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Politics

Tsai's Taiwan foes aim to put Fukushima on the ballot

Kuomintang hopes referendum on 'radioactive' food will tip local elections

Members of Taiwan's opposition party Kuomintang hold up packages labeled "radioactive food" before symbolically throwing them into a waste bin at a July 24 rally. (Photo by Kensaku Ihara)

TAIPEI -- Taiwan's main opposition party is looking to score a coup in November's local elections by billing itself as the island's protector against radiation-tainted food from Japan -- and by putting the issue itself on the ballot.

The once-ruling Nationalist Party or Kuomintang held a rally Tuesday in Taipei, condemning President Tsai Ing-wen for her openness to importing food items produced in areas affected by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Party Vice Chairman Hau Lung-bin said she is exposing the people of Taiwan to dangerous food by "sucking up" to Japan.

Taiwan currently bans food imports from Fukushima and four other Japanese prefectures. But in 2016, Tsai revealed plans to ease the embargo in stages, to which the media reacted with sensationalist headlines of "radioactive food." Roughly 70% of respondents opposed the idea in a 2017 poll by a Kuomintang-linked think tank.

The Tsai administration has delayed action on the issue amid public opposition. But officials, seeking to strengthen relations with Japan in the face of mainland Chinese pressure, have not ruled out eventually allowing the controversial food shipments.

The Kuomintang, which is more sympathetic to Beijing, sees this as an opening against Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party. It needs more than 280,000 signatures by mid-September to hold a referendum on the imports at the same time as the local races, a bellwether for the 2020 presidential elections where it hopes to topple Tsai.

The Kuomintang's mayoral candidate for Taipei, Ting Shou-chung, also attacked Tsai's stance on China at the Tuesday rally. He said it was "not at all strange" that Beijing would ratchet up naval exercises near the island, playing down concerns among China skeptics.

At this stage in the campaign, the local elections appear to be a tossup. Tsai's approval rating has sunk to around 30%, but the Kuomintang is sticking to the China-friendly line that was the chief cause of its upset in the 2016 presidential and parliamentary elections.

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