A Taiwanese voter casts his ballot during an election. Photo: Central News Agency, Taiwan

Free or heavily subsidized air tickets are on offer to Taiwanese doing business or studying on the mainland so they can head home before January 11, when the self-ruling island goes to polling stations to select its new president.

Taiwanese papers reported that mainland carriers that operate cross-strait flights have been told to hold seats for Taiwanese passengers to ensure they can head back to cast their ballots.

A leaked memo from the Taiwan Merchants’ Association in Shenzhen to its members detailed the subsidies and discounts available for people returning to the island in January.

Following discussions with officials, the association said it would offer a one-off, 400-yuan (US$57) subsidy to its members and their relatives who depart from Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hong Kong or Macau between January 3 and 11, and a bigger subsidy of 600 yuan for those taking specific flights on January 10.

In September, the Association of Taiwan Investment Enterprises on the mainland also requested discounts on airfares, and mainland airlines responded immediately.

At the time, Shenzhen Airlines suggested a 50% discount on economy class fares, to be capped at 1,500 yuan, according to the Liberty Times and Taipei Times. All round-trip tickets from Shenzhen to Taipei between January 10 and 11 have been snapped up.

There has also been talk of free tickets and junkets on offer as an added incentive for Taiwanese students studying on the mainland to fly back and vote.

It is believed that the two million Taiwanese who live on the mainland will be the base for Han Kuo-yu, fielded by the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party, to rival incumbent leader Tsai Ing-wen, who has shunned the “one-China” consensus and strained cross-strait ties since taking office in 2016.

Cadres from the Chinese State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office and its local branches often attend meetings hosted by these associations prior to elections.

They are also responsible for talking to Chinese carriers and aviation authorities to add more cross-strait flights prior to polling day to fly more voters home. The Taiwanese authorities, meanwhile, are in a difficult position and cannot turn away these additional flights, otherwise it would be tantamount to curtailing people’s right to vote.

The three presidential candidates, from left, the KMT’s Han Kuo-yu, incumbent leader Tsai Ing-wen, with the Democratic Progressive Party, and the People First Party’s James Soong.

However, not all Taiwanese who accept cheap or free tickets home will vote for the KMT’s Han, given that no proof can be collected – photos or video-taking inside polling stations is strictly prohibited – raising the question about the effectiveness of Beijing’s tactic.

The KMT’s candidate was given a rout in 2016 when Beijing reportedly helped more than one million Taiwanese get home to vote.

Commenting on the subsidized tickets for Taiwanese, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council noted that the election committee and judicial authorities would need to determine whether there would be any legal implications regarding voters receiving these subsidies and the need for any charges of election fraud, vote-buying or rigging.

There have been calls to limit the voting rights of Taiwanese who live on the mainland for a prolonged period of time, but lawmakers are divided over the issue with the KMT strongly opposing the idea.

Taiwan’s major carriers, China Airlines and EVA Air, said they would not add extra cross-strait flights in the run-up to the election.

Recent opinion polls show Tsai is likely to secure a second term as her support has been buoyed by the turmoil in Hong Kong and stronger ties with the US.

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