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Anti-China opposition gains ground in Taiwan local election

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan’s China-friendly ruling party lost a county vote to the opposition on Saturday in elections seen as a first test for President Ma Ying-jeou’s policy of engagement with Beijing.

Taiwan President and Nationalist Party Chairman Ma Ying-jeou (C) speaks at a news conference after the results of the Taiwanese local elections, in Taipei December 5, 2009. REUTERS/Nicky Loh

The Nationalist Party (KMT) lost the magistrate job in Ilan county to the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which supports Taiwan’s formal independence from China and upset Beijing when it controlled the presidency from 2000 to 2008.

Although the KMT kept its large overall lead as expected, holding the opposition to four of the 17 cities and counties that voted, the ruling party was muted in its reaction.

Ma, also the KMT chief, conceded at a news conference that election results “did not measure up to ideals.”

Polling followed 174 arrests covering more than 2,400 cases of vote buying and election-related violence, the Taiwan justice ministry said on Saturday after an aggressive crackdown during the campaign.

The elections, involving 38 percent of the electorate, were to select county magistrates and city mayors, county and city councillors and township chiefs.

“I think the KMT will try to inform the DPP that this is a local election that will not affect China policy, but of course there will be other voices,” said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taipei.

“Beijing might raise some concern on whether (relations with China) play into the election result,” Huang said.

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.

Since taking office in May 2008, Ma has eased tension with Beijing by brokering negotiations on landmark trade deals.

Any gains for the DPP on Saturday would also reflect voter discontent over Taiwan-specific issues such as perceived slow responses to a deadly August typhoon and the lifting of a ban on U.S. beef imports.

“We’ve come off our low point,” DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen told a news conference. “The meaning for the result in Ilan County is very great.”

The party said its average of 45 percent of the ballots received on Saturday was a historic high for local elections in its 23-year history.

The newly elected mayors and magistrates take office or start new terms on December 20 for four years.

Elections in Taiwan’s bigger cities and counties are set for next year and the next presidential race is in 2012.