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CNN  — 

Voters will head to the polls in Taiwan on January 13 to elect a new president and parliament amid increasing tensions between the self-governing island and China, which has ramped up its military presence in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea in recent years.

Taiwanese voters will choose a new leader to succeed Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s first female president who is finishing her second term after winning elections in 2016 and 2020. Tsai is a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is loathed by China’s Communist leaders because it views Taiwan as a sovereign nation – instead of being part of China as claimed by Beijing. She cannot run again due to term limits.

The candidates

Voters will be choosing their president from three candidates. A fourth potential contender, billionaire Terry Gou, the founder of Apple’s major supplier Foxconn, withdrew hours before the deadline to formally register as a candidate.

The opposition comprises Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese nationalist party that fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war and ruled the island with an iron fist for almost 40 years, and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), a centrist alternative party founded only in 2019. They failed to join forces to run against the ruling DPP after their leaders quarreled on live television and ended up registering separate presidential bids.

Past elections

After shaking off decades of KMT-imposed martial law, Taiwan held its first direct presidential election in 1996. Since then, only candidates from the two major parties – the KMT and the DPP – have captured the presidency.

Taiwan’s presidential elections are won by simple majority of votes and take place every four years. The presidency has a two-term limit.

On Saturday, citizens will choose their president for the eighth time in a three-way race without a clear favorite.

Taiwanese election base

Nearly 20 million people in Taiwan are eligible to cast their ballots in the presidential election across almost 18,000 voting stations. Around 1 million will be first-time voters.

The issue of identity – tied to Taipei’s tense relationship with Beijing – has been one of the most significant political divisions on the island, and studies show it was closely linked to voting patterns in previous elections.

China’s ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views Taiwan as part of its territory, despite having never controlled it. The CCP has long vowed to “reunify” the island with the Chinese mainland, by force if necessary.

Since 1992, the National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center conducted polls asking adult residents about their national identity. Over the past decade, a growing majority of respondents have identified solely as Taiwanese.

Timeline of political tensions across the Taiwan Strait

1945

After the end of World War II, Imperial Japan – whose reign over the island began in 1895 – hands Taiwan to the government of the Republic of China, which had control over mainland China at the time.

1949

Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang forces flee to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. The KMT impose martial law on Taiwan, ushering in nearly 40 years of authoritarian rule.

(Original Caption) 7/13/1949-Tsaoshan, Taiwan: With his body-guard in the background, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek poses for a recent picture. Chiang is now in the Philippines conferring with President Elpidio Quirino with regard to an anti-Communist pact in the Pacific.
Chiang Kai-shek and bodyguards on a visit to the Philippines in 1949. Chiang and Philippine President Elpidio Quirino discussed an anti-Communist pact in the Pacific.

Bettmann/Getty Images

1949-1979

China and Taiwan remain effectively in a state of war and military tensions remain high, with Beijing repeatedly shelling outlying islands controlled by Taipei.

1979-1992

The deaths of Chiang Kai-shek (1975) and Mao Zedong (1976) pave the way for thawing cross-strait relations. The KMT shifts towards opening dialogue with the Communist regime in Beijing.

A line of Chinese proletarian workers pays their respects to the body of Chairman Mao in Beijing in 1976.
Chinese workers pay their respects to the body of Chairman Mao in Beijing in 1976. Mao died in Beijing at age 82 on Sept. 9 of that year.

Bettmann/Getty Images

1987-1991

Martial law is lifted in 1987 as the KMT begins slow transition towards democracy. Taiwan ends state of war with China four years later.

1996

China tests missiles off Taiwan to intimidate voters in the island’s first direct presidential election. The KMT, led by President Lee Teng-hui, wins the race.

This undated file photo released 20 March by the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, shows a Chinese destroyer firing missiles at a submarine from the
A Chinese destroyer fires during a large-scale, live ammunition exercise by the People’s Liberation Army in the South China Sea in 1996.

Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

2000

The KMT loses power after more than 50 years. The DPP, founded by KMT opponents during the martial law era to promote a distinct Taiwanese identity, wins the presidency for the first time.

2008

The KMT wins the presidency back. Dialogues between Taipei and Beijing resume and a period of warmer cross-strait ties ensues.

Ma Ying-jeou, presidential candidate of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), center, waves after winning the presidential election at the party's headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan, on Saturday, March 22, 2008. Ma won Taiwan's presidential election, vowing to improve ties with China after eight years of pro-independence rule by Chen Shui bian.
Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang, or KMT, waves after winning the presidential election at the party’s headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan, on March 22, 2008. Ma vowed to improve ties with mainland China after eight years of rule by pro-independence Chen Shui-bian, of the Democratic Progressive Party.

Maurice Tsai/Bloomberg/Getty Images

2014

Student-led protesters occupy parliament to oppose a controversial trade pact between Taiwan and China, with their activism becoming known as the Sunflower Movement.

2015

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou hold a historic summit in Singapore, marking the first time since 1949 the leaders of China and Taiwan meet face to face.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou (L) shake hands prior to their meeting at a hotel on November 7, 2015 in Singapore.
Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-Jeou (L) with Chinese leader Xi Jinping prior to their meeting at a hotel in Singapore on November 7, 2015.

The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

2016

Opposition candidate Tsai Ing-wen, from the DPP, wins Taiwan’s presidential election. China cuts most communications with Taipei and begins ramping up economic, diplomatic and military pressure over the island.

TAIPEI, TAIWAN - MAY 20:  Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen waves to the crowd on May 20, 2016 in Taipei, Taiwan. Taiwan's new president Tsai Ing-wen took oath of office on May 20 after a landslide election victory on January 16, 2016.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen waves to the crowd on May 20, 2016, after taking her oath of office in Taipei, Taiwan. Tsai won a landslide election victory on January 16, 2016.

Ashley Pon/Getty Images

2020

Tsai is re-elected in a landslide as Taiwanese voters become wary of Beijing’s threats following its crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

People take part in a pro-democracy march in Hong Kong on January 1, 2020. - Tens of thousands of protesters marched in Hong Kong during a massive pro-democracy rally on New Year's Day, looking to carry the momentum of their movement into 2020.
People take part in a pro-democracy march in Hong Kong on January 1, 2020.

Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images

2020-2023

China increases military pressure on Taiwan. A 2022 visit to the island by then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi triggers China’s largest Taiwan-focused war drills in decades.

Tourists look on as a Chinese military helicopter flies past Pingtan island, one of mainland China's closest point from Taiwan, in Fujian province on August 4, 2022, ahead of massive military drills off Taiwan following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to the self-ruled island. - China is due on August 4 to kick off its largest-ever military exercises encircling Taiwan, in a show of force straddling vital international shipping lanes following a visit to the self-ruled island by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP) (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)
Tourists look on as a Chinese military helicopter flies past Pingtan island, in Fujian province of mainland China, on August 4, 2022. On that day, mainland China launched massive military exercises around Taiwan in a show of force following a visit to the self-ruled island by Nancy Pelosi, then the US House Speaker. Pingtan island is one of the closest points of mainland China to Taiwan.

Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

Sources: Center for Strategic and International Studies; Council on Foreign Relations; Taiwan government; Britannica; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; China Perspectives; Democratic Progressive Party; Mainland Affairs Council, Republic of China (Taiwan); US Department of State; American Enterprise Institute