Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party gains ground on Kuomintang ahead of local polls
Three years before the proindependence Democratic Progressive Party candidate Chen Shui-bian won Taiwan's presidency in 2000, the main opposition party swept 12 out of 23 mayoral and magistrate seats in the 1997 local election.
Even though the Kuomintang later recouped its lost ground, including the presidency, the DPP has been licking its wounds and making a comeback in recent years. It even won more popular votes than the KMT in 2010's municipal elections.
This November, the island is holding another local election, which has been described by officials as the biggest ever because it will include municipalities, smaller cities and village councils.
Beijing had noted the rising momentum of the DPP, said Arthur Ding, a professor from National Chengchi University in Taiwan.
Analysts said the ruling Kuomintang, which Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou chairs, could lose the mayor's office in Taichung, the party's long-time stronghold in central Taiwan.
Recent polls by National Chengchi University indicate the KMT does not have a clear edge over its rival, with its overall support falling to 55 per cent.
"It's very unusual since the democratisation of the island," said Wu Jau-shieh, researcher at the university's Institute of International Relations. "Since last year, the DPP has become more popular among the voters [according to our polls]."
The dividing line between "blue" KMT and "green" DPP territory was likely to be pushed further north, said Wu, with the DPP fielding heavyweight legislator Lin Chia-lung to fight incumbent KMT mayor Jason Hu in Taichung.
"Central Taiwan is traditionally the battleground between the two parties. Lin has strong and deep roots in the region, and has a high chance to take over from the KMT's long-time Taichung mayor seat," said Nathan Batto, assistant research fellow at the Taipei-based Academia Sinica.
Meanwhile, there was speculation that the KMT's New Taipei City mayor Eric Chu, who enjoys great popularity in northern Taiwan, would step down to prepare for the 2016 presidential election, analysts said.
"If Chu is not nominated to run for 2016, the KMT will hamper its chances in the presidential election," said Wu.
The local elections will have clear implications for the presidential poll. The DPP would lean towards Su Tseng-chang if the party won a landslide victory at the end of the year, said Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan, the head of the Political Science Department at Hong Kong Baptist University.
As a result, Beijing was stepping up efforts to contact DPP leaders through various channels, although the likelihood of party-to-party communication remained low in the near future, said Ding.
Su is also facing challenges from within his own party. Former premier Frank Hsieh, who visited the mainland last year and met its top Taiwan affairs official Zhang Zhijun, announced his bid to head the DPP last month.
And for Ma, Batto said he would face more pressure from within the party if he insisted on meeting his mainland counterpart Xi Jinping at an APEC summit later this year.
Candidates would be reluctant to support any meeting that may compromise their chances in local elections, he said. "A lot of the things going with it [the meeting] are very unpopular in Taiwan," he said. "National symbols and flags cannot show up in APEC, for instance. Ma is so eager to attend the meeting that he has not really been bargaining."