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International relations

Taiwan ruling party's local losses threaten 2020 presidential hopes

Tsai quits party leadership post but stays in office

The party of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen lost a number of local seats in Saturday's elections to the pro-China opposition.
The party of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen lost a number of local seats in Saturday's elections to the pro-China opposition.   © Kyodo

TAIPEI -- Taiwan's ruling party suffered a major blow in local elections Saturday, with a wave of defeats prompting President Tsai Ing-wen to resign as party chief and raising the prospect of the pro-China opposition retaking the presidency in 2020.

Beijing is expected to seize on the disruption in the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party and turn up the diplomatic pressure on the island's government. Chinese relations will likely be a focus of a chaotic presidential race that will pit the DPP against the pro-China Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang.

The DPP now faces an urgent need to rally and select a new presidential candidate for when Tsai's term ends in May 2020. One possibility is the island's premier, Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai. Concerns have been voiced over Lai's strong calls for independence, however, compared with the more moderate Tsai, whose weakening unifying power may make it harder to restrain pro-independence voices in the party.

Tsai offered her "heartfelt apologies" in Taipei on election night.

"Our efforts were not enough, and we have let our supporters down," she said.

Tsai has faced criticism on all sides on a range of issues, having fallen short on pledges to improve low wages as her young support base had hoped. Her government has appeared increasingly isolated on the international stage as well, with five countries severing diplomatic relations with Taiwan under pressure from Beijing since she took office.

Kuomintang's recovery Saturday raises the possibility of it retaking the presidency, which it lost in 2016 with Tsai's election. Such an event would heavily shift relations with Beijing.

The outcome depends in large part on how China responds to the turmoil in the administration of Tsai, who has refused to recognize Beijing's "One China" principle. Beijing has taken a carrot-and-stick approach to Taiwan, pressuring countries to cut diplomatic ties with the island while also encouraging Taiwanese companies to list on mainland Chinese markets, for example. Kuomintang stands to benefit if this approach sways Taiwanese public sentiment in favor of China.

Saturday's elections left the DPP in control of just six top local posts, down from 13, in a total of 22 counties and cities. Kuomintang's share rose to 15 from six, reversing the balance of power. The 22nd post went to Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, re-elected as an independent.

The DPP lost a two-decade grip on the southern city of Kaohsiung as Kuomintang's Han Kuo-yu declared victory in the mayoral race over ruling party candidate Chen Chi-mai. Kuomintang candidates unseated DPP incumbents in central Taiwan's Yunlin County and city of Taichung, as well as in the southern city of Chiayi.

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