China’s pressure campaign looms large as Taiwan holds local elections today in what is seen partly as a referendum on the policies of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).
Driven from power two years ago, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is hoping to regain territory by leaning on its pro-business image and a more accommodating line toward Beijing.
The China factor and the potential effect on the 2020 presidential election are giving added weight to the polls, said Alexander Huang (黃介正), a strategic studies professor at Tamkang University.
“It’s more important than the usual local elections,” Huang said. “Confidence has been disrupted by the overall environment and the difficult relationship with the mainland.”
Key races include mayoral offices in Taipei and Kaohsiung, where the KMT and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) are fighting for votes alongside independent candidates and those from smaller parties.
The elections are being portrayed as the largest ever on the island of 23 million, with about 19 million voters casting ballots for more than 11,000 local officials.
Economic growth, employment and pension reforms are also major issues, but while local concerns might be of greatest importance to voters, the outcome is likely to be presented by both major parties as a “status check on the Tsai administration,” said RAND Corp senior defense analyst Derek Grossman, who studies Taiwan-China ties.
Since her election in 2016, Tsai has walked a fine line on relations with China, maintaining Taiwan’s de facto independent status that the vast majority of Taiwanese support, while avoiding calls from the more radical elements of her party for moves to declare formal separation from China.
While ties between Washington and Beijing are at their lowest ebb in years, Taiwan is benefiting from greater US diplomatic and military assistance. Those come despite the lack of formal diplomatic ties that were broken in 1979 when the US switched recognition to China.
Beijing’s response has been to sever contacts with Tsai’s administration, cut numbers of Chinese tourists and further Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation by barring it from multinational forums and wooing away its dwindling number of diplomatic allies, now reduced to just 17.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has also stepped up military intimidation with war games and aerial training near Taiwan, all aimed at advertising Beijing’s threat to bring it under its control by force if necessary.
Taiwanese officials have also warned that Beijing is seeking to sway voters through the spread of disinformation online similar to Russia’s interfering in US elections.
The KMT’s best chance appears to be in the mayoral race in Kaohsiung, a DPP stronghold that has nonetheless appeared to be in play this year.
“What I expect is that the DPP will lose some key races, but it won’t be a game changer unless the DPP does very poorly in the south,” said Timothy Rich, an expert on Taiwan electoral politics at Western Kentucky University.
Losing Kaohsiung would be “symbolically problematic,” he added.
A result that ends in Tsai stepping down as party chair could also energize the KMT and create problems for the DPP in the 2020 elections, he said.
Despite relatively healthy growth estimated at about 2.6 percent this year, many Taiwanese say they fear the effect of China’s policies that continue to undermine Taiwan.
“The shortage of confidence across the Taiwan Strait and the lack of communication between the two governments have made Taiwan’s business environment become more difficult,” Huang said.
Performance in office, especially with regard to the economy, is the most important factor for Taipei voter Giyun Lihang.
“Those elected need to act properly, so people can earn more money, not like now where people are having a hard time,” Giyun said.
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