TAIPEI, Taiwan, Jan. 10 (UPI) -- As Taiwan prepares to head to the polls for national elections Saturday, many see the contest between President Tsai Ing-wen and her more pro-Beijing challenger, Han Kuo-yu, as a referendum on the country's independence and its relationship with a China that has grown increasingly explicit about its aim to unify with the island of 23 million.
The issue of sovereignty is a constant in Taiwanese politics, but it has come to the foreground of this year's campaigns thanks in part to ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which have helped galvanize support for Tsai, the Democratic Progressive Party candidate who won the presidency in a landslide in 2016.
Tsai has spoken out forcefully against the rising threat to Taiwan's democracy that Beijing represents and has remained defiant in the face of aggressive rhetoric and provocations from China.
In the final poll before a 10-day blackout period ahead of the election, cable news station TVBS found Tsai was leading Han, the outspoken populist mayor of Kaohsiung who has favored closer relations with China, by a margin of 45 percent to 29 percent.
Her front-runner status reflects a remarkable turnaround for Tsai. Local elections in 2018 saw massive defeats for the ruling DPP, and by early last year Tsai's popularity rating had fallen to 24 percent over dissatisfaction with her economic policies. She trailed Han, a member o f the China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) Party, by as much as 30 points and was still behind as recently as August.
Heavy metal rock star-turned-lawmaker Freddy Lim, a member of Taiwan's Legislative Yuan and supporter of Tsai, said Saturday's general elections will send a message to the world about the power of democracy.
"Taiwan is on the front line of democracy and facing an authoritarian regime, so I think this election is very important not just for Taiwan but for the global free world," said Lim, who is up for re-election.
"Look at what happened in Hong Kong," he added. "The world expects that Taiwan will make a decision that can encourage the people in the free world that we are trying to strengthen our democracy. I believe the results will reflect this trend, and I think this can encourage and inspire more people in the free world."
Many in Taiwan, especially younger voters, have grown to identify with the protest movement in Hong Kong, which was triggered by anger at Beijing's efforts to exert greater influence over Hong Kong and has been marked by violent crackdowns by police.
"[The protests] have had a major impact on this election," said Lee Chih-te, a journalist in Taiwan who has covered the Hong Kong protests. "Many in Taiwan are afraid they will face the same situation as in Hong Kong. The connection is strong, especially among the younger generations in both countries. They are speaking the same language now."
Tsai Chia-Hung, a Tsai Ing-wen supporter in his 30s, was holding a sign that read, "Support Hong Kong -- No to China" days ahead of the election in the popular shopping district of Ximending.
"There's a similar situation in Hong Kong and Taiwan," he said. "I support Tsai Ing-wen because she's the first one who said 'no' to the Chinese."
Tsai has refused to accept the "1992 Consensus," a document that views Taiwan and China as one country, and relations with China have cooled dramatically under her administration.
Chinese President Xi Jinping rattled many voters a year ago when he said in an address Taiwan "must and will be" reunited with China, even if by force. Tsai has frequently rejected the notion of unification and has used Hong Kong as a negative example.
"Hong Kong people have showed us that 'one country, two systems' is definitely not feasible," Tsai said earlier this month, referring to the arrangement that promised Hong Kong a high level of economic and legal autonomy when it was ceded to China in 1997 by the British.
"Under 'one country, two systems,' the situation continues to deteriorate in Hong Kong," Tsai said. "The credibility of 'one country, two systems' has been sullied by the government's abuse of power."
An overwhelming majority of Taiwanese oppose unification with China, with most polls finding more than 80 percent favoring the status quo.
Supporters of Tsai's opponent Han, however, see worsening ties with China -- still Taiwan's leading trade partner -- as an economic disadvantage.
Chen Shih-hung, a taxi driver, said he has seen a significant drop in passengers under the Tsai administration thanks to decreased tourism from mainland China.
"I feel that the economy is doing very badly under Tsai," he said. "I have to work four or five hours more a day to make up for the lost customers."
Chen added that he doesn't want unification with China but favors closer ties with Taiwan's massive neighbor.
"We and China are family," he said. "We need to have cooperation."
The economic benefits of better relations with China was a major theme at a rally for Han on Thursday night, with t-shirts and posters declaring, "If Taiwan is secure, people will have money."
Supporters also praised the brash Han's populist style and criticized Tsai for progressive policies on topics ranging from LGBT rights and gender equality as running counter to traditional values.
Han has sometimes been compared to U.S. President Donald Trump for his polarizing rhetoric, controversial comments about women and minorities and unlikely promises, such as bringing Disneyland, casinos and Formula One racing to Taiwan.
The rally of tens of thousands of supporters skewed heavily toward the middle-aged and older, but some younger voters also showed support for the longshot candidate.
Han "is a good person," said Hu Chu-en, 33. "He's not like an ordinary politician. And the policies of the KMT are not as radical compared to the DPP."
She also said she believes fears of the threat from China were overblown and were used as a political tactic by the DPP.
"The DPP is always trying to scare people about China taking over Taiwan," she said. "To me, those fears are exaggerated."
Another factor looming over Taiwan's elections has been a wave disinformation spreading online and through social media, with many in the DPP accusing China of meddling by financing and coordinating efforts to influence the election.
In a study last year, the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem) at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden placed Taiwan among the countries where foreign governments most frequently use social media to spread false information. At the end of December, the DPP-controlled legislature passed an "anti-infiltration bill," which criminalizes political activities backed or funded by "hostile external forces."
Tsai said in a Facebook post after the vote that "preventing Chinese infiltration is what every diplomatic country is doing." The KMT has argued the bill would have a chilling effect on human rights and free speech and could be used as a political weapon by the government.
Saturday's election will also be a referendum on Taiwanese democracy's ability to withstand disinformation and face the rising tide of authoritarian populism that has swept through countries from the Philippines and Brazil to the United States and Britain, said Tsai Chi-ta of the Taipei-based research and analysis group Taiwan Thinktank.
"This election will be a major examination of democratic values and human rights as a basic concept," Tsai said. "Trust in the political system in Taiwan is at stake."