Taiwan votes in key election under Chinese threats

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Vote counting got under way Saturday in Taiwan’s presidential election, held in the shadow of threats from China that choosing the wrong leader could set the stage for war on the self-ruled island.

Beijing slammed frontrunner Lai Ching-te, the current vice president, as a dangerous “separatist” in the days leading up to the poll and, on the eve of the vote, its defence ministry vowed to “crush” any move towards Taiwanese independence.

Communist China claims democratic Taiwan, separated from the mainland by a 180-kilometer (110-mile) strait, as its own and says it will not rule out using force to bring about “unification”, even if conflict does not appear imminent.

Polls closed at 4:00 pm (0800 GMT) after the electorate of nearly 20 million cast ballots in fine, sunny weather.

Results are expected Saturday evening, with the outcome watched closely by both Beijing and Washington, Taiwan’s main military partner, as the two superpowers tussle for influence in the strategically vital region.

Lai, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), pitched himself during a raucous campaign as the defender of Taiwan’s democratic way of life.

“This is Taiwan’s hard-won democracy. We should all cherish our democracy and vote enthusiastically,” Lai told reporters as he voted in a school gymnasium in the southern city of Tainan.

His main opponent, Hou Yu-ih, of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), favours warmer ties with China and accuses the DPP of antagonising Beijing with its stance that Taiwan is “already independent”.

The KMT has said it will boost economic prosperity while maintaining strong relationships with international partners, including the United States.

“I hope that no matter how turbulent it was during the election process, everyone will unite after the poll to face Taiwan’s future,” Hou told reporters after voting in New Taipei City.

Taiwan bans the publishing of polls within 10 days of elections but political observers say the 64-year-old Lai is expected to win the top job, although his party is likely to lose its parliamentary majority.

Strict election laws also effectively prevent media from asking voters about their specific choices on polling day.

The race has also seen the rise of the upstart populist Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), whose leader Ko Wen-je has drawn support with an anti-establishment offer of a “third way” out of the two-party deadlock.

 China censorship 

Located on a key maritime gateway linking the South China Sea to the Pacific Ocean, Taiwan is home to a powerhouse semiconductor industry producing precious microchips — the lifeblood of the global economy powering everything from smartphones to cars and missiles.

China has stepped up military pressure on Taiwan in recent years, periodically stoking worries about a potential invasion.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a recent New Year’s address the “unification” of Taiwan with China was “inevitable”.

As voters cast their ballots across the strait, AFP reporters spotted a fighter jet in the skies above the island of Pingtan, the nearest point in China to Taiwan’s main island.

The hashtag “Taiwan election” was among the top trending items on China’s social media platform Weibo before it was blocked at around 9:45 am local time (0145 GMT).

Chinese warplanes and naval ships probe Taiwan’s defences almost daily and Beijing has also staged massive war games in recent years — simulating a blockade of the island and sending missiles into its surrounding waters.

The Chinese military said the night before the polls that it would “take all necessary measures to firmly crush ‘Taiwan independence’ attempts of all forms”.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met a senior Chinese official in Washington hours before the vote and stressed the importance of “maintaining peace and stability” across the Taiwan Strait.

Under Taiwanese law, President Tsai Ing-wen could not run again because she has served the maximum two terms.

As well as a president, voters will also elect lawmakers to Taiwan’s 113-seat legislature.

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