TAIPEI, Taiwan — China's pressure campaign looms large as Taiwan holds local elections Saturday in what is seen partly as a referendum on the policies of independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen.
Driven from power two years ago, the opposition Nationalists are hoping to regain territory by leaning on their pro-business image and a more accommodating line toward Beijing, which detests Tsai for her refusal to endorse its stance that the self-governing island democracy is a part of the Chinese nation.
The China factor and the potential impact on the next presidential election are giving added weight to the polls, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Taiwan's Tamkang University.
"It's more important than the usual local elections," Huang said. "Confidence has been disrupted by the overall environment and the difficult relationship with the mainland."
Key races include mayoral offices in the capital Taipei and southern port of Kaohsiung, where the Nationalists and ruling Democratic Progressive Party are fighting for votes alongside independent candidates and those from smaller parties. The elections are being portrayed as the largest ever on the island of 23 million, with about 19 million voters casting ballots for more than 11,000 local officials.
Economic growth, employment and pension reforms are also major issues, but while local concerns may be of greatest importance to voters, the outcome will be presented nationally by both major parties as a "status check on the Tsai administration," said Derek Grossman, who studies Taiwan-China ties at the RAND Corporation.
Since her election in 2016, Tsai has walked a fine line on relations with China, maintaining Taiwan's de facto independent status that the vast majority of Taiwanese support, while avoiding calls from the more radical elements of her party for moves to declare formal separation from the mainland, from which it split amid civil war in 1949.
But she's also emphasized the importance of Taiwan's sovereignty, rejected Beijing's "One China" principle and sought to strengthen relations with the U.S. and other countries similarly skeptical of China's motives. She's also worked to diversify the island's economy away from the Chinese market by bringing businesses home and encouraging investment in Southeast Asia and beyond.
While ties between Washington and Beijing are at their lowest ebb in years, Taiwan is benefiting from greater U.S. diplomatic and military assistance. Those come despite the lack of formal diplomatic ties that were broken in 1979 when the U.S. switched recognition to China.
Beijing's response has been to sever contacts with her administration, cut numbers of Chinese tourists and further the island's diplomatic isolation by barring it from multinational forums and wooing away its dwindling number of diplomatic allies, now reduced to just 17.
China's authoritarian leader Xi Jinping — who has said "unification" with Taiwan can't be put off indefinitely — has also stepped up military intimidation with war games and aerial training near the island, all aimed at advertising Beijing's threat to bring it under its control by force if necessary. Taiwanese officials have also warned that Beijing is seeking to sway voters through the spread of disinformation online similar to Russia's interfering in U.S. elections.
The impact of those moves on Taiwanese voters is hard to gauge and by law, no public opinion surveys can be published within 10 days of the elections.
However, Timothy Rich, an expert on Taiwan electoral politics at Western Kentucky University, says his research on Taiwan's diplomatic relations and public opinion shows that, rather than blaming Tsai, voters are angry at Beijing for limiting Taiwan's international breathing space.
Yet, there's little doubt that Beijing is hoping diplomatic, economic, and military pressure will erode support for Tsai, who is also party chairwoman and faces re-election in 2020.
"If the DPP loses ground, it will serve as confirmation for Beijing that its strategy of undermining the DPP and Tsai is working ... and thus it'll likely proceed apace," Grossman said.
Still, the campaign has been a tough slog for the Nationalists, who ruled the island for half a century after Chiang Kai-shek relocated his government here following the victory of Mao Zedong's Communists in China. After losing both the presidency and their legislative majority, they have struggled to find candidates who can both fire up their pro-China supporters and win over young Taiwanese who have increasingly turned to the DPP.
The Nationalists' best chance appears to be in the mayoral race in Kaohsiung, a DPP stronghold that has nonetheless appeared to be in play this year.
"What I expect is that the DPP will lose some key races, but it won't be a game changer unless the DPP does very poorly in the south," Rich said, adding that losing Kaohsiung would be "symbolically problematic."
A result that ends in Tsai stepping down as party chair could also energize the Nationalists and create problems for the DPP in the 2020 elections, he said.
Despite relatively healthy growth estimated at around 2.6 percent this year, many Taiwanese say they fear the impact of China's continuing undermining policies.
"The shortage of confidence across the Taiwan Strait and the lack of communication between the two governments have made Taiwan's business environment become more difficult," Huang said.
Performance in office, especially on the economy, is the most important factor for Taipei voter Giyun Lihang.
"Those elected need to act properly so people can earn more money, not like now where people are having a hard time," Giyun said.
Violence and vote buying have been factors in previous local elections and the Criminal Investigation Bureau said Thursday they had questioned a man who allegedly called for the assassination of Nationalist Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu.
Voters will also cast ballots on 10 referendums, including one on whether to amend the civil code to include same-sex marriage — which was legalized last year — and on whether to uphold a commitment to ban nuclear energy by 2025.
And in a highly symbolic but potentially impactful referendum, voters will be asked whether they wish to compete in future international sporting events including the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as "Taiwan" instead of "Chinese Taipei" — they name the island is required to use at China's insistence.
Although the IOC has already ruled out any changes and warned Taiwan could even lose its accreditation, many see the vote as a test of support for independence and a means to fire up the DPP base.
China has already responded. Earlier this year, it forced a vote at the Asian Olympic Committee to withdraw the right of the city of Taichung in central Taiwan to host a youth competition scheduled for next year.