Taiwan votes in crucial election as China’s shadow looms

Supporters of Nationalist Party presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu pass under a giant Taiwanese flag at a rally. (AP pic)

TAIPEI: Millions of Taiwanese head to the polls on Saturday for a presidential and parliamentary election in which the island’s fraught relationship with China is taking centre stage.

The vote will reverberate far beyond Taiwan’s borders, with the two main candidates laying out very different visions for its future – in particular how close the self-ruled island should tack to its giant neighbour.

Beijing views Taiwan as part of its territory and has vowed to one day retake the island, by force if necessary.

But China is also Taiwan’s largest trade partner, leaving it in a precariously dependent relationship.

President Tsai Ing-wen, who is seeking a second term, has pitched herself as a defender of Taiwan’s liberal values against the increasingly authoritarian shadow cast by Beijing under President Xi Jinping.

Her main competitor Han Kuo-yu, 62, favours much warmer ties with China – saying it would boost the island’s fortunes – and accuses the current administration of needlessly antagonising Beijing.

Both held mass final rallies on Friday night in front of crowds of hundreds of thousands waving flags – green for Tsai, red and blue for Han.

“This election will determine if Taiwanese people can bravely choose democracy and freedom despite pressure from China,” Tsai told supporters.

Han has described Saturday’s vote as a choice between “peace or crisis” with China, campaigning on the slogan “Taiwan safe, people rich”.

The outcome looks set to infuriate Beijing, which has made no secret of wanting to see Tsai turfed out.

Taiwan bans the publishing of polls within 10 days of elections, but the 63-year-old former academic has led comfortably throughout the campaign.

Her party currently has a parliamentary majority, which analysts expect them to retain.

Pressure backfires

The results of Saturday’s vote will be closely watched by regional powers and in Washington, especially given the parlous state of US-China relations.

Taiwan has long been a potential flashpoint between Beijing and Washington, which remains the island’s main military ally.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party leans towards independence, and Tsai rejects Beijing’s view that Taiwan is part of “one China”.

In the four years since Tsai won a landslide victory, Beijing has tightened the screw, severing official communications with her administration while ramping up economic and military pressure.

It also poached seven of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies, hopeful that a stick approach would convince voters to punish Tsai at the ballot box.

But that campaign appears to have backfired, especially in the last year after Xi gave a particularly bellicose speech stating Taiwan’s absorption into the mainland was “inevitable”.

Taiwanese voters were increasingly rattled by China’s hardline response to pro-democracy protests in neighbouring Hong Kong and the mass internment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Analysts say Tsai’s ability to seize on the protests in Hong Kong, as well as Taiwan’s successful economic navigation of the US-China trade war, have boosted her fortunes.

Last year, her party also pushed ahead with legalising gay marriage – a first for Asia.

While the move infuriated conservatives and many older Taiwanese, it reinvigorated Tsai’s youth base.

Her rival Han, from the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), has struggled on the campaign trail.

A plain-speaking populist, he stormed onto the political scene in 2018 when he won the mayoralty of the usually staunch DPP city Kaohsiung, and then saw off party bigwigs to win the KMT primary.

But his political momentum slowed once he became the opposition candidate as he fought to shake off accusations he lacked experience and was too cosy with Beijing.

Still, the KMT are not going down without a fight and have campaigned to the end – portraying Tsai as a dangerous leader pushing Taiwan towards conflict with Beijing and pressing ahead with divisive social change.