Taiwan awaits results of key election test for pro-independence ruling party

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Residents queue outside a polling station at an elementary school to vote in local elections in Taipei on Nov 24, 2018. PHOTO: AFP
People queue to cast their votes at a polling station inside a temple during local elections and referendum on same-sex marriage, energy policies, and other issues in Kaohsiung, Taiwan on Nov 24, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS
People queue to cast their votes at Tongfa Temple in Zhongzheng district in Taipei on Nov 24, 2018. ST PHOTO: LEE SEOK HWAI

TAIPEI - Under sunny skies, millions of Taiwanese flocked to schools, community centres, temples and churches on Saturday (Nov 24) to cast their votes in the island's once-in-four-years municipal elections as well as a landmark referendum.

The outcome of the elections, in which some 11,000 posts from mayors to neighbourhood chiefs are at stake, will have repercussions on the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) grip on power as well as the 2020 presidential election.

The referendum asked Taiwanese to decide on not one but 10 of Taiwan's most divisive issues including gay rights and energy policies, and is being held alongside the elections.

Queues began forming even before polling stations opened at 8am. Voters are to first cast their votes in the municipal elections then the referendum.

Because of the total number of ballot papers involved - up to 15 depending on where one is registered to vote - the entire process is estimated to take up to two hours including queueing time.

At one station in Yonghe district, New Taipei City, 21-year-old Chen Ta-feng told The Straits Times he rushed back from the southernmost county of Pingtung, where he is studying, to vote for the opposition Kuomintang's (KMT) mayoral candidate Hou You-yi, a celebrated former police chief.

As for the controversial referendum question on whether Taiwan should participate in international sporting events as "Taiwan", Mr Chen said he answered "no".

"I'd prefer that our atheletes represent the Republic of China (Taiwan's formal name), rather than Taiwan," explained Mr Chen.

His sentiments were shared by Madam Liao Mei-yu, a 63-year-old hairdresser. "(I support) Chinese Taipei for the Tokyo Olympics," she told The Straits Times.

Claimed by China as a breakaway province, Taiwan has been competing as "Chinese Taipei" at international sports competitions.

The IOC has warned that Taiwan could lose its right to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics if it tries to change its name.

Top Taiwanese athletes this week urged the people to vote against changing the island's name.

Earlier on Saturday morning, President Tsai Ing-wen went to the polls at Hsiulang elementary school in New Taipei City.

Dressed in her trademark blazer and trousers ensemble, Ms Tsai appeared to be in good spirits as she stood in line, smiling and obliging other voters' requests for photographs and autographs.

Later in the polling area, she looked on, mildly amused, as a voter before her struggled to put all 10 referendum ballot papers in the right boxes.

"The weather is good, hope the people come out to vote," Ms Tsai told reporters after casting her votes.

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

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

In capital Taipei, incumbent mayor Ko Wen-je, seen as a potential presidential contender, is locked in a three-horse race with challengers from the KMT and DPP.

Ms Tsai's re-election hopes may be jeopardised if the DPP loses Kaohsiung, its long-time stronghold.

'Like Chinese New Year'

KMT star Han Kuo-yu, who is vying for the mayoral job against DPP's Chen Chi-mai, was mobbed by hundreds of voters and journalists as soon as he arrived at a high school in the southern port city to vote late on Saturday morning.

"The Kaohsiung election is being watched by all of Taiwan and Chinese people overseas. I'm very touched," the 61-year-old former lawmaker and school principal told reporters.

"The roads leading here were jammed with people heading to vote. It's like Chinese New Year."

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Polling progressed smoothly save for isolated incidents. A man in the central county of Changhua was detained after he tore up the 10 referendum ballots in apparent frustration over the long waiting time.

An excited first-time voter in New Taipei City was referred to the police for taking a picture of his ballot. Another man created a minor commotion when he arrived at a polling station with a rainbow flag draped on his shoulders. Under Taiwan's election laws, all forms of campaigning is banned within 30m of polling stations.

Polling closed at 4pm, although voters were still waiting at some polling stations in line nearly an hour afterwards.

Results of the municipal elections are expected at around 9pm, followed by the outcome of the referendum at 2am on Sunday (Nov 25).

Additional reporting by Brenda Wu

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