Polls opened in Taiwan on Saturday in local elections that President Tsai Ing-wen has framed as being about sending a message to the world about the island’s determination to defend its democracy in the face of China’s rising bellicosity.
The local elections, for city mayors, county chiefs and local councillors, are ostensibly about domestic issues such as the Covid-19 pandemic and crime, and those elected do not have a direct say on China policy.
But Tsai has recast the election as being more than a local poll, saying the world is watching how Taiwan defends its democracy amid military tensions with China, which claims the island as its territory.
China carried out war games near Taiwan in August to express its anger at a visit to Taipei by then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and its military activities have continued, though on a reduced scale.
Taiwan’s main opposition party the Kuomintang, or KMT, swept the 2018 local elections, and has accused Tsai and the DPP of being overly confrontational with China. The KMT traditionally favours closer ties with China but strongly denies being pro-Beijing.
The election is happening a month after the end of the 20th congress of China’s Communist Party, where President Xi Jinping secured an unprecedented third term in office – a point Tsai has repeatedly made on the campaign trail.
Although the outcome of the election will be an important measure of popular support for both parties, it cannot necessarily be read as an augur for the next presidential and parliamentary races in 2024.
Tsai and the DPP heavily defeated the KMT in 2020 despite their setback at the 2018 local polls. Her second term in office runs out in 2024 and she cannot stand again as president because of term limits.
Both parties have concentrated their efforts on wealthy and populous northern Taiwan, especially the capital, Taipei, whose current mayor, from the small Taiwan People’s Party, cannot stand again after two terms in office.
Taiwanese elections are raucous and colourful affairs, with candidates touring their districts on the backs of trucks and SUVs seeking support, with music blaring and campaign flags fluttering.
There is also a vote on lowering the voting age to 18 from 20, which both parties support.
The election results should be clear by early evening on Saturday.