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Timeline: Taiwan's road to democracy

(Reuters) - Taiwan will hold its fifth presidential election on January 14 since its transition to a full-fledged democracy from a martial law dictatorship.

The poll pits incumbent the Nationalists’ Ma Ying-jeou against the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen, who is aiming to become Taiwan’s first female president, and James Soong, leader of a Nationalist splinter party that favors close ties with China.

China and the United States, which sent aircraft carriers to the region when Beijing menaced Taiwan with missile tests in the run-up to the island’s first presidential poll in 1996, will be closely watching the election result.

The following is a chronology of the major events in Taiwan history and its transformation into a democracy.

1895 - China cedes Taiwan to Japan after losing a war.

1945 - Taiwan returns to Chinese control after World War Two ends.

1947 - Nationalist troops crush islandwide rioting on Feb 28 by Taiwanese disgruntled with official corruption, killing unknown thousands. The event is now known as the 228 Incident.

1949 - Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek loses civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communist forces and flees to Taiwan. He rules the island with an iron fist until his death in 1975.

1968 - Taiwan holds first by-elections to replace deceased China-elected deputies. A majority remain lifetime legislators and only a small minority are elected.

1971 - The Republic of China, as Taiwan is officially known, quits the United Nations and is replaced by the People’s Republic of China, Beijing’s official name.

1972 - Chiang Kai-shek appoints his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, as Taiwan premier, raising the prospect of a “Chiang dynasty” and fuelling an underground Taiwan independence movement.

1979 - Washington switches diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei. The U.S. Congress passes the Taiwan Relations Act promising to help the island defend itself. China offers Taiwan peaceful unification, dropping its longstanding policy to “liberate” the island.

1984 - Chiang Ching-kuo hand-picks Taiwan-born Lee Teng-hui as vice-president to eventually succeed him.

1986 - Chiang pledges political reform, including a free press and lifting bans on new political parties and street protests. Emboldened dissidents form Taiwan’s first opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

1987 - Taiwan lifts almost four decades of martial law and eases ban on travel to China.

1988 - Chiang Ching-kuo dies, succeeded by Lee Teng-hui.

1990 - The National Assembly, or electoral college, elects Lee to a full six-year term as president.

1991 - Lifetime legislators forced to retire.

1992 - First full elections to parliament. The body orders the destruction of tens of thousands of personnel dossiers, ending checks for ideological reliability.

1993 - Taiwan and China hold landmark semi-official talks on neutral ground, Singapore. Taiwan lifts ban on new radio stations. The island’s parliament ends restrictions on broadcasts in the Taiwanese dialect.

1994 - Government allows new television stations.

1996 - Voters make Lee Teng-hui first directly elected president, in defiance of months of menacing wargames by China that prompted the United States to send ships to the Taiwan Strait. Lee takes landslide 54 percent of vote.

2000 - Voters put the DPP in power for first time, electing Chen Shui-bian as president and ending more than five decades of Nationalist rule. The Nationalists retain control of parliament. Chen’s pro-independence rhetoric fuels tensions with China.

2003 - Parliament passes law permitting referenda on issues such as national sovereignty, opening the door to a future vote on whether to formally declare independence.

2004 - Chen Shui-bian wins a second term by a narrow margin, surviving a shooting on the eve of the election that critics say was staged to win him more votes.

2008 - The Nationalists return to power with Ma Ying-jeou winning with a landslide 58 percent of the vote as Chen’s popularity plummeted amid allegations of corruption and a general economic malaise. Chen is arrested later in the year and is currently serving a 19-year jail sentence.

2010 - Ma’s policy of economic rapprochement with China culminates in a landmark trade deal that drops tariffs on hundreds of products. The policy also increases air routes between the two sides, boosts Taiwan investment in China and allows Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan.

2011 - The DPP chooses Tsai Ing-wen, formerly Taiwan’s top China policymaker, as presidential candidate for the 2012 election. As DPP chairwoman, Tsai masterminded a shift to a more centrist position from the pro-independence stance of Chen. Meanwhile former Nationalist politician James Soong enters the race, threatening to split the Nationalist vote.

Compiled by Taipei bureau; Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim