Taiwan's pro-independence opposition put in a strong showing in local elections Saturday, clawing its way back to respectability after two crushing defeats.
With almost all the votes counted, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party held onto its three county magistracy positions _ equivalent to governors in the United States _ and won back one other from the ruling Nationalists.
It also closed the gap in a number of other localities, including a traditional Nationalist stronghold in suburban Taipei. The Nationalists held onto 11 of their 14 county magistracies and mayoralties, losing one to the DPP and one to a Nationalist rebel, disowned by the party because of corruption convictions.
One magistracy race _ on the offshore island of Penghu _ was too close to call.
The results will give a big boost to DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, who took over the party last year after it lost badly in presidential and legislative elections. Tsai, a British- and U.S.-educated jurist, used the campaign to hit hard at the Nationalists' China-friendly policies and the perceived failure of the government to address the day-to-day concerns of ordinary Taiwanese.
Speaking to reporters in Taipei, Tsai called the results "an important step in the DPP's comeback," saying that the party took 45-46 percent of the total vote, compared to 38.2 percent in the magistrate and mayoral poll four years ago.
"The results show people are not happy with the government," she said. "Over the past year, (Taiwan's) sovereignty has been harmed, and senior government officials have ignored public needs."
The main loser is almost certain to be President Ma Ying-jeou, who took office in May 2008 with a 70 percent approval rating but has since fallen back by some 30 points amid the global economic recession and Taiwan's own economic tailspin.
After the results were in, Ma promised to improve the government's performance.
"We'll reflect on warnings sent by the elections," he said.
Ma has been on the defensive since August, when Typhoon Morakot took an estimated 700 lives. Many Taiwanese claim he botched the government's rescue and relief effort and also appeared remote when trying to comfort survivors.
In recent weeks, he has come under renewed fire for a decision to remove a partial ban on U.S. beef imports _ a decision that critics charge was taken without consulting a public fearful the beef could lead to an outbreak of mad cow disease.
Ma took over the Nationalist chairmanship at his own initiative in October, and he campaigned tirelessly on behalf of party candidates in the run-up to Saturday's poll.
Late last week, DPP Spokesman Tsai Chi-chang lambasted Ma over his record.
"The (2009) GDP growth is expected be a historical record low of negative 2.53 percent this year, while we are seeing record high unemployment rate," he said. "The Ma administration has delivered the worst governance in Taiwan's history."
The DPP is particularly critical of Ma's push for a free trade pact with China, which it believes will undermine Taiwan's sovereignty and cost its workers thousands of jobs amid a flood of cheap Chinese imports.
Ma counters that the proposed trade pact will boost the island's competitiveness and prevent it from economic marginalization as countries around the world form regional trading blocs.
His presidency has built on efforts to dump the anti-China policies of predecessor Chen Shui-bian and seek rapprochement with the Communist-run mainland, from which the island split amid civil war in 1949.
Chen's support for formal independence for the island prompted Beijing to reassert its long-standing threats to invade across the 100-mile (160-kilometer) -wide Taiwan Strait.