Taiwan goes to the polls

Election seen as vote on island country’s future cross-strait relationship with China

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Polling station in Taipei (Taiwan News photo)

Polling station in Taipei (Taiwan News photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The people of Taiwan are going to the polls today (Jan. 11) to elect the leader of the country for the next four years in an election widely seen as a referendum on what trajectory relations with China will take.

There are 19.31 million eligible voters in this election, among whom 1.18 million are first-time voters. Voting started at 8 a.m. and will last until 4 p.m., after which counting will begin right away with results due tonight, according to the Central Election Commission (CEC).

Held concurrently with the presidential election, the legislative elections see 113 seats up for grabs, with 73 representing geographical constituencies, 6 reserved for indigenous candidates, and 34 to be filled by "at-large legislators" elected via proportional representation in a national party vote.

The independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) swept to power in 2016, claiming a 68-seat majority partly thanks to the 2014 Sunflower Movement that sowed the seeds of anti-Beijing sentiment among the public. But the ruling party may not be able to retain its majority this time around, as it faces fierce competition from both the major opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party and challenges from smaller parties.

Incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the DPP is pitted against Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) of the KMT, her main opponent, and James Soong (宋楚瑜) of the People First Party (PFP), whose presidential bid is considered a long shot.

Tsai’s chances of reelection looked slim a year ago following the DPP’s rout in the 2018 local elections, which cost her the leadership of the party and prompted former Premier William Lai (賴清德) to challenge her in the primary citing voter disillusion.

The tide has changed in her favor, though, since Hong Kong was plunged into persistent anti-government protests last summer, making reconciliation with China through the “one-country, two systems” formula even less appealing to the Taiwanese electorate.

Meanwhile, China has continued to constrict the island country’s international space, whittle away its diplomatic allies, increase aggressive military exercises, weaponize tourism by banning solo travel to Taiwan, and engage in covert operations and misinformation warfare to meddle with the elections.

The China factor is believed to be playing a bigger role than ever in the presidential election that some say will decide the future for Taiwan.