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Taiwan votes in crucial election as China's shadow looms

Published : Saturday, 11 January, 2020 at 10:01 AM  Count : 161

Taiwan votes in crucial election as China's shadow looms

Taiwan votes in crucial election as China's shadow looms

Taiwanese voters headed to the polls on Saturday for a closely watched presidential and parliamentary election in which the island's fraught relationship with China is taking centre stage.

Long queues formed outside election stations before polls opened across the island at 8 am (0000 GMT) with initial results expected late in the evening.

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 retake the island one day, by force if necessary.

But China is also Taiwan's largest trade partner, leaving the island in a precariously dependent relationship.

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

"We hope our citizens can come out to vote to exercise their rights and make Taiwan's democracy stronger," Tsai told reporters after casting her vote in the capital Taipei.

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

He declined to speak to the media after voting in the southern city of Kaohsiung but has cast the election as a choice between "peace or crisis" with China, adopting the slogan "Taiwan safe, people rich".

- Friend or foe? -

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 law professor has led comfortably throughout the campaign.

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

"We need a president who can defend freedom and democracy," Vicky Hsiao, a 37-year-old housewife, told AFP, after voting in Taipei for Tsai.

"Taiwan is an independent country that doesn't belong to anyone," she added.

Others said they wanted a change.

"I voted for Han because we already gave (Tsai's) government four years and it has done badly on the economy and cross-strait issues," a 60-year-old vegetable vendor, who gave his surname Kuo, told AFP.

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.

- Pressure backfires -

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 its pressure 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 blunt speech stating Taiwan's absorption into the mainland was "inevitable".

Taiwanese voters have been 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, along with Taiwan's largely successful economic navigation of the US-China trade war, has 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 of 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 China.

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


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