Taiwan's 16.5 million voters go to the polls Saturday in a presidential election that has polarized the island over two very different visions of Taiwan's future.
The tight race pits the party of incumbent President Chen Shui-bian, who champions a separate Taiwanese identity and swift democratic reforms, against the Kuomintang (KMT) party of Lien Chan, who will probably move more slowly on reforms and look more kindly on an eventual rapprochement with Beijing.
Heightening the stakes, and greatly angering China, is a controversial two-question referendum put to Taiwan's voters. The questions ask if China should "withdraw the missiles it has targeted at Taiwan," and whether Taiwan should "engage in negotiations with ... China ... for the welfare of the peoples." President Chen engineered the first-ever referendum last year over initial objections from Washington. Beijing views the referendum as an underhanded way of achieving independent status.
Despite what appear to be similar policies on key economic questions and on opening up direct trade with China, voters and analysts say the two parties offer such a different future that the election is being framed as the greatest battle in 50 years. A hefty 80 percent turnout is expected.
A main dynamic in the race centers on the question of identity and what is known as the "status quo," or the principles governing Taiwan's approach to the 1.3 billion nation of China, which claims Taiwan as its own.
In Taiwan, identity centers on the social split between ethnic Chinese mainlanders, an elite group who took control of the island in 1949, and the larger segment of native Taiwanese who argue that Taiwan has an identity separate from China.
"Four years ago the election was about a change of government - getting rid of the old KMT, which was in power so long and was criticized for corruption," says political analyst Andrew Yang. "This time, the issue is identity and it has polarized the electorate. The incumbent wants to assert Taiwaneseness. The opposition wants the status quo."
In the often fraught relations between China and Taiwan, status quo has stood for an agreement that Taiwan will allow no internal developments that threaten China's passionate hope to one day unify with the island. The status quo, which China worries Chen seeks to change, is language used between Washington, Taipei, and Beijing to define peaceful relations across the Taiwan Straits.
Yet the KMT and Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) define "status quo" differently. The DPP sees it as allowing democratic developments and a "move toward" independence. The KMT has tended to see status quo as a static concept. As one KMT official points out, "Chen Shui-bian wants to tell the Taiwanese people what to do; The KMT wants to let nature take its course. We don't want to change anything."
But during this hard-fought campaign, so popular were the reforms and appeals to Taiwanese identity politics championed by the DPP, the KMT has now promised similar reforms, including a new constitution.
This election, Taiwan's third, follows a decade of political and social upheaval. A reform movement has pushed the island away from its historic claims on China, and toward a new ethnic Taiwanese consciousness. Beijing has not acknowledged that these changes have occurred. Yet the evidence for them seems unmistakable. Lien Chan and James Soong, whose parties jointly make up a "pan blue" coalition, last Saturday actually kissed the ground of Taiwan during campaign rallies.
"The consensus is that we are Taiwanese first and Chinese second," says a government official with strong Kuomintang sympathies. "The Taiwanese identity is growing every day, and the change is not reversible. About 50 percent now claim they are Taiwanese only, while only 10 percent say they are Chinese only."
Yet if the DPP is viewed as the party of reform, the KMT has been undercutting that position by suggesting that its leaders have more experience, and will give Taiwan reform - but in a moderate way. They have painted Chen as extreme and unstable. With Taiwan's economy in the doldrums, moreover, they are drumming on a need for change.
"I'm voting for the KMT this time, and the DPP in 2008," says the Taiwanese-born CEO of a food company in Taipei. "By then, we will be tired of the KMT."
DPP braintrusts say the election is a crucial turning point, because a restored KMT would collude with Beijing to slow reforms and create an irreversible economic dependency on China. In recent years, Taiwan's mainland investments make up 45 percent of its economy.
Despite huge campaign rallies and much pomp and circumstance, some Taiwanese feel a deep reticence. For example, Tim Chen, a businessman in Taipei, says that while the ethnic identity issue has gained strength, it no longer "cuts it with me anymore.
"The election is turning into Taiwan vs. China. Everything is simplified, and the cast of characters is the same."
Annette Lu is one of Asia's most outspoken politicians, and Taiwan's first female vice president. Her anti-Beijing rhetoric greatly offends China, and some in Taiwan.
"This election will solve the most controversial issue in Taiwan, namely, national identification. After the Feb. 28 rally [of 2 million to 3 million people] no one can doubt the solidarity of the Taiwanese people. Even the opposition can't eject it. It is the people's will to identify as Taiwanese more than Chinese...."
"China's negativity about the DPP is simply because they are ashamed of our having a democracy. They don't allow their people to choose their leaders, or to decide national policy. They are embarrassed, and afraid of democracy.
"If the DPP loses, Beijing may be excited for awhile. But if we do, it will be a chance to reform ourselves...."
"If a referendum can be held in Taiwan successfully, sooner or later people in Hong Kong may ask [for one.] Then the communist regime will collapse."
• Caitrin McKiernan contributed to this report from Taipei.
Interviews with veep candidates
China-born James Soong is vice president on the opposition ticket. A maverick and rising star, Mr. Soong left the KMT in 2000 to set up his own party, but rejoined forces with the KMT last year.
"In the long term we must emphasize direct links with China; We cannot ignore the growing economic power taking place in China. We want no unilateral change of the status quo, and we should emphasize no timetable.... China needs time to change...."
"The referendum is not key ... the questions are unnecessary. Even if we have the desire to remove all obstacles to peace between [China and Taiwan], we still must maintain a minimum and adequate defense capability. So we very much hope the US continues to honor its [defense] commitment...."
"We have already developed a strong sense of identity as Chinese and as Taiwanese. And for that we are different from the citizens of the PRC [People's Republic of China]: We are citizens of China, not the PRC. But the DPP is trying to mix the national identity with the local identity. They try to identify themselves with the land instead of the political system."