Amud-slinging match between two unsightly, naked men.' This was how a Taiwan politician described the slug-fest between Wu Den-yih and Frank Hsieh, respectively the Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate for mayor of Kaohsiung. Perhaps taking a leaf from the colourful shenanigans in Washington, both contestants - or at least their supporters - have circulated tape-recordings, videos, and other propaganda material insinuating that their opponents were guilty of misdemeanours including adultery and chumminess with the Taiwan mafia. The popular mayor of Taipei, Chen Shui-bian, who is running for re-election, had, according to detractors, taken sex trips to Macau. He has, alas, also been faulted for 'exploiting the martyr status' of his wife. The much-revered Mrs Chen is handicapped from the waist down due to a traffic accident more than 10 years ago. Scores of other candidates are said to have benefited from the largesse of Bamboo Gang triads, real-estate barons, or 'Chinese Communists'. Welcome to another uniquely Taiwanese election, which never fails to entertain, if not always to churn out saintly mandarins in the Confucian mode. After all, local politicians have the good humour to invite to their nightly 'candidates have their say' sessions not only college professors and press pundits but also talk-show hosts, pop singers, starlets and strip-tease artists. Tomorrow, nearly 15 million Taiwanese will be eligible to cast ballots to pick the mayors of Taipei and Kaohsiung as well as the members of the two municipal councils. Some 403 MPs are also vying for the 225 seats in an expanded Legislative Yuan. On the surface, this seems no different from past ballots in the island's brief but exuberant history of democracy. Candidates spend most of their time and advertising dollars attacking the foibles and night-life quirks of opponents. Little attention is paid to weighty policy issues such as ways to help beat the Asian financial crisis. The froth and gimmicks notwithstanding, this could be the most important election ever for Taiwanese. The 'fight of the century' between Mr Chen, 47, and his opponent, KMT stalwart Ma Ying-jeou, 48, has often been described as a trial run for presidential polls scheduled for mid-2000. Yet, even more is at stake. The defeat of the handsome, Harvard-educated Mr Ma - voted every year as the man most Taiwanese women would want as the father of their babies - could signal the irrevocable decline of the KMT. The fate of what commentators call the '100-year shop' is even more bleak if candidates fail to take half the parliamentary seats. This is despite the fact that Taiwan's presidential system means such a nightmare scenario for the KMT would not immediately result in its being booted out of office. According to a veteran KMT member, it is difficult to arrest the ruling party's decline. It took KMT bigwigs a long time to persuade Mr Ma, a former justice minister and secretary of the late president Chiang Ching-kuo, to run. Yet because Mr Ma and President Lee Teng-hui come from different cliques, the latter is often accused of not giving the candidate his full support. Because of growing factionalism - and failure to attract new talent - the KMT will have difficulty settling on a presidential candidate. Apart from Mr Ma, the only KMT hopeful who can draw huge crowds is the equally photogenic James Soong Chu-yu, the Taiwan governor. Yet Mr Soong and Mr Lee are on such bad terms the president has asked him not to campaign for Mr Ma in the mayoral race. A Chen Shui-bian victory, on the other hand, could mean he is the man to beat in 2000. Taipei is abuzz with rumours that if this were to occur, President Lee might seek a 'constitutional reinterpretation' to allow him to run for an extra term of office. Tomorrow's elections will also be a good gauge of the DPP's popularity - and ability to govern. 'It seems no longer a question of 'if'; just a matter of 'when',' a Western diplomat in Taipei said. 'You can tell the DPP's rising clout by the people's reactions. DPP candidates almost always draw bigger crowds than their KMT rivals.' Even partisans of Taiwan-style democracy, however, have qualms about the DPP becoming the ruling party. The opposition party is not trusted by the business community, which has lamented its 'rabble-rousing' tendencies. Somewhat like Hong Kong's Democratic Party, the DPP has yet to come up with a convincing strategy to revive the local economy. Then there are, of course, fears of over-reaction from Beijing. This is despite the fact that the DPP has played down its pro-independence stance in the past few years. Practically all DPP candidates merely cite 'self-determination by the people' rather than independence per se. As a Taiwan TV commentator pointed out, however, there was no dialogue between the DPP and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which regarded the opposition party as on par with the proverbial 'floods and wild beasts'. The polls will be a barometer of Taipei's relations with the mainland. Despite calls by President Lee that Taiwanese should play down their provincial origins, the chasm between 'mainlanders' - Taiwanese born on the mainland - and locally born Taiwanese has grown larger. Some native-Taiwanese candidates have exploited fears that Taiwan may be 'sold out' by 'mainlander' politicians. The performance of two small parties - the New Party, and the Nation-Building Party - bears special attention. Consisting of 'mainlanders' who are in favour of unification, the New Party did poorly during county-level elections a year ago. Despite well-known faces such as former finance minister Wang Chien-shien and former television host Jaw Shau-kong, the New Party, which has sent delegations to Beijing, has put up a lacklustre campaign so far. The Nation-Building Party comprises radicals who split from the DPP a few years ago. Their agenda is none other than the speedy formation of a Republic of Taiwan. While these firebrands are not expected to garner more than a few per cent of the vote, some Nation-Building Party candidates have drawn large crowds particularly south of Taipei. It is for these reasons that Beijing has been paying particularly close attention to this week's events. At stake is not only who will run Taiwan in the 21st century but also, to a considerable extent, whether and when national unification can be accomplished.