In Taiwan, Voters Choose President as China Tensions Loom

Millions of Taiwan’s citizens lined up at ballot booths on Saturday to make a decision that could reshape the island democracy’s increasingly tense standoff with its far larger neighbor, China: Who should be Taiwan’s next president in dangerous times?

The voters are mainly choosing between the governing Democratic Progressive Party, which wants to keep steering Taiwan away from Beijing’s influence, arguing that this is the best way to keep the island secure, and the opposition Nationalist Party, which has vowed to expand trade ties and restart talks with China, arguing that this will reduce the risks of war. A newer party, the Taiwan People’s Party, has also promised steps to revive engagement with China.

Taiwan’s election result, likely to be announced Saturday night, could ripple far beyond the island, which has become the single biggest flashpoint in the rivalry between China and the United States. Any shift in relations between China and Taiwan after the island’s next president takes office in May could intensify or ease the tensions between Beijing and Washington.

In some places, lines began forming at booths even before the polls opened at 8 a.m., with many multigenerational families showing up in groups. Taiwanese citizens must vote in person — no electronic or postal ballots are allowed — and people fanned out to reach nearly 18,000 polling stations in temples, churches, community centers and schools across the island. Votes will be counted by hand after the polls close at 4 p.m.

“Taiwan’s election for a president and vice president actually affects not just the future of Taiwan, but also of Asia and even the entire world,” said Cheng Ting-bin, 56, a teacher who had just voted in Taipei, the capital. “We all know that the world is now choosing sides.”

The race is tight. Vice President Lai Ching-te, the presidential candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party, has been widely seen as the front-runner. But Hou Yu-ih, the Nationalist candidate, has narrowed Mr. Lai’s lead to only a few percentage points in many polls in recent weeks.

And Ko Wen-je, the Taiwan People’s Party’s candidate, holds onto hope of a surprise victory propelled by voters fed up with the two established parties. Mr. Ko’s party said that his rally in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, on Friday night drew nearly 200,000 people.

In Taipei, Mr. Ko appeared with his wife at a school where he voted alongside a throng of others, some of whom were carrying coffee as they quietly entered the booths to cast paper ballots.

One of his supporters, Jessica Chou, 25, she thought that the D.P.P. had pushed Taiwan too close to Washington, and that she hoped the next leader would keep a distance from both the global powers.

“I’m worried about China, but I also think that we can’t always rely on the United States,” Ms. Chou said, as she came out of the school where she said she had voted for Mr. Ko. “I hope that Taiwan can find its own strategically advantageous position.”

Many described the solemn weight of using democratic means to decide which presidential contender should face their much larger, autocratic and heavily armed neighbor.

“I think it’s inevitable that my generation will face more clashes with China,” said Chen Hsuan, 27, after casting her vote at an elementary school in Chiayi, a southern city. “So I cherish the opportunity to vote today even more.”

She said she voted for the D.P.P. and hoped the new presidency could expand ties with democratic countries.

On Friday night, the parties each held raucous election-eve rallies around Taiwan. In Chiayi, candidates from the three parties drove campaign vans around a large fountain at a circle in the city’s downtown, yelling slogans and urging people to vote.

Large crowds of supporters packed side streets around the circle, waving colorful banners and big balloons. The parade was festive, with candidate vans playing thumping club music, and several supporters dressed in inflatable dinosaur costumes for no apparent political reason.

Waving a small flag for the Nationalist Party at the rally in Chiayi, Wu Lee-shu, 60, a clothing store clerk, said she was concerned about Taiwan’s safety under the D.P.P. “I’ll vote for the Nationalist Party because I think it’s less likely that they would push Taiwan to war,” she said. “I’m worried about letting the other party take power, but I’ll respect the results of democracy.”

The candidates have also debated domestic issues such as housing and energy policy, and they have traded accusations that their rivals engaged in shady land deals. But the issue of China overshadows every major election here.

Beijing asserts that the island of 23 million people about 100 miles off the Chinese coast is its territory and has urged its people to accept unification — peacefully, if possible; by force, if China’s leaders decide it is necessary. The United States is by far Taiwan’s most important security backer, and has under Presidents Biden and Trump become more openly active in supporting the island against Chinese pressure.

The D.P.P.’s presidential candidate, Mr. Lai, is trying to win a third consecutive term in power for his party, something no party has achieved since Taiwan adopted direct presidential elections in 1996. He has promised to stick with the approach of the current leader, President Tsai Ing-wen: keeping Beijing at arm’s length while seeking to avoid conflict, and strengthening ties with the United States and other democracies.

Since Ms. Tsai became president eight years ago, China has escalated military pressure on Taiwan. Chinese jets and warships regularly test Taiwan’s military, and that intimidation could increase, at least for a while, if Mr. Lai wins. The Chinese Communist Party has especially reviled Mr. Lai, who earlier in his career called himself a “practical worker” for Taiwan’s independence.

Mr. Hou has promised to ease tensions with Beijing, arguing that stronger ties with China — through trade, tourism and public interaction — would help reduce the risk of conflict over Taiwan’s future. But even a victory for Mr. Hou would not dispel the deep political differences between Taipei and Beijing.

The winner of Taiwan’s presidential election may also have to deal with tricky politics in the island’s 113-member legislature, which also goes to the voters on Saturday. Polls have indicated that the D.P.P. is likely to lose its current majority of lawmakers, and the Nationalists may not gain a new majority, possibly giving the Taiwan People’s Party a powerful role in the legislature.