Who is William Ching-te Lai, the Liberal Candidate in the Upcoming Presidential Election of Taiwan?

A Portrait.
Taiwans Vizepräsident Lai Ching-te, auch bekannt als William Lai, hält eine Rede während einer Pressekonferenz in Taipeh, Taiwan

Taiwans Vizepräsident Lai Ching-te, auch bekannt als William Lai, hält eine Rede während einer Pressekonferenz in Taipeh, Taiwan

© picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | ChiangYing-ying

In Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election, the ruling liberal Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has nominated the current Vice President William Ching-te Lai as their candidate. Lai has had a remarkable political career that included both triumphs and controversies. While his adversaries will mainly focus on his previous stance on Taiwan Independence, his real challenge might be to get traditional DPP voters on board: women, young people and the queer community. 

The next Presidential election of Taiwan is scheduled for January 2024. Having served two consecutive terms, the current leader, Tsai Ing-wen, will not be permitted to run again. On April 12th, 2023, the ruling liberal party DPP,announced their candidate for the presidential race: William Ching-te Lai, the current Vice President. But who is he?

A senior DPP politician, the 63 year old Lai has achieved notable accomplishments and has faced challenges throughout his career. Born in what is now New Taipei City, Lai was a physician before his career took an unexpected turn. Starting from 1994, Lai actively engaged in politics, supporting the former Minister of Justice, Ding-nan Chen, who inspired Lai to run for campaign. In 1996, Lai chose Tainan, where he worked as a doctor, to begin his political journey. In the following years, Lai served as a legislator representing Tainan in the Legislative Yuanfor several terms before he was elected in 2010 as the mayor of the city. In 2014, Lai secured a remarkable reelection victory with nearly 73 percent of the votes —an unprecedented margin in the history of local elections in Taiwan. 

From Local to Central: the Controversial Premier

Given his high level of support and demonstrated capabilities, Lai was appointed by President Tsai in 2017 as the Premier. His tenure was not without controversy. The amendment of the Labor Law during his first year sparked a series of protests. In the center of the controversy was a comment of Lai’s urging workers to consider longer working hours as "doing good deeds", which quickly became a source of mockery among young people. The Law reform included several controversial changes, including an increase in the allowable overtime hours from 46 hours per month to 138 hours over a three-month period; and lifting restrictions for certain industries, enabling employers to require their workers to remain on duty for up to 12 consecutive days without a day off. Acknowledging the negative impacts this legal reform had caused, Lai took responsibility for the DPP's substantial defeat in the 2018 local election and resigned from the cabinet. 

It also sparked criticism when Lai, a Harvard-educated physician, made a remark that attributed the spread of HIV to the gay community. The Taiwan Centers for Disease Control (CDC) swiftly clarified that the transmission of HIV is primarily related to insecure sexual interactions and is independent of individuals' sexuality. The controversiescoincided with his registration as a presidential candidate for the 2020 election, challenging the incumbent Tsai Ing-wen. But with his more conservative comments on record and a generally less progressive image as such, Lai was not very popular among young and female DPP supporters, resulting in his loss in the primary competition to Tsai for the 2020 presidential candidacy. Lai was then invited to be Tsai’s running mate, which he accepted.

Lai’s Cross-Straits Vision: Evolving Stance on Taiwan Independence

In light of geopolitical concerns, the cross-straits tension and Taiwan has become a greater focus of democracies in the past year. As Lai embarks on his campaign journey for the presidential election, questions have been raised by foreign media regarding his stance on Taiwan's national status and, most importantly, how cross-strait relations would unfold if Lai becomes the next President of Taiwan. Lai, the then Premier of Taiwan, made headlines in 2017 by describing himself as "without a doubt a politician who supports Taiwanese independence" and "will never change this stance, no matter what office I hold." 

However, Lai later went on to explain that his approach to Taiwan's independence is "pragmatic," and he "has an affinity toward China as much as he loves Taiwan." Over the years, Lai then shifted his stance on Taiwan's independence multiple times. One notable instance occurred when Lai assumed the role of DPP's Chairman in January 2023, a sign that he would be appointed as the frontrunner for the presidential election. Lai defined his cross-straits policy as "promoting peace while protecting Taiwan". On the question of Taiwan Independence, he stated that Taiwan was "already independent," a viewpoint shared by President Tsai during her interview with BBC in 2020, shortly after she was re-elected with a landslide victory. In May 2023, Lai again assured voters he would not declare Taiwan's independence, indicating no de jure independent status would be pursued under his administration. By toning down his stance, Lai attempts to reassure not only Washington but also Beijing his support of remaining cross-straits relation as status quo, should he be elected as the President of Taiwan.   

Overall Support, but Lacking in DPP’s Key Demographic

As for his chance to win the upcoming election, recent polls indicate that Lai enjoys a lead over his two main opponents: According to one poll, Lai garners 35.8% of support, surpassing the former mayor of Taipei, Mr. Wen-je Ko from the populist Taiwan People's Party (TPP), and the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate, Mr. Yu-ih Hou, who both receive 23% of support. In another poll, Lai maintains his lead with 35.8% support, while Ko from the TPP secures 25.9%, and Hou receives 18.3% support. 

It is worth noting that in both investigations, a significant portion of respondents, approximately 20%, remain undecided about their voting preference. Additionally, an early poll conducted by the TVBS media highlights that Lai currently faces the lowest support among voters aged 20 to 29. Ko leads in this demographic, securing 43% support, followed by Hou from the KMT with 26%, while Lai receives only 22% support. Though it is still seven months away from the election, these poll results provide valuable insights into voter’s preference: the fact that Lai is training behind with young people is problematic, because young people traditionally vote for DPP.

This is reminiscing of his failed first bid for the presidential nomination in 2019. In an effort to overcome the perception of being less appealing to younger voters and his past controversies, Lai's team has recently started a number of progressive initiatives. One notable step taken by the DPP is the establishment of the "New Immigrants Affairs Department" within the party. With this move, Lai wants to emphasize his commitment to immigrant rights and his recognition of the importance of  diversity within Taiwanese society. When asked recently by young students in Taiwan which global leader he would most like to have dinner with, the 63 year old Lai amused the students with humor: Xi Jinping. In a lighthearted tone, Lai said that he would advise the Chinese President to "chill out" and tell Xi "Peace is beneficial for all of us." 

#MeToo: DPP in focus

Noteworthy is also the recent #MeToo movement that has swept through Taiwan since June 2023 and Lai's response. The movement was triggered by former DPP workers who made accusations of sexual harassment incidents, subsequent inaction, and even instances of bullying against the survivors within the party. Amid this movement, Lai as the DPP Chairman swiftly responded by apologizing to the survivors and making promises to improve the party's internal mechanisms for gender equality. As the movement gained momentum, more people went public to share their stories, exposing cases of sexual misconduct that extended beyond the DPP to include other political parties, prominent activists, writers, scholars, and more in positions of power. The handling of these cases, including actions taken by party leaders, can potentially shape the public's perception and further influence their voting behaviors.

Last but not least, it is also speculated that the vice presidential candidate who will run alongside Lai might be a female politician capable of bringing a more progressive image to the forefront. Popular options include Cheng Li-chun, the former Minister of Culture of Taiwan, and Hsiao Bi-khim, the de facto Taiwanese ambassador to the United States. 

Lai has still a long way to go to securing the presidency. His political opponents will doubtlessly use his previous statements on Taiwan independence against him in the campaign. Particularly the KMT who is campaigning under “vote for us if you don’t want war” will viciously attack Lai on these grounds. The fact that DPP's key demographic - women, queers and young people - have not yet warmed to Lai, is a challenge for him. His team will focus on making him more palatable to this demographic in the upcoming months.