TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan began voting on Saturday in local elections, a key test of support for the island’s pro-independence ruling party ahead of presidential polls in just over a year, and will also hold a referendum on same-sex marriage.
The results will be closely watched in China, which claims self-ruled and proudly democratic Taiwan as its own and which has ramped up pressure on President Tsai Ing-wen and her administration since taking office in 2016.
In the run-up to the election, Tsai and her government have repeatedly said China is attempting to sway election results with its “political bullying” and “fake news”, accusations Beijing denies.
“This is a fight for democracy,” Tsai said at a rally in northeastern Taiwan on Friday.
“Our vote is a demonstration to the world that false information and external forces will not defeat Taiwan’s democracy and the dignity of the Taiwanese.”
More than 11,000 seats are up for grabs in municipalities, counties, townships and villages, with the southern city of Kaohsiung a key battleground for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has held the city for two decades.
Candidates have fanned out across the island to press the flesh and canvass votes, and have held noisy, colourful rallies that have become the hallmarks of Taiwan’s vibrant democracy, in marked contrast to China where the Communist Party tolerates no dissent to its rule.
Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have heightened with China conducting military drills around the island and snatching away Taiwan’s dwindling number of diplomatic allies.
Tsai’s domestic reform initiatives, from the island’s pension scheme to labour law, have also come under intense voter scrutiny recently.
Confidence in the government has waned in recent months after reform moves upset both the opposition and some supporters, who said Tsai had backed away from promises to reduce the deficit and cut pollution.
Underscoring Tsai’s challenge will be a series of public votes on Saturday on whether to make same-sex marriage legal, an issue which has deeply divided Taiwan.
Tsai has made little progress despite campaigning on a promise of marriage equality in the run-up to elections in 2016.
In Asia’s first such ruling, Taiwan’s constitutional court declared in May last year that same-sex couples had the right to legally marry, and set a two-year deadline for legalisation.
Voters will also be asked whether the island should join the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as Taiwan, rather than “Chinese Taipei” – the name agreed under a compromise signed in 1981.
A vote to compete under a Taiwan banner would further rile Beijing, which has never renounced the use of force to ensure eventual unification.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee; Editing by Nick Macfie)