Taiwan presidential candidates ramp up rallies on eve of vote

Tens of thousands are expected at tonight's rallies for the two main candidates, Ms Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP and Mr Eric Chu of the KMT.
Tens of thousands are expected at tonight's rallies for the two main candidates, Ms Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP and Mr Eric Chu of the KMT.PHOTO: EPA

TAIPEI (AFP) - Presidential candidates in Taiwan kicked off their final day of campaigning on Friday (Jan 15), with the island expected to vote in its first female leader at this weekend's polls.

Momentum is gathering across Taiwan ahead of the pivotal election on Saturday in which voters are expected to turn their back on eight years of rapprochement with China, as scepticism over closer ties grows.

The flagging economy is also a major issue, with the public blaming the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) for failing to improve livelihood.

Tens of thousands are expected at Friday night's climactic rallies for the two main candidates, Ms Tsai Ing-wen of the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) - who is the front runner for the leadership - and Mr Eric Chu of Kuomintang (K MT).

"I believe that the DPP and I can stand together with Taiwan people to let Taiwan rise again," said Ms Tsai, who is well ahead of Mr Chu in the polls. She was speaking to supporters in central Taichung city on Friday morning.

"It is a critical vote as it concerns where Taiwan is heading in the next stage and the direction of Taiwan's development," she said.

The DPP is traditionally pro-independence, flying in the face of Beijing's desire to reunify Taiwan with the mainland.

The island is self-ruling since it split from China after a civil war in 1949, but Beijing still sees it as part of its territory to be reunited, by force if necessary.

In a pragmatic move, Ms Tsai has toned down the DPP's message on cross-strait relations, saying she wants to preserve the "status quo".

But opponents say China ties will deteriorate if she takes power after an unprecedented rapprochement under current KMT president Ma Ying-jeou, which culminated in a summit between Mr Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November.

"The United States, China and the world are hoping for cross-strait peace and regional stability. My election will give everyone faith and feel rest assured about Taiwan," said Mr Chu, speaking to supporters in Taipei .

The United States is Taiwan's major ally and has pledged to help defend the island.

Ms Tsai's final rally will take place outside the presidential office in Taipei, while Mr Chu will finish in New Taipei City, where he is mayor.

The third presidential candidate, veteran conservative James Soong, who is trailing behind Ms Tsai and Mr Chu, will be touring central Taiwan before a rally in Taipei on Friday night.

Lawmaker hopefuls are also giving a last campaign push before parliamentary elections which take place alongside the presidential vote.

The KMT risks losing its majority in the legislature as well as the leadership.