Taiwan goes to the polls on Saturday for elections that will not only redefine the island’s political landscape but also set the tone for its relations with Beijing over the next four years, with voters saying they want to protect democracy on the island.
Some 19.3 million potential voters will pick their next leader in a crucial election closely watched by Beijing and Washington because the result will decide the direction of cross-strait relations, according to observers.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is seeking a second term over Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu of the mainland-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) party and the perennial presidential contender James Soong Chu-yu, founder and chairman of the People First Party.
Voter turnout is expected to be higher than four years ago, given the fiercely contested race and the good weather.
Casting her vote in Taipei on early Saturday, Tsai urged the electorate to vote.
“The weather is nice today. I hope all eligible voters can go to vote and exercise their rights to strengthen democracy in Taiwan. I also hope that the voting procedures will be smooth,” she said after casting her ballot.
William Lai Ching-te, Tsai’s running mate, said the election was crucial for Taiwan’s future.
A weary-looking Han, accompanied by daughter Han Bing, cast his vote in Kaohsiung on Saturday morning but did not comment. Soong registered his vote at a polling station in New Taipei City.
In Taipei, voter Wu Chun-wen, 41, said she came out because it was important to take part in democracy but the economy was her main concern.
“I voted mainly for economic factors because I think Taiwan’s economy is not as good as when I was a student,” Wu said. “Hong Kong is not a big factor, but it probably has influenced some young people.”
A 74-year-old retiree in Taipei who would only be identified by his surname Cheng said he voted for Tsai and the DPP because he wanted to preserve Taiwan’s freedoms and democracy. He added that he would never vote for the KMT because of the party’s closeness with mainland China.
“I was a bit nervous actually because it seems most people in this district are KMT supporters,” he said. “The Taiwan election is not just about what kind of character you are ... It’s about what you will actually do.
“I told my son, who did not want to vote, that if he did not go out today to vote I would not leave my house and assets to him, so I think he will go vote to leave Taiwan better for future generations.”
Seats in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan are also being contested, with the DPP now holding 68 of the 113 seats.
Polling stations are open from 8am until 4pm, with results expected by Saturday evening.
The elections have focused on issues such as sovereignty, democracy and cross-strait issues between Taipei and Beijing – all of which have been amplified by months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong resisting Beijing’s influence. Other key issues include energy policy, same-sex marriage and economic policy.
Major surveys in Taiwan indicate that Tsai, who has taken a strong stance against threats from Beijing, has a significant edge over her main opponent Han, who has advocated closer ties with mainland China to end frozen cross-strait relations during Tsai’s administration.
The legislature is more competitive, with analysts saying it is less clear whether the DPP can maintain its majority there.
In addition to the 73 constituency seats in the legislature elected directly, six seats are also reserved for Taiwan’s indigenous aboriginal population and 34 at-large candidate seats won based on a party vote. Parties need at least 5 per cent of the vote to secure at-large seats.
Cheng, the retiree, said he was confident that Tsai would win comfortably but was concerned there was a smaller gap between the DPP and KMT in the legislative races.
Beijing considers Taiwan a wayward province that must be returned to the mainland fold, by force if necessary. It has suspended formal exchanges with the island since Tsai was first elected in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle.
Analysts said that no matter which candidate emerged victorious, the relationship with Beijing would remain a tough issue for the island’s next leader to resolve.
“Regardless of who wins the election, cross-strait ties will never be able to return to the time that relations were warm under the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou,” said Simon Chang Teng-chi, professor of political science at National Taiwan University.
From 2008 to 2016, Ma of the mainland-friendly KMT, brought eight years of relatively cosy cross-strait ties, crowned by his semi-summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore in 2015.
Since voting must be done where citizens hold household registration, tens of thousands of Taiwanese working abroad are expected to return to Taiwan to their home districts to cast their ballots.
One of those is Chan Yiyun, 27, who works for a biotechnology company in Shanghai. Even though she said she supported Taiwan sovereignty, she planned to vote for Han for his economic policies.
“I know the KMT is pro-China, but the DPP is stupid,” Chan said. “Taiwan’s economy is so bad, and its diplomatic work is a disaster. The DPP has been provoking China and other countries are breaking off diplomatic relations with us, one after another.
Taiwan will only have a bargaining chip after its economy is boosted.”
Other voters like Harry Fan, a Taipei salesman in his 30s, felt that a vote for Tsai and the DPP would help secure Taiwan’s democratic way of life.
“Taiwan’s young people will stand with freedom and democracy, and while some of our older friends may find it difficult to change their political stance, this time us young people will come out [and vote] because over the past few months we have seen the situation in Hong Kong and this has hurt our hearts,” he said.
“It seems clear to me that China’s Communist Party is backing certain politicians here. I think that’s dangerous, so I won’t vote for any pro-China party.”
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