Lai Ching-te’s voice cracked as he hailed a crowd of tens of thousands in southern Taiwan on Sunday night. In the home stretch ahead of the presidential elections, Lai, the candidate for the ruling Democratic Progressive party, was hoarse from weeks of campaigning, but he implored supporters to keep his party in power.
“We must embrace the world instead of relying on China,” he said. “Your sacred ballot will decide not only the future of Taiwan but the fate of the world!”
The race has unfolded under unprecedented pressure from China, which claims the island as part of its territory and threatens to annex it by force if Taipei refuses to submit to its control indefinitely.
Beijing has described the vote on Saturday as a choice between war and peace, between prosperity and decline — an indication that China could step up its campaign of military intimidation and economic pressure if Lai, the current vice-president, wins.
He is being challenged with just as much verve by Hou Yu-ih, a former police chief, of the opposition Kuomintang and Ko Wen-je of the smaller Taiwan People’s party, who are appealing to voters seeking change after eight years of DPP rule.
With just days until the vote, analysts believe the race remains close. Under a polling blackout that took effect on January 3, it is unclear whether Lai remains the frontrunner, as he has been throughout the past year.
“I’m fairly confident that no one will run away with this and sweep the field,” said Nathan Batto, a research fellow at Academia Sinica, the country’s top academic institution.
Relations with China and national identity — long the main dividing lines between the pro-Taiwan DPP and the KMT, which embraces a broader Chinese identity — have become even more dominant in this year’s campaign.
The two opposition candidates, who both advocate the revival of a services trade agreement with China that was scrapped a decade ago, argue that a Lai victory would further inflame cross-Strait tensions. Lai on Tuesday accused Beijing of taking unprecedented measures to interfere in the polls.
“The China factor seems a little more explicit this time,” said Shelley Rigger, a veteran expert on Taiwan politics at Davidson College. “The KMT framed the election as a choice between war and peace so Lai was forced to respond.
“That is even though from the voters’ perspective, domestic issues may be more important: people are tired of the DPP after eight years in office. They don’t want unification, they just want someone who can bring a fresh approach to a lot of things.”
In campaign speeches, Lai has accused Hou — who takes a more ambiguous stance on Taiwan’s independence, which he argues would allow a resumption of dialogue with Beijing — of “bowing to authoritarianism”, and questioned Ko’s experience in handling international affairs.
Lai is still being hounded by opponents over a 2017 remark in which he described himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence”. Within the DPP, he is closer to the wing that advocates formalising the country’s independence, and the Chinese Communist party has denounced him as a separatist in even starker terms than incumbent Tsai Ing-wen.
Lai has tried to present himself as an experienced pair of hands, pointing to solid economic growth and social reforms as well as a stable China policy under Tsai. But his remarks on cross-Strait relations during a televised December 30 debate have sparked concerns that despite a pledge to maintain Tsai’s course, a Lai presidency could set a quite different tone.
Asked whether he was committed to the constitution of the Republic of China — the state founded on the mainland that continues to exist in Taiwan — and whether he agreed that mainland China was part of the ROC’s territory, Lai said it was worth considering whether using the ROC as a protective shield in cross-Strait relations would bring peace or disaster.
DPP officials said Lai meant to highlight the party’s position that Taiwan is already independent under constitutional amendments that distinguish the “free area” from the “mainland area” of the ROC. This is in contrast to the 1946 constitution, which defines the ROC’s territory as all of China and thus in effect includes Taiwan within China.
Analysts said Lai had failed to demonstrate the skilful ambiguity with which Tsai has navigated the issue. “Lai revealed that he doesn’t have the same discipline as Tsai. He couldn’t resist the temptation to explain why respecting the constitution is compatible with Taiwan independence,” Batto wrote in a blog post.
“These are the types of clarifications that legislators, pundits, and scholars can make, but presidents, cabinet ministers and diploma[t]s probably should leave unsaid.”
Lin Ying-yu, a professor of strategic studies at Tamkang University, said China would “show muscle” in the event of a Lai victory, but added that Beijing was unlikely to drastically escalate military manoeuvres, noting that such messaging was also a facet of tensions with the US.
He added that a recent reshuffle within the People’s Liberation Army — which has seen the purge of officials linked to the PLA Rocket Force and the appointment of a new defence minister — could prevent “massive moves right now”.
How Beijing reads the election result could come down to the margin of a DPP victory. Since the opposition is split, analysts believe Lai has the best shot under Taiwan’s first-past-the-post system without run-offs.
But even DPP campaign officials have said the party was likely to lose its legislative majority, and project Lai to prevail by a much narrower margin than Tsai.
Taiwan’s growing political consensus for strengthening the country’s defences, which is also backed by the KMT, and China’s increasingly hardline stance have also conspired to leave less room for ambiguity and compromise, analysts said, limiting the prospect for substantive changes in cross-Strait relations.
China’s leaders “understand that they have all of Taiwan’s potential leaders boxed in pretty tightly”, Rigger said. “But they could not reveal that because that would be loosening the noose. They are not prepared to give even a KMT president very much that would allow him to move things forward in terms of political talks.”
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