Amid Tibet Unrest, Taiwan Voters Prepare for Polls

An official arranges ballot boxes at a polling station at a school in Kaohsiung. i i

An official arranges ballot boxes at a polling station at a school in Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan on Friday. Patrick Lin/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Patrick Lin/AFP/Getty Images
An official arranges ballot boxes at a polling station at a school in Kaohsiung.

An official arranges ballot boxes at a polling station at a school in Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan on Friday.

Patrick Lin/AFP/Getty Images
Frank Hsieh, presidential candidate of Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party i i

Frank Hsieh, presidential candidate of Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party, speaks at an election rally in Taipei on Friday. M.N. Chan/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption M.N. Chan/Getty Images
Frank Hsieh, presidential candidate of Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party

Frank Hsieh, presidential candidate of Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party, speaks at an election rally in Taipei on Friday.

M.N. Chan/Getty Images
Ma Ying-jeou, leader of the opposition Nationalist Party leader and presidential candidate i i

Ma Ying-jeou, leader of the opposition Nationalist Party leader and presidential candidate, addresses supporters during a rally in Kaohsiung on Friday. hide caption

itoggle caption
Ma Ying-jeou, leader of the opposition Nationalist Party leader and presidential candidate

Ma Ying-jeou, leader of the opposition Nationalist Party leader and presidential candidate, addresses supporters during a rally in Kaohsiung on Friday.

Candidates campaigned down to the wire Friday ahead of a hotly contested presidential election in Taiwan.

China considers both Taiwan and Tibet part of its territory, and the recent unrest in Tibet may have helped the underdog in Taiwan's election.

Saturday's election also includes a referendum that both Washington and Beijing consider a dangerous move toward formal independence for the island.

This will be only Taiwan's fourth presidential election, but the island has quickly evolved from a one-party dictatorship into a genuine two-party system.

In the current race, Frank Hsieh of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, is facing off against the opposition Nationalist Party's Ma Ying-jeou.

Until recently, the race was widely considered Ma's to lose. The Harvard-trained mayor of Taipei has pledged to boost Taiwan's lackluster economy by increasing trade links with mainland China. He also has offered to sign a peace agreement with Beijing, which his opponents see as dangerous.

"The Tibetans signed a peace agreement with China in 1951 and just eight years later, the place was awash in blood after a failed Tibetan uprising," says Hsieh's running mate, Su Tseng-chang.

Ma denied at a press conference that the Tibet issue had hurt his chances. But he has taken a somewhat tougher line on China in recent days, saying that Taiwan's future is solely up to Taiwan's people to decide.

Ma also has focused on the failings of outgoing President Chen Shui-bian, who served two terms and was the first opposition leader ever elected president of Taiwan.

Zhang Huanquan, a businessman who supports Ma, says that eight years of Chen and the DPP is enough.

"Political parties should trade off stints in power. There should be competition. If you have one party in power for a long time, there are bound to be abuses," Zhang says.

Ma, the Nationalist candidate, says democracy has become a core Taiwanese value.

"Taiwan's democracy may not be fully mature," he says, "but what we Taiwanese are proud of is that it is the only place where Chinese people have built a relatively complete democracy. This is unprecedented in the Chinese people's 5,000 years of history."

The ruling DPP has tied a referendum to Saturday's vote that proposes Taiwan join the United Nations as a nation independent from China. It is not likely to pass, but both Beijing and Washington see it as a dangerous provocation.

From Beijing's perspective, the riots in Tibet and the referendum in Taiwan are both brazen affronts to its overriding goal of national unity.

But to many people in Taiwan, Tibet is a reminder that what's at stake in Saturday's election is the long-term survival of the island's fledgling democracy.

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