Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party, which brokered the nation's first major deals with historical foe China, lost ground in midterm local elections Saturday, a show of discontent that sparked the Cabinet head's resignation and could snarl the party's 2016 presidential bid.
The weakening of President Ma Ying-jeou's Nationalists is likely to worry China, which claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan. Under Ma's leadership since 2008, Beijing and Taipei have set aside political issues to work out agreements on trade, transit and investment.
China sees the agreements as steps toward unification, while Ma looks upon them as chances to stabilize relations with Beijing and improve his nation's half-trillion-dollar export-dominated economy. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which picked up six major mayoral and county magistrate seats Saturday, takes a more cautious view toward deals with China and prefers more distance from Beijing.
"I don't see China eagerly trying to pursue new deals in the remaining year and a half Ma would be president," said Ross Feingold, Taipei-based senior advisor with American political risk manager D.C. International Advisory. "They would have little incentive to negotiate with President Ma. They might as well wait to see who will become president in 2016."
China has claimed sovereignty over the island since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek lost and set up a rival government in Taipei. Taiwan became democratic in the 1980s and elected its first opposition president in 2000.
On Saturday, the Nationalists won only six of 22 top mayoral and county magistrate posts, with the Democratic Progressive Party taking 13 and independents three. Among the positions the Nationalists lost was the mayor's job in Taipei, won by independent Ko Wen-je, and the leadership post in Taichung, a central city of 2.8 million, which it had held for 12 years.
"We hope the vote can make the Nationalists wake up and make changes," said Lee Cheng-yao, 39, a businessman who supported the Democratic Progressive Party mayoral candidate in his northern city. "I think they care too much about the Chinese markets and relations [with Beijing], not enough about internationalization."
The president bowed in apology at a news conference after the election results came out, and he pledged to reform his party.
Voters elected people to 11,130 local seats in all, from mayoral posts to chiefs of tiny boroughs, following intense campaigns marked by fireworks shows, truck-mounted loudspeakers and banners up to six floors high fastened to the sides of Taipei high-rises.
The Nationalist Party's mandate to do business with China weakened in March when thousands of student-led demonstrators occupied parliament in Taipei and the surrounding streets to block ratification of a pact to liberalize service trade. The 24-day protest eventually spiraled into a broader opposition to signing agreements with Beijing.
About 70% of Taiwanese oppose unifying with China under a "one-country, two-systems" framework proposed by Beijing to allow Taiwan a measure of local autonomy, the island government said in September.
Taiwan Premier Jiang Yi-huah, the head of Ma's Cabinet, resigned Saturday to take responsibility for the election outcome. A spokesperson for his office said the entire Cabinet may be reshuffled in the coming days.
"These election results show the government policies failed to attain people's satisfaction, and showed that clearly through their votes," Jiang told a news conference to announce his resignation.