Taiwan vote tests waters for pro-China govt ahead of presidential polls

Ko Wen-je, an independent Taipei mayor candidate, gestures during campaigning in Taipei.

TAIPEI - Taiwan goes to the polls on Saturday to choose city mayors and local councillors in a vote that will show how much support the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) has lost with its pro-China stance less than two years before a presidential election.

The election will be the first chance for the island, which giant neighbour China views as a breakaway province, to make its views known since March when thousands of young people occupied parliament in an unprecedented protest against a planned trade pact calling for closer ties with Beijing.

A record 11,130 seats are up for grabs in municipalities, counties, townships and villages, with the key battleground the capital, a KMT, or Nationalist Party, stronghold for nearly 20 years.

Every Taiwan president was once the mayor of Taipei. "This is the skirmish before the presidential battle," said Liu Shyh-fang, a senior member of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). "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.

Opinion polls show the DPP slightly ahead in tight races against the KMT in Taipei and Taichung, another KMT stronghold in central Taiwan. Confidence in the ruling party has been worn away this year by a food safety scare from a tainted oil scandal, missteps in education reform and perceptions of class and income inequality.

The KMT, the party of Chiang Kai-Shek that retreated to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war in 1949, is pushing the trade deal with China that lays bare larger anxieties, especially among the young, about Taiwan's identity.

Taiwan's pride in its democracy helps reinforce the unwillingness of many to be absorbed politically by China, which has not ruled out force to ensure unification.

Many Taiwanese look with nervousness at China, where the Communist Party has rebuffed calls for political liberalisation.

Just two months ago, young Taiwanese stood up by the hundreds in Taipei's Liberty Square in support of anti-China pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. In June, violent protests in the south of the island forced China's top official in charge of relations with Taiwan to cancel meetings.

But big business with interests in China sides with the KMT. China is Taiwan's largest trading partner. "Taiwan's job opportunities and development will shrink"without trade with China, said Cheng Chih-Chua at a KMT parade at the weekend.

Lin Chi-Hua, 37, who was among the hundreds who occupied parliament, disagreed. He believes unhindered Chinese investment is dangerous. "What is very scary is China squeezing itself into Taiwan," he said.