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Taiwan elections

Five things to know about Taiwan elections

Tsai seen as favorite, but legislative vote adds twist amid US-China tensions

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, left, and Han Kuo-yu, the presidential candidate from the opposition party, Kuomintang. (Photos by Ken Kobayashi and Akira Kodaka)

TAIPEI -- Taiwan will elect its next president on Saturday. The decision by voters will shape the island's relations with China for the next four years.

Political observers say incumbent Tsai Ing-wen is favored to win reelection, but there could also be a twist in the legislative election taking place on the same day.

Here are five things to know about Taiwan's elections.

Why is this presidential election important?

Relations between Taipei and Beijing have deteriorated since Tsai of the China-skeptic Democratic Progressive Party, took office in 2016. Tensions escalated further as Chinese President Xi Jinping at the beginning of 2019 reiterated Beijing's unification plan and the arrangement of a "one country, two systems" framework for Taiwan.

Under pressure from Beijing, which sees the island as a wayward province, the Tsai administration has lost diplomatic ties with seven foreign governments over the past three years. China also suspended issuing visas for mainland tourists visiting Taiwan, a move that has hit the island's economy. Many local businesses rely heavily on Chinese tourists. On the other hand, China has offered 57 new incentives in the past two years to lure Taiwanese investment and talent, such as allowing Taiwanese companies to participate in building China's 5G wireless technology infrastructure, in an apparent effort to draw pro-Beijing businesses even closer.

The results of the presidential election will certainly impact Taiwan's relationship with China -- whether to mend ties with Beijing or distance itself further.

Who are the candidates, and why do their stances on Beijing matter?

Tsai, 63, is seeking her second term. Tsai and the ruling DPP have portrayed themselves as the "best defender" of Taiwan's sovereignty and the security of the Pacific Rim against China's expanding influence. Tsai has been channeling Hong Kong's protracted political unrest in her campaign to remind Taiwanese people of the fundamental values of democracy and freedom.

Compared with Tsai and her party, the opposition Kuomintang and its presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu, are friendlier to China. Han, 62, and his party endorse the "1992 consensus," which acknowledges that Taiwan and mainland China are both parts of "One China," with each side owning the freedom to interpret what that means. Han, mayor of the southern city of Kaohsiung, has criticized Tsai's cross-strait policy for locking the doors, suffocating normal exchanges with China and causing economic losses to ordinary people.

People's First Party Chairman James Soong joined the presidential bid in November, just two months before the election. Soong, 77, is running for president for the fifth time since 2000. He has said maintaining the status quo of China and Taiwan relations is the best approach until China is "fully democratized."

Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, second from left, and Foxconn founder Terry Gou have backed a number of "third-force" candidates in this month’s parliamentary elections. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

How will the legislative poll affect Taiwan's post-election policies?

Although Tsai is seen as a clear favorite by political observers, her party faces a challenge securing a majority in the parliament, or legislative yuan. The DPP now holds 68 out of 113 seats, while Kuomintang has 35 seats. Eight seats are held by two smaller parties and the remaining two by independents.

So-called third force parties -- led by political star Ko Wen-je, the current Taipei city mayor who formed the Taiwan People's Party in August, and Foxconn billionaire founder Terry Gou, who has formed a close alliance with Soong's People's First Party -- are also being closely watched to see whether they can secure more seats. The legislative election also serves as a test bed for the next presidential election, when both Ko and Gou hope to expand their influence and pave the way for their own presidential bids.

"Based on Taiwan's current election system, it's for sure that the parliament will still be controlled by the two biggest parties -- DPP and KMT," said Hung Yaonan, chairperson of the Taiwan Asian Network for Free Elections. "We are [mostly] sure that Ko's Taiwan People's Party could become the third-largest party, but not if [the pro-independent] New Power Party and Soong's People's First Party can secure as many seats as they have now."

How do China and the U.S. view the elections?

Some experts say that Taiwan's presidential election is a proxy fight between Beijing and Washington. And in that context, if Tsai wins a second term, such a result would be an unwelcome one for Beijing.

Tsai, during her campaign, has reiterated that China has deliberately misinformed the public in order to influence the elections. China's Taiwan Affairs Office on Dec. 21 again stated that it has never intervened in previous elections and will not do so going forward, in response to Tsai's claims. Xi said in his New Year note that his administration will stick to the "One China" policy to conduct exchanges between the two sides and will remain strongly opposed to Taiwan's independence.

The U.S. has said consistently that Taiwan is an ally for its Indo-Pacific strategy, and it pays close attention to the island's elections. Brent Christensen, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington's de facto embassy on the island, said the U.S. is aware of Beijing's attempt to influence Taiwan's democratic progress. "The U.S. and Taiwan stand closely together to combat disinformation," he told reporters in November.

Where do the candidates stand on the U.S.-China trade war?

Tsai has touted the trade war as an opportunity for Taiwan to elevate its position in the global supply chain, carry out deeper engagement with other countries and reduce the island's reliance on China. Her administration has been luring Taiwanese manufacturers to shift investment back to Taiwan to dodge Washington's punitive tariffs on Chinese goods. The flow of inward investments, which reached 700 billion New Taiwan dollars ($23.3 billion) from 165 Taiwanese companies in the year ending December 2019, has also been part of Tsai's selling point during her campaign.

Han says the Taiwanese government should sign more free trade agreements with other countries, as the U.S.-China trade dispute could add to the burden on Taiwan's small and medium-sized enterprises, which account for 98% of the total number of Taiwanese companies.

Soong notes that Xi is visiting Japan in March and again in August for the 2020 Olympics, while the U.S. is requesting vast payments for its military troops based in Japan. He also points out that the U.S. is facing a presidential election in November, and it is increasing procurement from China to secure votes in agricultural states. "The relations with our important allies could change [in 2020], and this is the risk Taiwan is facing," he said.

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