Taiwan ruling party faces rout in biggest ever local polls

Legislators from the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party display placards demanding the opposition lawmakers stop a protest against gutter oil during the new session at the parliament in Taipei on September 12, 2014.

TAIPEI - With public fears of Chinese influence growing, a slowing economy and a series of food scandals, Taiwan's ruling party is facing a rough ride in the island's biggest ever local elections -- seen as a barometer for the 2016 presidential race.

Campaigning is well under way with almost 20,000 candidates contesting a record 11,130 seats, and analysts predict the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang government will take a serious knock.

"The Kuomintang party is very likely to lose ground in the vote, it's just a matter of to what extent," said Tung Chen-yuan, social science professor at Taipei's National Chengchi University.

From mayors of the country's six municipalities to county chiefs, city councillors and village leaders, the elections on November 29 could see new faces at every level of local government.

Campaign tactics so far have ranged from traditional street rallies to bizarre efforts to garner attention.

One Kuomintang candidate for mayor of Tainan cast herself as a "dark horse" against her more popular DPP opponent -- by riding a black horse down the city's streets.

Meanwhile an independent candidate for mayor in the city of Kaohsiung stripped to his underpants on stage as he drew his candidate number, shouting: "Naked to meet you, honesty is the best policy".

It was, perhaps, an offbeat nod to allegations of vote buying which have dogged election campaigns in some areas. Government figures say more than 2,400 people are being investigated, both candidates and supporters, mostly in rural locations. Two suspects were detained Friday accused of bribing college students in a county council election.

"The public feels apathetic over the vote, so candidates are resorting to publicity grabbing tactics, rather than focusing on critical issues," said one Kuomintang official, who did not want to be named.

Party faithful jump ship

The vote comes at the end of a turbulent year which saw Taiwan's parliament occupied in March for three weeks by student protesters over a controversial trade deal with China, sparking mass rallies.

Ties with Beijing have warmed since the Kuomintang came to power in 2008, with trade booming and millions of Chinese tourists visiting the island each year.

But the improved relationship has led to domestic anxiety that Taiwan is too reliant on the mainland.

Taiwan broke away from China after the Communist Party took power in 1949. Beijing has never recognised the island's sovereignty and has said it wants to reunifiy, by force if necessary.

More than 12 million people are eligible to vote in the six municipalities alone, out of the island's total population of 23 million.

Stagnant income levels and soaring housing prices are a major source of complaint among voters, particularly for younger generations.

The Kuomintang is also under fire over a string of food safety scandals, the latest of which prompted the resignation of the health minister after more than 1,000 restaurants, bakeries and food plants were found to have used tainted cooking oil -- known as "gutter oil".

"The Kuomintang has even seen their support from the military, teachers and government employees -- who have long been stalwarts of the party -- shaken after cuts to their pensions and benefits," says Tung.

Currently, the Kuomintang dominates three municipalities in the north, including Taipei City, and one in the centre, while the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) holds two in the south.

But even the key Taipei mayoral seat is under threat -- DPP-backed independent candidate Ko Wen-je has a strong lead over the Kuomintang's Sean Lien in opinion polls.

Recent polls by three major newspapers put Ko's lead at between seven and 14 per cent.

Kuomintang losing youth vote

Young voters are set to shun the ruling party.

"I believe lots of young people would prefer to vote for the DPP who have more reformist ideals," Shih Yen-ting, a graduate school student who participated in the spring protests, told AFP.

Long-time supporter of the Kuomintang, Claudia Wu, said she would abstain to reflect her disillusionment.

"I'm not going to vote this time as I was really disappointed in the poor performance of the government," said Wu, who works for a construction company in Taipei.

"Food safety is the most basic demand from the people. The government has to fill the people's stomachs," she added.

The anonymous Kuomintang official said: "The most important thing is for candidates to win back voters' passion for the party."

Taiwan will go to the polls in early 2016 to elect a new president after Ma Ying-jeou completes his second and last four-year term.

The DPP has said the local elections are an important prelude, calling on supporters to cast a "no-confidence" vote.

Pro-Kuomintang think tank National Policy Foundation also emphasised the local vote's significance.

"If the results substantially change the present political landscape, they could impact the 2016 presidential vote," it said in a research paper, "and even influence Taiwan's political ecology in the next 10 years".