Taiwan's citizens cast their votes today in crucial mayoral elections that are shaping up to be a popularity poll of the pro-independence President, Chen Shui-bian, whose position has been weakened by a raft of corruption scandals.
The election is being closely watched across the straits in China, which has considered Taiwan a renegade province since Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) fled to the island in 1949.
Beijing has threatened war if the island of 23 million tries to declare formal independence, while the US has pledged to defend Taiwan against invasion.
Despite their old enmity, the KMT is the most China-friendly of the main political parties in Taiwan and defeat for Mr Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) would give the KMT a boost ahead of presidential elections in 2008.
Campaigning for the local elections in the island's biggest cities - the capital Taipei and the port city of Kaohsiung - has been marked by fireworks, fierce drumming and mud-slinging, all key elements in Taiwan's vibrant democracy. The Nationalists are tipped to win Kaohsiung and hold on to power in the capital Taipei, their main support base.
The DPP's core support is in the south, where Kaohsiung is the main city, but voters look set to punish Mr Chen for a series of corruption scandals involving his family. His wife, Wu Shu-chen, is due to go on trial on embezzlement charges next week. Only presidential immunity has saved Mr Chen from a similar fate and there were mass protests in September and October calling on the President to step down.
Corruption is the hottest domestic political issue in Taiwan. Mr Chen's DPP ousted the KMT in the 2000 presidential election on an anti-graft platform and held on to power in 2004.
Taiwan has developed strong economic ties with the mainland and 1.5 million Taiwanese are doing business in China, even though direct flights to the mainland are mostly banned and there are many trade restrictions in place.
Every election in Taiwan, and they come thick and fast, is billed as crucial to the island's future and the state of its relations with China, and these mayoral elections are no different. Becoming Mayor of Taipei or Kaohsiung can be a stepping stone to national power - Mr Chen was once Mayor of Taipei - and the capital's outgoing Mayor, the KMT chairman Ma Ying-jeou, is likely to win his party's nomination for the 2008 presidential race, although he too has been investigated for corruption.
"Originally this was just a local election but because of the recent political atmosphere this election has been promoted to an unprecedented level," said a KMT spokesman, Wu Hsiu-kuang.Reuse content