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Taiwan, the only Chinese-speaking democracy, will elect a president this Saturday

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The only Chinese-language democracy will elect a new president this Saturday. Presidential elections have been around for less than 30 years, and people in Taiwan cherish that right to vote. Meanwhile, China, right across the strait, has long been saying it is the sole legitimate government of both China and Taiwan. And every election, the issue of China takes center stage. My colleague Ailsa Chang, host of NPR's All Things Considered, has been talking to voters in Taiwan and joins us now. Hi, Ailsa.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: OK. So you've been there - what? - more than a week now. So what's the energy been like around this election?

CHANG: I mean, as you mentioned, democracy - it's still kind of novel on this island. Like, this is only the eighth presidential election in Taiwan's history. So a lot of the culture around elections here - it's exuberant. It's celebratory. Candidates ride around on these campaign trucks, and while they roll on by, voters are cheering and setting off firecrackers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRECRACKERS POPPING)

CHANG: And these candidates - they're standing on the truck beds, singing and shouting for, like, hours at a time. Like, here's Su Chiao Hui, a legislator running for reelection whom we had spent a lot of time with.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

CHANG: Also, when you're watching campaign speeches in Taiwan, often you will see these organ players scoring those speeches live, like with music, to, you know, intensify people's emotions as they're listening. It's really incredible to watch.

FADEL: OK, so it kind of sounds like a party. Let's talk about the two frontrunners right now.

CHANG: So you have the incumbent party, which is the Democratic Progressive Party or DPP. And on the other side you have the Kuomintang, or KMT. And, you know, I guess the differences between them on the most important issue, which is China, are pretty subtle right now. Like, both parties favor maintaining the status quo between Taiwan and China, meaning they both want Taiwan to be self-governed even if Taiwan is not formally independent. Though the DPP has made noises in the past about formal independence, and that's why Beijing has made it clear that they would be quite unhappy if the DPP candidate, Lai Ching Te, won. He's the current vice president of Taiwan. Meanwhile, the KMT candidate, Hou You Yi, is promising a stronger relationship with China, both diplomatically and economically. And China clearly prefers a KMT victory. But, you know, ultimately, Leila, it's unclear whether any election outcome would prevent China from one day possibly forcing unification with Taiwan.

FADEL: OK, so what are voters saying about this? Is China generally the top issue on their minds going into this election?

CHANG: It certainly seems that way. Like, our producer Mallory Yu went to a rally for the KMT, and they met a voter who calls herself Excited Sister, or Jih Doh Je. She's, like, at all the KMT rallies, is usually wearing sparkly boas and rhinestones and these huge hats.

JIH DOH JE: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: And she's saying here, "I want peace." She doesn't want independence for Taiwan. And she wants Taiwan's relations with both the U.S. and China to be stable. "We are all one family," she sang. And then Mallory also went to a college campus here in Taipei, where they talked to a few college students, and one of them was a woman named Serene Tseng.

SERENE TSENG: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: So Serene's saying here that she thinks Taiwan does not belong to China. And because of that, she will not be voting for anyone who leans towards China.

FADEL: OK, so China - clearly a big issue, but what else are voters thinking about?

CHANG: I mean, I guess like any election anywhere, people are worried about things like low wages or the rising cost of living. And we met this one man in the southern city of Tainan, and his name is Xia Joh Ge. And we actually approached him at first because he's a street performer who was dressed as the Monkey King. That's, like, this really famous character in Chinese folklore. But, you know, as we were talking to him, he ended up having some pretty strong opinions about the election.

XIA JOH GE: (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: He thinks the DPP has not paid enough attention to the economy and what the people of Taiwan want. For example, housing prices in Taiwan have been rising, and he thinks the DPP has not done enough to control that. And, you know, this is something that you also hear from a lot of young voters. Like, the DPP - they've been in power for eight years. They're considered the establishment. So many voters here have flocked to a third party on the ballot this year, the Taiwan People's Party, or TPP. And one question on Saturday is whether the TPP candidate, Kuh Wen Zhe, will peel away enough voters to actually affect the outcome of this election.

FADEL: That's NPR's Ailsa Chang, host of All Things Considered, out in Taipei, Taiwan. Thanks, Ailsa.

CHANG: Thank you. Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.