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Election of firsts

Fears of China's increased influence draws thousands of Taiwanese voters to witness 'historical change,' reports Nathan VanderKlippe. With polls showing opposition party well ahead of incumbent Kuomintang, future relations with mainland China may hold plenty of friction

Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen waves to the crowd as she arrives at a campaign rally in Taichung, Taiwan, Jan. 13, 2016.

Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen waves to the crowd as she arrives at a campaign rally in Taichung, Taiwan, Jan. 13, 2016.

OLIVIA HARRIS/REUTERS

The onlookers are greying professors and teenaged students, a publisher of banned books, a sportswear salesman and more than a few people intent on undermining the Chinese Communist Party.

They have flown to Taiwan on the eve of an election set to dethrone a party that has cultivated warmer ties with Beijing, and elevate instead a party with a history of seeking independence from China – led by a woman who, if polls are to be believed, will become the first female leader of a Chinese nation in modern history.

For the Hong Kong activists and Canadian Taiwanese amid the foreign spectators, Taiwan's Saturday ballot marks a chance to witness history and get swept up in the boisterousness of a campaign, but also to draw inspiration. Taiwan is the only mature democracy in the Chinese world, and for those seeking the same elsewhere, it offers as vision of what is possible.

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"It's sort of a psychological boost. They come to Taiwan and they see that elections can change things," said Joseph Cheng, a retired political science professor from Hong Kong who now leads the New School of Democracy, which trains young Chinese activists. "This doesn't happen in Hong Kong. This doesn't happen in China."

The Taiwan election comes at a fraught time for the territories at China's edge. In Hong Kong, the 2014 Umbrella Movement failed in its demands for Beijing to give voters the right to select their own chief political leader. In the time since protesters occupied the city's downtown, Hong Kong media outlets have been bought by mainland Chinese companies and several publishers and sellers of controversial books have vanished, amid suspicion they were seized by Chinese authorities.

In Taiwan, meanwhile, the November meeting between President Ma Ying-jeou and Chinese President Xi Jinping, a historic first, capped eight years of rule by a Kuomintang party that sought rapprochement with the mainland, raising fears about China's rising influence.

Kuomintang candidate Eric Chu, who only entered the race in October, 2015, greets supporters in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan, Jan. 13, 2016.

Kuomintang candidate Eric Chu, who only entered the race in October, 2015, greets supporters in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan, Jan. 13, 2016.

PICHI CHUANG/REUTERS

Polls suggest Taiwanese will on Saturday fight back at the ballot box by voting for the Democratic Progressive Party, which is expected to keep Beijing at a greater distance. The party, led by lawyer and professor Tsai Ing-wen, stands poised to take the presidency and, possibly, the legislature for the first time.

The chance to issue an electoral rebuke to China is why Steve Yang, 67, has joined an estimated 500 Taiwanese Canadians who have crossed the Pacific to cast ballots this week. The retired Toronto importer of plastic cosmetics containers has spent this week with 160 other raucous expatriate Taiwanese following Ms. Tsai on the campaign trail.

Dressed in the party's trademark green, they cheer on roadsides and wave flags from the best seats at rallies, where their colour-coordinated ranks are placed front and centre.

"This is very important for us. We have to win," Mr. Yang said. "Because Mr. Ma, he didn't do very well. He intend to push Taiwan toward China." Next to him is Seiko Wu, 68, retired from auto parts sales in Montreal. They are waiting for Ms. Tsai to arrive at a rally in Yuanlin, a small centre 200 kilometres southwest of Taipei. "I support Taiwan's freedom. I hope Taiwan will not be taken by China," Mr. Wu said.

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Returnee voters have also come from Brazil, New Zealand, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Vietnam and the U.S. "I want to witness change, historical change," said David Chen, 75, a San Francisco importer of sports apparel. "The Kuomintang has been in charge of this island for 60 years. This is the first time we have a chance to completely change the system."

Still, with the outcome of Taiwan's presidential election considered by many a foregone conclusion, the total number of returning overseas voters declined this year to the lowest number since the first presidential election in 1996.

In their place, however, are those who can't vote, but want to spectate. Contingents of academics are touring the island, looking for clues to a future that may bring new frictions between Taipei and Beijing. This election "in many ways will steer Taiwan on a new political course," said Joseph Wong, a University of Toronto political science professor and Canada Research Chair in Democratization, Health and Development.

Others want to learn. Fifteen Hong Kong student leaders spent Wednesday preparing for an evening flight to Taiwan, where they plan to meet political party representatives and democracy icons such as Wang Dan, a prominent student leader during China's 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Publisher Jin Zhong, another prominent Chinese dissident who has printed books critical of China, will also fly to Taiwan this week.

Seiko Wu, a Taiwanese man from Montreal, is one of an estimated 500 Canadians who have returned to vote in Saturday elections.

Seiko Wu, a Taiwanese man from Montreal, is one of an estimated 500 Canadians who have returned to vote in Saturday elections.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

But the Hong Kong students are equally interested in the young candidates who make up the so-called "third force" in this Taiwan election. It's a nascent collection of political challengers, some of whom were leaders in the island's 2014 Sunflower Movement student protests. They are a "good reference" on the question of "how can activists join into an election," said Joshua Wong, the most prominent of Hong Kong's student leaders.

He wants to do the same, and has challenged the age restrictions that bar him from seeking election this year; it's a long shot, but he wants to run in September. "I'm visiting Taiwan for the purpose of experiencing elections," he said. "It's the first time for me to visit someplace just for elections."

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Still, the idea of Taiwan as a beacon for Chinese democracy was tough to square with the disinterest among mainland visitors on the island this week.

Chinese authorities ordered a 95-per-cent cut to the number of tourists allowed into Taiwan around the election. Beijing wants nothing to do with democracy. But neither do many of its people.

"I don't want to vote," said Jian Leiming, 33, a small businessman from Shandong, whose primary pursuit in a visit to Taiwan is the local food. "Such a right doesn't matter," he said. In China, life is "good as long as we have stability."

Taiwan does feel more liberal and democratic than China, said Geng Yaping, 24, who works for an online magazine in Beijing, as she stood on the edge of Taipei's Liberty Square, an expansive monument to the island's democracy.

"If we were to follow this direction, there are bound to be conflicts," she said. "Ours is too big a country."

Still, if she had the right, she knows who would get her ballot – the party friendliest to Beijing. "Of course I would vote for the Kuomintang, because the KMT is against Taiwan independence," she said. "Taiwan has always been ours, China's."

Tsai Ing-wen greets supporters in New Taipei City, Jan. 13, 2016. The DPP leader has consistently lead national polls and may become the country’s first woman president.

Tsai Ing-wen greets supporters in New Taipei City, Jan. 13, 2016. The DPP leader has consistently lead national polls and may become the country’s first woman president.

DAMIR SAGOLJ/REUTERS

Who are the players?

China will be watching Saturday's Taiwanese election closely and has warned repeatedly it will never tolerate independence for the island nation of 23 million people.

Most worrying for Beijing is Tsai Ing-wen, the front-runner. She is the leader of Taiwan's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). If elected, she would be the first woman president of a Chinese nation. Earlier this month, before a polling blackout began, she topped the final opinion poll of the campaign with more than 45 per cent support.

Eric Chu represents the governing Kuomintang and replaced the party's original candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, in October when polls showed Ms. Hung lagging far behind Ms. Tsai. Mr. Chu is a rising star in Taiwanese politics and is currently mayor of New Taipei City as well as chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT). The final poll of the campaign showed 16 per cent of voters back Mr. Chu.

James Soong from the People First Party (PFP) is vying for power in his third presidential race. He was defeated in 2000 and 2012. The PFP favours closer ties to China and is allied with the KMT in what's known as the Pan-Blue Coalition.

Taiwan's incumbent president Ma Ying-jeou is completing his second four-year term and, as in the United States, is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election.

Legislative elections are being held at the same time as the presidential race. There are at 18 political parties and 530 candidates registered to run for the island's 113-seat parliament, including Freddy Lim, a rock star and former local Amnesty international activist.

Globe staff

A brief history of Taiwan

Colonization of Taiwan

The southwestern coast of Taiwan – the modern-day Anping district of Tainan City – was colonized in 1624 by the Dutch East India Company. Spain settled in north Taiwan in 1626, but was eventually overthrown by the Dutch colony.

After the Ming dynasty's demise, its sympathizers relocated to the island and replaced the Dutch to continue war with the Ch'ing dynasty in China.

The Ch'ing dynasty was superseded by the Empire of Japan after the Sino-Japanese War, which lasted from 1894 to 1895. A treaty ceded control of Taiwan to Japan, which ruled over the island until the end of the Second World War.

Chinese Civil War (1927-1950)

The Chinese Civil War was fought between forces loyal to the Kuomintang-led government of the Republic of China and forces loyal to the Communist Party of China. Chiang Kai-shek, an influential member of the Kuomintang, led the nationalist campaign, couching his power as leader of China. A feud started between the Kuomintang government and the Communist Party of China, instigating a civil war.

The two sides united in 1937 to counter threats from Japan, but the civil war continued in 1946 after botched diplomacy between the opposing forces. The Communist Party ousted the Nationalists in 1949, who retreated to Taiwan.

Second World War (1939-1945)

During this time, Taiwan fell under the direct control of Japan. The island saw large-scale industrialization as well as Japanese migration. Strong measures of assimilation were enforced on the Taiwanese.

Japan surrendered in 1945.

Cold War (1947-1991)

The United States deployed navy ships along the Taiwan Strait to mitigate antagonism between Taiwan and China.

The Formosa Resolution of 1955 and Sino-American Defence Treaty, in place from 1955 to 1979, were designed to ensure Taiwan's protection from China. Authoritarian rule was in place on the island.

Taiwan became economically independent from China during the second half of the 20th century. Social upheaval made room for political opposition, resulting in the eventual development of democracy.

Democracy (1970s to the present)

Chiang Kai-shek's son, Chiang Ching-kuo, introduced strong notions of liberalism into the political landscape during the 1980s.

A new opposition party enters the political arena in 1986 called the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Martial law, which had been declared in 1949, was eliminated in 1987. In 1997, the DDP gained a majority in municipal elections.

In 1996, Lee Teng-hui was elected as president directly by the people, a first in Taiwan. In 1999, he pushed for a better relationship with the China.

In 2000, Chen Shui-bian, who advocated for an independent Taiwan, was elected president, replacing the Kuomintang.

Julien Gignac

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