Polls likely to decide fate of Taiwan parties

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 December, 2006, 12:00am

Campaign hits top gear for key mayoral elections in Taipei and Kaohsiung

Taiwan goes to the polls in Taipei and Kaohsiung today in crucial mayoral polls that analysts say will decide the fate of two of the island's top political leaders and the future of the ruling and opposition parties.

More than 2 million eligible voters will cast ballots at 1,358 polling booths in Taipei to decide which of the six hopefuls will be the mayor of the capital for the next four years. Another 1.1 million voters will chose one of five candidates to be the mayor of Kaohsiung, the island's second-biggest city.

On the eve of the elections, campaigning hit top gear as mayoral hopefuls, flanked by political leaders and a sea of flags, swept through streets and staged mass rallies.

The main opposition Kuomintang, whose leader Ma Ying-jeou captured more than 870,000 votes or 64 per cent of the popular vote in Taipei to secure the mayoral post four years ago, was expected to hold on to power in the capital, election observers said.

The KMT candidate, Hau Lung-bin, 54, a former environment chief, has been the frontrunner in the race since campaigning started. He was leading his Democratic Progressive Party opponent Frank Hsieh Chang-ting, a former premier and Kaohsiung mayor, by 20 percentage points, a safe margin election experts said would ensure the KMT victory.

They discounted the potential spoiler effect of James Soong Chu-yu, former Taiwan governor and head of the opposition People First Party (PFP), and his power to split the vote with the KMT candidate.

'Opposition supporters will remember that he was the one who was responsible for the defeat of then KMT presidential candidate Lien Chan in the 2000 presidential elections,' political analyst and Taiwan Security Research Centre director Philip Yang Yung-ming said.

Mr Soong left the KMT to run against Mr Lien in the 2000 race, a move that split the KMT vote and allowed the DPP's Chen Shui-bian to win the presidency. After that race, he formed the PFP and mended fences with the KMT, but in mid-October, to the surprise of the KMT, he declared his desire to run in the mayoral poll as an independent.

Analysts said the battle in Kaohsiung was clouded after Mr Chen broke his earlier promise not to get involved in any election activities by going south to help DPP candidate Chen Chu, a former political prisoner and labour affairs chief.

Support for Ms Chen, who originally trailed her KMT opponent Huang Chun-ying by at least 20 percentage points, has risen since Mr Chen resorted to the 'Taiwanese identity' trump card to appeal to pro-independence supporters, some of whom have been disappointed by a string of corruption scandals levelled at the president and his family.

'Don't let China supporters take away Kaohsiung,' Mr Chen shouted at a rally yesterday for Ms Chen, referring to the KMT.

To ensure that the DPP does not lose Kaohsiung, the party's traditional stronghold, Mr Chen has in the past week appealed to traditional supporters, saying Kaohsiung should not fall into KMT hands. Soochow University political science professor Emile Sheng Chih-jen said results of the Kaohsiung poll would decide whether this approach still worked. If the DPP lost Kaohsiung, he said, it would be a vote of no confidence in the island's leader and would mean voters were tired of a tactic which served only to polarise Taiwan.

He said Mr Chen, who had survived three opposition-sponsored recall motions to unseat him since June over corruption allegations, was likely to become a lame duck if the DPP lost both Kaohsiung and Taipei. The DPP would also face a fierce power struggle internally, which threatened to split the pro-independence party.

For the KMT, a victory in both cities would mean a vote of confidence in Mr Ma, who had also been hit by an embezzlement scandal, Professor Sheng said. But a defeat would spell trouble for both the opposition leader and his party, which would also see a power struggle.