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China’s shadow looms over Taiwanese elections

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Supporters of independent candidate Terry Gou, gathered in Kaohsiung on May 7

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Two months before the presidential elections in Taiwan, the shadow of China hangs over the electoral campaign. The questions of the future of China-Taiwan relations, democracy and fundamental rights are the main issues.

In his first major campaign rally , last week, outgoing vice president and presidential candidate for the eight-year-old ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Lai Ching-te, set the tone.

He promised amid applause to maintain peace across the Taiwan Strait. He added that he wanted to defend democracy and fundamental freedoms by collaborating with the democratic partners of the small island of 24 million inhabitants.

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Lai Ching-te addresses his supporters on November 4.

Almost everywhere in Taipei, posters of the Kuomintang (KMT), the main opposition party traditionally conciliatory with China, proclaim its ability to establish dialogue with the Middle Kingdom. Peace across the Taiwan Strait. We don't want war, we can read on the posters with the portrait of presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih.

In each election in Taiwan, the most crucial issue is of course the relationship between Taiwan and China, says Shih Ping-Fan, professor in the Department of East Asian Studies at National Taiwan University. Other subjects exist, but are of lesser importance. Whether economic or social issues, they are less important.

The outgoing president from the nationalist PDP party – hated by Beijing, which describes her as an independentist – Tsai Ing-wen is stepping down after two terms. According to the constitution, she cannot run again. On the other hand, his party remains ahead.

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A poster of presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih

Cross-Strait relations have always been an unavoidable issue during Taiwan's elections, said Chang Chun-Hao, professor of political science at Tunghai University in Taichung. In this election, it is possible that the PDP will remain in power. This raises questions about how Chinese President Xi Jinping will implement corresponding measures to deal with Taiwan.

This is an area that I find particularly interesting to observe at this point- this. China's ultimate goal is to prevent Lai Ching-te and the DPP from winning.

A quote from Chang Chun-Hao, professor of political science at Tunghai University in Taichung

Indeed, support for the DPP candidate oscillates around by 32% in the polls, while the candidates of the Kuomintang and the Taiwan People's Party (TPP) garner between 20 and 22% of support, and the independent candidate, co-founder of the semiconductor giant Foxconn, Terry Gou, obtains between 5 and 10% of support.

This four-candidate dynamic – for now, as discussions of a strategic alliance have been in the news lately – is unprecedented in Taiwan's political landscape, dominated by the Kuomintang and the DPP since the democratic shift in 1989.

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Terry Gou is co-founder of Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn.

The The case of TPP candidate Ko Wen-Je, former mayor of Taipei and young rising political star, is intriguing for many analysts. The latter also appears open to the Chinese position.

You can also see that recently Ko Wen-Je attempted to nominate a Chinese national as a legislative candidate, which caused significant controversy in Taiwan.

A quote from Shih Ping-Fan, professor in the Department of East Asian Studies at National Taiwan University

It is also possible that the Taiwan-China relationship will not deteriorate if the DPP remains in power.

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Ko Wen-Je

I think that we must avoid the error which is made by some, and which is pushed in the political interest of others, of saying that a victory of the PDP brings us inevitable way to a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait, says Mathieu Duchâtel, director of international studies at the Montaigne Institute.

In fact, we can clearly see that things are more complicated than that, that there is a possibility of peaceful management of this relationship, that a PDP victory can result in the elected candidate saying things which make it possible to maintain a certain stability in the strait.

A quote from Mathieu Duchâtel, director of international studies at the Montaigne Institute

In Taiwan, which sees five million computer attacks every day, almost exclusively from China, fears of manipulation and interference are strong. So much so that the Ministry of Justice is broadcasting announcements in the media and in the Taipei subway encouraging distrust of Chinese disinformation.

This is because Taiwanese society remains very worried about China, says Shih Ping-Fan. I see this as a social phenomenon. Thus, the more China tries to intervene obviously in the electoral process, the more the Taiwanese oppose it. The more China gets involved, the more it risks aversion.

In 2020 for example, a year after the bill was tabled anti-extradition in Hong Kong, the worried Taiwanese voted again in favor of the DPP. The case of Taiwan's municipal elections last year is also interesting.

At the end of last year, we had local elections in which the DPP suffered some defeats, explains Chang Chun-Hao. This could partly be attributed to China's significant involvement in Taiwan's elections last year.

There were major military exercises conducted by China in response to the visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi who was Speaker of the US House of Representatives. After these exercises, it seemed that Taiwanese public opinion was leaning more toward peaceful relations.

A quote from Chang Chun-Hao, professor of political science at Tunghai University in Taichung

This change in public opinion could also influence the position of the future ruling party on cross-Strait relations. Even though the PDP is traditionally seen as a China-resistant party, after these elections I think the PDP could make some adjustments.

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A Chinese J-15 fighter jet takes off from the Shandong aircraft carrier during military exercises around the island of Taiwan last May.

As important as the question of relations with communist China is, which has never ruled the democratic and sovereign island of Taiwan, but which considers it its territory, it would be wrong to believe that this is the only issue of the election campaign.

At this stage, yes, I think it is reductive to see this election as a referendum on relations with China, believes Mathieu Duchâtel. There are still issues of Taiwanese domestic politics in the campaign, for example on the nature of the social security system, on spending levels.

We also have a subject around the question of values, more or less liberal, more or less conservative values. I think we should not neglect this dimension. But of course, the question of relations with China is absolutely central. The question is: will this question be decisive or not?

A quote from Mathieu Duchâtel, director of international studies at the Montaigne Institute

The campaign sprint is fast approaching. The Taiwanese will go to the polls in two months, on January 13.

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