KMT's China-friendly policy in question after landslide defeat in Taiwan polls

Taiwan Premier Jiang Yi-huah bows during a news conference after the ruling Kuomintang party was defeated in the local elections in Taipei on Nov 29, 2014, sparking his resignation. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Taiwan Premier Jiang Yi-huah bows during a news conference after the ruling Kuomintang party was defeated in the local elections in Taipei on Nov 29, 2014, sparking his resignation. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI (AFP) - Taiwan's warmer relations with China were called into question on Sunday after the island's Beijing-friendly ruling party suffered a massive defeat at local elections, sparking the resignation of Premier Jiang Yi-huah.

The major rout came as the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party struggles to combat public fears over growing Chinese influence, as well as a slowing economy and a string of food scandals.

Seen as a key barometer ahead of presidential elections in 2016, the dramatic poll results may now force the KMT to re-examine its China policy - and encourage the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is traditionally Beijing-sceptic.

"The KMT are not likely to push the ties (with China) forward if they hope not to suffer another huge setback in the 2016 presidential race," Dr Ding Shuh-fan, professor of National Chengchi University in Taipei, told AFP. "At the same time China is also unlikely to make concessions and offer substantial economic benefits in talks" given the prospect of the DPP taking power in 2016, he added. "It would be hard for the cross-strait ties to move forward in the year ahead."

Beijing called for "continued efforts for peaceful cross-Strait relations" in the wake of the vote.

"We hope compatriots across the Strait will cherish hard-won fruits of cross-Strait relations, and jointly safeguard and continue to push forward peaceful development of cross-Strait relations," said Mr Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, according to the official Xinhua news agency late Saturday.

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.

Since KMT President Ma Ying-jeou came to power in 2008 on a China-friendly platform, previously frosty ties between Beijing and Taipei have warmed, leading to a tourist boom of Chinese visitors to Taiwan as well as trade links.

But there is public anxiety over the closer relationship. A proposed trade pact with the mainland sparked mass student-led protests and a three-week occupation of Taiwan's parliament earlier this year.

"We're really worried about Taiwan's relations with China. The Ma administration has been too reliant on China economically," said 32-year-old designer Tom Shen in Taipei on Sunday.

"Many people fear that Taiwan will have to do as Beijing orders in the future."

Two months of democracy rallies in Hong Kong could also have strengthened anti-Beijing sentiment, said Mr Chang Wu-ueh, director of Tamkang University's Graduate Institute of China Studies in Taipei.

"The pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong may have indirectly affected voters' mood in Taiwan and deepened the negative perception of Beijing," he said.

While the Hong Kong protesters' main demand is free elections for their next leader, the unrest is also fuelled by the perceived cosy relationship between the government and tycoons.

But Taiwan's slowing economy will make it hard for any government to reject trade deals with China outright - and even non-KMT politicians are not ruling out trade negotiations with Beijing.

"Given the huge amount of trade and civil visits across the Strait, it would be unrealistic to halt immediately what is going on," admits Mr Shen.

The KMT took 40.7 per cent of the ballots cast in the local polls, while the DPP scooped 47.5 per cent.

There were 11,130 seats up for grabs at all nine levels of local government, with 18 million eligible voters. Turnout was 67.5 per cent.

The KMT's power went from control of four of the six major municipalities to just one, while its city and county seats were more than halved.

One of the KMT's most significant losses was its key stronghold in the capital Taipei - independent candidate Ko Wen-je won the battle for mayor, defeating KMT rival Sean Lien.

Taiwan's United Daily News said Sunday that the poll defeat was a "no-confidence" vote in the Ma administration.

"Ma must swiftly reform the party and government, otherwise there won't be a future for the (KMT) party in Taiwan," it said.

Mr Ma must stand down at the next elections as he has completed two terms.