Taiwan prepares to elect a president and legislature in what’s seen as a test of control with China

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — With rallies and concerts attended by thousands of flag-waving supporters, Taiwanese are preparing to elect a new president and legislature on Saturday in what many see as a test of control with China, which claims the self-governing island republic as its own.

The race is tight, and both China and Taiwan’s key ally, the United States, are weighing in on political and economic issues they hope will sway voters.

The election pits Vice President Lai Ching-te, representing the Democratic Progressive Party known as the DPP, against Hou Yu-ih of the main opposition Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang or KMT, and the former mayor of the capital city Taipei, Ko Wen-je, of the Taiwan People’s Party.

Speaking in his hometown of Tainan in the island’s south, Lai reflected on why he had left his career as a surgeon because of China’s missile tests and military exercises aimed at intimidating Taiwanese voters before the first open presidential election in 1996.

“I wanted to protect the democracy that just gotten underway in Taiwan. I gave up my well-paid job and decided to follow the footsteps of our elders in democracy,” Lai said.

Hou, a former head of Taiwan’s police force and mayor of the capital Taipei’s suburbs, said that Lai’s view on relations with Beijing could bring uncertainty and even the possibility of war.

“I advocate pragmatic exchanges with China, the defense of national security, and protection of human rights. I insist that Taiwan’s future will be decided by 23.5 million (people of Taiwan) and I will use my life to protect Taiwan,” Hou said.

Eric Liao, a 54-year-old aviation engineer, didn’t divulge what party he was favoring, but said dialogue between the sides was crucial.

“I believe that there must be exchanges between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. Only by having exchanges can we live in peace, which will be beneficial to the people on both sides,” he said.

Ko has strong appeal among younger voters, but is running a distant third in most polls.

Younger voters were mostly focused on their economic futures in a challenging environment.

“I still don’t know who to vote for. I feel that none of the candidates are good enough for me to have the urge to vote,” said Iris Huang, 27, who works in online marking.

Ko’s participation in the election has stirred things up for voters accustomed to the usual choice between the KMT and DPP, said Yoshi Liao, a 40-year-old construction engineer

“It’s different from what we had before … therefore, no one knows who will be elected before the results are counted,” Liao said.

A young woman who commutes on one of Taiwan’s ubiquitous motor scooters said that financial stability was her main priority.

“My salary raises. Its the only thing I care about at this moment,” said the woman, who only gave her surname Liu to protect her privacy.

At a news conference on the eve of the vote, Central Election Commission Chairman Lee Chin-yuan said that he would “like to emphasize once again that all processes for the voting and counting of this election are transparent, open and subject to public supervision.”

China’s military threats may sway some voters against independence-leaning candidates, but the U.S. continues to pledge support for whatever government emerges, reinforced by the Biden administration’s plans to send an unofficial delegation made up of former senior officials to the island shortly after the polls.

That move could upset efforts to repair ties between Beijing and Washington that plunged in recent years over trade, COVID-19, Washington’s support for Taiwan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which China has refused to condemn at the United Nations.

Apart from China tensions, the Taiwan election largely hinges on domestic issues, particularly over an economy that was estimated to have only grown by 1.4% last year. That partly reflects inevitable cycles in demand for computer chips and other exports from the high-tech, heavily trade-dependent manufacturing base, and a slowing of the Chinese economy.

But longer-term challenges such as housing affordability, a yawning gap between the rich and poor, and unemployment are especially prominent.

Candidates will make their final appeals Friday with campaigning to end at midnight. The candidate with the most votes wins, with no runoff. The legislative races are for districts and at-large seats.

While dinner table issues gather the most attention, China remains the one subject that can be ignored but not avoided. The two sides have no official relations, but are linked by trade and investment, with an estimated 1 million Taiwanese spending at least part of the year on the mainland for work, study or recreation. Meanwhile, China has continued flying fighter planes and sailing warships near the island to put teeth behind its pledge to blockade, intimidate or invade.

Those threats were thrown into stark relief in 2022, when Beijing fired missiles over the island and conducted what was seen as a practice run of a possible future blockade of the Taiwan Strait after then U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. Chinese President Xi Jinping, at his most recent meeting with President Joe Biden in November, called Taiwan the “most sensitive issue” in U.S.-Chinese relations.

Washington is bound by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself and consider all threats to the island as matters of “grave concern,” while remaining ambiguous on whether it would use military forces.

In recent years, the U.S. has stepped up support for Taiwan as Beijing ratchets up military and diplomatic pressure on the island, although the wars in Ukraine and Gaza have drawn down what U.S. military industries can provide to customers and allies.

The U.S. government insists the differences between Beijing and Taipei be resolved peacefully, and opposes any unilateral change to their status quo. While Chinese leaders and state propaganda proclaim unification is inevitable and will be achieved at any cost, Taiwanese have consistently voted in favor of maintaining their de facto political independence.

Lai is considered the front-runner in the race, but Hou trails closely. While the Nationalists formally support unification with China, they say they want to do so on their own terms, a somewhat abstract concept given the Communist Party’s demand for total power, but which some consider as a useful workaround to avoid outright conflict.

Beijing has labeled Lai a “Taiwan independence element,” an appellation that he hasn’t repudiated and which carries little or no stigma in Taiwan. Lai, however, has pledged to continue current President Tsai Ing-wen’s policy that Taiwan is already independent and needs to make no declaration of independence that could spark a military attack from China.

While running third in most surveys, the TPP’s Ko said during a news conference Friday that he would aim to strike a balance between Taiwan and the U.S. that wouldn’t upset relations with China.

“The U.S. is the most powerful country in the world and Taiwan’s most important ally,” he said. “So no matter who is elected, the relationship between Taiwan and the U.S. will not change.”

Ko said that he is the only “acceptable” candidate for both Washington and Beijing, adding that while there’s nothing Taiwan could do to please both China and the U.S., it is important for the island to refrain from “behavior that is intolerable to either side.”

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Johnson Lai contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s Asia-Pacific coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/asia-pacific

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