Taiwanese voters will head to the polls on Saturday, November 29 to cast ballots in the nine-in-one local elections, which will select some 11,000 municipal officials. Of particular importance is the race for Tapei’s mayor. Independent candidate Ko Wen-je is currently polling ahead of Sean Lien, a member of Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party and the city’s political elite.
While the campaign has largely focused on local issues, there is a deeper undercurrent – namely the impact on Sino-Taiwanese relations. Lien is viewed as pro-Beijing (his father, Lien Chan, is a former heavyweight in the Taiwan government, and helped foster closer relations with China), while Ko is regarded as a greater advocate of Taiwanese interests, and possibly independence. The latter candidate appeals in particular to young voters, i.e., members of the “sunflower movement” that paralyzed Taipai for several weeks this spring in protest of rapprochement with China.
A victory for Ko in the mayoral race could resonate well beyond Taipai, namely by heralding another tough year for President Ma Ying-jeou, already weakened by youth protests, and his KMT party. Indeed, a loss in Taipai would pave the way for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to sweep presidential and legislative elections in 2016. (The DPP is de facto backing Ko in the Taipei race, who is proving popular among its supporters.)
Rebounding from tensions in Hong Kong, where student and civil activists have been protesting the level of Chinese influence over the island for nearly two months, Beijing is watching the outcome of Taiwan’s multi-tiered race more closely than anyone perhaps. Like Hong Kong, Taiwan is experiencing a surge of anti-China sentiment (a recent protest in Taipai saw participants chanting “today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan.”) And like Hong Kong, Taiwan is viewed by China as a breakaway province that needs to brought back into the proverbial fold. Equally alarming for Beijing is the uncertainty surrounding DPP’s position. Although the opposition party has softened its stance on China in recent years as President Ma pursued rapprochement with the mainland (namely to foster trading relations), it remains unclear what position it would adopt once in power. That said, Beijing has reportedly been courting local officials in anticipation of a power change.
If that strategy pays off, China could find itself with renewed support on the local level for its policies, say a controversial trade pact that would allow for greater Chinese investment. Nevertheless, cross-strait tensions are destined to come to a head in 2016. And while Beijing may have seen the end to a troublesome protest movement in Hong Kong, seemingly on the wane, a new, more virulent one may be brewing in Taiwan – where it has two years to fester.