Taiwan elections will be major test for ruling party, China ties

The elections in Taiwan this Saturday are only local races, but China is watching them nervously, analysts say

Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party will test its popularity in midterm elections Saturday after six years of leading the island to landmark deals with longtime adversary China.

Losses for the Nationalists, or Kuomintang, would indicate dwindling support for the central government led by President Ma Ying-jeou and weaken the party's 2016 presidential bid. The Nationalists are campaigning against an opposition party that advocates a more guarded approach to China, which has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since Chiang Kai-shek's forces retreated from the mainland in 1949.

Beijing sees the trade, transit and investment deals signed under Ma's party as steps toward unification. Taiwan looks to them as boosters for its export-driven, half-trillion-dollar economy.

If the opposition Democratic Progressive Party sweeps the weekend races or takes the presidency in 2016, relations with China could spin into reverse, with probable economic repercussions.

"If Beijing takes this weekend's results to mean the opposition party is likely to return to power in 2016, it will hold back on any more goodies or sweeteners for Taipei during President Ma Ying-jeou's final 18 months in office," said Sean King, senior vice president at consulting firm Park Strategies in New York and Taipei. "That's because a future opposition government would inherit these wins, and Beijing would then be in a position of having to reverse or revoke them."

Ma took office in 2008 and was reelected in 2012 on pledges to stoke the economy through deals with China. He contends that 21 agreements to date have added jobs and increased trade while giving Taiwan more space to pursue economic deals with other governments after decades of isolation imposed by China before the two sides began talking.

Ruling party popularity tumbled in March when university students led a 24-day occupation of parliament to stop ratification of a service trade liberalization deal, the farthest-reaching agreement so far between China and Taiwan. The protest group calling itself the Sunflower Movement swelled outside parliament as tens of thousands questioned the idea of signing deals with the rival of 65 years.

China has remained neutral on Saturday's vote, but analysts say the communist government is nervous about the results.

Campaigning is reaching a peak this week as 19,762 candidates vie for offices from mayor of Taiwan's 2.6-million-person capital, Taipei, down to the heads of boroughs of less than a square mile.

Nationalists acknowledge struggles to keep seats in Taipei, the northern port city of Keelung and the major central city of Taichung, but they call those battles local matters, which are not about the presidency and relations with Beijing.

"Election situations in three cities we could say are in a state of crisis, but that's not because of the direction of central government policies, [but] rather due to the special characters of the candidates," party spokesman Charles Chen said.

Jennings is a special correspondent.

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