China at the heart of tight Taiwan poll race

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou at an election campaign gathering on 30 October 2011 Mr Ma won a landslide victory in 2008 but faces a much tougher fight this time

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Six weeks ahead of Taiwan's presidential poll, three main candidates are primed to contest what is set to be a closely-watched race in the young democracy.

The island is at a crossroads in its relations with its rival, giant neighbour and biggest trade partner, China.

Ties have improved to the best they have been since the end of a civil war in 1949. But whether this continues depends on who is elected on 14 January.

According to several opinion polls, President Ma Ying-jeou has a slight lead over his main opponent, Tsai Ing-wen from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

But one survey by a respected polling centre on 28 November put Ms Tsai ahead on 50%, with Mr Ma trailing on 43%.

The race is expected to be very close, not least because veteran politician James Soong, of the People First Party, has decided to run.

A former official of the ruling Kuomintang party, Mr Soong favours closer ties with China, like Mr Ma. He could split the China-friendly vote as he did in 2000 and boost Ms Tsai's chances.

'Maintain status quo'

Mr Ma and Ms Tsai both want good relations with China but have adopted different approaches.

Mr Ma is focusing on improving ties with Beijing first so as to enable the island to sign trade and other deals with other countries. Ms Tsai advocates building stronger ties with other countries, to avoid over-relying on China.

The way Beijing responds to them will also differ greatly. That is because while the ruling KMT agrees with Beijing that mainland China and Taiwan belong to the same China and is not opposed to eventual unification, Ms Tsai's party does not see Taiwan as a part of China and favours its formal independence.

Tsai Ing-wen, showing her election registration document on 23 November 2011 Ms Tsai says she is willing to talk to Beijing if its demands are reasonable

Beijing considers the island its province despite it being ruled independently since the end of the civil war in 1949. It has targeted 1,500 missiles at Taiwan as a warning against declaring formal independence.

If Ms Tsai is elected, many fear tensions that have subsided since Mr Ma was elected in 2008 could resurface.

"I'm worried Tsai Ing-wen will try to push for independence… The best thing is for the two sides to maintain the status quo. If they have a war, the people who will suffer are the ordinary people," said Hsu Wen-hsiang, a 51-year-old office worker.

At the same time, there are equally strong fears that Taiwan's sovereignty will be eroded if Mr Ma is re-elected. A son of mainland Chinese immigrants, he is still suspected by some people of working towards eventual unification with China.

They fear his policies could make Taiwan too economically dependent on and politically vulnerable to China.

Mr Ma's recent proposal that Taiwan reach a peace agreement with China within the next 10 years fuelled such worries.

"If he is re-elected, a peace agreement with China will be signed and our sovereignty will be gone," said Hou Chao-tsai, a construction company owner. "For China to agree not to attack us, the peace deal will no doubt have to say that Taiwan is a part of China. And China will also control us economically."

Mr Ma has vowed not to discuss unification with China and repeatedly stated he will do nothing to jeopardise Taiwan's sovereignty.

If he is elected, relations with Beijing are expected to further improve, with the possibility of talks moving beyond economics into political areas. But the fear is Taiwan would have to make concessions.

Policy 'failure'

If Ms Tsai is elected, analysts say, there could be tensions or a stalemate. China has had poor relations with Ms Tsai's party.

Even though Ms Tsai has been moderate in her statements regarding China, Beijing is suspicious of her, as she had drafted the theory calling for the two sides to have state-to-state relations. China strongly objects to Taiwan being treated as a country.

James Soong, pictured on 21 September 2011 Former KMT stalwart James Soong's decision to run could split the China-friendly vote

"If Tsai Ing-wen is elected, [Chinese President] Hu Jintao will likely think his past policies have failed. He'd face pressure from the hawks in the Chinese Communist Party. Then China's next leader Xi Jinping will think Taiwan is very hard to deal with, and will try a tougher approach," said Sun Yang-ming, vice-president of the partly government-funded think-tank Cross-Strait Interflow Prospect Foundation.

Beijing might not immediately take back the economic incentives it has given Taiwan, like increased tourism, direct flights and easier access to its markets. But Mr Sun said: "Exchanges will gradually decrease. A diplomatic war will resume."

Tensions between the two could also complicate Sino-US ties and affect security in the region, Mr Sun said.

"There are only two remaining flashpoints [in this region] - one is North Korea and the other is Taiwan. If tensions rise in the Taiwan Strait, the United States, South East Asian countries, Japan and South Korea will all be affected," he said.

Yet Ms Tsai is not expected to antagonise Beijing as former President Chen Shui-bian, also of the DPP, did with his statements and moves toward independence. She has said she is open to holding talks with China as long as it does not make unreasonable demands.

Honest candidate

It may surprise some that Mr Ma is fighting an uphill battle to hang on to his job because he won by a landslide in 2008.

But his term coincided with the global financial crisis. Economic growth slowed under him and foreign investment fell.

While closer trade ties with China helped the island, it also fuelled a flight of capital and jobs to China. The trend began years ago, even when relations were tense, but some blame his lifting of a cap on investments for making it worse.

Economic trends have also worked against Mr Ma. The income gap between the rich and poor is at its widest in decades. Ordinary people's wages are still considered low and unemployment is high. Property prices remain high.

Mr Ma's popularity has also been dented by recent controversies, including his administration spending $7m on a National Day musical that was only staged twice.

Some people believe Ms Tsai's popularity is due less to her credentials than Mr Ma's inability to truly improve the lives of ordinary people. Although she served as vice premier under another president, she has never held an elected post and some find her policies unclear.

But the core of Mr Ma's problems may be his inability to convince some voters that he will protect Taiwan's sovereignty - something his campaign manager recently acknowledged.

Back in 2008, many of the people who voted for him were disillusioned by the corruption allegations against the last president, the DPP's Mr Chen.

Some of those voters traditionally favoured the DPP. They voted for Mr Ma because they felt he was an honest politician, not because they liked the KMT.

Now that Ms Tsai has repaired the image of the DPP, these voters may be returning to their preferred party - one they feel will better protect the island's sovereignty.

Analysts say that in the remaining weeks, anything can happen. Any mistakes in campaign strategies by one candidate could tip the votes in the other's favour.

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