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Gains of Taiwan's anti-unification DPP could rattle relations with China

Taiwan's municipal elections have revived the fortunes of the DPP, which the US views with skepticism and Beijing dislikes for its past views on independence and sovereignty.

By Julian BaumCorrespondent / December 2, 2010



Taipei, Taiwan

Local elections in a small Asian democracy would normally deserve little attention. But Taiwan's municipal polls have revived the fortunes of a badly demoralized opposition that Beijing loathes and Washington views with deep skepticism.

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In choosing mayors for the island's five metropolitan areas, Taiwanese voters representing 60 percent of the population have confirmed the status quo. The mayorships of three large cities, including Taipei, remain in the hands of the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) while the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) holds on to the two largest cities in the south, their traditional stronghold.

But the underlying trends signal a possible return to center stage for the anti-unification camp that Beijing has vowed to defeat at any cost.

As a result, the KMT celebrations have been muted. President Ma Ying-jeou had expected that his government's dramatic opening to China of the past two years would be enough to revive a weak economy and keep voters happy. Yet his public approval ratings remain well below 50 percent, and voters seem to be saying that they are willing to give his party a little more time, but will keep their options open for the legislative and presidential elections that are barely one year away.

The narrowness of the KMT's victory has been sobering.

The party almost lost the city of Taichung in central Taiwan, a race that should have been a slam dunk. Most unsettling is the rising voter support for the anti-unification “greens” that caught many observers by surprise.

In islandwide tallies, the DPP won nearly 50 percent of the total vote, compared with less than 45 percent for the KMT, an advantage of more than 400,000 votes. This was a large erosion of support for President Ma and his party, which won the 2008 presidential race by more than 2.2 million votes. Turnout of 72 percent was unusually high for local elections, reinforcing the menacing math for the China-friendly KMT. The opposition also pulled even with the KMT in seats on local city councils across the island, showing strong support at the grassroots level that has traditionally been a heavy advantage for the ruling party.

One conclusion from all this is that Taiwan's two-party system is working better than many analysts had believed. It is now obvious, too, that Ma is vulnerable in 2012, when he is expected to stand for a second term and could initiate political talks with Beijing.

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