by Jerome TAYLOR
TAIPEI, Taiwan (AFP) — Taiwan’s presidential rivals will hold mass rallies later Friday in a final push to convince voters ahead of a closely watched election that looks set to infuriate China and send ripples far beyond its borders.
Some 19 million people are eligible to vote on Saturday to choose between two leaders with very different visions for Taiwan’s future — in particular how close the self-ruled island should tack to its giant neighbour.
Beijing views Taiwan as part of its territory and has vowed to one day retake the island, by force if necessary.
But China is also Taiwan’s largest trade partner.
President Tsai Ing-wen, who is seeking a second term, has pitched herself as a defender of Taiwan’s liberal values against the increasingly authoritarian shadow cast by Beijing under President Xi Jinping.
Her main competitor Han Kuo-yu favors much warmer ties with China — saying it would boost the island’s fortunes — and accuses the current administration of needlessly antagonizing Beijing.
Both candidates are planning huge final campaign rallies on Friday night as they try to mop up swing voters for both the presidency and the unicameral parliament.
Taiwan bans the publishing polls within 10 days of elections but Tsai has led comfortably throughout the campaign.
“It would take a huge shift from the final polls for Han to win,” said Shelley Rigger, a Taiwan expert at North Carolina’s Davidson College.
“Unless there was a huge polling failure or turnout is wildly uneven, a surprise seems unlikely,” she told AFP.
Beijing has made no secret of its desire to see Tsai ousted.
Her Democratic Progressive Party leans towards independence, and Tsai rejects Beijing’s view that Taiwan is part of “one China”.
But in the four years since Tsai won a landslide victory, Beijing has tightened the screw.
It severed official communications with her administration while ramping up economic and military pressure.
It also poached seven of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies, hopeful that a stick approach would convince Taiwan’s voters to punish Tsai at the ballot box.
The campaign appears to have backfired, however, especially in the last year after Xi gave a particularly bellicose speech stating Taiwan’s absorption into the mainland was “inevitable”.
Taiwanese voters were increasingly rattled by China’s hardline response to pro-democracy protests in neighboring Hong Kong and the mass internment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Tsai has seen a dramatic reversal in fortunes.
A year ago she looked a lame-duck president, languishing in the polls after the DPP received a thumping at local mid-term elections.
But analysts say Tsai’s ability to seize on the protests in Hong Kong, as well as Taiwan’s successful economic navigation of the US-China trade war, have boosted her fortunes.
“Tsai has convincingly presented herself as the best person to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty,” Bonnie Glaser, an expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told AFP.
Her rival Han, from the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), has struggled on the campaign trail.
A plain-speaking populist, he stormed onto the political scene in 2018 when he won the mayoralty of the usually staunch DPP city Kaohsiung, and then saw off party bigwigs to win the KMT primary.
But his political momentum slowed once he became the opposition candidate as he fought to shake off accusations he lacked experience and was too cosy with Beijing.
“Han Kuo-yu was a bad choice for the KMT,” said Glaser. “He has made many gaffes and provided little details about his policies.”
Still, the KMT are not going down without a fight and have campaigned to the end — portraying Tsai as a dangerous leader pushing Taiwan towards conflict.
“Don’t let Tsai Ing-wen destroy the Republic of China’s democracy, freedom and the rule of law,” party chairman Wu Den-yih told supporters on Thursday, using Taiwan’s official name.
The results of Saturday’s vote will also be closely watched by regional powers and in Washington, especially given the parlous state of US-China relations.
Taiwan has long been a potential flashpoint between Beijing and Washington, which remains the island’s main military ally.
© Agence France-Presse