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03 June 2023

Taiwan goes to the polls as China and US look on

By Reuters

Taiwan votes for its next president and parliament on Saturday in an election that will be closely watched by China and the United States as they look for stability in the region at a time of political transition for both superpowers.

Opinion polls suggest the presidential race will be tight. But a slight advantage is seen for incumbent Nationalist Ma Ying-jeou, 61, who has fostered warmer ties with China, over Tsai Ing-wen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

"I think we all know, the election is now very tight," Ma said at one of the last rallies before campaigning ended on Friday night.

"Ma Ying-jeou hopes the pan-blue (Nationalist) camp will join forces to usher in a new era. Is this good or not?"

"Yes," the crowd shouted back.

The run-up to the election has been smooth so far. Unlike in 1996, when China fired missiles into waters off Taiwan before the island's first direct presidential election, Beijing has learnt to temper any response to avoid antagonising voters into backing the DPP.

The DPP's independence-leaning stance has long angered Beijing, which deems Taiwan a renegade province and considers U.S. arms sales to the self-ruled island as the top obstacle to improved ties between the United States and China, now the world's two biggest economies.

Tsai has distanced the DPP from the independence stance. But a DPP victory could complicate matters for Chinese President Hu Jintao and other leaders who will hand power to a younger generation later this year and who don't want to jeopardize their legacy of fostering more stable cross-strait ties.

Besides the presidential election, Taiwan's 18 million eligible voters will also choose the island's 113-member parliament, currently dominated by the Nationalists, that will be crucial in expediting or stalling future policies.

Most analysts expect a high turnout given the closeness of the race. Nearly 200,000 Taiwanese have returned from overseas for the poll according to local media reports, cramming flights in a last minute rush to cast ballots.

Ma and Tsai, both former law academics with doctorates from Harvard and the London School of Economics respectively, held a flurry of rallies and motorcades islandwide on the final day, with Ma focusing on the DPP's largely rural stronghold of the south and Tsai aiming north.

A third candidate, former Nationalist party member James Soong who now leads a splinter party, trails far behind in the polls but could cloud the result for the Nationalists by siphoning off some of Ma's support.

Some see the election as a referendum on the economic rapprochement with China shepherded by Ma over the last four years, that may have eased decades of animosity and the threat of outright war but raised fears of an over-reliance on its powerful neighbour.

However on the streets, livelihood issues dominate, especially at a time of global economic uncertainty for export-reliant Taiwan.

"We hope the new president can improve the economy," said Hsu Kuo-hsiung, a 49-year-old car mechanic as he polished a black sedan in his garage in a Taipei suburb.

"This is most important. If there's no stability, the economy will suffer."