TAIPEI, Taiwan (UPDATED) – Taiwan voted Saturday, November 24, in key elections for its embattled government and a divisive gay rights referendum which activists fear could turn back the clock on the island's reputation as a trailblazer for marriage equality.
The local elections were seen as a mid-term test for embattled President Tsai Ing-wen as she faces a backlash over domestic reforms and concerns about deteriorating ties with China.
Tsai and officials from her ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have repeatedly said they believe China has meddled in the lead-up to the elections through a "fake news" campaign, which Beijing has denied.
Voters faced lengthy queues as they dealt with complex ballots which featured 10 referendums – including pro and anti-gay marriage votes and a bid to change the name under which Taiwan competes at international sports events that has already angered China.
"I feel that this is a democratic society and people can express their views on many issues," she told reporters.
College student Kwan Chin-shun, 18, voting in Taipei, said she wanted to support the referendum calling for equal marriage rights.
"There's nothing wrong with loving someone of the same sex," he told AFP.
Others said they sided with "pro-family" groups who have put forward a referendum calling for marriage to be legally defined as between a man and a woman.
"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.
A landmark court decision legalising gay marriage is still to be implemented and LGBT groups are concerned a referendum win for conservative campaigners could limit their newly won rights.
Vote counts have started but results are not expected until late Saturday.
The referendums come as an extra headache for Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which faces strong challenges in major seats.
Tsai has framed the local elections as a way to "tell the world" that Taiwan will not bow to Beijing, which has ramped up military and diplomatic pressure since she took office in 2016.
China sees self-ruling Taiwan as part of its territory and is incensed that Tsai will not acknowledge the island as part of "one China", unlike her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou of the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party (KMT).
Tsai was voted president by a landslide two years ago as the public feared the KMT were getting too close to Beijing, and she has played up the importance of Taiwanese identity on the campaign trail.
She has 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 says it is probing Chinese influence on the elections through campaign funding of candidates.
But the KMT is billing the local polls as a vote of no confidence in Tsai, vowing to promote peaceful relations with China and boost the economy.
Tsai's pension and labour reforms have been unpopular and despite a growing GDP, some voters complain they have not seen any benefits as salaries remain stagnant and the cost of living rises.
Some also blame cross-strait tensions for denting their livelihoods, including grass-roots groups that traditionally vote DPP. – Rappler.com