TAIPEI (Reuters) - Voters in Taiwan began trickling into polling stations early on Saturday in a local election that could show support for the ruling party, the China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), is waning less than two years before a presidential election.
Saturday's poll is the first chance for the island, viewed as a breakaway province by giant neighbor China, to make known its views since March, when thousands of young people occupied parliament in an unprecedented protest against a planned trade pact calling for closer ties with Beijing.
"This (vote) will affect our economic prosperity," said one voter, Lin Gui-cheng, 60. He watched as a smiling President Ma Ying-jeou, who is also chairman of the KMT, walked into a polling station to mark a ballot-paper and cast his vote.
A record 11,130 seats are up for grabs in municipalities, counties, townships and villages, with the capital, Taipei, serving as a key battleground for the KMT, or Nationalist Party, whose stronghold it has been for nearly 20 years.
Opinion polls this month showed the main opposition, pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) slightly ahead in tight races against the KMT in Taipei and Taichung, another KMT stronghold in central Taiwan.
The Central Election Commission is expected to start announcing poll results from 6 a.m. ET onwards on Saturday.
Confidence in the ruling party has been worn away this year by anti-China protests, a food safety scare, missteps in education reform and worries over class and income inequality.
In Taipei, KMT candidate Sean Lien, who hails from a wealthy, politically connected family, is vying for the mayoralty with independent candidate Ko Wen-je, 55, a surgeon backed by the DPP.
Every president of Taiwan has been a former mayor of Taipei after direct presidential elections were introduced in 1996.
The KMT, the party of Chiang Kai-Shek that retreated to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war in 1949, is pushing the trade deal with China that lays bare larger anxieties, especially among the young, about Taiwan's identity.
Taiwan's pride in its democracy helps reinforce the unwillingness of many to be absorbed politically by China, which has not ruled out force to ensure unification.
(Reporting by J.R. Wu; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)