Taiwan independence backer Lai Ching-te set to challenge Tsai Ing-wen for presidency

Former Premier Lai Ching-te (left) will be challenging his former boss, President Tsai Ing-wen, for the ruling party's nomination. PHOTOS: FACEBOOK/賴清德, AFP

TAIPEI (BLOOMBERG) - A former premier and vocal proponent of independence for Taiwan will challenge his former boss, President Tsai Ing-wen, for the ruling party's nomination, ensuring the island's tense relationship with China will be a central focus of the presidential campaign.

Former premier Lai Ching-te said in a text message on Monday (March 18) that he would vie for the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) backing in the election slated for next year.

Mr Lai - a former mayor of the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan who once described himself as an "independence worker" - resigned in January, weeks after the party suffered a resounding loss in local elections.

"Taiwan is facing a more precarious situation in the face of China's threats," Mr Lai said on Monday, after submitting his nomination application at DPP headquarters in Taipei.

"Taiwan doesn't want to be a second Hong Kong or Tibet. The elections in 2020 are critical to Taiwan's future."

Ms Tsai, who is almost three years into her first term, has said she plans to seek re-election despite receiving support of less than 30 per cent in most recent polls.

Although Ms Tsai stepped down as the DPP leader after losing several counties and cities to the more China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) opposition in November 2018, she had so far faced no obvious challengers from within the party.

Tsai spokesman Xavier Chang said via text message that Mr Lai's candidacy doesn't change the President's plans to run. The DPP is accepting applications this week for its nomination and is scheduled to announce a candidate on April 17.

Mr Lai's candidacy could make the issue of legal independence for the democratically run island a central campaign theme, just as an increasingly assertive Chinese President Xi Jinping pushes Taiwan for talks on eventual unification.

Mr Xi suggested earlier this year that mainland China and Taiwan enter into "in-depth democratic consultations" and work towards unification, the clearest signal yet that he wants to settle the 70-year dispute.

Beijing has said any moves by Taiwan to formalise its status as a sovereign state separate from mainland China would be grounds for invasion. The two split during the Chinese civil war in 1949.

While the DPP officially supports Taiwan's independence, Ms Tsai has so far avoided outright moves that might risk provoking the Communist Party in Beijing, saying that she wants to maintain the status quo.

That has frustrated some within her party who support a more decisive break from the mainland.

Rising star Lai is likely to see strong support in southern Taiwan, a traditional DPP stronghold.

After Ms Tsai appointed Mr Lai premier in August 2017, he described himself as a "Taiwan independence worker" and said the island was already a sovereign independent country, according to Taiwan's Central News Agency.

The opposition KMT, which has run Taiwan's government for all but 11 years since 1949, including decades under martial law, may have a crowded nomination contest.

Former New Taipei Mayor Eric Chu and former parliamentary speaker Wang Jin-pyng, who both support closer China ties, have already announced their candidacy, and former KMT chairman Wu Den-yih may also run.

An October poll by Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council found that some 23 per cent of Taiwanese people support formal independence either immediately or at some later date, while 19 per cent support unification.

The rest are in favour of maintaining the status quo.

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