NOT SO LONG AGO, it seemed as if Taiwan had no serious politics. Elections of sorts came and went, but the Kuomintang party (KMT) always ruled - partly by handing out lavish favours both over and under the table. Nowadays, Taiwan appears to have almost too much politics. New parties spring up, old ones divide and candidates who fail to get nominated for public office by their own parties decide to run anyway as independents. The atmosphere is one of endless division and constant conniving, with rival office seekers huddling incessantly in search of tactical gains which might, just might, bring them victory at someone else's expense. Yet all this manoeuvring, however confusing, has its healthy side. Beneath the political froth, Taiwanese voters have established a working democracy and an extra degree of social stability - something many people believe sets a good example for all of China. Despite the wasteful, self-serving politicking, they are unlikely ever to allow a return to the stifling one-party rule of prior years. But that's over the long term. Just now, Taiwan's immediate political future is mostly cloudy. On December 1, voters will select a new legislature, (plus local officials) and so far the only sure bet is that no group will gain a working majority in parliament. If the current party line-up doesn't change, some form of coalition government seems inevitable - though who will form the coalition is still anyone's guess. That is partly because President Chen Shui-bian, the man who gave the KMT its first defeat in an electoral turning point, has not performed well enough to increase the support that won him high office. In fact, he may well have lost popular backing because many now perceive him as an inexperienced, erratic leader. Yet, to Mr Chen's advantage, the opposition has grown even more fragmented. His Democratic Progressive Party took only 39 per cent of the vote in last year's presidential poll, but won because the KMT had split into rival camps. That division remains. Former Taiwan governor James Soong Chu-yu heads a wing called the People First Party, while the established Kuomintang apparatus is led by the less popular Lien Chen, named KMT chairman at the insistence of former President Lee Teng-hui. Mr Lee apparently hoped to use him as an instrument for controlling the party from behind the scenes while also squelching the political ambitions of Mr Soong, who had turned against him and bolted. Things haven't worked out that way. The more personable Mr Soong's party is more popular than the official KMT, while Mr Lien has proved less amenable to outside direction than expected. This has prompted former president Lee to do what once seemed unthinkable - to back yet another party, the Taiwan Solidarity Union. It is campaigning in loose alliance with Mr Chen's DPP and against both of Mr Lee's former KMT colleagues. Much of this competition involves personal rivalries as much as grand strategy. Add the lure of power and its privileges, and no contestant is willing to give way to help someone else win. Even so, a couple of basic issues lurk beneath this squabbling, and the December 1 elections - while not conclusive - should tell us something about Taiwan's longer term future. Most important is the question of Taiwan's identity. According to the official DPP platform, Taiwan is 'sovereign and independent [and] does not belong to the People's Republic of China,' reflecting 'historical realities as well as the present condition'. But only a minority of voters share this view completely, and the DPP won because many others were fed up with corrupt KMT ways known as 'black and gold politics'. (The corruption-fighting justice minister is Mr Chen's most popular deputy by a wide margin). Recognising this weak support for DPP doctrine, Mr Chen has carefully eased away from talk of independence - which Beijing vows would mean war - dismaying the party's more fervent believers. Both parties with KMT roots, on the other hand, seem increasingly ready to accept the notion of some kind of carefully undefined 'one China' at some future date. At least, they want to leave open that possibility if only to facilitate closer economic and social mainland links in the meantime. 'We should not forsake the goal of Chinese unification,' says Ma Ying-jeou, a former negotiator with Beijing on cross-strait relations, the current Mayor of Taipei and a possible KMT presidential candidate in 2004. Enter Mr Lee. As the first Taiwan-born president, he championed independence for the island; his insistence on 'state-to-state' relations with Beijing helped destroy what Mr Ma calls 'a golden age' of cross-strait negotiations. He is so determined to block any one-China talk that he has all but abandoned the KMT to help Mr Chen in the December 1 elections. If the new Taiwan Solidarity Union can win 35 seats and the DPP 85, Mr Lee believes their majority could stop any unification moves by the KMT. However, neither party is expected to do that well. Nor does either KMT-derived party appear able to win a majority, though they might unite to form one. But their leaders' disdain for each other is such that either might as easily ally with Mr Chen - especially if former president Mr Lee is excluded. In brief, a legislative majority could be forged by any combination of these parties, though whether it would work with Mr Chen or against him remains unknown. Taiwan's complex political system - which resembles that of France - makes forecasting difficult. It allows the president to appoint a premier and cabinet without consulting the Legislative Yuan, or parliament. However, 1997 constitutional changes mean a simple legislative majority can overrule cabinet decisions no matter what the president or premier say. Thus Taiwan can't have effective government unless the executive and a legislative majority reach some basic compromises. Yet a few things seem reasonably clear. The election results are unlikely to give much support to those who favour Taiwanese independence quickly as opposed to prolonging the ambiguous status quo. Many more votes will go to those who want to hold open, at least in theory, the possibility of eventual unification without specifying how or when. Public-opinion polls show rising support for the concept of eventual unity, though relatively few are anywhere near ready to place their fate in the hands of those who now rule in Beijing. However, as a presidential advisory panel recommended last weekend, most Taiwanese - including Mr Chen - favour closer economic and social links to the mainland immediately. Though some fear these ties might become binding chains, the majority view is that closer relations are part of globalisation - and Taiwan must join the process rather than fight it. But the political implications of this won't be settled by the December voting. Monday - The spirit of 1992 Robert Keatley is the South China Morning Post's Editorial Adviser.