Incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen has chosen former premier William Lai as her running mate in her bid for re-election in 2020, with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) positioning itself as the party most likely to champion the island's democratic freedoms and sovereignty against a backdrop of protests in Hong Kong.
"The 2020 elections hold the key to Taiwan's destiny. We must win, so that Taiwan can win," Tsai said after announcing the move.
"William has been a member of the Legislative Yuan, and has served as premier ... so I have asked him to join me in a team effort to ... win more than half of the seats in the legislature," she said.
Lai said the five-month-old anti-extradition and pro-democracy protests recall Taiwan's own struggle for a multi-party democracy under the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) -- which ruled the island under one-party rule and martial law until the death of President Chiang Ching-kuo in 1988.
"This hard-won democracy of ours is looking even more precious against the background of the anti-extradition movement in Hong Kong," said Lai, who resigned as premier last January to take responsibility for a crushing defeat in regional elections last November. "The first priority has to be uniting to protect Taiwan."
In April 2018, then premier Lai said he was working towards Taiwan independence and that Taiwan -- as opposed to the KMT's Republic of China -- was a sovereign, independent country, a view that is anathema to the Chinese Communist Party.
China's state-run Global Times newspaper called on Beijing to issue an international arrest warrant for Lai to face prosecution under the country's 2005 Anti-Secession Law.
"As long as Taiwan is victorious, there will be no losers. But if Taiwan is lost, there will be no winners," he warned, drawing parallels between recent raids by Hong Kong riot police on the city's universities and police presence on Taiwan's university campuses during the martial-law era under one-party KMT rule.
"The situation in Hong Kong is proof positive that freedom and democracy are like air and water," Lai said.
Fight for survival
Taiwan began a transition to democracy following the death of Chiang Ching-kuo in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of a president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.
It has never been controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor formed part of the People's Republic of China.
Former top KMT aide James Soong, who has since founded the People First Party, said he was "full of gratitude and self-confidence."
He waved aside questions about his polling figures that show just eight percent of the public support him.
"Not to worry, that will slowly climb upwards," Soong said. "Just like Taiwan did."
KMT hopeful Han Kuo-yu has also tried to frame the presidential race as a fight for survival, but for the Republic of China, the 1911 KMT regime that fled to Taiwan after losing a civil war with Mao Zedong's communists in China in 1949.
"General elections in most democratic countries are about changing the government, but 2020 will be a life-or-death battle for the Republic of China," Han told supporters.
"Everyone is responsible; Chinese all around the world," he said, calling on overseas Chinese to come back to vote.
According to a recent poll by Taiwan's United Daily News, Tsai and Lai are leading with 45 percent of public support, with Han trailing at 29 percent. A TVBS poll said 45 percent support the incumbent, 37 percent are for Han, and just eight percent would vote for Soong.
Han said the figures didn't trouble him.
"The polls lag behind," he said. "The DPP is stupidly focused on opinion polls as a way of winning power, but I think you gain control of the country by winning over the hearts and minds of its people."
Soong is also running on a platform that favors maintaining the sovereignty of the Republic of China -- which now controls the islands of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu -- rather than supporting a specifically Taiwanese identity on the world stage.
But there was no mention at his campaign launch of the 1992 informal accord between Taiwan and China that has been roundly rejected by Tsai during her presidency, to Beijing's fury.
That understanding, known as the 1992 Consensus or the "one-China policy," saw both the Taiwan-based Republic of China and the People's Republic of China under the Chinese Communist Party as different expressions of the same entity -- China -- effectively blocking Taiwan from membership in international bodies and from forming diplomatic ties in its own right.
Since her election in 2016, Tsai has rejected the agreement as infringing on Taiwan's de facto sovereignty, and vowed to defend the island's freedoms and democracy after Beijing warned it wouldn't wait indefinitely to annex the island, by force if necessary.
Beijing wants to rule Taiwan under the "one country, two systems" concept used to take back the former colonial cities of Hong Kong and Macau.
Tsai has been an outspoken critic of the Hong Kong government since the anti-extradition, pro-democracy protest movement gripped the city in early June, and has repeatedly warned that Taiwan could suffer a similar loss of freedom and democracy if it entertains China's plan.
Reported by Hsia Hsiao-hwa and Lee Tsung-han for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Chung Kuang-cheng for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.