TAIPEI, Taiwan (UPDATED) – Voters go to the polls Saturday, November 29 in Taiwan's largest ever local elections, with the Beijing-friendly ruling party facing a rout in a key test ahead of the 2016 presidential race.
Opinion polls suggest the Kuomintang (KMT) are heading for heavy losses as they struggle with growing fears over Chinese influence, a slowing economy and a string of food scandals.
Leadership elections are due in early 2016 with China policy a key issue as embattled President Ma Ying-jeou – who came to power in 2008 on a Beijing-friendly platform – must step down at the end of his second 4-year term.
Around 15,000 polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0000 GMT), with 18 million people eligible to vote and a record 11,130 seats at every level of local government up for grabs.
Ma smiled and waved at reporters when asked if he was confident about his party's performance as he voted in the capital Taipei, but made no comment.
Turnout is expected to be between 65% and 70% and campaigning has been intense, with mass rallies, giant floats and firework displays.
The KMT faces humiliation in key strongholds, including Taipei and the central municipality of Taichung.
"Many young people are concerned about job prospects and high housing prices so I hope to see change and new thinking in the government to make things better for us," graduate student Mark Hsu told Agence France-Presse (AFP) outside a polling station in the capital.
'Too close to China'
The KMT currently dominates 15 of Taiwan's 22 cities and counties, while the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) holds 7. Of the 6 larger municipalities – the most hotly contested seats – the KMT controls 3 in the north and one in the center, against the DPP's two in the south.
Ma ended the DPP's 8-year rule in 2008 when he was elected on a pledge to boost the economy and trade with China. He has overseen a marked improvement in previously frosty ties between Taipei and Beijing.
However, the public has grown increasingly anxious over China's influence on the island.
A proposed trade pact with the mainland sparked mass student-led protests and a 3-week occupation of Taiwan's parliament earlier this year.
The DPP has traditionally been skeptical over closer ties with Beijing and has criticized the KMT for lack of transparency over trade deals with China as well as incompetence in handling domestic issues.
Taiwan and China split in 1949 at the end of a civil war but Beijing still claims the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.
"I support the DPP because I think the Ma government is leaning too close to China and opening up trade too much... many factories have moved to China and many Taiwanese young people can't find jobs," a retired businessman surnamed Hsiao told AFP at a polling station in Taipei.
Emotions were high at election-eve rallies, with tearful candidates kissing and hugging their families and supporters as crowds waved flags and chanted the popular slogan "Get elected!"
Ma urged supporters in the capital to vote for KMT candidate Sean Lien in the Taipei mayoral race – Lien has been lagging behind independent candidate Ko Wen-je in opinion polls.
"It's an extremely important choice for Taipei and Taiwan," Ma said at a rally late Friday, November 28. (READ: Taiwan ruling party faces rout in biggest ever local polls)
DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen also made an island-wide tour in a final push for votes Friday.
"Tomorrow we will use our votes to tell the incompetent and arrogant government that we've had enough," she told a crowd in central Taiwan. – Rappler.com