On January 13, 2024, Taiwan elected current vice president William Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party to become its next president. Lai took the election with a plurality of 40.1 percent, defeating the opposition Kuomintang party’s nominee Hou Yu-ih (33.5 percent), and former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je of the newly formed Taiwan People’s Party, or TTP (26.5 percent). The 64-year-old former physician’s victory marks the first time a political party in Taiwan has won a third straight presidential election, a milestone—and cause for tension—as the island deepens its ties with the U.S. while navigating a harrowing cross-strait relationship with neighboring China.

Founded in 1984, Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) finds its root in opposition to the historically dominant Kuomintang (KMT), who previously ruled on the island as a one-party state after its defeat against the Chinese Communist Party in Mainland China in 1949. Known for its strong advocacy of human rights and anti-authoritarian stance, the DPP rose to particular prominence as incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen pushed an unambiguous pro-independence ideology onto international stages. The movement asserts a Taiwanese political status and identity separate from China. In practice, it bears a cautiously firm approach against Beijing’s call for Taiwan’s “reunification” with Mainland China, preferring to build stronger partnerships with the United States and other democracies around the globe. On the other hand, KMT’s Hou and TPP’s Ko both vowed active engagements with Beijing while standing steadfast against a “one country, two systems” akin to Hong Kong’s governing relationship with China.

It is, of course, not a rarity for China to loom over the island’s election, but this year’s tension is also met by unprecedented firsts: China’s leader Xi Jinping has stacked his new Politburo with inner loyalists—experts see this a reach for near-absolute dictatorial power. For the past months, Chinese warplanes and naval vessels have occupied Taiwan's surrounding skies and waters almost daily. Hong Kong’s relative freedom under Chinese rule has faltered. And the war in Ukraine and its striking similarities to Taiwan (Beijing, too, argues for Taiwan’s reunification as “inevitable” and a result of “indisputable legal and historical fact”) has sparked weekly demonstrations in Taipei as protestors stand in support and question in fear—will a reality 5,000 miles away replicate itself on this East Asian island?

Lai has asserted himself as an adamant defender of Taiwanese dignity against the intimidation of the Chinese Communist Party; yet, many worry that he lacks the artistry and experience in dealing with the dicey nuances of Beijing. The vast majority of Taiwan would prefer to protect the island's political status quo, rather than pursuing outright autonomy and risking Beijing's wrath. After all, the “nation” and nationalist identities can be sought without cross-strait recognition. Many agree that signed-and-sealed independence, at the very least, should not come at the price of warfare. Though Lai affirmed to voters that he intends to maintain President Tsai’s approach towards preserving cross-strait relationships and current peace, many worry that his stubborn, even harsh style may provoke further conflicts with China.

Beyond international affairs, bread-and-butter issues have become more prominent than in past elections. During the DPP’s past eight years in office, the cost of housing has risen while wages have remained stagnant. Corruption in the party has also prominent scores of voters advocating for “ruling-party rotation” (政黨輪替)—the practice of alternating the ruling party for political counterbalance within the top government. However, for the third consecutive time on the island, the young, yet seasoned democracy spoke for itself, pushing China further from its narrative into establishing a distinctive Taiwanese nation and identity.

As the world forwards its congratulations to Lai (Beijing is, in fact, hissing), may we watch a country that wears its democracy loud and proud (see the horde of frisky dancers in Kaohsiung body painted with the DPP’s signature green and pink) cast its ballot into an uncertain, yet self-determined future, cherishing the exuberance of a hard-fought path into a selfhood tethered to every voice.