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Taiwan started counting votes on Saturday afternoon in a pivotal presidential and parliamentary election that could influence China’s approach to its democratic neighbour.
The eighth national vote since the country of 23.5mn first held free and direct presidential elections in 1996 has been overshadowed by threats from Beijing.
China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and refuses to renounce the use of force to bring it under its control if the country rejects unification indefinitely. On the eve of the polls, the People’s Liberation Army warned that it “remains on high alert at all times [to] smash ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist plots in any form”.
Lai Ching-te, the candidate from the Democratic Progressive party whom Beijing has denounced as a dangerous separatist, was the frontrunner in a close three-way race until a polling blackout took effect 10 days ago. In Taiwan’s first-past-the post electoral system, candidates can win with a simple majority.
Lai competes with Hou Yu-ih from the Kuomintang, which sees Taiwan as part of a broader Chinese nation but disagrees with Beijing over which state represents it, and Ko Wen-je, founder of the Taiwan People’s party, which targets swing voters.
Although many voters have expressed fatigue with ideological rhetoric and said they wanted a new government to reinvigorate the economy, the candidates have cast the election as a matter of national survival in their final pitches.
“In the past eight years, we refused to lock ourselves in to China and bow to authoritarianism. That proves that we hold our fate in our own hands,” Lai shouted at a massive rally on Friday night. “That is the power to defend Taiwan.” Calling the KMT candidate “China’s preferred choice”, Lai said if Taiwan reversed the DPP’s course of weaning it off economic over-dependence on China, foreign investors might abandon the country.
At the KMT’s rival event, which the party said was attended by 250,000 people, Hou told supporters: “Lai Ching-te takes us on the path to war, Hou Yu-ih is on the path of peace!” He accused the DPP government of corruption and pledged to pursue dialogue with China to lower tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
Ko, the candidate most popular with young voters, was the only of the three to talk about policy proposals in some detail, promising tax reform and steep increases in spending for healthcare, public housing and rent subsidies.
“We will win back this country [from the two big parties], we will win a just and fair future,” he said, addressing a crowd in front of the presidential office in Taipei that the TPP put at 350,000.
Global attention is focused on whether the DPP can become the first party in Taiwan’s democratic history to cling to power beyond two terms, a scenario some observers worry could heighten cross-strait tension.
“Lai Ching-te has pledged to continue the prudent China policy of [incumbent president] Tsai Ing-wen, but if the DPP wins again, such a result could compel [Chinese president] Xi Jinping to believe that his chances for unification without war are running out,” said a western diplomat in Taipei.
But the three parties have most of their attention focused on the legislative vote. The DPP, which holds 63 of the 113 seats in parliament, was likely to lose that slim majority, leaving the country with a minority government that would probably lead to constant deadlock, campaign officials said.
The result of the presidential race is expected to become clear in the early evening, a few hours after polls close at 4pm.
Outside a polling station in Hsinchuang, a Taipei suburb, a queue of nearly 100 people snaked around the corner at 9am. Han Wei-jung, a 30-year-old nurse, said he would vote for Ko Wen-je. “We have to move beyond blue and green,” he said, referring to the KMT and DPP by the two big parties’ colours.