Taiwan's main political parties suspended election campaigning just days ahead of general elections on Jan. 11 after a top military chief charged with organizing a defense against possible invasion from China died in a helicopter crash.
The UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter crashed in a mountainous area with 13 people on board, soon after taking off from the military airport in Songshan on Thursday, killing chief of general staff Gen. Shen Yi-ming and seven other people. Five people survived.
The chief of general staff is responsible for overseeing Taiwan's defense against China, which has threatened to use military force to annex the democratic island, which has never been controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor formed part of the People's Republic of China.
The chopper went missing from the radar screen 10 minutes after takeoff, crash-landing in the heavily forested Wulai mountain area southeast of the capital, Taipei.
Shen, 63, was promoted in July after serving as commander of Taiwan’s air force, and had been a popular military leader.
The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suspended all public campaign events through Saturday after the fatal crash.
"We are utterly saddened at the loss of these pillars of our nation," the party said via its official Twitter account.
The opposition Kuomintang (KMT) suspended campaigning until the end of Friday.
The military said in a statement that the aircraft made a "forced landing," and the reasons for the crash were as yet unknown.
'Maintain military stability'
The Blackhawk helicopter that crashed was designed for search and rescue and had been delivered in 2018, according to the defense ministry.
Incumbent DPP president Tsai Ing-wen, who looks set to win a second term in office on Jan. 11, said she had asked the defense minister to launch an investigation.
"We must find out the reason for the incident," she told reporters in the northeastern county of Yilan, where the helicopter had been heading after setting out from Taipei.
"The most important thing is ... to maintain military stability and ensure the security and stability of our country," Tsai said.
Turnout in the Jan. 11 poll, which will select the next president and Legislative Yuan, looks set to be high with strong voter involvement, partly on the back of fears for Taiwan's democratic way of life in the light of recent protests in Hong Kong.
"I have always supported the [DPP and other pro-independence parties], and I have come back from the United States [to vote]," a woman who gave only a surname Chen told RFA in Taipei on Thursday.
"It seems that the odds are good [for a Tsai victory], but I don't know if there will be any funny business," she said.
Lawmakers passed Taiwan's first Anti-Infiltration Law on Dec. 31 following repeated warnings from Taiwan's national security agencies that China is pouring in backdoor resources and stepping up "United Front" propaganda work to boost support for the pro-China KMT, or nationalist party, ahead of the election.
The new law forbids any organizations or individuals sponsored by foreign powers from providing political contributions, campaigning, lobbying, or disseminating fake news meant to interfere in elections.
'Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow'
An office worker surnamed Hwang said the results were still unpredictable.
"I think the elections here Taiwan will be very irrational, especially in the last few days, there are a lot of things that could change," Hwang said.
But he said he expects the refusal of the Hong Kong authorities to accede to the demands of the city's pro-democracy movement and the violent suppression of demonstrators could have a profound impact on turnout.
"The willingness to come out to vote will increase, and I feel that there is maybe a sense of anxiety, with people saying 'Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow,'" Hwang said.
Fan Shih-ping of National Taiwan Normal University said the helicopter crash is unlikely to have much of an impact on the poll result at this stage in the campaign.
"This shouldn't affect the election very much, although it is an unexpected incident and it is more difficult to investigate political factors," Fan said, in a reference to speculation over whether there could have been foul play involved in the crash.
"It might not bode too well for certain ... DPP candidates for the legislature, because Tsai Ing-wen could perhaps have raised some momentum for them," he said.
Cheng-Feng Shih, Dean of the College of Indigenous Studies at National Dong Hwa University said people are likely most concerned about the findings of the investigation, which won't emerge for several months.
"Everyone is thinking, maybe this wasn't an accident," Shih said. "Was it due to uncontrollable factors, or worse, external forces?"
"Right now, everyone is going to be thinking about this."
Reported by Hsia Hsiao-hwa and Hwang Chun-mei for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Chung Kuang-cheng for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.