TAIPEI: Taiwan’s premier resigned on late Saturday after his Beijing-friendly ruling party suffered a landslide defeat at the island’s biggest ever local elections, as public fears grow over China’s increasing influence.
In a brief resignation speech, Jiang Yi-huah said that he took “political responsibility” for the heavy losses suffered by the Kuomintang (KMT) party.
The polls are seen as an important test ahead of the 2016 presidential race, with China policy a key issue.
Official results showed the ruling KMT had lost in five out of Taiwan’s six large municipalities – the most hotly contested seats. Prior to the vote they had held four of them.
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.
Under the KMT, previously frosty ties between Beijing and Taipei have warmed, 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, reflecting frustration over what were seen as under-the-table negotiations and a lack of benefits for the general public from the deal.
The government has also been struggling with a slowing economy and a string of food scandals.
“I think the outcome surprised both parties – it is a landslide defeat for the KMT as it did poorly even in areas it was expected to win,” said George Tsai, a political scientist at the Chinese Culture University in Taipei.
“It sent a very clear warning signal to the KMT that if it does not make fundamental policy adjustments to be more transparent and more responsive, it could face defeat in 2016,” he added.
Embattled President Ma Ying-jeou, who came to power in 2008 on a Beijing-friendly platform, must step down at the end of his second four-year term.
The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has traditionally been skeptical over closer ties with Beijing and has criticized the KMT for lack of transparency over trade deals with China.
“Ma is going to face stronger opposition from the DPP when pushing for China policies in his remaining year in office,” Tsai said.
The president was “lacking caution” in his handling of growing ties with China, said Ding Shuh-fan, politics professor at the National Chengchi University in Taipei.
“This is a setback for Ma’s China policy,” he added.
‘Moment to change’
After Jiang’s resignation, Ma also described the defeat as a “big setback” and promised reforms.
“We let everybody down,” he said at a televised press conference.
DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen described the result as “a victory for Taiwan people and also marked the beginning of the younger generations shouldering responsibility.”
“Now is the moment for Taiwan to change,” she said.
A record 11,130 seats at every level of local government were up for grabs in the local polls, with 18 million people eligible to vote.
Turnout figures have not yet been confirmed but were expected to be 65 to 70 percent.
The DPP won four of the six large municipalities, with the traditional KMT stronghold of Taipei also going to a DPP-backed independent candidate, leaving just one municipality, New Taipei, held by the ruling party.
Previously, the KMT had controlled three in the north and one in the center, against the DPP’s two in the south.
Party spokesman Huang Di-ying told Agence France-Presse that the party’s performance was “beyond our expectations”.
The DPP also won 13 of Taiwan’s 22 cities and counties, with the KMT taking just six – the KMT had held 15 of the cities and counties, with the DPP holding just seven.
Voters had expressed their concerns over China policy, as well as domestic issues, ahead of the polls.
“I support the DPP because I think the Ma government is leaning too close to China and opening up trade too much,” a retired businessman surnamed Hsiao told AFP at a polling station in Taipei.
But KMT supporters feared rocking the boat with Beijing.
“I think stability is the most important thing because if the DPP were to regain power, ties with China would become tense again and that would be bad for the economy,” said office worker Chin Hui-wen in Taipei.