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Here’s What’s at Stake in the Taiwanese Elections This Weekend

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As one of Taiwan’s top lawyers, C.F. Tsai built a career by handling knotty intellectual-property cases. Recently, though, he’s had to adopt a reluctant second role as marriage counselor. “I’ve received at least two requests from people wanting divorce representation specifically due to the election,” he tells TIME in his central Taipei offices. “I just say to remember why you got together and that a political position doesn’t affect daily life.”

Taiwan chooses a new leader on Jan. 16 in what is proving to be an extremely divisive ballot. Outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou, of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT), has already served the maximum two terms, and his hoped-for successor, Eric Chu, is floundering. And so Tsai Ing-wen — a U.K.- and U.S.-educated scientist, leader of the Beijing-skeptic Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and no relation to Tsai the lawyer — is almost certain to become the island’s first female President. (A third candidate, James Soong, brings up the rear.) Legislative elections are being held at the same time as the presidential race.

As the electoral front-runner, Tsai has pledged to boost Taiwan’s sluggish economy by boosting business dealings with India, ASEAN and East Asia, thus breaking with the dependence on mainland Chinese trade fostered by the KMT. Some predict this could send relations with Beijing into a tailspin, as happened during the last DPP administration from 2000-2008. Chinese state media has already accused Tsai of “evil talk,” “carping” and posing “new challenges to the cross-straits relationship.”

But then the 23 million people of Taiwan have always played by their own rules. This is a country where gangsters openly run for public office — according to one expert, up to a fifth of local township and county councilors in 2010 were members of organized crime syndicates — and where garbage trucks play Beethoven to beckon the public to bring out their trash. It is both the freest place in the Chinese world and the most vulnerable.

This is because the governments of both Beijing and Taipei still officially claim dominion over each other’s domains, a legacy of China’s civil war and the routed Nationalists’ flight across the strait in 1949. To this day, Beijing considers the island a “renegade province” to be reclaimed by force if necessary. Because of Chinese pressure, only a handful of world governments officially recognize Taiwan — the U.S. acknowledged the legitimacy of the People’s Republic in 1979 — and it has no seat on the U.N. Lack of recognition means that Taiwan is excluded from potentially lucrative free-trade groupings. When the island does partake in international forums and sporting events, it must generally do so under the unsatisfactory name of Chinese Taipei.

Even so, relations across the strait have warmed considerably over the past decade, based upon the 1992 Consensus, which stated that there was “one China,” even if both Taipei and Beijing stubbornly disagree over who has authority over it. Thriving business ties have cemented this newfound cordiality, and tourists now flock in both directions on hitherto unthinkable direct flights. “The best way to deal with an enemy is to make him not an enemy,” KMT deputy chairman Jason Hu tells TIME. “Nobody asks what Taiwan’s economy would be like now without our greater economic interaction.”

The DPP, however, does not acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, which Tsai last month described as “an option, but it’s not the only one.” In fact, her party’s founding charter explicitly lists a formally independent Taiwan as a core goal, even if it has pragmatically softened this stance over recent years — not least because such overtures have heralded furious rebukes from Beijing, including the firing of missiles and threats of invasion. China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law codifies the use of force should Taiwan declare independence. Complicating matters, the U.S. is obliged by treaty to supply Taiwan with weapons, and has come to the island’s aid before by deploying its Navy when things got heated in the strait.

According to Scott Harold, a China expert at think tank RAND Corp., a DPP victory could mean “a very substantial change in the tenor, tone and prospects for cross-strait relations.” Washington’s priority, he adds, will be to “convince the Taiwanese not to take steps that are deliberately provocative, or unnecessarily highlight their differences with China.” Of course, “none of this is directly caused by the DPP,” Harold says. “It’s China’s reaction and not the fault of the people of Taiwan for democratically electing whom they choose to govern them.”

Many of Taiwan’s older generation, especially in the KMT heartland around Taipei, express an almost visceral loathing of the DPP for, they believe, unduly focusing on identity politics. To them, the DPP consists of conniving opportunists spreading discord for political gain. “For the DPP to divide Taiwan people from mainland China people is a very useful weapon,” says the lawyer Tsai. Others disagree: “I don’t think Tsai Ing-wen is doing that,” says Shih Chih-yu, a professor of political science at Taiwan National University. “She’s quite comfortable with her margin and doesn’t need to.”

The mind-set of Taiwan’s populace has also shifted over recent years. The island is over 95% ethnic Han Chinese, who, through the previous half-century, have been divided between those who migrated in the wake of the communist victory, and the Taiwanese proper, who were already on the island when Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s bedraggled troops arrived. (A smattering of aboriginal groups make up the rest of the island’s population.) The KMT has long been the realm of the migrants and their descendants, who make up around 20% of the population and have historically held the lion’s share of power and influence. They also prefer the archaic name Republic of China to Taiwan.

The island’s new generation feels unbound by this history, however, seeing itself simply as Taiwanese, whether that be a globally recognized nationality or not. “My parents are native Taiwanese, and their generation has certain sensibilities regarding [the migrants],” says Lai Guan-jung, 30, a photonics and opto-electronics graduate student from the southern city of Kaohsiung. “But for my generation there is no longer an issue and we don’t really draw a distinction.”

Younger people in Taiwan are increasingly distrustful of the KMT’s perceived cozying to Beijing, alienated by its preoccupation with China and mindful of soft colonization by Beijing — a fear that even prompted a student-led occupation of the national parliament in March last year after President Ma signed a raft of stealthy trade deals with the mainland.

Certainly, Taiwanese identity is more complex than the unhelpful term one China can convey. The island boasts its own variety of Mandarin — influenced by the Hokkien and Hakka, Formosan languages, and even English — and was a Japanese colony for the first half of the 20th century (contributing yet another linguistic influence). While the Qing dynasty encamped here, it never controlled the mountainous east of the island, the whole of which only became part of China following the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II. Nods to Japanese cuisine, culture and architecture are everywhere, while Japanese and South Korean music and pop culture dominate, especially among the young. “From comic books to fashion, Taipei is more in step with Tokyo than Beijing,” says Eryk Michael Smith, a journalist and writer based in Taiwan for over 20 years.

This is despite a concerted effort by authorities in Beijing, who clearly hoped the recent influx of mainland tourists to Taiwan (and vice versa) would build fraternal ties. To some extent they have, but they have also — as is the case in Hong Kong — accentuated the differences between the communities, and thus burnished the desire for greater autonomy. “We may share the same language but mainland Chinese people don’t talk about culture and only care about their jobs,” says Tsai Sung-po, 27, an international electronics-sales rep (and also no relation to either the lawyer or politician Tsai). “In Taiwan, even taxi drivers care about politics.”

But the DPP’s resurgence is about more than distrust of China. The KMT built its reputation on two pillars — management of the economy and cross-strait relations — and voters feel let down on both counts. President Ma bet on closer links with the mainland bringing prosperity. Yet people feel a dilution of sovereignty without tangible benefits. “For many young people, the KMT seems like a party more interested in protecting the interests of its elite cronies, while young people toil away at low-paying jobs or try to cope with unpaid furloughs,” writes Paul Katz, distinguished research fellow at the Institute of Modern History at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica.

Over almost eight years of Ma’s administration the cost of living in Taiwan has risen some 8%, but wages have budged little and the cost of property has soared 46%. Youth unemployment remains high and graduates lucky enough to find jobs are faced with typical monthly salaries of just $650. And so the shift toward the DPP is rooted more in penury than ideology (regarding social issues, there is in fact very little to choose between the parties). “The No. 1 issue we hear from young people is the economy,” says Vincent Chao, the DPP’s department director for international affairs. “So we’ve focused on economic growth, higher salaries, more employment and more opportunities for young people.”

Many fear that Tsai’s attempts to remedy economic problems could be undermined by Beijing. In 2007, immediately before Ma’s election, China banned the export of gravel to Taiwan, which had a disastrous effect on the vital construction industry. In 2015, Taiwan welcomed a record 10 million tourists, with nearly half coming from the mainland. Curbs on visas or other travel restrictions would have strong financial repercussions. Not to mention that a quarter of Taiwan’s exports currently go to the People’s Republic, with an additional 13% to Hong Kong.

Tsai is no stranger to tough negotiations, though: the 59-year-old headed Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council during successful brokering of links between Taiwan’s Matsu and Kinmen islands with China’s Fujian province — connections that paved the way for the largely unfettered movement of goods and people today. In debates, she has repeatedly expressed support for the status quo — a position also favored by the majority of Taiwan citizens — describing China in conciliatory terms.

“What people want, we’ll do,” Tsai told a recent televised debate.

But the struggle for Tsai, providing she is elected, will be quelling an increasingly vocal independence movement at home, especially within her own party, while avoiding punitive measures from Beijing and forging trade deals elsewhere around the region. “Tsai has to deal with strong pro-independence voices, as that’s how people gain political advantage in Taiwan,” says Professor Shih. “So even though she has no intention to do anything drastic across the strait, many things may end up forcing her to appear negative to Beijing.” Not least because a DPP victory would challenge, as Harold puts it, “the useful fiction the KMT has chosen to embrace … of this mythical identity as ‘sons of the Yellow Emperor’ and that we are all Chinese.”

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Write to Charlie Campbell / Taipei at charlie.campbell@time.com