Testing times for KMT in municipal polls
Taiwan's Kuomintang is fighting a tough battle in Saturday's municipality elections, hoping to retain all three of the mayoral posts it currently holds.
A loss of even one post would be a disaster for the ruling party, which suffered setbacks in the local magistrate elections last year.
If the KMT does lose, it would not only undermine mainland-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou's chances in his re-election bid in 2012, but could also cool cross-strait relations. The polls in five special municipalities have been widely seen as a midterm test of Ma and the mainland engagement policy he adopted since he took office in 2008.
As the elections cover five major cities and more than 60 per cent of Taiwanese voters, the poll results can thus be used as a political barometer for 2012.
While Taipei, the capital, is an old constituency, the rest of the cities are new constituencies formed as a result of the mergers of Kaohsiung city and county, Tainan city and county, Taichung city and county, and the elevation of Taipei county as a municipality under the cabinet's jurisdiction. Of those five constituencies, Taipei county - which will be renamed Xinbei city after the elections - is considered the key area. With more than 2.8 million voters, it is the largest of all cities and counties in Taiwan.
The opposition Democratic Progressive Party is expected to hold onto its two municipalities, Kaohsiung and Tainan, which are the pro-independence party's strongholds in the south. So anything it gains beyond that would simply be a bonus.
The DPP has fielded three heavyweights to fight with the KMT in three constituencies considered the ruling party's strongholds - Taichung in central Taiwan and Taipei and Xinbei in the north.
While Su Jia-chyuan, the DPP's secretary general, may not be able to defeat incumbent KMT mayor Jason Hu in Taichung, DPP chairwoman Dr Tsai Ing-wen and former premier Su Tseng-chang are neck and neck with their rivals. Tsai is running against former vice-premier Eric Chu Li-luan in Xinbei, and Su is up against incumbent mayor Hau Lung-bin in Taipei.
'Even if Tsai and Su failed to capture either Xinbei or Taipei city, the [polls] have provided the necessary battleground for the two to practise and prepare themselves for the 2012 presidential election,' Wang Kung-yi, professor of strategy at Tamkang University in Taipei, said.
Tsai and Su are widely seen as DPP contenders to challenge Ma.
But if the KMT lost either Xinbei or Taipei, the impact would be damaging, Wang said.
'The loss of Xinbei would erode the KMT's roots in this largest constituency in Taiwan, hampering its chances in the 2012 presidential election,' Wang said, adding it would also affect the KMT's plan for cultivating its next generation leader.
Chu, 49, a former magistrate of Taoyuan, is seen to be a rising star and a potential successor to Ma if Ma is able to retain the presidency.
George Tsai Wei, a political science professor at the Chinese Cultural University in Taipei, said losing Taipei would be even worse, as the city is a traditional KMT stronghold.
But in the past few months, the campaign in Taipei has turned bitter. Hau, who is perceived as an honest technocrat, was hit by allegations of road reconstruction irregularities and overspending for the 2010 Floral Expo as well as poor performance. Hau's poor showing in voter surveys prompted a worried KMT to focus on his campaign. It helped lift his popularity by clarifying his roles in those allegations and publicising various policies and work he did to make Taipei better.
KMT secretary general King Pu-tsung, also the manager of the party's election campaigns in the five municipalities, agreed that while it would be implausible to think that the ruling party would be able to win all five seats, it would be best to focus on securing the three constituencies it currently controls.
He said the number of seats won is more important than the number of votes captured because 'once you are elected, you have four years to expand your political influence'.
King said if the KMT failed to secure Taipei, Xinbei and Taichung, he would accept responsibility and step down as the secretary general.
Unlike previous elections, when candidates' appeals for votes through loudspeakers were heard almost everywhere, campaigning this time remained relatively quiet, with DPP candidates being unusually restrained compared with their previously sharp attacks on their opponents.
Political and ideological attacks such as 'selling out Taiwan' and 'kowtowing to China' were rarely heard, while criticism of Ma's cross-strait policy - as well as the signing of the Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with the mainland - was no longer raised.
'This is because they are local-level elections, which we think should focus on the administrative abilities of the candidates and performances of the local administrators,' Hong Chi-chang, former DPP legislator and former head of the Straits Exchange Foundation, said.
Professor Tsai said this was a DPP tactic, especially in Taichung and the two municipalities in the north, where most voters dislike political and ideological confrontations.
'But this does not mean the DPP has abandoned its [opposition to] cross-strait relations,' he said.
He also noted that the KMT would not want to trumpet its cross-strait rapprochement achievements too much, mindful of the 40 per cent of locals who opposed Taiwan signing the ECFA with the mainland.
One of the main concerns for Chin Li-fang, head of the KMT's Taipei City Council caucus, is how low key her party's supporters seem to be.
'Unlike supporters of the DPP, who will come out to vote regardless of the circumstances, our supporters are not as enthusiastic,' she said.
What's more, if the weather turned cold and wet on Saturday, KMT voters may not even bother to turn out.