Taiwan heads to the polls this weekend in an election that could have major implications for cross-strait relations with China. With incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen stepping down after two terms, the race has narrowed to three contenders vying to set the course for Taiwan’s future.
Election Boils Down to Fateful Choice on China Policy
The election has essentially become a referendum on Taiwan’s China policy, according to observers. Voters face a fateful choice between candidates who differ starkly on how to handle rising threats from Beijing.
Former Premier William Lai, the candidate from Tsai’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has advocated defending Taiwan’s sovereignty at all costs. In contrast, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je seeks closer ties with China to ensure peace and prosperity. The third major candidate, Nationalist Party nominee Hou You-yi, stakes out a middle ground .
“This election is Taiwanese people making a choice about how to position ourselves against an increasingly powerful and aggressive neighbor,” said political scientist Iaonan Wang. “It will set our relationship with China for years to come.” 
|Position on China
|Democratic Progressive Party
|Defend Taiwan sovereignty at all costs
|Taiwan People’s Party
|Seek stable ties with China
|Middle ground between above positions
With China ramping up military pressure and refusing to renounce the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control, the stakes are higher than ever in this election. Chinese President Xi Jinping recently warned that reunification cannot be passed on “endlessly from generation to generation.” 
Chinese Intimidation Looms Over Campaign
The election campaign has occurred in the ominous shadow of China’s increasing belligerence toward the self-ruled island. Candidates have fiercely debated how to respond while avoiding outright provocation that could spark a crisis.
“Taiwanese feel trapped between an anvil and a hammer, between Xi Jinping and his iron fist and the uncertainty a new president brings,” said Taiwan-born UCLA student Howard Chen. 
Throughout the fall, China conducted provocative military drills around Taiwan while state media trumpeted invasion plans. Chinese officials also sought to sway the election, warning Taiwanese that certain candidates would lead them into “the abyss of disaster.” 
Lai Pledges to Defend Taiwan While Ko Seeks Accommodation
Frontrunner William Lai has pledged to uphold Taiwan’s de facto independence and liberal democratic values. He has accused his opponents of weakness that could “kill Taiwan.” 
Lai supports expanded U.S. trade and security ties, while opposing concessions sought by China. He spearheaded reform efforts under President Tsai.
In contrast, Ko Wen-je argues that confrontation with China serves nobody’s interests. Instead, he wants balanced ties to ensure regional stability and economic growth. 
Critics accuse Ko of appeasement that could erode Taiwan’s hard-won freedoms. But his message has resonated with some young voters eager for reduced tensions.
Final Polls Show Lai Leading But Outcome in Doubt
Final polls indicate Lai retains an edge going into election day. But with a large bloc of undecided voters, Ko or Hou could still pull off an upset.
Much depends on turnout among young Taiwanese, who prefer Ko’s more China-friendly stance by a large margin. Hong Kong’s democracy crackdown has also shaken previous partisan allegiances for some voters. 
High Turnout Expected Despite China Intimidation
Election officials predict heavy turnout on Saturday despite Beijing’s attempted intimidation. “The Chinese threats are actually mobilizing people to vote, not deterring them,” noted democracy activist Peng Ming-min. 
Some analysts believe China’s pressure campaign has backfired, rallying Taiwanese citizens to passionately demonstrate their democratic convictions. A record 75% of eligible voters are expected to participate. 
Fateful Choice Carries Global Implications
While focused squarely on Taiwan’s future, the election outcome could reshape regional power dynamics for years. It also has critical implications for global semiconductor supplies centered in Taiwan. 
If Lai wins, analysts predict rocky Taiwan-China relations ahead along with heightened military tensions. But Ko’s accommodation strategy worries hawks who argue it would fatally undermine Taiwan’s security and autonomy. 
The election is also being closely watched in Washington. Some fear a Ko victory could unravel growing Taiwan-U.S. ties seen as critical to keeping China’s ambitions in check. 
Candidates Make Final Appeals to Undecided Voters
In final campaign stops this weekend, the candidates made bold but sharply contrasting pitches to capture undecided voters. Lai renewed his vow to stand up to China while promoting justice and equality. Meanwhile, Ko touted his signature policies like resolving wealth inequality and housing affordability. 
Nationalist nominee Hou You-yi continued straddling the middle, calling for calm resolve in handling cross-strait ties. “We cannot be both weak and provocative at the same time,” he argued.
Lai Fends Off Independence Controversy
Frontrunner Lai faced last-minute controversy when a recording emerged of him arguing Taiwan is already an independent state. The comments seemed to contradict his public stance of maintaining Taiwan’s ambiguous status amid China’s objections. 
Lai defended the comments as philosophical debate misrepresented out of context. Nonetheless, the flap threatened to weaken support from moderate voters nervous about inflaming tensions with Beijing. Rival campaigns seized on the recording to portray Lai as dangerously radical.
Rivals Attack Ko Over Beijing Ties
At the same time, Ko faced mounting scrutiny over his business dealings with Chinese state-owned enterprises. Critics claimed the ties explain Ko’s accommodating stance toward China and charge he cannot stand up to Beijing pressure. 
“He who pays the piper calls the tune,” said DPP spokesman Frank Hsu. “Voters should consider if Ko would ever defy his Chinese benefactors on security or human rights issues.”
Ko defenders argued such criticism distorts his nuanced cross-strait position rooted in pragmatic goodwill, not subservience toward China.
Surge in Cross-Border Voters Expected
Tens of thousands of overseas Taiwanese are traveling home to cast ballots in the hard-fought election. In the United States, nationwide volunteer groups organized direct charter flights to facilitate voting from cities with big Taiwanese expat communities. 
Plane after plane packed with Taiwan voters also arrived in recent weeks from other international hubs like Tokyo, Singapore, Sydney, Vancouver and Hong Kong.
Many overseas Taiwanese view participation as an act of resistance against Beijing’s coercion and a chance to amplify Taiwan’s voice on the global stage. “We want to show the world Taiwan can choose its own future democratically without Chinese interference,” said Los Angeles resident Pearl Chen. 
Final Pre-Election Polls Show Tight 3-Way Race
Two influential pre-election polls on Friday indicated a tight contest heading into the homestretch. The TVBS poll showed Lai leading with 30%, trailed closely by Ko at 28% and Hou at 22%. But nearly one-fifth of voters remain undecided. 
Similarly, a Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation survey gave Lai 31% support to Ko’s 27%, with Hou back at 25 percent. The high undecided vote again leaves the outcome uncertain.
Analysts say China’s escalating intimidation tactics could rally undecideds to Lai on security concerns. But Ko retains an edge among young Taiwanese focused on domestic reforms and economic issues. Either Ko or Hou would need overwhelming backing from undecideds and strong youth turnout to upset Lai.
U.S. Delegation Arrives Amid Election Interference Concerns
An American congressional delegation led by Senator Bob Menendez arrived in Taipei on Friday to demonstrate Washington’s support for Taiwan’s democracy ahead of the vote. However, concerns linger over ongoing Chinese efforts to covertly influence the election outcome. 
Beijing has unleashed propagandistic media attacks on Tsai’s DPP while talking up Ko’s cross-strait platform. There are also suspicions of funneling dark money to favored local candidates. Still, experts doubt China can significantly tilt Taiwanese perceptions on core sovereignty issues central to the vote.
Menendez stressed that America will continue strengthening ties with Taiwan regardless of specific election results. But he noted shared values have greatly advanced the bilateral relationship under President Tsai.
China Experts Weigh Post-Election Scenarios
Assuming Lai emerges victorious as polls suggest, experts see rocky times ahead in Taiwan-China relations. “Beijing will turn up various forms of pressure hoping to exact concessions or force mistakes by the new Taiwanese leader,” assessed Stanford political scientist Gordon Chang. 
But Chang believes Lai has the savvy and backbone to stand firm while avoiding needless provocations. Over time, he expects Beijing may look for some face-saving path to deescalation if its brinkmanship fails to coerce Taiwan’s leadership or splinter domestic resolve.
Other analysts worry that China’s response could turn uglier, especially if Ko loses decisively with his more Beijing-friendly platform. “We may see an eruption of saber-rattling and even live-fire shows of force meant to punish Taiwanese voters,” cautioned Ian Easton of the Project 2049 Institute. 
In contrast, experts speculate a surprise Ko win could buy a period of short-term calm. But skeptics argue Ko has not articulated a long-term strategy for sustaining functional ties without forfeiting Taiwan’s interests. Over time, a strengthened China may simply pocket concessions while resuming coercion efforts.
Either way, most observers agree cross-strait tensions look unlikely to dissipate given fundamental differences over Taiwan’s status and widening power disparities between the two. Creative statecraft will be needed to manage festering flashpoints regardless of who holds Taiwan’s presidency over the next four years.
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