TAIPEI – When Taiwan goes to the polls Saturday in local elections, it will not only be a test for President Tsai Ing-wen’s embattled government but a crucial vote on divisive issues that could rile China.
The ballot includes an unprecedented 10 referendums, one of which calls for Taiwan to change the name it uses at sports events, a proposal that has already angered Beijing.
Also on the ballot are pro- and anti-gay rights referendums, reflecting tension between conservative and liberal groups as the government drags its heels to implement a Constitutional Court decision that legalized gay marriage over a year ago.
The island-wide vote on Saturday covers seats from village level upwards, with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) currently controlling 13 of the 22 cities and counties that will elect new chiefs, including four of the six key mayoral battlegrounds.
But opinion polls tip the party to lose ground as resentment grows over a stagnant economy and reforms that have included cutting back pensions and public holidays.
Although Taiwan’s GDP grew 2.89 percent in 2017 and is forecast to increase 2.69 percent this year, voters say the benefits have not trickled down to ordinary people, with salaries failing to keep up with the rising cost of living.
“Economy matters the most to me,” said shop owner C.C. Tseng, 71, in Taipei.
Effie Gao, a 50-year-old Taipei resident, added: “Boosting the economy is the most important thing, instead of promoting political ideologies.”
Political analyst Wang Yeh-lih of National Taiwan University warned Tsai could become a “lame duck” if there were major losses.
The DPP is struggling to retain control of its traditional southern stronghold Kaohsiung city as the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party makes gains.
KMT has been on the back foot since losing the leadership and their majority in Parliament for the first time in 2016.
“A win in Kaohsiung would be a badly needed shot in the arm for the KMT, and a blow for Tsai,” said Jonathan Sullivan, director of China programs at Nottingham University.
However, he predicted that unless there were devastating losses across the board, Tsai would not be supplanted ahead of the 2020 presidential elections.
“Depending on the results, she may feel more domestic pressure to go with the pressures from China,” he added.
After the government last year reduced the barriers for getting a question on the ballot, voters will be faced with 10 referendums filed by various groups.
The most controversial is the vote for Taiwan to compete in the 2020 Olympics as “Taiwan” instead of “Chinese Taipei.”
China sees self-ruling Taiwan as part of its territory to be reunified, and opposes any recognition of its sovereignty.
Under Beijing pressure, Taiwan has to compete internationally as “Chinese Taipei.”
Officials have said Taiwan’s Olympic Committee is not obliged to submit a request to the International Olympic Committee if the vote goes through.
The local committee has expressed concerns that the island could lose its membership, as the IOC has already indicated it would not approve the name change.
Political analyst Jean-Pierre Cabestan of Hong Kong Baptist University described the name-change referendum as “highly symbolic,” although unlikely to effect change.
“Its objective is … to put back Taiwan on the map, a Taiwan that has been gradually marginalized in the last few years, because of China’s rise,” he said.
“Of course, China will care, will make a lot of noise, and will enhance its own propaganda.”
A referendum is passed if more than 25 percent of around 19.76 million eligible voters across Taiwan vote in favor, providing “yes” votes surpass “no” votes.
According to referendum law, the cabinet must take measures that reflect the results.
The conflicting referendums on gay rights — including one asking for the revision of the Civil Code to recognize same-sex marriage and one opposing it — could leave the government in a predicament, as the current law does not specify what should happen if opposing votes pass.
Some voters said in interviews that there were too many referendums on the ballot, which could leave some people confused.
Saleswoman Joyce Hsieh, 53, said she only plans to vote on the pro-gay rights question, saying the name-change proposal was likely a pipe dream.
“It would be best if we could join the Olympics as Taiwan but I doubt it can be realized,” she said.
Sullivan described the referendums as “democratic theatre.”
“This experiment with ‘direct democracy’ is, in my view, likely to muddy the waters rather than streamline decision-making or defuse messy political fights,” he said.