Hong Kong unrest a factor for Taiwanese as they pick president on Jan 11

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen has been vocal about supporting the Hong Kong protesters and has kept her social media accounts updated with graphs and posts cautioning Taiwanese to vote wisely, or the island will "end up like Hong Kong". PHOTO: EPA-
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen has been vocal about supporting the Hong Kong protesters and has kept her social media accounts updated with graphs and posts cautioning Taiwanese to vote wisely, or the island will "end up like Hong Kong". PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Issue has boosted Tsai's chances of re-election in three-cornered fight

As campaigning for Taiwan's presidential election on Jan 11 heads into its final stretch, Hong Kong is looming large over the ballot box.

Voters have been keeping close tabs on the ongoing unrest in the Chinese Special Administrative Region, with many drawing parallels between what is happening in Hong Kong and Taiwan's own fate.

Splashed across the social media profiles of many young Taiwanese voters are slogans such as "Today's Hong Kong will be Tomorrow's Taiwan" and "Taiwan Stands for Hong Kong".

The Hong Kong issue has boosted the re-election chances of incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen to the point that most now consider her a heavy favourite - a far cry from just a year ago when the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) was on the ascendancy during local elections.

Ms Tsai was vocal about supporting the Hong Kong demonstrators soon after the protests began, and has since kept her social media accounts updated with graphs and posts cautioning Taiwanese to vote wisely, or Taiwan will "end up like Hong Kong".

She has also called on the Hong Kong government to heed its peoples' voices and said that her government will not back down when it comes to Taiwan's de facto sovereignty.

There will be no more room for democracy in Taiwan if China's "one country, two systems" policy is applied to the island, said Ms Tsai during the island's own National Day celebrations in October.

Ms Tsai, the first female president in the island's history, is in a three-cornered race with Mr Han Kuo-yu, a political dark horse who shot to fame last year by winning the Kaohsiung mayoral vote, and Mr James Soong, a veteran on his fifth presidential bid.

None of the candidates, however, has officially announced campaign policies that touch on Taiwan's sovereignty yet.

Meanwhile, Ms Tsai's main challenger, Kaohsiung Mayor Mr Han, whose KMT is seen as pro-Beijing, has had to adjust his rhetoric as the Hong Kong saga played out.

Mr Han had started off by saying he knew nothing of the extradition Bill protests in Hong Kong when local media interviewed him.

 
 

Later, he announced that "there is no doubt" that he would be "defending democracy and the way of living". He also spoke out against Hong Kong becoming independent, but said that the Beijing authorities should allow universal suffrage for Hong Kong's Legislative Council and Chief Executive elections.

"Independence and freedom aren't floods and beasts, they are common values," Mr Han said at a press conference with foreign media outlets last month.

Observers agree that the Hong Kong protests have made China the key issue in Taiwan's polls and put Ms Tsai in the driver's seat.

"Tsai appears poised to win re-election, as the Hong Kong protests and a series of personal scandals have hurt Han's campaign," said Mr Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Opinion polls taken in the past week by Apple Daily News and the environmentally focused Green Party Taiwan show President Tsai and her running mate William Lai with 46.8 and 53.4 per cent approval rating respectively, and Kaohsiung Mayor Han and Kuomintang's vice-president candidate Simon Chang at 14.4 and 19.8 per cent. People First Party chairman, Mr Soong, and his running mate Sandra Yu had approval ratings of 7.6 and 9.2 per cent.

 
 

Ms Tsai also leads across all age groups, but does especially well among voters in their 20s, while Mr Han receives the most support from voters who are in their 50s.

There is not much time for Ms Tsai's challengers to close the large polling gap though there will be at least one big opportunity to gain ground this week.

The three candidates will take part in an official debate tomorrow, the first and likely only televised debate of the campaign, in which they will likely be asked sharp questions regarding their respective plans for future cross-strait policies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2019, with the headline 'HK unrest a factor for Taiwanese as they pick president on Jan 11'. Print Edition | Subscribe