China watches as Taiwan goes to the poll

TAIPEI, November 27, 2010 (AFP) - Millions of Taiwanese were to vote Saturday in local polls closely watched by Beijing as an indicator of the 2012 re-election hopes of China-friendly president Ma Ying-jeou.

In an indication of the high stakes involved, Ma has campaigned actively on behalf of candidates of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party, not least in the capital Taipei, scene of a close race for the prestigious job as mayor.

"The elections in northern Taiwan are tight but we will do our utmost to secure our power bases," Ma told the official Central News Agency in an interview.

When asked by the news agency if the local elections could be seen as a midterm evaluation of his performance, Ma said "some people might have that view."

Most of the interest has centered around elections for mayors in Taipei, Taiwan's second-largest city Kaohsiung and three other major cities.

The elections were marked by last-minute drama Friday night when the son of a former vice president was shot and injured in a campaign rally in a suburb of Taipei.

Sean Lien, son of veteran KMT politician Lien Chan, was hit in the face by a bullet in an incident that most local media have so far attributed to gang violence. Lien's injury was reported not to be life-threatening.

Analysts have said that if the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) does well in the polls, it could set the scene for a return to power in the 2012 presidential election.

The DPP, which controlled the presidency from 2000 to 2008, is hoping to gain support by promising to offer more competent leadership.

Ma and the KMT are still suffering from a perception that his government reacted slowly to a deadly typhoon disaster in 2009.

However, the Saturday elections take place at a time when the economy is improving rapidly and ties with China are better than ever.

Ma was elected for four years in 2008 on a promise to lift the economy, and initially had a hard time as the export-dependent island was severely hit by the global financial crisis.

However, recent data suggest a drastic turn for the better, and unemployment, one of the major concerns on the island, has now slipped below five percent.

At the same time, Ma's administration has pursued an ambitious agenda of reducing tensions with China, especially by seeking out areas of common interest in the economic field.

In late June, Taiwan and China signed a historic economic agreement that will serve as a framework for opening up trade between the two former rivals.

Despite the improved ties, China has not given up its explicit wish of bringing about reunification, putting an end to 61 years of separation.

KMT's official policy is to eventually reunify with the mainland, while the DPP wants to turn the current state of de facto self-rule into formal independence.