Taiwan is heading to the polls to vote in local elections in what is seen a crucial test of public opinion for the ruling pro-China party less than two years before a presidential election.

Millions are expected to cast their ballots in Saturday's mayoral and council elections, with the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) facing heavy losses in key strongholds, including the capital Taipei and central municipality of Taichung.

A record 11,130 seats are up for grabs in municipalities, counties, townships and villages, with the key battleground the capital, a KMT stronghold for nearly 20 years.

According to the Central Election Commission turnout is expected at between 65 and 70 percent.

The KMT currently dominates 15 of Taiwan's 22 cities and counties, while the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) holds seven.

The election will be the first chance for the island to make its views known to China after a proposed trade pact with the mainland sparked mass student-led protests and a three-week occupation of Taiwan's parliament earlier this year.

Criticism of the ruling party has been mounting this year following a string of food scandals, missteps in education reform, a slowing economy and and fears of growing Chinese influence.

Chinese influence

Much of the attention on Taiwan's biggest ever local elections has been focused on the Taipei mayoral race, which experts say holds strategic political importance.

Every Taiwan president was once the mayor of Taipei.

Independent candidate Ko Wen-Je, who is backed by the DPP, has positioned himself as a champion of social justice, while KMT party candidate Sean Lien, pledging to attract foreign investment and "internationalise" Taipei. 

The DPP champions independence while the KMT backs a status quo position of "no unification, no independence, no war."

"If a party were to win in both cities, I think it would create an effect of drawing people to its side for the 2016 presidential election, while the loser is unlikely to bounce back with just one year before the vote," Chang Ya-chung, a political scientist at the National Taiwan University told the AFP news agency.

Ties between Taiwan and China have grown since President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT came to power in 2008. With China still regarding the self-ruled island as part of its territory, after it split in 1949 following a civil war. 

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies