A Taiwanese voter stands at a polling booth during the general elections in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, January 11, 2020. REUTERS/Ann…
A Taiwanese voter stands at a polling booth during the general elections in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Jan. 11, 2020.

TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Taiwanese voters headed to the polls Saturday morning to pick a president in an election dominated by the question of how their government should handle its political rival China. Some are casting votes for the incumbent Tsai Ing-wen, who takes a tough stance toward Beijing. Others are going instead for Han Kuo-yu, a rising-star mayor who wants closer economic ties with China.

Voters lined up outside polling stations Saturday morning in an early sign of strong turnout in a presidential election that will chart the future of the island’s relations with China.

The government in Beijing considers Taiwan part of its own territory that must eventually unify with China. Taiwanese said in surveys last year though that they prefer today’s democratic self-rule over unification. Anti-China protests in Hong Kong over the past months raised fear among some Taiwanese voters of what life might be like under rule by Beijing. China has ruled Hong Kong for more than 20 years.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen arrives to cast her vote at a polling station during general elections in New Taipei City, Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 11, 2020.

Big issue: China

Chen Li-chin, a 43-year-old mother from suburban Taipei, decided to vote for incumbent Tsai Ing-wen because the president has shown a willingness to resist China.

She said the most important thing the government should do is protect Taiwan’s democracy. Chen said that in comparing candidates she prefers Tsai Ing-wen. Taiwan’s cooperative relations with China, she added, can be conducted state-to-state as long as China doesn’t take Taiwan to be part of its own country.

Tsai, a 63-year-old, U.S.-educated law scholar, advocates dialogue with China only if the communist leadership in Beijing drops conditions that Taiwan consider itself part of China. She has spoken in favor of Hong Kong’s protesters and said Taiwanese cannot accept the “one country, two systems” type of rule that Beijing uses now to govern Hong Kong.

Chinese President Xi Jinping advocated the same system for Taiwan in a speech a year ago this month. His government has not ruled out use of force, if needed, to capture Taiwan.

Tsai told a campaign rally Friday night people should vote to uphold their freedoms.

She said the ballots in voters’ hands safeguard the fruits of reforms, democracy and people’s freedom as well as successive generations of young people so they can become a source of Taiwan’s dignity. That’s everyone’s responsibility, she says.

Taiwan's opposition Kuomintang Party presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu votes at a polling station during general elections in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Jan. 11, 2020.

Trade and investment

Tsai is running against Han Kuo-yu of the Nationalist party, also called the KMT. Han is the 62-year-old mayor of Taiwan’s chief port city Kaohsiung. He says he wants to start talks with China on trade and investment matters that would benefit Taiwan’s export-reliant economy. Han did not talk to reporters Saturday after voting.

His policies follow from those of ex-president Ma Ying-jeou. Over Ma’s eight years in office before 2016, China and Taiwan signed more than 20 trade and investment deals while setting aside the political dispute. But by 2014 many Taiwanese feared Ma was getting dangerously cozy with China and staged mass street protests in Taipei.

Some voters, however, still see dialogue as the best solution. Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese invest in China or sell goods to its vast consumer market.

Voter Tony Hong, a 67-year-old retired public servant from central Taiwan, had picked Han as his candidate.

He said relations with China are of top importance and that of course the two sides should talk more. He called dialogue an advantage in peace for both sides but said China should respect Taiwan’s freedom and democracy.

Parliament on ballot

Taiwanese will also elect a new 113-seat parliament Saturday. The legislature now controlled by Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party allocates the foreign affairs budget and can pass laws related to China. Last month parliament approved a bill that outlaws infiltration by China through junkets, campaign contributions and other election influence.
 
Taiwan’s Central Election Commission halted campaigning Saturday. Campaign rallies, concerts and street parades with booming drumrolls lasted past 11 p.m. Friday. Election tampering or other major voting gaffes are rare in Taiwan.

By noon, crowds were thinning out at polling stations around Taipei. A ballot count is set to start when polls close at 4 p.m. Election results normally emerge within hours.