But the make up of the Legislative Yuan, currently controlled by Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, hangs in the balance. If the legislature swings into KMT control, it would cripple Tsai’s ability to govern and achieve China’s goal of undermining local trust in Taiwan’s democratic institutions.
Long lines formed at polling stations around the island Saturday, with those who were still in line when voting closed at 4 p.m. allowed to stay and cast their ballot. The votes for president will be counted first, with results for the legislature expected at about 10 p.m. local time.
Taiwan’s vote could be the most consequential election of 2020, said Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat who is now with the Lowy Institute in Sydney. It offers a premonition of the issues that other democracies, including the United States, are encountering.
“Not only is Taiwan a proxy for much of the world’s strategy to deal with the consequences of an increasingly authoritarian China, but also Taiwan has been on the front lines of the Chinese Communist Party’s aggression for decades,” she said. “And while it is trying to safeguard its democratic institutions, it’s also trying to manage its economic relations with China.”
More than 19 million people were eligible to vote Saturday, including 1.2 million 20 to 23-year-olds who were able to vote for the first time. In addition to casting ballots for the presidency, they could vote for their local representatives and for their preferred party.
There are 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan, of which 73 will be filled by constituency winners. A further 34 are awarded proportionately to “at-large” candidates on party lists, while six seats are reserved for indigenous candidates.
The last polls take before the 10-day pre-election blackout found Tsai to have a commanding lead of Han — some of them gave her a 30-point lead — and suggested the DPP would retain its majority in the legislature.
But analysts and politicos alike were wary of relying on those surveys, given that 10 days is a long time in Taiwanese politics and that Han had told his supporters not to cooperate with pollsters.
That led to an intense effort to get out the vote Saturday. Local media showed footage of long lines of people waiting, including one where Tsai’s predecessor as president, Ma Ying-jeou, waited for 30 minutes.
Local television showed one man from the outlying island of Tainan driving his boat 60 miles to his polling station.
And because there is no absentee voting in Taiwan, overseas Taiwanese have been returning in droves to cast their ballot. The number of overseas Taiwanese who registered to vote Saturday was more than double in the 2016 elections.
Tsai has repeatedly trumpeted Taiwan as the world’s only Chinese-speaking democracy, implicitly contrasting the self-ruled island with the Communist one-party state of China. In her last rally before polls opened, she urged Taiwanese to do their civic duty and “bolster democracy.”
China, always an issue in Taiwanese elections, is particularly prominent this time because of the events in Hong Kong over the past six months. Hong Kongers, who are supposed to enjoy a degree of autonomy under a “one country, two systems” framework agreed when the territory returned to Chinese control in 1997, have been protesting relentlessly against Beijing’s increasing erosion of their freedoms.
This framework, though implemented in Hong Kong and Macao, was designed with Taiwan in mind. The Communist Party of China, particularly under the leadership of Xi Jinping, harbors a dream of incorporating Taiwan into the People’s Republic, even though Taiwan has never been a part of that state.
After five decades under Japanese colonial rule, Taiwan became home to the KMT nationalists who fled the Chinese mainland during a civil war in the 1940s, and has existed separately from the mainland ever since.
Tsai and the DPP have capitalized on the lessons of Hong Kong to mobilize the electorate, warning “Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow” to suggest that China would not allow Taiwan to govern itself if it were to agree to a “one country, two systems” setup.
Polls have found that only 10 percent of Taiwanese say they support unification, a proportion that generally correlates with the number of China-born residents of Taiwan.
China stands accused of trying to spread fake news produced by content farms through social media, and through traditional media with strong ties to the mainland. The disinformation continued on Election Day, with messages circulating on social media telling people not to come out to vote because of the risk of a pneumonia-like virus from China.
“They want to reduce trust in Taiwan’s institutions and they want Taiwanese people to feel like their government can’t defend them,” Kassam said. “They could achieve this by having a second term president who is crippled by an inability to do anything.”
Although Xi has refused to rule out military action against Taiwan, mainland media affiliated with the Communist Party has said that China doesn’t need a real war to “resolve the Taiwan question.
“The mainland can adopt various measures to make Taiwan ruled by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) turn into a Lebanon situation, which ‘Taiwan independence’ forces cannot afford,” the Global Times wrote in an editorial last year, referring to the fracturing of the small Middle Eastern country.
But the cautionary tale of Hong Kong encouraged many young Taiwanese to vote Saturday. “I don’t want Taiwan become next Hong Kong,” said Chen Yi-wen, a 28-year-old waitress in Taipei. “We have to use our votes to guarantee the democracy and freedom of our home.
Taiwan is not just a democracy but a dynamic one. The energetic and creative election campaign has included a death metal band frontman, Freddy Lim, running for a second term in the legislature, and a former Sunflower Movement activist, Lai Pin-yu, with a penchant for Japanese cosplay. She has been campaigning in a skintight red catsuit and bright orange wig.
On the outlying island of Matsu, Lii Wen, a former journalist and researcher has been wearing large mussel shells as wings or with a balloon floating above his head while out urging people to vote for him.
The president, meanwhile, has been featured as a Japanese-style anime heroine and has posed, lightsaber in hand, with Star Wars fans. That’s without even mentioning Taiwan’s most famous felines, her cats Think Think and Ah Tsai, which adorn billboards and T-shirts.
Taiwan has also proven itself to be a pioneer in Asia when it comes to social issues. It has the world’s first transgender cabinet minister and last year became the first in the region to legalize same-sex marriage.
Some feared how the Communist Party in Beijing would react if Tsai was reelected and the DPP retained control of the Legislative Yuan.
“I think this may be the last democratic election in Taiwan, said Peggy Li, a 50-year-old university professor.
“If Tsai wins, military invasion is around the corner due to the standoff with mainland China,” she said. “If Han wins, the KMT will take us closer to the Chinese Communist Party. Neither of those is what we want.”
Tiffany Leung contributed reporting.