Taiwan voters headed to the polls on Saturday for presidential and legislative elections that have been dominated by China’s ambitions of gaining control over the de facto independent island.
Throngs of people could be seen assembling outside polling stations in the capital Taipei shortly after voting opened at 8am local time. Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen had made a last-ditch push on Friday to encourage young voters, telling supporters that the future of their democratic nation was at stake.
Initial results are expected later on Saturday.
If Ms Tsai wins a second term in power, as opinion polls suggest, her victory is likely to be interpreted as a message of rejection towards Beijing.
Boosted by months of protests in Hong Kong, which reaffirmed Taiwan’s longstanding dismissal of China’s “one country, two systems” formula, and by a strong economy, Ms Tsai enjoyed a lead of more than 25 percentage points over Han Kuo-yu, her populist challenger from the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), before a 10-day polling blackout.
But political analysts say the ruling party’s seemingly unassailable lead could hit turnout, with young voters in particular staying away. “Most parties are working very hard right now to mobilise. The DPP [the ruling Democratic Progressive party] is concerned about young voters,” said Chen Kuang-Hui, a political-science professor at National Chung Cheng University. “If they don’t cast their votes, the share of Han [of the KMT] might rise.”
At a final rally in front of the presidential building, Ms Tsai urged young voters to cast their “sacred ballot” on Saturday. Standing in front of 101 first-time voters, she said Taiwan’s battles for democracy had been fought on the same square over decades. “Now it’s your turn,” she said. “Hong Kong’s youth are watching you,” she added, in a reference to the democracy protesters in the Chinese territory.
Earlier, Mr Han accused Ms Tsai’s government of corruption and said it had isolated Taiwan and robbed the younger generation of its chances of economic prosperity. “We must break through this depression, those obstacles, and lead the Taiwanese people in a charge that will open a new path,” Mr Han told supporters at his final rally.
He accused Ms Tsai of failing to demonstrate enough pride in the Republic of China, founded during the first Chinese revolution in 1911 and transferred to Taiwan by the KMT after it lost the civil war to the communists in 1949. Mr Han’s supporters, mainly middle-aged voters who embrace ROC patriotism rather than a Taiwanese identity, cheered him on waving Republic of China flags.
The contrast between the two presidential candidates could not be more stark. Ms Tsai is a western-educated former trade negotiator, who has the air of a bureaucrat when speaking in public. Her opponent, Mr Han, an energetic campaigner whose political career was recharged by disaffected voters in the rust-belt city of Kaohsiung, meanwhile casts himself as an unpolished man of the people.
Taiwan’s swing voters, a group that accounts for about 8 per cent of the electorate, appear to be backing the president, but DPP officials worry that Ms Tsai cannot win without the youth vote.
Formosa, one of Taiwan’s most respected pollsters, put the president’s average lead over Mr Han during the past three months at 45 percentage points among voters under the age of 30. Commonly called the “natural independents”, this generation is overwhelmingly opposed to the idea of China swallowing up Taiwan.
Mr Han’s refusal to directly criticise China for threatening and isolating Taiwan has made him unpalatable to the young.
Presidential election turnout in Taiwan has declined from almost 83 per cent in 2000 — the year that brought the DPP into power for the first time — to just 66 per cent when Ms Tsai won in 2016. Turnout among 20-year-old first-time voters was 62 per cent four years ago, but dropped to just 55 per cent among those aged 24.
Anne Kuo, a 22-year-old shop assistant in Taoyuan, said while voting for Mr Han was out of the question for her, she was not thrilled about Ms Tsai either. “I think she is not imaginative enough, too conservative,” she said.