People wait in line to cast their ballots and vote in the presidential election at a polling station in New Taipei City on January 13, 2024. (Photo by ALASTAIR PIKE / AFP) (Photo by ALASTAIR PIKE/AFP via Getty Images)
CNN  — 

Taiwan began counting votes on Saturday evening in a closely watched election that could reverberate far beyond its shores after years of growing threats from Beijing, which warned this week the island’s future is at a “crossroads.”

The self-governing island of 23.5 million people will choose both a new president and parliament at a time of heightened tension with China, which under leader Xi Jinping has become much more powerful – and increasingly belligerent toward Taiwan.

Polls closed at 4pm (3am Eastern Time) and the result is expected a few hours later under Taiwan’s famously efficient and transparent counting process.

The boisterous election campaign, itself an illustration of Taiwan’s vibrant democratic credentials, has been fought over a mixture of livelihood issues as well as the thorny question of how to deal with its authoritarian neighbor to the northwest.

China’s ruling Communist Party claims Taiwan as its territory, despite having never controlled it. And Xi has called Taiwan’s unification with the mainland “a historical inevitability.”

The results will not only decide Taiwan’s future, but could also reshape its relations with Beijing and pose a test to the latest efforts by the United States and China to stabilize rocky ties.

Beijing, which routinely sends fighter jets and warships close to Taiwan’s skies and waters, has framed the vote as a choice between “peace and war, prosperity and decline.” On Wednesday, it warned Taiwan’s voters to “make the right choice at the crossroads of cross-strait relations” while railing against the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has won Taiwan’s last two presidential elections.

In the final days leading up to the vote, candidates toured major cities around the island to stage nightly campaign rallies, featuring rock music, emotional speeches and the rhythmic chanting of slogans by large crowds.

Hou Yu-ih, the presidential candidate of the main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT), gestures on the day he votes, during the presidential and parliamentary elections in New Taipei City, Taiwan January 13, 2024. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Taiwan People's Party (TPP) presidential candidate, Ko Wen-je, greets supporters during a motorcade campaign tour in Tainan, Taiwan on January 9, 2024.
Lai Ching-te, Taiwan's vice president and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) presidential candidate walks at a polling station during the presidential and parliamentary elections in Tainan, Taiwan January 13, 2024. REUTERS/Ann Wang

Three men with different visions

Three men are vying to succeed President Tsai Ing-wen, the island’s first female leader.

Over the last eight years, Tsai has raised Taiwan’s global profile, strengthened its ties with democratic powers and pursued progressive policies at home, including making Taiwan the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage – though her party has also come under criticism over economic issues.

Relations with China nosedived after Beijing cut off most communications with Taipei in response to her 2016 election win, and further stepped up economic and military pressure following her landslide re-election four years later.

Tsai’s current vice president, Lai Ching-te, is hoping to win a third term for the ruling DPP, which champions Taiwan’s de-facto sovereignty and separate identity from China. That would be unprecedented in the island’s nearly three decades of democratic history and represent a further rejection by Taiwanese voters of Beijing’s strongarm tactics.

Hou Yu-ih, a mayor and former police chief, is the candidate for the main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT), which traditionally favors closer cross-strait ties. A victory for the KMT would be welcome to Beijing and signal that voters might want to deescalate tensions.

The third contender, Ko Wen-je, hails from the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which he founded in 2019 to challenge the island’s political duopoly. Ko also favors closer ties with China but says he will be less deferential to Beijing than the KMT.

The race is tight. Final polls before the 10-day blackout period showed Lai had a slight edge over Hou, followed by Ko.