BEIJING, March 12, 2008 -- Amid final preparations for the Beijing Olympics and the dramatic U.S. presidential race, China's neighbor, Taiwan, is gearing up for its own national elections.
Millions of Taiwanese will go to the polls on March 22 to choose a new president and help decide if Taiwan will try its luck against China in the United Nations.
Election day has been deemed so important that the national government has waived highway toll fees.
Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party candidate Ma Ying-jeou and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Frank Hsieh will go head-to-head in an election that could define Taiwan's future.
Election results will significantly influence Taiwan's relationship with China, which views the island as a renegade province.
Ma, who has promised to relax Taiwan-China investment rules and create a "cross-strait common market" with China, leads Hsieh with 49 percent of the vote in the Chinese-language China Times poll.
Hsieh, a candidate who promotes greater Taiwanese independence, trails with 22 percent.
Another poll released by the Southern Taiwan Society, a pro-independence group, showed that Ma was supported by 41 percent of respondents, while 38 percent chose Hsieh.
But opinion poll numbers – as American voters have recently realized – are not always reliable.
Taiwan is known for its colorful campaigns and volatile politics. In the 2004 election, an 11th-hour assassination attempt on then-DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian incited days of protests and calls for a recount. Chen eventually won the race by a razor-thin margin.
This year is no exception. The fiercely competitive presidential race is doubling as a contest of Taiwanese identity. Hsieh contends that Ma is an "outsider" who is not truly committed to Taiwan.
Ma, a former mayor of Taipei who was born in Hong Kong and raised in Taiwan, has been criticized by the Hsieh campaign for holding a U.S. Green Card, or permanent residency, after he completed his law degree at Harvard.
Hsieh, former premier and former mayor of Taiwan's second largest city, has been lambasted for his personal attacks on Ma and his pro-Taiwan, or "independence," policies that some claim will further slow down Taiwan's fragile domestic economy.
As of late, however, Hsieh has been tempering his anti-China stance by discussing increased Chinese investment in Taiwan. In recent weeks, Hsieh has also mentioned potentially lifting limits on Taiwanese investment in Mainland China.
Hsieh's campaign policy shift appears to aim to satisfy a growing national trend to consider a relationship with China.
In January, the DPP suffered a dramatic defeat in the legislative elections. The DPP won only 27 seats in the 113-member body, while the KMT gained a large majority with 81 seats. The results appeared to be an adverse reaction to Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian who, like Hsieh, has favored a pro-Taiwan agenda.
The UN Referendum
The Taiwanese presidential contest will be combined with a referendum on whether the island should attempt to join the United Nations under the name "Taiwan," instead of its formal UN membership name, "Republic of China." Beijing and the United States both regard this vote as a provocative move.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently reiterated the U.S. position against Taiwan's referendum.
"Taiwan is a democratic entity that will have to make its own decisions but I think we have been very clear that we think that this referendum is not going to help anyone and in fact it shouldn't be held," Rice told reporters when she visited Beijing two weeks ago.
China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi acknowledged Washington's opposition to Taiwan's UN referendum plans, calling the Taiwan question "the biggest concern of China."
Taiwan does not have a seat at the UN. The island is formally recognized by 23 countries, compared with the 170 that recognize China.
Taiwan's bid for recognition is unlikely to pass in the UN, even if it wins favor among Taiwanese voters.
Taiwan's election results are crucial, especially with respect to relations with China and the United States. On March 22, the Taiwanese will not be the only ones waiting to see who their next president will be.