists knowing full well that it is often a pawn in the political games of influential international players. It persists partly because it has no choice, but partly because it is Panglossian in what it hopes to become. 

Internationally shunned, Taiwan has failed to make its presence noticed on the global stage, so it is instead striving to make its absence felt. From copious processor chip and pineapple cake exports to its characteristically warm and welcoming comportment for all that glance its way, Taiwan chips away at making itself an indispensable net positive for the world. It wants so badly to be recognized, yet must stay under the radar to ensure no recognition subsequently attracts military escalation. In my three decades visiting home, I have never felt so viscerally connected to, yet sorry for, Taiwan’s plight than during these seven days.

With the fate of the island dangling on a thread, some of the people least bothered are the Taiwanese themselves. Interactions with locals poignantly reveal their resilience, or rather, nonchalance, in the face of existential uncertainty. Mainland military exercises and airspace invasions are so common as to be trite conversation pieces. Literal missiles flying over the island don’t halt dinner plans. Despite many Taiwanese abroad flying home expressly to cast their votes, the parents of an unnamed author might have even accidentally skipped town during election week to holiday in Japan. 

This is not to say that there is apathy. People care. Democracy matters. You hear it in the proud and persevering song of the vote counters. You see it in the swathes of citizens traveling for hours to vote in their registered hometowns. Rather, this is to say that day to day, Taiwanese people are just living their lives, the shadow of China or anyone else be damned. And for better or for worse, despite Taiwan’s place as a not-even country in the eyes of the world, it certainly goes about continuing to act like one, successful elections and all. 

If there’s still home to return to, I’ll be back to cast my ballot again in 2028.

Bing Lin

Bing is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy program in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. His research focuses on coral reefs and their conservation along various patterns of scale and the important role of effective and equitable governance in promoting pro-conservation outcomes. He is also an avid writer, photographer, and science communicator. Instagram: @earth.bloom Twitter/X: @thebinglin LinkedIn: @thebinglin

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