Taiwan parties rally on eve of pivotal election

TaAIPEI: Tens of thousands of supporters of Taiwan‘s three political parties will rally Friday as candidates make a last push for votes in an election that China has warned could take the island closer to war.
Taiwan’s bustling democracy of 23 million people is separated by a narrow 180-kilometre (110-mile) strait from communist-ruled China, which claims it as part of its territory.
Saturday’s poll is being closely watched around the world as the winner will lead the strategically vital island — a major producer of vital semiconductors — as it manages ties with an increasingly assertive China.
Vice president Lai Ching-te, the front-runner candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), paints the election as a choice between “democracy and autocracy” — criticising his main opponent Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT) for being too “pro-China”.
Beijing in recent years has maintained a near-daily military presence around Taiwan, sending in warplanes and ships to its surroundings in so-called “grey zone” harassment which falls short of outright provocation.
The weeks leading up to Saturday’s vote have also seen a flurry of Chinese balloons crossing the Taiwan Strait‘s sensitive median line, which Taipei authorities have slammed as a form of interference in the crucial poll.
On Friday, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence announced a record-high of five balloons around Taiwan the day before, with one moving directly over the island’s southern tip.
The defence ministry says the balloons are a form of “cognitive warfare to affect the morale of our people” and pose a “serious threat” to international aviation routes.
There were also six naval vessels and 10 warplanes around Taiwan, said the ministry, with two entering the island’s air defence identification zone.
Beijing has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control.
It issued a stern warning on Thursday for voters to “make the correct choice”, warning them against voting for Lai.
“(He) would continue to follow the evil path of provoking ‘independence’ and… take Taiwan… closer to war and decline,” said China’s Taiwan Affairs Office.
– World watching –
The election on the small, verdant island has drawn massive attention overseas, as Taiwan’s next leader is set to determine future cross-strait relations with China in a flashpoint region that has Beijing and Washington tussling for influence.
In a sign of the importance Washington attaches to it, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will hold talks with a senior Chinese official in Washington on Friday.
Blinken will meet Liu Jianchao — who heads the international division of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee — as the United States seeks to discourage Beijing from taking action against Taipei.
The candidates hit the campaign trail hard this week, crisscrossing Taiwan for temple stops, market visits and small rallies, while making overtures to a large pack of visiting international media that they are the best choice for the island’s voters.
Third-party candidate Ko Wen-je — who has performed better than expected against the DPP and KMT — told reporters Friday that the island needed to re-establish communications with Beijing while also maintaining a strong deterrence posture from a Chinese invasion.
“Taiwan can never compete with China in terms of force, but Taiwan must make it clear… that if you try to beat me, you will pay a very high price,” Ko said.
“Our bottom line is that we want to preserve our democracy, freedom and our way of life. And then we will try to find a balance point, at least to avoid unexpected conflict.”
Since President Tsai Ing-wen was elected in 2016, China has cut off all high-level communications with her administration over her defence of Taiwan as a sovereign island.
DPP’s critics have said Tsai’s stance is the cause of poor Taiwan-China relations, but supporter Monica rejected that.
“Taiwan is an independent sovereign state. That is why we are electing the next president,” the 48-year-old finance worker, who only gave one name, told AFP during a Thursday night rally for Lai.
“DPP’s stance is not to provoke… if (China) keeps saying that they want to violate Taiwan with force, we cannot accept that.”

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