Taiwan Goes to Vote: What’s at Stake in the Island Nation’s Election

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Wally Santana / AP

A giant campaign donation "Piggy Bank" with a portrait of Taiwan's opposition Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen is seen as she and her running mate Su Jia-chyuan register their presidential bid at the Central Election Commission in Taipei, Taiwan, Nov. 23, 2011

At the headquarters of Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party in Taipei, three women are hunched over the sink in a second-floor bathroom, scrubbing coins. With soapy fingers, they turn brackish discs to dull silver, then place them in red, plastic bowls. The money was pulled from piggy banks sent to Tsai Ing-wen, the woman locked in a too-close-to-call race to be Taiwan’s next President. The collection started when 3-year-old triplets tried to cede their savings to Tsai, but were called-out for being under-age. Outraged, citizens started sending money-stuffed plastic containers by the hundreds, then the thousands. A pig-themed movement was born.

The coin drive, of course, is part grassroots go-get-’em, part political theater. Neither are new here. But, on the eve of Taiwan’s Jan. 14 presidential and legislative polls, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what the episode tells us about the state of the island—and the fate of  one of the world’s most politically sensitive young democracies.

Saturday’s face-off between President Ma Ying-jeou of the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) and his rival, Tsai Ing-wen of the more populist DPP, will be the island’s fifth vote since the president first became directly elected in 1996. In the years since, Taiwan has become one of the most vibrantly democratic places in the world, home to raucous political rallies and politics-driven family feuds. As the only true democracy in the Chinese world (semi-autonomous Hong Kong has a mixed system with both elected and appointed legislators), Taiwan serves as something of a beacon for reformers elsewhere in Greater China. Taiwan’s citizens take elections seriously: voter turnout is high and thousands of Taiwan expatriates fly home—especially from China where hundreds of thousand do business—to place their ballots.

China and Taiwan have been at loggerheads since 1949, when Communist forces prevailed and the Nationalists retreated across the strait. The People’s Republic claims Taiwan as its territory and says unification is an eventual goal — even if it takes force to achieve. President Ma was swept to power in 2008 on a promise to improve ties. He vowed to put existential questions of Taiwan’s identity on hold and focus, instead, on economic integration. Soon after his election, air, shipping and mail links were restored. In June 2010, he signed a landmark trade deal aimed at attracting investment and tourists from the People’s Republic and making it easier for Taiwan businesses to operate in the mainland. He’s promising more of the same this time around.

Tsai, the challenger, wants a more cautious approach to cross-strait ties. Her party, the DPP, has traditionally pushed independence and she has been critical of the KMT’s China ties. But what’s striking about this race—and here’s where we get back to the piggy banks—is the extent to which her campaign has drawn the focus away from the debate over how close or not Taiwan should be to China. She has garnered support by talking about quotidian matters like housing, employment and economic inequality, calling on ordinary people, “the three little pigs,” to stand against the “big bad wolf” Kuomintang. “People want a fairer government, a fairer president to reallocate the resources,” she told TIME.

Her message is less popular outside Taiwan. Both China the United States, which is required by Congress to help arm the island, bristled at the policies of Tsai’s DPP predecessor, Chen Shui-bian and are wary of disrupting the cross-strait status quo. The Americans may want Chinese help on North Korea and China has made it pretty clear it wants Ma to win so that the warming across the strait may continue. An editorial in the Global Times, a state-run newspaper, warned of a “long hangover” should Tsai win. “The new realities in the island will cement the failure of her pet project of inching towards independence,” it says.  The unsigned piece predicts stock crashes and economic collapse as foreign and domestic firms “turn their back on the island in droves.”

That scenario feels far-fetched, but there is indeed uncertainty in the air as the country heads to the polls. Will the island opt for four more years of Ma’s pragmatic cross-strait policy, or cast their lot with Tsai against the Big Bad Wolf? Nobody knows. On election day,Taiwan writes its own story.

More: Read excerpts from TIME’s exclusive interviews with Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ing-wen.