TAIPEI Taiwan looks set on Saturday to elect an independence-leaning opposition leader as its first woman president who could usher in a new round of uncertainty with China, the massive neighbour that claims the self-ruled island as its sacred territory.
Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is expected to be thrust into one of Asia's toughest and most dangerous jobs, with China pointing hundreds of missiles at the island, decades after losing Nationalists fled from Mao Zedong's Communists to Taiwan in the Chinese civil war.
She will have to balance the superpower interests of China, also Taiwan's largest trading partner, and the United States with those of her freewheeling, democratic home.
Tsai risks antagonising China if she attempts to forcefully assert Taiwan's sovereignty and reverses eight years of warming China ties under incumbent China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalists, who ruled all of China until the retreat to Taiwan in 1949.
"Democracy is not just an election," Tsai said at her last campaign rally on Friday in drizzling rain. "Democracy is our way of life."
The election comes at a tricky time for Taiwan's export-dependent economy, which entered recession in the third quarter last year. China is also Taiwan's top trading partner and Taiwan's favourite investment destination.
Support for the DPP has swelled since 2014, when hundreds of students occupied Taiwan's parliament for weeks in protests against trade pacts negotiated with China in the largest display of anti-China sentiment the island had seen in years.
Tsai has the tide of history against her. Ma and predecessors, including firebrand Lee Teng-hui and convicted opposition DPP president Chen Shui-bian, all failed to bring about a lasting reconciliation with China, which considers Taiwan a rogue province to be taken by force if necessary.
Shots were traded between the two sides as recently as the mid-1970s.
At stake are relations with an ascendant and increasingly assertive China under President Xi Jinping.
Tsai, a trained lawyer, would be one of the most prominent female leaders of the Chinese-speaking world since the Qing dynasty Empress Dowager Cixi. Parliamentary polls are also being held and if the DPP wins those too, Tsai will get an even stronger mandate.
She has been ambiguous on her China policy, merely pledging, in public anyway, to maintain the status quo.
Beijing has warned repeatedly in the run-up to the elections that hard-earned peace across the Taiwan Strait could be affected by a Tsai win.
The United States has expressed concerns about the danger of worsening China-Taiwan ties, at a time when China's navy is increasingly flexing its muscles in the South China and East China Seas and expanding territorial claims.
China has held out the "one country, two systems" formula, under which the British colony of Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, as a solution for Taiwan. But both the Nationalists and DPP have rejected the idea.
(Additional reporting by J.R. Wu; Editing by Nick Macfie)
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