The Taiwanese people head to the polls on Saturday to elect a president, but business leaders have already made clear their preference in an election that could transform the island’s ties with China.

Terry Gou, chief executive of Hon Hai, the world’s biggest contract electronics manufacturer, recently toured Taiwan to endorse incumbent president Ma Ying-jeou who is in a dead heat with Tsai Ing-wen, his main challenger.

Other chief executives including Wang Wen-Yun, chief executive of the Formosa Group, and Samuel Yin, chairman of the Ruentex group, have also spoken in favour of a second term for Mr Ma, the leader of the ruling Kuomintang party.

For Taiwan’s big businesses, many of which have extensive operations in China, the key issue in this election is the island’s relationship with the mainland, which has dramatically improved under Mr Ma. They fear that a victory by Ms Tsai and her Democratic Progressive party would destabilise relations and disrupt business.

The US is also paying close attention. Last year, a senior US official told the Financial Times that Ms Tsai “left us with distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-Strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years”. Washington acts as the guarantor of Taiwan’s de facto independence with a legally binding pledge to help the island defend itself.

China and Taiwan have been at odds since the two split after a civil war on the mainland in 1949. The Chinese Communist party still claims sovereignty over the democratically ruled island of 23m people, and has threatened to use force should Taiwan formally declare its independence.

In campaigning for a candidate for the first time, Mr Gou said victory for Mr Ma would allow Hon Hai to plan operations for the next three years, while success for Ms Tsai would lead to a “lethal period of uncertainty”.

Likewise Chang Yung-fa, chairman of Taiwan’s Evergreen Group, which operates the world’s fourth-biggest container ship fleet, said Ms Tsai’s position on relations with China was “tantamount to pursuing independence for Taiwan” which he said would cause the island’s economy to collapse.

Taiwan’s economy is heavily dependent on trade with China, with exports to the mainland and Hong Kong accounting for 40 per cent of the total. Businesses fear that Ms Tsai would limit further progress on liberalisation measures, including trade deals.

But Mr Ma’s overwhelming business backing may play into the opposition’s hands. Ms Tsai has campaigned on the widening gap between rich and poor amid popular discontent over how the economic benefits under Mr Ma have gone to big business rather than ordinary workers.

Still, Professor Wang Yeh-lih, chair of the political science department at National Taiwan University, said the overall effect of the endorsements would be more in favour of Mr Ma.

“Although Ms Tsai may say that this shows Mr Ma is backed only by capitalists, Taiwan is, at the end of the day, an export-led economy, and it is not just one or two respected businessmen who have made their stance clear,” Prof Wang said.

Polls in Taiwan have been notoriously unreliable in past elections but most of them have shown Mr Ma with a slight lead over Ms Tsai in the weeks before the election.Taiwanese law forbids media from publicising or reporting on any poll data ten days before the election. Besides relations with China, voters in Taiwan are also looking at bread-and-butter issues such as jobs and the economy during this election.

The lack of confidence in Ms Tsai comes from her rejection of the so-called 1992 Consensus – an agreement between the Kuomintang and Beijing that there is only one China, which encompasses both the mainland and Taiwan. Ambiguity over what “one China” actually means has allowed Mr Ma to engage in economic negotiations with China while setting aside political issues.

Ms Tsai has called the agreement “a fiction that harms Taiwan’s national interests”. She advocates instead building a “Taiwan Consensus” among the Taiwanese, which she could then take to China and engage on Taiwan’s terms.

Beijing vehemently objects to this stance.

“To deny the 1992 Consensus is to regress to the Chen Shui-bian years and will endanger the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations,” said Yang Yi, spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. Mr Chen, the last DPP president, antagonised both Beijing and Washington and greatly raised political tension across the Taiwan Strait during his eight-year rule with his pro-independence rhetoric.

Fortunately for Ms Tsai, however, Mr Ma has also had to tread carefully on cross-Strait issues. His China policies has been predicated on setting aside political arguments, but his approval rating took a hit in October when he said Taiwan could sign a peace agreement with China within the next decade.

The dilemmas both parties face over cross-Strait policy show that, despite the comfort most Taiwanese feel about the status quo, China remains a difficult, and as yet unresolved, political question for Taiwan.

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