Polls Open in Taiwan’s Critical Elections Watched closely by China

A woman prepares to cast her ballot at a polling station during the presidential and parliamentary elections in Tainan, Taiwan January 13, 2024.

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Polls opened on Saturday in Taiwan’s presidential and parliamentary elections which China has framed as a choice between war and peace and are happening as Beijing ramps up pressure to get the island to accept its sovereignty.

Taiwan has been a democratic success story since holding its first direct presidential election in 1996, the culmination of decades of struggle against authoritarian rule and martial law.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which champions Taiwan’s separate identity and rejects China’s territorial claims, is seeking a third term in office with its candidate, current Vice President Lai Ching-te.

In the run up to the election, China repeatedly denounced Lai as a dangerous separatist and rebuffed repeated calls from him for talks. Lai says he is committed to preserving peace across the Taiwan Strait, and keep boosting the island’s defences.

Lai is facing two opponents for the presidency – Hou Yu-ih of Taiwan’s largest opposition party the Kuomintang (KMT) and former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je of the small Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), only founded in 2019.

Hou wants to restart engagement beginning with people-to-people exchanges and has, like China, accused Lai of supporting Taiwan’s formal independence. Lai says Hou is pro-Beijing, which Hou rejects.

Ko has won a passionate support base, especially among young voters, for focusing on bread and butter issues like the high cost of housing. He also wants to re-engage China, but insists that cannot come at the expense of protecting Taiwan’s democracy and way of life.

The parliamentary elections are equally important, especially if neither of the three parties are able to get a majority which might stymie the new president’s ability to pass legislation and spending, especially for defence.

Polls are open for eight hours and close at 4 p.m. (0800GMT), with ballot counting by hand starting almost at once. There is no electronic, absentee, proxy or early voting.

The result should be clear by late evening Saturday when the losers concede and the winner gives a victory speech.

President Tsai Ing-wen is constitutionally barred from standing again after two terms in office.