Beijing: Taiwan's voters go to the polls on Saturday in a historic vote widely expected to see opposition candidate Tsai Ing-wen become the island's first female president. It may also signal the end of an uneasy eight-year rapprochement with mainland China.
Ms Tsai, the 59-year-old leader of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, holds such a sizeable lead over rival Kuomintang candidate Eric Chu – pre-election polls have had her consistently ahead by at least 20 percentage points – that her party's victory is barely considered in doubt.
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China and Taiwan leaders hold historic meeting
President Xi Jinping from China and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou held talks for the first time in 60 years at a hotel in Singapore.
While the election campaign has largely been fought on domestic issues – how to revitalise Taiwan's back-peddling economy, and provide better starting wages and employment prospects for university graduates – Ms Tsai has found it hard to shake the view, particularly from overseas, that a DPP win could reintroduce uncertainty into the often fraught ties with Beijing.
"I have made it clear … that, once elected, I would immediately start communicating with our diplomatic allies and with China," Ms Tsai said during a campaign rally in Kaohsiung this week. "I know that stability across the Taiwan Strait is in our shared interests. I would do my best to maintain that stability."
Outgoing president Ma Ying-jeou, who steps down after reaching a two-term limit, has presided over both a period of unprecedented warming of relations with the mainland, and an unprecedented cratering of KMT popularity.
He has been criticised for being too accommodating to Beijing at little discernible benefit for Taiwan's stagnant economy. November's historic handshake with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the culmination of his legacy, has failed to move the needle.
Taiwan's economy is heavily reliant on the mainland. While attitudes toward mainland Chinese among younger Taiwanese are generally not as poisonous as in Hong Kong, growing up in one of Asia's most socially liberal and confident democracies have Taiwan's 23 million people struggling to identify with their giant neighbour.
A regular survey conducted by Taipei's National Chengchi University show the gap between those who identify as "Chinese" or "Chinese and Taiwanese" has fallen sharply, especially in the past decade. Close to 60 per cent identify themselves as purely "Taiwanese" and only 3.5 per cent as "Chinese".
"Identity is always an issue in Taiwan … The majority of Taiwanese want peaceful relations with the mainland but don't feel they are becoming culturally or socially closer to China, rather that they are moving further away," Dr Mark Harrison, a Taiwan expert at the University of Tasmania, told Fairfax Media. "So a politician who tries to swim against that tide is always going to have a fairly hard time of it."
Mr Ma and his party have failed to recover from the so-called Sunflower Movement in March 2014, which saw hundreds of university students occupy Taipei's legislative yuan in protest against a perceived lack of transparency in a trade pact with Beijing.
A poor showing at the "nine-in-one" local elections last year saw political infighting within the KMT escalate, and hardline presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu was dumped only in October, replaced by Mr Chu.
"The past year has been rather arduous for the KMT. While not everyone is content with the nomination processes for the party's presidential and legislator-at-large candidates, we must unite at this critical hour," Mr Ma said at a KMT rally for Mr Chu on Thursday.
It is Ms Tsai's second run for presidency after losing to Mr Ma in 2012. She has university degrees from Cornell University and the London School of Economics and worked as a lawyer and university professor before entering politics in 2004.
If elected, analysts say Ms Tsai's greatest challenge lies in balancing the expectations for a more combative stance while building a functional relationship with Beijing.
Cross-strait relations have remained stable based upon the so-called 1992 Consensus, which states there is "one China", even though Taipei and Beijing disagree over who has sovereignty over it. But the DPP does not subscribe to the consensus and Ms Tsai has described it as "an option, but not the only one".
"Personally, I believe that once they win the election and Tsai Ing-wen becomes our president, she will have to immediately think in a way to deal with Beijing to come up with more pragmatic approach," Fu-Kuo Liu, a political science professor at National Chengchi University said. While cross-straits relations will likely be led onto "a bumpy road", he said it was too early to jump to the necessary conclusion that they would markedly deteriorate.
US President Barack Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said Washington wanted to see issues between Taiwan and China dealt with calmly, regardless of who wins.
"We don't think escalation of tensions is in the interests of either side," Mr Rhodes told a news briefing. "What we want to see is calm and dialogue."