Beijing keenly watching run-up to Taiwan's local polls

Standing at 1.93m, aspiring Taipei mayor Sean Lien has managed to put his foot in his mouth several times in recent months, ahead of local elections on Nov 29.

First, he disparaged a district in Taiwan's capital, calling it "a place without light at night, and deprived of convenience stores and markets".

The candidate from the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and scion of one of Taiwan's most powerful political dynasties then went on to talk about fictional oil reserves, saying that should oil gush out from under City Hall, he would "do a better job than Brunei".

His rival, independent candidate Ko Wen-je, fared little better in the contest for gaffes.

Referring to a KMT nominee, he declared that she is unsuited to be a mayor, as she is "young and beautiful". She would be better off as a receptionist or appearing in an advertisement, concluded the doctor, who is backed by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

While perhaps entertaining, the run-up to Taiwan's impending elections is nonetheless serious for what it signifies. On Nov 29, an estimated 18 million Taiwanese will go to the polls, selecting candidates for about 11,000 public servant offices at the municipal and township levels.

In particular, all eyes will be on the battles for the six municipal-level cities - Taipei, New Taipei, Taichung, Kaohsiung, Tainan and Taoyuan - in a test of voter sentiment that will be a harbinger for the presidential election in early 2016, with implications for cross- strait ties.

Two specific races are shaping up to be key to watch.

The capital Taipei - a traditional pan-blue KMT stronghold - is looking like it could go the way of the pan-green camp.

Mr Lien, 44, is the elder son of former vice-president Lien Chan, a key figure in brokering cross-strait ties. He has consistently trailed the 55-year- old Dr Ko - of folksy if uneven charm - in polls. The latest survey by cable TV network TVBS showed that Dr Ko is leading by a 45 to 32 percentage point margin.

If Mr Lien loses, it could dent whatever presidential ambitions he might have.

The Taipei mayorship is a crucial step for Taiwan's presidents-in-waiting, with every leader in the past quarter century since Taiwan democratised - Mr Ma Ying-jeou, Mr Chen Shui-bian and Mr Lee Teng-hui - having served as the capital's mayor.

A second battleground is in Taichung, central Taiwan.

With Taiwan divided - the north generally votes blue and the south green - Taichung is a swing state that reflects overall sentiment. Here too, the KMT's candidate, incumbent Jason Hu, 66, is trailing newcomer Lin Chia-lung, 50, of the DPP, in polls.

If the KMT loses both Taipei and Taichung - along with Kaohsiung and Tainan which are expected to remain firmly green - it will be an unprecedented loss of four of six mayorships that will effectively render the already beleaguered current president Mr Ma a "political orphan", as political analyst Chen I-hsin of Tamkang University put it.

"More so than before, he won't be able to push forward any policies for the remainder of his term, including any progress on cross- strait relations," he said.

The KMT will be left in disarray and will be hard-pressed to marshal its resources for the 2016 presidential election, said Professor Zheng Zhenqing of Tsinghua University in Beijing.

That is why Beijing is looking closely at the Nov 29 race. "If KMT loses, it will be bad in 2016," he said.

A DPP president could hinder progress in cross-strait relations, after years of warming ties under Mr Ma. Any small exchanges between the mainland and the DPP have "significantly slowed" in the past six months, Prof Zheng said, with the mainland Taiwan Affairs Office preferring to take a "wait-and-see" attitude in the run-up to the elections.

In the longer term, the Nov 29 elections could hold certain implications for Taiwan's electoral landscape.

The TVBS poll in Taipei shows Dr Ko is eating into demographic groups, which have traditionally been in the KMT's pocket. This includes the 40-49 age bracket - among the middle-aged voters who generally support the KMT - and the waishengren, a term used to describe mainlanders who fled to Taiwan and their descendants, noted Mr Sung Wen-ti, a PhD candidate at the Australian National University in a post on the China Policy Institute Blog.

One possible reason is that Dr Ko is an independent candidate - a quality that appeals to Taiwanese voters weary of the two main parties.

If so, whatever the results on Nov 29, the post-mortem for both sides will have to begin now.

This article was first published on November 13, 2014.
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