Analysis: Strong opposition showing challenges Taiwan's Tsai

A strong showing by Taiwan's opposition Nationalist Party in this weekend's local elections presents a major challenge to independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen as she grapples with growing economic, political and military pressure from rival China.

While Saturday's polls were largely decided by local concerns, Beijing cast a heavy shadow after two years of unrelenting efforts to restrict Taiwan's participation in international society and advertise its threat to use force to bring the island under its control.

Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party lost power in its southern stronghold of Kaohsiung, while the Nationalists notched up 15 wins in the 22 major races being contested.

Independent Ko Wen-je appeared to have won re-election in Taipei, the capital, although his Nationalist rival Ting Shou-chung has filed for a recount. The DPP won just six major races.

Analysts and local media cited dissatisfaction with Tsai and the DPP rather than approval for the Nationalists, also known as the KMT, as a prime reason for the outcome.

"Rather than thinking that Saturday's results were because the KMT did a good job in opposition, it is more accurate to say they were due to voters' overwhelmingly negative perception of the DPP," Eric Yu of National Chengchi University's Election Study Center was quoted as saying in the Taipei Times on Monday.

Another factor cited was the Nationalists' Han Kuo-yu, who ended 20 years of DPP rule in Kaohsiung by soundly defeating his DPP rival, and seemed to galvanize opposition to the status quo under Tsai. While his candidacy received little initial support from the party establishment, Han rode a wave of grass-roots support and went on to stump for other Nationalist candidates, adding momentum to the Nationalist sweep.

Although China claims Taiwan as its own territory, it had largely withheld overtly intervening in its elections despite accusations of spreading disinformation. China has sought to isolate Tsai over her refusal to endorse its "one China" principle that designates Taiwan as a part of China.

However, a spokesman on Sunday was quick to cite the election results as evidence that Taiwanese were becoming fed up with Tsai's approach.

The outcome "reflected the strong will of the public in Taiwan to share the benefits of peaceful development across the Taiwan Straits, and their desire to improve the island's economy and people's well-being," Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for the Cabinet's Taiwan Affairs Office, was quoted as saying by China's official Xinhua News Agency.

Tsai resigned as DPP head on Saturday once the results came in and now faces a considerably more hostile landscape as she contemplates running for re-election in 2020. Beijing has shown no sign of easing the pressure on her administration and is expected to begin wooing the more China-friendly election victors such as Han and the Nationalist's Taichung mayor-elect Lu Shiow-yen.

Elsewhere over the weekend, voters in China's semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong elected a pro-establishment politician to the legislature in a by-election called after the incumbent was ejected from the body for "improper oath taking," one of six pro-democracy legislators ousted on that charge.

Chan Hoi-yan's sizable victory in the Kowloon West constituency ends the opposition's hopes of regaining veto power in the assembly and continues to reduce the influence of the pro-democracy camp that has been shrinking since widespread 2014 demonstrations fizzled out with little result.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Christopher Bodeen has covered politics in China and Taiwan for The Associated Press for more than two decades.