This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Taiwan is gearing up for a general election at the weekend that will see more than 19 million voters respond to growing fears of Chinese influence and interference in the democratic island in the wake of months of mass protests and police violence in Hong Kong.
The democratic island, which has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party nor formed part of the People’s Republic of China, will nevertheless be choosing between candidates who espouse a closer relationship with Taiwan’s powerful neighbor, and those who believe Chinese influence is a threat to its democratic way of life.
Incumbent Tsai Ing-wen of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has seen her support grow as she has repeatedly spoken out in defense of Taiwan’s sovereignty and demanded that Beijing — which has refused to rule out the use of military force to annex the island — treat Taipei as an equal partner and sovereign state.
Tsai headed out this week for a final tour of the island ahead of Saturday’s election, once more hammering home her chief message, that a vote for her is a vote to protect Taiwan’s freedom and democracy.
“Taiwan is a free and democratic society: freedom and democracy are our core values,” she said. “This election is a crucial one … which will influence the future development of the country.”
“I hope young people won’t stay away. This election campaign is for young people. Fight for Taiwan!” she said.
Tsai is running against Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist party, and veteran candidate James Soong of the People First Party.
No threat to freedoms
Han said his pro-business, pro-China platform wouldn’t pose a threat to Taiwan’s freedoms.
“If I were president, I would guarantee freedom of speech 100 percent in Taiwan,” he said ahead of a planned rally outside the presidential palace to round off his campaign.
“All of our good friends who support [me] have waited a long time for this moment … so let us show our support and faith and love for the Republic of China,” he said.
Support for the KMT, the party that fled to Taiwan with the 1911 Republic of China government after losing control of China in 1949 and which still believes in a “unified” China that includes Taiwan, last month hit a new low.
A senior U.S. defense official said Washington wants to see a “free and fair” election in Taiwan, amid warnings from Tsai’s administration and Taiwan’s security agencies that Beijing has attempted to influence the outcome by proxy funding its favored candidates and spreading misinformation through friendly media organizations and social media.
And a senior U.S. State Department official said officials in Taiwan are “aware of the potential of that sort of influence” when asked about possible Chinese influence in Taiwan’s Saturday elections, the island’s Central News Agency reported.
He said the key to resolving issues of external interference in the affairs of other countries, such as elections, is to make the population aware of the danger.
“The U.S. takes no interest in who wins; the fact that the process stays sacrosanct is what’s important, as it is in our own election process,” the official said.
Voting for the first time
Some 1.2 million young people will be casting their votes for the first time in this election, which will also return a freshly elected parliament, the Legislative Yuan.
They are a group more likely to sympathise with the recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, of which Tsai has been a vocal supporter, warning that China’s stated aim to “unify” with Taiwan under the “one country, two systems” framework used in the former colonial cities of Hong Kong and Macau could spell the end of the island’s freedoms.
A graduate student surnamed Chen told RFA that he was attracted by Han’s offer of interest-free loans for students.
But another student said he had concerns about the threat from Beijing.
“I am just as worried about the cross-straits issue as everyone else,” he told RFA. “We see that Hong Kong hasn’t gotten along well with the ‘one country, two systems’ model.”
A rough poll of people aged 20-30 showed minimal support for the KMT among them, although many appeared to favor Soong.
Out of one group of three young people who spoke to RFA, two were planning to vote for Tsai, while another was still undecided.
Separately, two men in their late twenties said they would pick Soong and his New People’s Party, as they found nothing to like in the two main parties’ candidates.
“Probably the New People’s Party and Soong for president,” one said. “I think the squabbling between the [DPP] and [KMT] is too much.”
Another said Tsai “didn’t do a good job,” but that voting for Han was out of the question.
The new president will take office on May 20, where they will be commander-in-chief of the country’s military and appoint the premier, who then forms a cabinet. The president also signs legislation into law.
The winning and losing candidates will either concede or accept victory late on Saturday, local time, in the absence of any dispute around the count.