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Taiwan ruling party trounced in local elections as Beijing-friendly opposition gains ground

Tyrone Siu, REUTERS | Supporters of Opposition Nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT) Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu celebrate as their candidate announces a leading trend during local elections in the poll, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan November 24, 2018.

Taiwan Premier William Lai said on Saturday he had offered his resignation to the president, who refused it, after the ruling Democratic Progressive Party was trounced in mayoral elections.

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"The election results showed that people are not satisfied. For this, I feel sorry, and have offered my resignation to President Tsai Ing-wen to accept political responsibility," he wrote in a statement on his Facebook page.

The election results, which saw the Beijing-friendly opposition make gains as China increases pressure on the island, are a blow to Tsai. She said that she had not accepted Lai's resignation, but that she herself would resign as chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Taiwan is still awaiting the result of a closely watched referendum on gay marriage, with activists fearing a win for conservative "pro-family" campaigners could turn back the clock on the island's reputation as a trailblazer for marriage equality.

Tsai and the DPP have faced a mounting backlash over domestic reforms and concerns about deteriorating ties with China, which still sees self-ruling Taiwan as part of its territory to be reunified.

The main opposition Kuomintang party (KMT), which oversaw an unprecedented thaw with Beijing before Tsai took office in 2016, has declared victory in 15 of 22 city and county seats, up from just six going into the election.

The DPP, which went into the election with 13 seats, has declared victory in only six and has lost its traditional stronghold in Kaohsiung city for the first time in 20 years.

Beijing has intensified pressure on Taiwan under Tsai, upping military drills, poaching diplomatic allies and successfully convincing international businesses to list Taiwan as part of China on their websites.

The DPP is traditionally pro-independence and Tsai has refused to acknowledge Beijing's stance that Taiwan is part of "one China", unlike her KMT predecessor Ma Ying-jeou.

Ahead of the vote, Tsai and DPP officials repeatedly said they believed China has meddled in the lead-up to the elections through a "fake news" campaign, which Beijing has denied.

The KMT -- which lost the leadership and its majority in parliament two years ago as the public feared it had moved too close to Beijing -- framed the election as a vote of no confidence in Tsai, with promises to boost the economy and improve relations once more with China.

Some traditionally pro-DPP groups said before the election that they wanted to punish the party as their businesses had taken a hit from cross-strait tensions.

Gay rights clash

Voters backed anti-gay marriage referendums in what LGBT activists said was a regressive step that dented Taiwan's reputation as a rights trailblazer.

A referendum proposing that marriage should be legally recognised as between a man and a woman garnered more than six million votes, far outweighing public support for a referendum backing equal marriage rights.

A landmark court decision legalising gay marriage has still to be implemented and LGBT groups are concerned that the referendum win by conservative campaigners will limit their newly won rights.

Voters faced lengthy queues as they dealt with complex ballots which also included a referendum on a bid to change the name under which Taiwan competes at international sports events that has already angered China.

College student Kwan Chin-shun, 18, voting in Taipei, said she supported equal marriage rights.

"There's nothing wrong with loving someone of the same sex," she told AFP.

Others said they sided with "pro-family" groups.

"The purpose of getting married is to have children and Taiwan's birthrate is already one of the world's lowest. Gay people can have relationships like heterosexual couples, but they don't have to get married," said a female voter who gave her name as Bai.

The referendums come as an extra headache for Tsai and the DPP.

Tsai had framed the local elections as a way to "tell the world" that Taiwan would not bow to Beijing, calling called China's pressure "omnipresent" and has said Taiwan's democracy was faced with a crisis due to "outside forces".

Social media posts said to be "fake news" have included photos of discarded bananas and pineapples which were framed as proof the government did not care about farmers, as well as posts which suggested Taiwan had failed to get its citizens out of Japan after a typhoon -- a senior Taiwan official in Osaka committed suicide after the reports.

Taiwan's Investigation Bureau also said it is probing Chinese influence on the elections through campaign funding of candidates.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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