Three-way race: Taiwan's presidential candidates

TAIPEI: Three candidates are vying to become Taiwan's next president in a critical vote closely watched by neighbouring China and the rest of the world.

China relations, economic policy and youth incentives are some of the key issues in the contest to succeed President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after her eight years in power.

Here are the candidates:

Lai, 64, of the DPP is the frontrunner in the race. He became vice president four years ago as Tsai's running mate in her landslide re-election.

The son of a miner, Harvard-educated Lai served as a lawmaker, the mayor of southwestern city Tainan and premier since switching to politics from medicine nearly 30 years ago.

He has been more outspoken than Tsai about Taiwan's independence – a red line for China, which claims the island as part of its territory – previously describing himself as a "pragmatic Taiwan independence worker."

Beijing has slammed Lai and his running mate Hsiao Bi-khim, Taipei's former de facto ambassador to Washington, as a "dangerous independence duo."

After Lai returned from a visit to Paraguay with two US stopovers in August, China staged huge war games around Taiwan.

He has called the election a choice between "democracy and autocracy", and pledged his "unwavering" support to maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

"Peace is priceless and there is no winner in a war," he said at a televised policy presentation by presidential candidates.

"I am willing to open the door to exchanges and cooperation with China on the preconditions of parity and dignity."

He has also vowed to raise salaries, cut taxes and provide more social housing in a bid to woo younger voters, who have grown disillusioned with the DPP.

Former police chief and New Taipei city mayor Hou is the candidate for the Beijing-friendly main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party.

The 66-year-old entered politics in 2010 when he was appointed deputy mayor of New Taipei, Taiwan's largest constituency with around four million residents – a position he held for over seven years.

He defeated a DPP bigwig in 2018 local elections to run the city, and was re-elected last year.

Hou has described the election as a choice "between war and peace," and said his three-decade-long career in law enforcement would enable him to "protect Taiwan."

"I can maintain peace across the Taiwan Strait and I will do my best to avoid war so that everyone can live a peaceful life," he said at a recent campaign rally.

Hou has criticised the DPP for what he calls "the worst economy in 14 years" and vowed to negotiate with China "as soon as possible" on issues related to a sweeping cross-strait trade pact if elected.

Ko, 64, founded the Taiwan People's Party (TPP) in 2019 as an alternative to the island's two dominant political camps.

The former surgeon was a novice to politics when he ran for Taipei mayor and won in 2014, the first time an independent was elected to lead the capital city.

Known by his nickname "Ko P" – a reference to his experience as a medical professor – Ko has billed himself as a "reasonable and pragmatic" alternative to the two big parties that "many middle voters cannot stand" anymore.

His brash rhetorical style has won him some support – especially from younger people.

But critics say he has flip-flopped on issues depending on his audience, and Ko's past comments on women and LGBTQ people – in one of the only territories in Asia where same-sex couples have marital rights – have also sparked controversy.

On China relations, Ko told AFP during an interview that "the relationship between the DPP government and Beijing is a deadlock."

He also agreed on bolstering the island's self-defence capabilities to make Beijing see that a war "comes with a high price", but stressed that "communication can prevent misfire." --AFP

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