Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen waited to cast her ballot on Saturday [Chang Haoan-AP Photo]
Associated Press

Taiwan headed to the polls on Saturday in local elections that are a key test of support for the island’s pro-independence ruling party ahead of presidential polls in just over a year.

The country also voted in a series of referendums, including votes the contentious issues of same-sex marriage and gay rights.

The results will be closely watched in China, which claims self-ruled and proudly democratic Taiwan as its own and which has ramped up pressure on President Tsai Ing-wen and her administration since taking office in 2016.

In the run-up to the election, Tsai and her government have repeatedly said China is attempting to sway election results with its “political bullying” and “fake news”, accusations Beijing denies.

“It’s nice weather today, I hope everyone votes,” Tsai told Taiwan media as she cast her vote in the capital Taipei.

More than 11,000 seats are up for grabs in municipalities, counties, townships and villages, with the southern city of Kaohsiung a key battleground for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has held the city for two decades.

Taiwan television stations reported a high turnout, with some polling stations in parts of Taipei and Kaohsiung remaining open past 08:00GMT when the polls were supposed to close.

Candidates have fanned out across the island to press the flesh and canvass votes, and have held noisy, colourful rallies that have become the hallmarks of Taiwan’s vibrant democracy, in marked contrast to China where the Communist Party tolerates no dissent to its rule.

Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have heightened with China conducting military drills around the island and snatching away Taiwan’s dwindling number of diplomatic allies.

Al Jazeera correspondent Adrian Brown said the shadow of China loomed over the poll.

“Tsai Ing-wen was elected leader of this country, this island republic, almost three years ago,” he said. “Ever since then, there has been a real deterioration in relationships between Taiwan and China. The reason? Tsai Ing-wen refuses to accept that Taiwan is part of China, the so-called One-China policy.

“As a result, China has been showing its displeasure by squeezing Taiwan, both economically and diplomatically,” he said.

“We’ve seen a huge drop-off in Chinese tourists during the past two years, two million less coming here now than in 2016. China has been peeling away the number of countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. It’s lost five allies in the last two years. Taiwan is now excluded from a number of international organisations; The World Health Assembly, as well as Interpol.”

Tsai’s domestic reform initiatives, from the island’s pension scheme to labour law, have also come under intense voter scrutiny recently.

Confidence in the government has waned in recent months after reform moves upset both the opposition and some supporters, who said Tsai had backed away from promises to reduce the deficit and cut pollution.

Underscoring Tsai’s challenge will be a series of public votes on Saturday on whether to make same-sex marriage legal, an issue which has deeply divided Taiwan.

“This is a small step for myself, but a big step for mankind,” Chi Chia-wei, a veteran gay rights activist who had petitioned Taiwan’s constitutional court to take up the issue, told Reuters after he voted.

Tsai has made little progress despite campaigning on a promise of marriage equality in the run-up to elections in 2016.

In Asia’s first such ruling, Taiwan’s constitutional court declared in May last year that same-sex couples had the right to legally marry, and set a two-year deadline for legalisation.

Voters will also be asked whether the island should join the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as Taiwan, rather than “Chinese Taipei” – the name agreed under a compromise signed in 1981.

A vote to compete under a Taiwan banner would further rile Beijing, which has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control.

Results for the mayoral and local elections are expected to be released on Saturday, while the referendum votes may not come out until Sunday, according to election officials.

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