In the democratic framework, periodic elections form the fulcrum of democratic functioning. Democratic functions such as elections seek to highlight freedom and liberal values in stark contrast to authoritarian state systems. Taiwan’s ongoing election campaigns exemplify the importance of elections in a democracy. Compare these with the 2,345 Chinese Communist Party (CCP) delegates drawn from a nation of 1.4 billion gathering to select the nation’s leader for the next five years. This is what differentiates democracy from authoritarian regimes.
Lately, however, there have been repeated attempts by state and non-state actors to interfere, malign and discredit the popular election process, with the ultimate aim to derail democracies across the globe. A statement by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed zealous attempts by authoritarian regimes to interfere in the democratic election and political processes at different levels using different models. Reports of overt and covert interference in the election process in the US, the UK, India and other democratic countries have surfaced in the media and have been confirmed by the respective establishments.
Large and mature democratic states have been subject to external interventions aimed at manipulating political and electoral processes. Taiwan is a relatively young democratic practitioner facing an authoritarian state willing to use all possible methods to manipulate and shape its election processes. Beijing’s launch of war games, including surrounding the nation, was meant to intimidate and threaten Taiwan, as well as showcase its military preparedness to the West.
China is likely to engage and intensify its efforts to coerce Taiwan into engaging with it. Taiwan’s local elections and presidential elections in 2024 provide an opportune time and chance for Beijing to manipulate public perception and election results to push Beijing’s agenda of peaceful unification.
One possible active involvement would be cybermanipulation, given China’s massive presence in cyberspace. In this context, it is worth reviewing the digital readiness of Taiwan to confront and neutralize its adversary’s cyberactivities.
The China element in Taiwanese elections is natural given its intricate and complex relationship with the former. Given China’s recent actions, is there a debate and construct around cross-strait relations, and what is the stance of the main political parties in Taiwan? Do Taiwanese discuss China in the ongoing local elections and presidential elections in 2024?
Two recent major events likely occupy the public mind in Taiwan, although political debates in the local election campaigns have not openly involved the China element so far. These are the sensational live-fire war games conducted by China and the remarks of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) at the CCP’s 20th National Congress indicating his plans for Taiwan, which were greeted by a long and loud applause, reflecting the urgency and criticality of unification with Taiwan in the national rejuvenation project of the Chinese leadership. We will likely witness more China and cross-strait rhetoric from candidates in the run-up to the elections.
Surprisingly, the ongoing local election process in Taiwan, despite being conducted against a backdrop of Chinese war exercises, and regular and repeated crossings of the median line of the Taiwan Strait, is bereft of debate on the issue. Naturally, being local elections, domestic and mundane issues are defining the election discourse. The August war exercises and attempts to choke Taiwan do dominate the public mind, even though they are not debated by the political parties and candidates. The voters lining up to cast their ballots on Saturday would be mentally seized with these two developments and emotionally exercising their franchise. Given the impact these two factors have on the mood of the electorate, the voter turnout is likely to be higher than previous elections.
Given the mood in Taiwan, instead of direct action, China could resort to silent cyberoperations to manipulate and influence the public mind. Taiwan makes a compelling case to keenly watch cyberactivities around election time. Earlier cyberwarfare challenged the fundamental security of critical national assets such as hospitals, manufacturing, transportation and financial systems, even 7-Eleven services. Reports say that China has 43 identified groups dedicated to disseminating disinformation, typically staffed by 600 to 800 people per group.
Safeguarding Taiwanese elections and upholding its integrity will become increasingly challenging and more complex, with newer advances in digital technologies and cyberthreats expected to come from across the Strait. Electronic security measures, firewalls to protect and secure online election systems are critical to maintain the credibility of elections.
What are the institutional arrangements in place to thwart likely cyberattacks and manipulations? Can the general public have confidence in these arrangements to uphold the integrity of the election system, which is backbone of the democratic process?
Taiwan has made investments in cybersecurity by setting up institutions such as the National Information and Communication Security Taskforce, the National Center for Cyber Security Technology, the Department of Cyber Security and the recently formed Ministry of Digital Affairs. The legal framework is provided by the Cyber Security Management Act of 2018 (資通安全管理法) to enforce, monitor and supervise the digital information flow, including reporting of suspected cyberattacks on critical national infrastructure as specified and listed in the act.
Additionally, the establishment of a cyberwarfare wing as branch of the armed forces to carry out offensive and defensive cyberoperations is a milestone in attempts to install a digital shield against cyberattacks.
Initiatives like “Humor over Rumor” to counter spread of disinformation and misinformation, cyber civil defense projects to bring together academics, media experts and netizens to collaborate with public agencies working in cyberspace do create a harmonious and friendly environment for civil society, thus enhancing the level of confidence in the workings of democratic institutions.
The local election debates could have created space for powerful domestic conversation around the Chinese live-fire exercises and Taiwan’s status. Unfortunately, it has not happened so far, but hopefully the 2024 presidential elections would generate heat around the issue.
However, the question is: Are the systemic arrangements good and sufficient enough to protect and neutralize enhanced cyberattacks in ongoing and future elections? The government might be aware and have anticipated the ambitious designs of China, but collaboration with the democratic world in sharing information and experiences of dealing with sabotage attempts would help effectively stave cyberattacks on democratic institutions and evolving a global cyberstrategy.
Rajagopal Devara is a Taiwan research fellow at National Chengchi University’s Graduate Institute for Development Studies.
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