Taiwan's China-friendly party on test in local poll

TAIPEI Fri Dec 4, 2009 9:57pm EST

Taiwan's President and Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Ma Ying-jeou (C), KMT candidate for Hsinchu County Commissioner Chiu Ching-chun (L) and KMT Vice Chairman John Chiang greet supporters during a rally in Hsinchu County December 4, 2009. REUTERS/Nicky Loh

Taiwan's President and Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Ma Ying-jeou (C), KMT candidate for Hsinchu County Commissioner Chiu Ching-chun (L) and KMT Vice Chairman John Chiang greet supporters during a rally in Hsinchu County December 4, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Nicky Loh

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TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan voters went to the polls Saturday to elect local officials in the first test of China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou's popularity since he took power a year-and-a-half ago.

If Ma's Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) holds its current majority or gains seats, it strengthens the president's already firm mandate to govern and adds momentum to his efforts to broker peace with China through trade pacts.

"My sense is that China will be watching closely to see if Ma is a credible interlocutor," said Ralph Cossa, president of the U.S. think tank Pacific Forum CSIS.

"Ironically, the worse that the KMT does, the more Beijing will likely be pushing for some sort of concessions since they could become increasingly concerned that the DPP will return to power sooner rather than later and will want to consolidate any cross-Strait improvement before then," he said.

The main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) which held the presidency from 2000 to 2008, supports Taiwan's formal independence from China.

Saturday's elections, involving 38 percent of the island's electorate, are to select county magistrates and city mayors, county and city councilors and township chiefs.

Elections in major Taiwan cities and counties are due next year, and the next presidential race is in 2012.

Authorities have arrested 150 people in a crackdown on vote buying and election-related violence, the Taiwan Justice ministry said Friday.

If the opposition adds to the three seats it holds out of the 17 at stake in the elections, it would also indicate voters are upset over issues such as a perceived slow responses to a deadly August typhoon and the lifting of a ban on U.S. beef imports.

China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's forces won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's KMT fled to the island. Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.

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