Taiwanese voters will pick a president Saturday, setting the course for how to handle political and military rival China amid fears that Taiwan could be taken by the Communist government or become another protest-wracked Hong Kong.
The electorate of some 18 million people will decide whether to let incumbent Tsai Ing-wen serve another four-year term. She takes a guarded stance toward China at the risk of further angering the Communist leadership, which has already sent naval ships and military aircraft near the island as warnings since 2016.
Many analysts believe Tsai will beat her closest rival Han Kuo-yu, the mayor of Taiwan's major port city and an advocate of dialogue with China on Beijing's terms.
Tsai is riding the tailwinds of particularly strong U.S. relations, which Taiwanese see as a sign of strength in case they need help repelling China, and perceptions that she can best stop Taiwan from becoming another Hong Kong, experts say.
Hong Kong's protesters, some violent, want China to relinquish their territory from its "one country, two systems" rule that means Beijing is in charge but with a degree of local autonomy. Militarily stronger China claims sovereignty over Taiwan and insists on ruling it someday as it now governs Hong Kong. Taiwan and China have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s.
"In this election, all possible factors that should help Tsai Ing-wen have taken shape, including the China factor, the U.S. factor and the Hong Kong protest factor, and also including the factor of comparisons made to the other presidential candidates," said You Ying-lung, chairman of the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation survey research organization.
Tsai's approval ratings rose from the 20s in late 2018 through last month, when the foundation released a poll giving her a 49.3% "favorable" rating.
The 63-year-old law scholar with the Democratic Progressive Party spoke out multiple times in 2019 against China's idea for "one country, two systems" rule over Taiwan and openly sided with Hong Kong's protesters. Her tone felt "strong", said Shelley Rigger, a National Taiwan University, social sciences college visiting researcher.
"She didn't say anything new but she said old stuff in a way like she was defending Taiwan, telling the truth," Rigger said.
Voters say they're taking her China policy seriously. "The issue matters because it would directly impact the way we live," said Taipei voter Dong Yu-hsin, 23, a social service industry worker. "We have such a free and open society, and on the other hand the government in China places a lot of restrictions on its people.
"If you look at the three candidates, then Tsai Ing-wen's point of view is the one I agree with most," he said. "I hope Tsai Ing-wen can keep her perspective on autonomy and uphold today's status quo."
Some voters think the election comes down to whether Taiwan remains democratic, said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
"I feel at least an obvious number of people are going to vote this time because they have a fear their country will perish," Huang said. "And, in addition, there are those who fear there's not more going to be more democracy."
Since Tsai took office, she has angered China by rejecting its condition that both sides hold talks as parts of a single China. The December 24 poll found that about 73% of Taiwanese advocate keeping at least today's distance from China, including more formal independence.
Taiwan's government, officially called the Republic of China, still claims China under its constitution, just as the Communists claim Taiwan under theirs.
Talks with Beijing
Tsai's election rival Han advocates a return to 2008-2016 when his Nationalist Party's president Ma Ying-jeou was in office.
Ma agreed to China's condition for talks, allowing the two sides to sign more than 20 deals on trade, transit and investment. The two sides shelved political differences then to build trust. But by 2014 Taiwanese had worried so much about growing too close to China that they held weeks of street protests in Taipei.
Han, a populist who won the mayoral seat just 14 months ago, can handle China without political risk, said Jason Hsu, a Nationalist lawmaker and member of Han's policy advisory team.
"What we are trying to convey is the message that we can manage the relationship with China better than the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) and at the same time not compromise democracy and our sovereignty," Hsu said. Tsai's approach of "alienating" China will eventually "backfire," he said.
Voters will also elect a new parliament Saturday. The ruling party now has 68 seats and many party members are running tough re-election campaigns. Parliament has the authority to ratify any deals with China and pass laws affecting interaction between people from the two sides.