Taiwan Local Elections to Give Glimpse Into Voters' View of China

taiwan-ko-nov2014.gif DPP-backed independent mayor candidate Ko Wen-je (R) speaks during an election campaign in Taipei, Nov. 28, 2014.

Taiwan voters are to cast their ballots at the weekend in local elections which will gauge the level of public support for the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party and President Ma Ying-jeou's policies of closer ties with rival Beijing, which is also watching the event closely, analysts said on Friday.

The polls are widely seen as a form of "mid-term" test for Taiwan, which will choose a replacement for Ma in two years' time.

Ma and opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader Tsai Ing-wen redoubled a grueling round of rallies and speeches in support of their parties' candidates on Friday, the last day of campaigning.

Ma told supporters in Taoyuan county, quoting a local proverb: "When the house is half-built, don't change the architect," suggesting that the KMT needs more time for its policies to take effect.

Tsai, meanwhile, has been urging the island's 23-million population "don't put all your eggs in one basket."

Saturday's poll will be the first time voters have had the chance to react via the ballot box following the student-led occupation of Taiwan's legislature last March in protest at a trade pact they said would leave the democratic island dangerously exposed to China's influence.

A food safety scare, unpopular educational reforms and growing tensions over social inequality have also eroded traditional KMT support.

Taipei mayoral race is key

While voters will choose candidates to fill more than 11,000 seats in municipal, county, township and village governments, the outcome of the mayoral race in Taipei is an important one, as all of Taiwan's elected presidents have first won this seat, analysts said.

"[We can see this as a] test of the Taiwanese public about what kind of cross-strait relations they want and whether they want the relations to step backward," Yang Lixian, researcher at the National Society of Taiwan Studies across the Taiwan Strait in mainland China, told Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper.

"Things have looked to be unfavourable for the KMT, but it is hard to say how big the loss will be or whether it would directly affect the 2016 presidential election," Yang said.

The capital has been a stronghold of the KMT for almost two decades, but the DPP, which campaigns for greater autonomy for Taiwan, was nudging ahead of the KMT in polls on Friday.

"This is the skirmish before the presidential battle," DPP veteran Liu Shyh-fang told reporters.

"We have not had any chance to beat the KMT (in Taipei). Now it will be a little victory if Dr Ko can win," he said, referring to independent candidate Ko Wen-je, who is backed by the DPP.

Taichung race important too

But analysts say the mayoral race in Taichung, which sits somewhere between the KMT, or pan-blue, and DPP, or pan-green camps, may better reveal shifts in the mood of voters.

It is a result that will be anxiously watched by Beijing, according to Yan Anlin, head of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

"Most of these elections are local elections, and so they won't be an important factor in cross-straits relations," Yan told Taiwan's Central News Agency.

But he added that if KMT's incumbent in Taichung, Jason Hu, failed to keep his job as mayor, "frankly speaking, the impact cross-straits relations will be extremely big."

Beijing is also hoping not to see Ko Wen-je, who has dismissed a 1992 cross-straits agreement that paved the way for closer ties, become the next mayor of Taipei, he said.

"Ko Wen-je has said that he doesn't know what was in the 1992 consensus," Yan said. "This could also have an impact on cross-straits relations."

Civil war

Taiwan and mainland China have been governed separately since the KMT government fled there after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's Soviet-backed communists on the mainland.

Beijing regards the island as a renegade province awaiting reunification, and has blocked its participation on the international stage and threatened it with military force, should its government declare independence.

Once governed by a Stalinist ruling party which suppressed dissent and ruled every aspect of daily life, including running major business conglomerates and state-run industries, Taiwan has enjoyed full democracy since President Lee Tung-hui, who steered the KMT through key political reforms, was directly elected in 1996.

But many, including the protesters who occupied the island's Legislative Yuan in the "Sunflower Revolution" last March, fear that Beijing will use closer economic ties to spread political influence in Taiwan, exerting a "chilling" effect on the island's political life via its business interests on the mainland.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that the ruling Chinese Communist Party's "United Work Front" ideological body, which has long been active in Hong Kong, is now engaged in a "concerted campaign" to effectively assimilate Taiwan without a shot being fired.

Citing the agency's annual reports, instructional handbooks and internal newsletters, as well as interviews with Chinese and Taiwanese officials, Reuters said the shadowy agency is targeting academics, students, war veterans, doctors and local leaders in Taiwan "in an attempt to soften opposition to the Communist Party and ultimately build support for unification."

The Reuters report was widely quoted in Taiwan's own media on Thursday.

Reported by Lee Tung for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Chung Kuang-cheng for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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