TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwanese began voting in midterm local elections Saturday seen as a referendum on the independence-leaning administration of President Tsai Ing-wen, amid growing pressure from the island’s powerful rival China.
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The elections that follow Tsai’s landslide victory in 2016 will decide the races for 22 mayors and county magistrates along with thousands of local officials.
Driven from power two years ago, the opposition Nationalists, known also as the KMT, hope to regain territory from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party by emphasizing their pro-business image and a more accommodating line toward Beijing.
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 the mainland.
China has been ratcheting-up pressure on the island it claims as its own territory by poaching away its diplomatic partners, cutting official contacts and staging threatening military exercises.
China resents Tsai for her refusal to endorse its stance that the self-governing island democracy is a part of the Chinese nation. But the Nationalists won just six of the mayoral and magistrate seats in the 2014 local races as voters rejected their close ties with China. Tsai went on to beat the Nationalist candidate for president.
“The hostility between mainland China and Taiwan has been very profound for people over the past two years, and for relations to be stuck like now is really bad for the economic development of our country,” said Taipei voter Hung Wei-chi. The marketing professional said he supported the Nationalist mayoral candidate in his hometown Taipei.
Key races Saturday include mayoral offices in the capital Taipei and southern port of Kaohsiung, long a DPP stronghold.
Economic growth, employment and pension reforms are also key issues, but the major parties are likely to tout the outcome as a vote for or against central government policy, including how to handle China.
“Tsai Ing-wen’s government over the past two years has reached a breakthrough in pension reforms, but in terms of labor rights and other issues, still a lot of people think she hasn’t done well enough, so that will affect the midterm elections,” said Lin Liang-chun, a minor party candidate for Taipei city council.
At a campaign rally Wednesday for her party’s Taipei mayoral candidate, Tsai accused China of “intervening” in the elections. “It’s exactly because China finds Tsai Ing-wen very firm that it must keep intervening in Taiwan’s elections to make the Democratic Progressive Party fail,” she said.
Taiwanese officials have warned that Beijing is seeking to sway voters through the spread of disinformation online similar to how Russia was accused of interfering in U.S. elections.
Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists rebased their government to Taiwan in 1949 amid the civil war with Mao Zedong’s Communists. They ruled under martial law until the late 1980s when the native Taiwanese population began to take political office, mostly through the DPP.
About 19 million Taiwanese are eligible to vote. Results are due by the end of Saturday.
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