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US ships deploy ahead of vote

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Taiwan's identity crisis

Polls close at 0800 GMT and a result is expected in the late evening.

 

Voters will choose a successor to Chen Shui-bian, the current president, who steps down in May and who has repeatedly angered Beijing with his pro-independence rhetoric.

 

Hsieh favours formal independence while Ma Ying-jeou, who leads in opinion polls, wants eventual reunification once China embraces democracy.

 

The two candidates have toughened their stances on China following Beijing's crackdown in Tibet.

 

However, analysts say Taiwan's faltering economy is the number one issue with voters.

 

Both candidates advocate more direct flights, tourism and investment opportunities between Taiwan and China in order to improve the domestic economy.

 

Taiwan candidates

Frank Hsieh

 

Candidate for ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)

 

Propelled into politics after working as a defence lawyer for political dissidents in 1980

 

Focused campaign on environmental issues, the poor and Taiwan's identity

 

Has backed cautious opening of Taiwan-China economic links and hopes eventually to accelerate moves to make Taiwan a country distinct from China

 

Ma Ying-jeou

 

Candidate for nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party

 

Unseated Chen Shui-bian, the current president, as mayor of Taipei in 1998

 

Focused campaign on reviving Taiwan's economy by introducing common market with mainland China

 

Has advocated improving relations with China, signing a peace treaty and halting Taiwan's push for independence

Ralph Cossa from Pacific Forum CSIS, a US based think tank, says:  "Domestic issues, such as the economy and corruption, are bigger than China or foreign policy."


Aside from selecting a new president in Saturday's election, voters will also be offered a referendum on whether to seek UN membership.

 

The initiative, which asks whether Taiwan should seek to join the global body as "Taiwan" instead of its legal name, the Republic of China, has sparked statements of protest from China which sees the move as a further move towards independence.

 

Japan, Russia, France and the US have also criticised the referendum as unnecessarily provocative.

 

In a sign how sensitive the poll is, two US aircraft carriers have been deployed to an unspecified area near Taiwan during the election for what US defence officials say are training exercises.

 

In 1996, during Taiwan's first democratic presidential election, China fired a series of missiles into the Taiwan Strait in a sabre-rattling gesture seen as trying to intimidate voters.