TAIPEI – The world is watching what choice Taiwan makes as the only Chinese-speaking democracy, President Tsai Ing-wen said on Friday, the eve of elections in which Tsai said a vote for her would be a vote for freedom.
Taiwan holds presidential and parliamentary polls on Saturday in the shadow of both a ramped up effort by China to get the democratic island to accept Beijing’s rule, and anti-government protests in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong.
“To choose Tsai Ing-wen and Enoch Wu is to choose to stand together with democracy and freedom,” Tsai told reporters at a campaign event. Wu is an up-and-coming member of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a former banker who is standing for parliament.
“More importantly, it shows our determination to defend our country and sovereignty,” added Tsai, who is seeking a second term.
Tsai said Taiwan is the “only democratic country in all Chinese-speaking societies in the world”.
“The whole world is watching how we make our choice.”
Tsai toured the streets of the capital, Taipei, early on Friday on the back of a truck, with colorful flags and boisterous supporters making their way through busy traffic.
China claims Taiwan as its sacred territory, to be taken under Beijing’s control by force if needed. Taiwan says it is an independent country, called the Republic of China, its official name.
Tsai is being challenged by Han Kuo-yu of the main opposition Kuomintang party. He favors close ties with Beijing and says this is the only way to ensure Taiwan’s security and prosperity.
“Please come out to support Han Kuo-yu, whose vision for the country is ‘Taiwan safe, people get rich’ and ‘cross-strait peace’,” Han campaign secretary general Tseng Yung-chuan told a news conference.
The issue of China is front and center in the campaign, especially after President Xi Jinping warned last year China could attack Taiwan, though adding he would prefer a peaceful “one country, two systems” formula for the island.
The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula aimed at ensuring a high degree of autonomy.
But that model has never been popular in Taiwan and it is even less so now after months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong, largely triggered by fears that Beijing is slowly eroding the city’s freedoms. Beijing denies that.
The Hong Kong protesters have widespread public sympathy in Taiwan, and both the DPP and Kuomintang have pledged to help any Hong Kong people who flee to the island.
Both Tsai and Han have rejected “one country, two systems”. The DPP has painted a vote for the Kuomintang as effectively a vote for the model, something Han has angrily denied.
Tsai and Han will both hold mass rallies on Friday evening – Tsai in Taipei and Han in the southern port city of Kaohsiung, where he is mayor.
Taiwan’s noisy, colorful elections are a marked contrast to China, where the Communist Party brooks no challenge to its rule and where ordinary people have no say in who governs them, something that can be a shock to Chinese visitors.
“I didn’t expect to see singers on stage. For a while I felt like I was in a concert,” Yin Weiguo, a 27-year-old Chinese engineer on a business trip to Taiwan, who attended a Han rally in Taipei on Thursday.
“I just wanted to see what people did at a rally. There were so many people,” Yin told Reuters while visiting Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a major tourist site.
Voting begins at 8 a.m (0000 GMT) on Saturday and the polls close at 4 p.m. (0800 GMT).