TAIPEI – Taiwanese turned out to vote for a new president Saturday, with the China-friendly Kuomintang party likely to lose power to the pro-independence opposition amid concerns that the island’s economy is under threat from China and broad opposition to Beijing’s demands for political unification.
The Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen is poised to become the self-governing island’s first female president, returning the main opposition party to power after eight years under Kuomintang President Ma Ying-jeou, who is constitutionally barred from another term.
The outcome of the contest for a majority in the 113-seat legislature remains uncertain, with independents and smaller parties posing a threat to both Kuomintang and the DPP.
“Taiwan and China need to keep some distance,” said Willie Yao, a computer engineer voting in Taipei who said he backed Tsai. “The change of president would mean still letting Taiwanese make the decision.”
Reflecting unease over a slowdown in Taiwan’s once-mighty economy, undeclared voter Hsieh Lee-fung said that providing opportunities to the next generation is most important issue.
“Economic progress is related closely to our leadership, like land reform and housing prices. People aren’t making enough money to afford homes,” Hsieh said.
A win for Tsai will introduce new uncertainty in the complicated relationship between Taiwan and mainland China, which claims the island as its own territory and threatens to use force if it declares formal independence.
“This is not about defeating the other party. This is about working to overcome the obstacles in Taiwan’s path,” Tsai told supporters gathered in the rain at a final rally Friday night in front of the presidential office building in the center of the capital, Taipei.
Tsai has pledged to maintain the status quo of de-facto independence for the island of 23 million, although she has refused to endorse the principle that Taiwan and China are parts of a single nation to be unified eventually.
Beijing has made that its baseline for continuing negotiations that have produced a series of pacts on trade, transport and exchanges. Observers say China is likely to adopt a wait-and-see approach to Tsai’s presidency, but might use diplomatic and economy pressure if she is seen as straying too far from its unification agenda.
Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1885 to 1945 and split again from China amid civil war in 1949.
Tsai’s Kuomintang opponent, Eric Chu, was a late entry in the race after the party ditched its original candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, whose abrasive style was seen as alienating voters. He has trailed Tsai by double digits in the latest polls.
China has largely declined to comment on the polls, although its chief official for Taiwan affairs this month warned of potential major challenges in the relationship in the year ahead.
Responding to a question about China’s attitude toward the election, a spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office was quoted as saying that Beijing has continued to take no position on the polls.
“What we are concerned about is the relationship between the two sides,” the spokesman, who was not identified, said in a statement.
Tsai supporters appeared confident that ties with China will weather a change in government.
“As long as Tsai doesn’t provoke the other side, it’s OK,” said former newspaper distribution agent Lenex Chang, who attended Tsai’s rally. “If mainland China democratizes someday, we could consider a tie-up,” he added.