Taipei: Polling to elect the next President and the running mate began in Taiwan on Saturday, with over nineteen million people, of which one million are first-time voters, registered to cast their ballots across almost 18,000 polling stations in the island country.

The world is keenly watching Taiwan as its citizens prepare to vote for a new President and Parliament amidst escalating tensions with China.

Beijing's increasing threats towards Taipei over the past eight years have raised concerns, and the world awaits not only the election results but also the response from Taiwan's 'authoritarian neighbour,' as reported by CNN.

In terms of age groups in the presidential election, 40-49-year-olds make up the largest voting bloc with 3.88 million eligible voters, or 19.88 per cent of the electorate, followed by 50-59-year-olds with 3.53 million eligible voters, who account for 18.06 per cent of the electorate, Taiwan's Central Election Commission (CEC) said in a statement.

Around 2.84 million of age from 20-29 year-olds are eligible to vote in the presidential election this time, the CEC said.

The voters will receive three ballots -- a presidential ballot, a regional or aboriginal legislator ballot and a ballot for a political party that will determine legislator-at-large seats.

Taiwanese voters will be choosing a successor to Tsai Ing-wen, the nation's first female president, who cannot seek re-election due to term limits after winning in 2016 and 2020. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), led by Tsai, is viewed unfavourably by China, which considers Taiwan a sovereign nation.

The election takes place under Chinese threats, with President Xi Jinping emphasizing the inevitability of Taiwan's unification with the mainland, even if by force. The last change of government in 2016 saw Beijing severing most communications with Taipei and escalating economic, diplomatic, and military pressure, turning the Taiwan Strait into a major geopolitical flashpoint, according to CNN.

The opposition comprises of 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, according to CNN.

There are three major candidates in the fray -- Lai Ching-Te from DPP, Hou Yu-Ih from KMT and Ko Wen-Je from the TPP.

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.

However, the KMT and TPP failed to join forces to run against the ruling DPP after their leaders quarrelled on live television and ended up registering separate presidential bids.

All three candidates are selling themselves as the best choice for avoiding that doomsday scenario, pledging to maintain peace and the status quo - which polls have consistently shown is what most people in Taiwan want, CNN reported.

But the three men hold very different visions for how to achieve that goal. They all cite the need to boost Taiwan's defence capabilities to deter China's aggression but disagree on their policy priorities, particularly how to deal with Beijing.

Current DPP Vice President Lai Ching-te emphasises bolstering Taiwan's ties with like-minded democratic partners, such as the United States and Japan, while maintaining his administration's stance that Taiwan is already a de facto sovereign nation - a view Beijing deems unacceptable.

Hou Yu-ih, from the main opposition party, Kuomintang (KMT), places more weight on resuming dialogue and de-escalating tension with China.

Ko Wen-je from the Taiwan People's Party (TPP), meanwhile, has called for a more "pragmatic" approach to seeking a "new way out in the US-China rivalry," though he has been less clear about what that means in practice.

Initially, Taiwan was ruled under KMT-imposed martial law. It held its first direct presidential election only 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 a simple majority of votes and take place every four years. The presidency has a two-term limit, CNN reported.

Notably, China's ruling Communist Party views Taiwan as part of its territory, despite having never controlled it. While successive Chinese Communist leaders have vowed to eventually achieve "reunification," Xi has repeatedly said the Taiwan issue "should not be passed down generation after generation," linking the mission to his mid-century goal of "national rejuvenation."

"This election marks a change in leadership at a moment when cross-strait tensions are high and preserving stability has become more of a challenge," Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst for the International Crisis Group said."

A conflict involving Taiwan is unlikely in the near term. But if one were to break out, the ramifications would be globally felt," Hsiao added.

In a New Year's message, Zhang Zhijun, the head of China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, a quasi-official body that handles ties with Taiwan, urged the people of Taiwan to make the "correct choice" on January 13.

According to Al Jazeera, Beijing has also been engaged in its usual online misinformation campaigns to stir up controversy. Its more analogue tactics include reaching out to voters through religious networks for prominent Taiwanese temples and deities, relying on shared cultural and historic ties to sway voters' minds.

Earlier on January 9, Taiwan's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jaushieh Joseph Wu, called on the global community to be aware of and thwart China's attempts to intervene in democratic nations' elections, according to Taiwan Today, a local weekly newspaper reported.

The minister warned that China is using Taiwan as a testing ground for election intervention and explained China's various interference tactics.

He cited examples, emphasising China's reliance on mixed methods such as military threats, political propaganda, economic coercion, and cyber and disinformation warfare. The objective is to manipulate public opinion, framing elections as a choice between war, peace and prosperity.

Meanwhile, China has made no secret of its preference in the tight race, framing the election as a choice between "peace and war, prosperity and decline."Notably, Beijing's preferred candidate is Hou from the KMT, which traditionally favors closer ties with China, according to CNN.

Hou has blamed the DPP for "provoking" China and vowed to restart dialogue and repair economic ties with Beijing. He has also pledged to revive a controversial trade deal with China, which sparked huge student-led protests in 2014 during the previous KMT administration.

Beijing openly loathes the DPP and Lai. The latter once described himself as "a practical worker for Taiwan's independence." Although he has moderated his position to favour the status quo, Beijing has continued to denounce him as a dangerous separatist.

Earlier on Wednesday, China's Taiwan Affairs Office warned Taiwan's voters to "recognise the extreme danger of Lai Ching-te's triggering of cross-strait confrontation and conflict" and "to make the right choice at the crossroads of cross-strait relations."CNN reported, citing experts, that Beijing's response may vary depending on the election results, but tension could rise further down the road regardless of who takes office, as China's "reunification" plan has become a nonstarter for the vast majority of Taiwan's 24 million people.

In addition to the threat from Beijing, livelihood issues such as low wages, high property prices and Taiwan's slowly growing economy are expected be key factors in how they vote.

Significantly, the Taiwanese voters are unhappy with key domestic issues such as Taiwan's stagnant economy, the high cost of housing and the future of the island's energy policies, the presidential election is often overshadowed by the bigger question of Taiwan's political status, Al Jazeera reported.

Another unusual factor that has surfaced just before the elections is the settlement of Hong Kongers in Taiwan.

According to a report by Voice of America (VOA), Hong Kong immigrants in Taiwan are seeking increased support through the upcoming Taiwan elections.

During Taiwan's last presidential election, in 2020, protests were held against the Hong Kong government's proposal to amend the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance that critics said would allow Hong Kongers to be sent to China for trial.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan emphasized the need to support Hong Kongers, and the slogan "Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan" gained prominence.

Taiwan's 113-person legislature is made up of 73 legislators based on geographic constituencies, 34 based on party lists and six seats reserved for Indigenous Taiwanese representatives, all of whom will serve four-year terms, according to Al Jazeera.

In the last two elections, the turnout was relatively high, at 66.27 per cent in 2016 and 74.9 per cent in 2020.