TAIWAN politics has become more polarised and confrontational than ever. Yet 'Western-style' party rivalry has finally arrived in the island, and it is an unmistakable step forward for democracy. The elections this Saturday of the mayors of Taipei and Kaoshiung and the provincial governor will be a watershed not only because it is the first time that these important positions have been decided by ballot box. Taboos are being broken with unprecedented alacrity during the campaign, the hottest and shrillest in recent memory. While the public washing of dirty linen might fray nerves and make competition among the three major parties even more cut-throat, it adds to the transparency and, in many ways, fairness of the debate by having more cards laid out on the table. In theory, this campaign should be about the 'domestic' issues of transport, education, investment, and the environment - the building blocks of Taipei and Kaohsiung as emerging international cities. Yet the intertwined questions of Taiwan independence and the rivalry between mainlanders and native Taiwanese have flared up with unwonted frenzy. The elections have served to focus - and widen - the gap between the so-called Mainstream and Non-Mainstream factions of the Kuomintang (KMT). The former is largely dominated by native-Taiwanese politicians led by President Lee Teng-hui; the latter is led by mainlanders such as former premier Hau Pei-tsun who seem to have a much more emotional attachment to the mainland. In the close contest for the Taipei mayor, Non-Mainstream stalwarts such as Mr Hau and party elder General Wego Chiang have lent their support to the New Party, whose leaders are Non-Mainstream politicians who 'defected' from the KMT. General Chiang, the brother of the late president Chiang Ching-kuo, raised eyebrows last Thursday when he called New Party affiliates the 'sixth generation of the KMT'. Mr Hau, a vice-chairman of the party, refused to campaign for the re-election of Taipei mayor Huang Ta-chou, the protege of President Lee, who is also KMT chairman. The bone of contention between the two factions - and between the KMT and New Party - is their different stance on the 'reunification' issue. New Party candidate Jaw Shao-kong, formerly a KMT rising star, surprised almost everybody a fortnight ago when he accused President Lee of sponsoring 'accelerated independence'. Mr Jaw, a photogenic debator, insinuated that the Lee-led KMT would declare Taiwanese independence before 1997. His campaign slogan is none other than 'Safeguard the Republic of China', which, the DPP claims, is a manifestation of rightism with 'neo-fascist' overtones. The question of who will control Taiwan's destiny has driven a potentially explosive wedge between mainlanders and native Taiwanese. The rallying cry of candidates for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party is 'Taiwan ruled by [native] Taiwanese', the idea that for the first time in Taiwan's 400-year history, native sons are poised to seize top-level executive positions. This crusade has speeded up the inevitable break between the KMT's Mainstream Faction and the DPP's moderate wing. Until recently, the latter had refrained from denouncing President Lee publicly because of the major strides he had taken in promoting native-Taiwanese politicians. The entire DPP, however, could not stomach President Lee's nomination for provincial governor, James Soong, an aide and mainlander who had had close ties with the Chiang Kai-shek clan until he bolted from the Non-Mainstream camp in the late 1980s. In a campaign appearance last Sunday, the President appealed to opposition candidates not to play the 'provincial-origin card'. '[The slogan of native] Taiwanese for Taiwanese is horrible,' he said. 'If this goes on, people living in Taiwan will fight and kill each other. Elections will result in mutual slaughter.' President Lee, who is expected to run for re-election in early 1996, however, may have to bear the ultimate responsibility for the radicalisation of politics. This campaign is also being fought along the lines of the old guard versus young turks, with President Lee and his cohorts being cast for the first time as members of the near-obsolete establishment. The President, in his 70s and still robust, is being perceived as using his prerogative to build a Lee dynasty. Even KMT campaigners have privately expressed dismay over his personal backing for Mr Huang and Mr Soong. The heavyweights that the KMT this year had considered fielding for the positions of Taipei mayor and Taiwan governor, respectively Minister for Economic Construction Vincent Siew and Interior Minister Wu Poh-hsiung, are seen as having much more popular appeal. Mr Huang, a dull speaker, is running a single-issue and, in many ways, negative, campaign anchored on 'preserving stability'. His strategy is nothing more than fanning the fears of the middle class - who account for more than 60 per cent of the urban population - about what might happen if major positions fall into the hands of the DPP or the New Party. KMT candidates have failed to parry accusations from both the DPP and the New Party that their party has played 'money politics' - giving big business special privileges in return for their support. 'We want harmony, stability and the avoidance of violence,' Mr Huang's campaign staff said. The ruling party's propagandists are apparently oblivious of the fact that as a result of its reliance on the stability card, the KMT's share of the popular vote dropped to an all-time low of 46 per cent during last December's elections of mayors and country chiefs. Recruits to the KMT and the New Party consist of a large number of young and middle-class KMT members who have given up hope on the 100-year-old party. Soochow University political scientist Lin Chia-cheng had this to say about the elections: 'The national consensus [over Taiwan's fate] seems to have been broken. The sense of Taiwan as the embodiment of the common fate of 21 million people could be shattered.' Professor Lin warned that the wounds exposed by this tumultuous campaign would be difficult to heal. Liberal political commentators in Taiwan, however, think that party politics and democratisation would not necessarily plunge Taiwan into the moral equivalent of a civil war. In spite of the rhetoric, this campaign has been relatively free of violence. The level of popular participation in the political process has been enhanced.