Taipei, Kaohsiung too close to call as campaigning ends on high note

Supporters of the opposition Nationalist Kuomintang Party's Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu at a campaign rally in Kaohsiung on Nov 23, 2018. The Kaohsiung race is the most widely anticipated of Taiwan's local elections. PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI - Waving Taiwan flags and yelling "dong suan" (elected in the Minnan dialect), hundreds of thousands of people rallied across Taiwan hours before the most closely fought municipal polls in recent memory.

Some 20,000 candidates are vying for 11,000 posts ranging from mayors to neighbourhood chiefs in 22 municipalities, cities and counties in Saturday's (Nov 24) elections, seen as a harbinger of the presidential poll to be held in 2020.

In the southern city of Kaohsiung on Friday night, an estimated 350,000 people swamped the rally grounds of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) mayoral candidate Chen Chi-mai and his rival, Mr Han Kuo-yu from the opposition Kuomintang .

The Kaohsiung race, alongside the one in capital Taipei, is the most widely anticipated of the elections. Both races are too close to call.

Mr Han, visibly moved by the turnout, said: "Kaohsiung people know that Kaohsiung future needs change.

"The people of Kaohsiung have had a hard time. They can't take it anymore!" he added, referring to the DPP's 20-year rule of the port city.

The crowd erupted in cheers.

Mr Chen countered in his own massive rally: "Han Kuo-yu said Kaohsiung is old and poor. This is an insult to us, don't you think so?" The crowd roared.

Kaohsiung is a bellwether of the DPP's fortunes in the 2020 presidential and legislative elections. Mr Chen, 53, has had an unexpectedly tough time against Mr Han, 61, in the DPP's long-time support base.

Earlier on Friday, President Tsai Ing-wen urged Kaohsiung voters to pick Mr Chen. "Han Kuo-yu is not ready. Chen Chi-mai has been preparing to lead Kaohsiung for 20 years," she said in an appearance with Mr Chen, before rushing to the central city of Taichung to campaign for mayor Lin Chia-lung.

Other heavyweight politicians including Premier Lai Ching-te, former President Ma Ying-jeou, former Vice-President Wu Den-yih, and presidential secretary-general Chen Chu ran the length of the island to make final appeals in support of mayoral hopefuls.

In Taipei, the KMT's Ting Shou-chung, who is in a heated three-horse race with incumbent mayor Ko Wen-je and the DPP's Yao Wen-chih, called for the people to "cast a vote of no-confidence in the inept central government and Ko administration".

Mr Wu, now KMT chairman, urged voters to "return blue skies to Taipei". The once-dominant party, represented by the colour blue, lost its traditional stronghold of Taipei to Dr Ko in the last elections in 2014.

Dr Ko, an independent politician popular with youth voters, highlighted himself as the alternative for voters tired of decades of DPP-KMT fighting at a rally near the Taipei 101 skyscraper. Green is DPP's party colour.

"With the KMT and DPP in the race, I'm in real danger of losing this election," he told the crowd as he urged them to vote. "If that happens, the spectre of Blue-Green fighting will continue to dominate Taiwan politics."

Campaigning had reached a fever pitch in the run-up to the polls, in which some 20 million Taiwanese aged 20 and above are eligible to vote.

They will also get a say in 10 referendums on issues ranging from gay rights to food safety being held at the same time.

Tens of thousands of voters, many from the south but working or studying in the more developed north, rushed home on Friday.

Mr Wang Tsung-lin, an IT purchaser, was one of hordes of people boarding the high-speed rail back to Kaohsiung.

"My parents want me to vote," the first-time voter told Central News Agency. He was also moved by Mr Han's campaign rally cry.

"I'm the 'northbound migrant' he talks about."

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